Kelsea Ballerini: The Cover Story

Written by Annie Reuter
Kelsea Ballerini: The Cover Story
Kelsea Ballerini; Photo credit: Sarah Barlow

It has been a whirlwind two years since Kelsea Ballerini released her debut album, The First Time. The project had the singer/songwriter simply writing songs with friends, never envisioning the countless records she’d eventually break. Ballerini made history with the album as she became the only female artist within the country genre to have her first three singles hit No. 1 on the country charts.

The success of “Love Me Like You Mean It,” “Dibs,” and “Peter Pan,” all co-written by Ballerini, was just an introduction to the artist. Now 23, Ballerini has matured and has much more to say. As a result, she promises that her sophomore album will dig even deeper than her personal debut.

“When I made my first record, I didn’t know I was making a record most of the time, because I didn’t have a record deal until we had a majority of the songs,” she tells Sounds Like Nashville over the phone from a recent tour stop in Canada. “I was just writing and making demos with my friends. We didn’t know what we were writing for. Then all of the sudden it was a record and none of us had ever had a song on the radio. There was this beautiful naiveness and freedom when we made that last record. So, when it was time to start making this one I was like, ‘Oh God, how do I get back to that?'”

Ballerini says what she realized during the writing and recording process for her second album is that all she can do is focus on writing the best songs she possibly can and make a record sonically that she would listen to.

“If it works then I can celebrate that fully and if it doesn’t, then I can go down with my ship,” she adds. “I’ve changed a lot, as a person and as a young woman. I really wanted to talk more about the highs and the lows of real life that I’ve experienced the last few years. I think that once I decided to make a record that I would listen to the pressure went away.”

Her anthemic lead single off the project, “Legends,” is the first taste of this new musical direction. Co-written with frequent collaborator Forest Glen Whitehead (“Love Me Like You Mean It,” “Peter Pan,” “Yeah Boy”) and Hillary Lindsey (Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush,” Keith Urban’s “Blue Ain’t Your Color,” Carrie Underwood’s “Dirty Laundry”), “Legends” has Ballerini looking back nostalgically on a previous relationship. Penned two years ago after a breakup, Ballerini says over time the song has changed in meaning for her.

“I had written so many songs about the bitterness and the anger and that part of the breakup, which we all have. But, I really wanted to write a song about being at peace with it and reflecting on it and thinking of it fondly and looking back on it with love, because that’s the hardest thing to do. I think once you do that, you can truly move on and I needed to move on,” she admits.

The singer describes “Legends” as the perfect bridge from her fourth and final single off The First Time with “Yeah Boy” to her next album. She no longer recognizes the track as a breakup song, but as a song about love. Interestingly, she also describes it as being a song for her fans.

“It’s this chameleon of a song. When I wrote it, I had a laser focused vision for it. Now, I think it is a love song. It fits my life in a completely different way,” she explains. “My favorite [lyric] is, ‘We didn’t do it for the fame or the glory, we just did it for you and me.’ I think that fits my relationship now. Then for fans it’s, ‘We wrote our own story.’ This certain group of fans, they show up for me. They fight for me. They call radio stations for me. They travel 12 hours for me. It’s a really cool bond. Those are the lines that I feel like are for them.”

The video for “Legends” brings the song vividly to life through a heartbreaking storyline. As Ballerini explains, when she listened to the demo of “Legends” two days after she wrote it, all she could picture in her head was a car wreck. While she never had anyone close to her suffer through a devastating car accident, the vision of a terrible tragedy came to mind.

When seeking video treatments from several directors, Jeff Venable came back with a similar concept. Ballerini asked if they could marry their two ideas to create a “really raw, real love story” by incorporating a car wreck. They did just this and by the video’s end there is not a dry eye in the house.

Ballerini says the visual component to her songs is important and something she frequently conceptualized when she sat down to write her forthcoming album.

“My two filters for this album were, I had to know that they were going to go over well live and I had to be able to have a vision for a music video in my head, because those are two things that I had never done when I made my first record,” she says. “They’re two things that I learned a lot about over the last two years.”

While she now has a clear vision for the accompanying music videos to the songs featured on her sophomore album, she credits songwriters like Lindsey and Shane McAnally (Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart,” Keith Urban’s “John Cougar, John Deer, John 3:16,” Sam Hunt’s “Body Like A Back Road”) for helping to bring out certain elements in her songwriting that no other co-writer had done before.

“They bring out a different side of me as a writer and then they just let me write. They make me a better songwriter when I’m in the room with them,” she shares. “That’s what makes them great songwriters. They can obviously, sit in a room and write a whole song by themselves and it would be the biggest smash. They also can find exactly what it is you want to say and then you get to say it. I think that’s a really special quality as a songwriter.”

Ballerini says Lindsey is the reason she began writing songs and she recalls being extremely nervous and intimidated before their first co-write. “I really believe [she’s] the best songwriter in the world,” she gushes. Their first writing session was “Legends” and Ballerini says that it is lyrically her favorite song on the record. Another song called “In Between” she describes as the most honest song she’s ever written.

“I didn’t have a song about where I was at right now in my life. I’m an artist and as a young woman, I sometimes feel like I want to be an adult and I want people to listen to me. Other times I’m like, ‘I’m a kid. Help!’ Then there are times I’m ready to get married and then there are times I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I’m 23!'” she explains. “Then, there are times like, ‘Oh my gosh, I got to put out four singles for my first record.’ There are times I’m like, ‘Does anyone even care anymore?’ It’s these insecurities that I’ve felt over the last two years, feeling like I’m in between a lot of different things in my life.”

Kelsea Ballerini & Morgan Evans; Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images For CMT

Fan favorites “High School” and “Roses” will be on the album as well as “Unapologetically,” which she says is the first real love song she’s ever written. She penned it three weeks after she met fiancé Morgan Evans and says it was the turning point where she realized it was a relationship. She laughs, admitting that she has become a sappy person. While she plays the song every night on tour now, she initially held the song close to her chest before she let Evans hear it because “three weeks, that’s a little too soon.”

Evans is also an artist, signed to Warner Music Nashville, and someone who Ballerini says writes “all the sappy love songs.” While the two are currently both on tour and planning a wedding together, she says they make their relationship work with a two-week rule.

“We try to not go longer than two weeks without seeing each other. Music, for me and him both, it’s a true love,” she explains. “I think my true loves are music, my family and him. His are his family, the ocean, music, me. If he’s not doing music, he’s not fully happy and vice versa. I think when we can both go do our thing and go do music and be happy in that and try to meet back up on the other side, that’s healthy and it’s exciting and we can cheer each other on.”

Ballerini’s soft and “sappy” side will be showcased on her album. Another ballad, “I Hate Love Songs” was never intended for the project but after receiving her first standing ovation at the Grand Ole Opry following her performance of the song, Ballerini changed her mind. Having written over 200 songs for the project, she explains that she thought the Opry was the perfect way to give the song life since she didn’t plan to record it.

“It was the only time I’ve gotten a standing ovation at the Opry. I called my label and I was like, ‘I think we need to cut this song.’ Now, I play it live and it seems to be one that people like,” she adds.

At CMA Fest 2017, she prefaced her performance of “I Hate Love Songs” by sharing that she was once a fan like the thousands in attendance sitting in the nosebleed seats waiting for her favorite artist to take the stage.

“Four years ago, I sat all the way up there and my favorite moment was always when an artist came out and suddenly 50,000 people felt like a living room,” she said during her performance at Nissan Stadium. “I thought, since I get to be on this stage, we can make a 50,000 person living room and I can play you a new song tonight. What do you think?”

The crowd roared in approval and she performed the slow ballad alone on guitar where she sang about hating Shakespeare, Ryan Gosling and roses that die in a week. “I hate love songs, yeah I really do, I hate love songs, but I love you,” she sang softly.

When discussing the inspiration behind the intimate performance, she recalls seeing Keith Urban have a similar aspect to his concert and says she always hoped she could have a moment like that in her own live show.

“Full band, he’s incredible. When he just stands there with his guitar, there’s something so magical and intimate about it,” she says. “I always want to have that moment where it’s just me and whoever else is listening.”

Fans hoping to get their hands on all these new songs are in luck. While Ballerini’s mum on when the album will be released, she says an announcement will be coming soon and promises that fans will have some new tunes shortly.

“I put out my record almost two-and-a-half years ago and my EP was out three-and-a-half years ago,” she explains. “A lot of people that have been with me on the journey from the very beginning have had these songs for three-and-a-half years and I’m like, ‘Listen, I can’t wait until later this year to put out new music. I’m dying.’ We’ll have a pre-order situation and with that there will be new music available before the record comes out.”

In the meantime, fans can hear four new songs live throughout the You Look Good World Tour which has Ballerini and Brett Young opening for Lady Antebellum. While it’s different than her previous headlining tour, she’s grateful for the opportunity and the challenge to win over the crowd night after night.

“I got to headline a little bit last year and that’s a really rewarding experience, because you know that everyone in the room knows every word to every song. They know the stories behind it, all of that,” she explains. “The really cool thing about opening is, it’s this challenge of going out to this crowd that may know the songs that have been on the radio, but for the most part they don’t really know who you are. It’s really cool to have the challenge of going out and introducing yourself to a new crowd that maybe wouldn’t have known you unless you were on the tour.”

Ballerini has managed to win over one country legend in the process. After performing with Shania Twain at Stagecoach Festival in April, Ballerini was invited to the opening of the singer’s new exhibit Shania Twain: Rock This Country at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in June. She spent some time with the singer viewing the display and invited her out to her show later that week when the tour stopped in Canada. Twain accepted the offer and Ballerini is still in shock.

“She watched my whole set and then I went out and joined her and watched Lady A,” Ballerini marvels. “It was a really surreal night for me. I went back on my bus and I had a moment about it. They always say, ‘Don’t meet your idols.’ I disagree. I’m like, ‘Meet them all!'”

While Ballerini cites Twain as the person who taught her to sing, the “Legends” singer surely has young girls and fellow artists looking up to her the same way she idolizes Twain. As a result, Ballerini is trying her best to create a support system for the women in the industry, having recently hosted a girl’s night with several of country music’s female artists.

“There’s a lot of emotions that you go through when you’re putting your first single out to radio, especially going on radio tour and making your first record. There’s pressure and there’s insecurities,” she says, speaking softly. “It’s definitely exciting and it’s definitely a beautiful time, but you get lonely sometimes. You get stressed and no one really tells you that. I wanted to have this bonding moment with everyone that’s walking through the same thing and be like, ‘Let’s celebrate together, because we have a lot to celebrate. But let’s also be there for each other when we’re lonely, or when we’re tired, or when we’re confused. Let’s be able to talk about that.'”

While Ballerini hopes to leave a legacy with her music, she says she wants to be remembered most for being a nice person. “I just want people to walk away and be like, ‘Aw, she’s nice.’ That’s what matters most to me,” she confesses. “Having a song on the radio, being in a tour bus and playing shows whether I’m opening or not, that’s success. That to me is everything I’ve ever wanted to do.”