Kelsea Ballerini is one of five songwriters profiled in the 2016 MusicRow Publisher Issue. In this extended piece from the interview, she discusses her journey from aspiring songwriter to one of country music’s brightest young talents, including her CMA Awards nominations for Female Vocalist of the Year and New Artist of the Year, and working on her sophomore album.
For more about Kelsea Ballerini, pick up MusicRow’s 2016 Publisher Issue.
Calling in for MusicRow interview, Kelsea Ballerini is settling into a new home in Nashville, the latest change in the whirlwind transformation the singer-songwriter has undergone in the past year and a half, both personally and professionally.
During a period of country music where female voices have struggled mightily to be heard on country radio, Ballerini has seemingly walked through the barrier as if it didn’t exist.
She is the only female artist in country music history to reach the No. 1 spot with her first three singles from a debut album. “Love Me Like You Mean It,” “Dibs,” and “Peter Pan” all come from the Black River Entertainment album, The First Time.
“I think it was just time for a change, to have more girls on the radio and I was just the lucky one that was a part of that time,” Ballerini says. “It’s been really cool to be a part of that wave with Maren Morris and Cam and Maddie & Tae, and all these girls that we all got to launch at the same time and stay on the radio at the same time.”
This new wave of female singer-songwriters—emphasis on the word songwriters—have garnered fans and airplay on the strength of their unique viewpoints, judicious observations, and willingness to experiment with a range of musical textures.
Ballerini’s blend of wit and confessional, girl-next-door reflections are embedded within synthetic pop melodies and hip-hop-inflected grooves. The positivity, enthusiasm and resilience of youth are the pulse of the album, running through even the trials of an uncommitted boyfriend (“XO”), a parent’s divorce (“Secondhand Smoke”), and rejection (“ Square Pegs,” “Stilettos”).
Ballerini’s songwriting journey began when she was barely a teenager in east Tennessee. After moving to Nashville, Ballerini integrated herself into the Nashville co-writing culture and found a circle of kindred creative spirits in writers including Forest Glen Whitehead, Josh Kerr, Catt Gravitt and more.
“It’s so awkward. You literally sit in a room and talk about if your heart is broken and stuff. It’s weird, but it’s cool because you make some really deep friendships and connections deeply. I feel like the more open you are in a co-write the better song you get most of the time. It’s cool too to know other people’s strengths. That’s why I like working with people like Forest and Ross [Copperman]. They can build a track that will kind of inspire something I wouldn’t have had otherwise. That’s what a co-write is all about.”
Those co-writes would end up creating the bulk of her debut project. Black River Publishing signed a then-19-year old Ballerini to a publishing and recording deal in 2013. In 2015, Ballerini aligned with Iconic Entertainment Group, led by industry veteran Fletcher Foster. The next year would bring a whirlwind of radio success, awards recognition, and touring. Nearly every month brought a new milestone to celebrate.
The First Time was released on May 18, 2015. Ballerini co-wrote all 12 tracks on the collection of musical vignettes, calling them a snapshot of her life from age 12 through her early 20s.
In June, Ballerini and her team were celebrating their first chart-topper with “Love Me Like You Mean It.” By August, the single had moved 500,000 units, earning Ballerini her first RIAA gold single. Her follow-up single, “Dibs,” was already making a play at the country airplay charts.
September and October ushered in Ballerini’s first awards nominations, including CMA Awards nominations for New Artist of the Year and Female Vocalist of the Year, and an American Music Award nomination for Favorite Female Artist-Country.
In 2016, the buzz around the singer-songwriter has only intensified, as “Dibs” and “Peter Pan” earned the singer her second and third No. 1 hits at country radio. She was named Female Artist of the Year and Breakthrough Artist of the Year at MusicRow’s CountryBreakout Awards in February 2016.
In April, she was brought to tears onstage in Las Vegas when it was announced she had earned the Academy of Country Music’s New Female Vocalist of the Year honor. She made the most of her performance slot at the ACM Awards, welcoming special guest Nick Jonas to collaborate on a rendition of “Peter Pan.”
That month also brought Ballerini’s second gold certification, for “Dibs.”
The vivacious entertainer took to what would be the biggest stage of her career thus far in June, as co-host and performer of ABC’s music series Greatest Hits, alongside Arsenio Hall. The series aired in prime time and welcomed a slew of artists to perform signature songs from the 1980s-2000s, including Little Big Town, Backstreet Boys, Hanson, Jason Derulo, Kenny Loggins, REO Speedwagon, Lee Ann Womack, and Fifth Harmony.
Her co-hosting duties, as well as her capable renditions of songs such as Maroon 5’s “This Love” and Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time,” would introduce Ballerini to a broader audience. Ballerini calls the experience “totally a trial-by-fire kind of thing,” saying that she met Hall an hour before the taping began—which doesn’t leave much time to gel with a co-host.
She admits, “I was so out of my comfort zone but that was the most beautiful part about it. The best thing you can have in whatever you do is jumping in, being naïve and learning. I didn’t know how to do it so I just figured it out. It was so much fun and I got to meet so many legends that I looked up to and I’m so glad I did it.”
In November, she will compete in the CMA categories of Female Vocalist of the Year and New Artist of the Year. Though in competition with some of her contemporaries, Ballerini cheers on her friends and fellow artists.
“I’m super flattered to be in Female [Vocalist of the Year]. I have in no way, shape, or form earned that,” Ballerini says. “I would love to see Carrie [Underwood] get that this year. I think she’s toured her butt off and been on the radio more than any of us. I think it’s cool to be in the New Artist category with a lot of my friends that we’ve been on the road together and on the charts together, because I think we are all kind of in the same class.”
By the evening of the CMA Awards, Ballerini’s whirlwind year will have gotten even busier, as her first headlining tour launches Oct. 21.
She will apply what she’s learned from months of opening for superstar acts like Lady Antebellum and Rascal Flatts, but even more so from years of being an observant student and music fan.
“I always took notes and remembered things that I loved that captured me as a fan. I just really wanted to try out putting it all together myself. Even through it is smaller venues, we are going to try to add some bells and whistles and make it a full show and have people leave and feel like they watched a production.”
In the midst of a career that is blossoming at breakneck speed, Ballerini seems welcoming of the pace, genuinely excited by each new development and confident in her talents. Perhaps this is because, like her mentor and fellow singer-songwriter Taylor Swift, she’s learned to focus on what is most important.
“The thing I admire about her the most is she’s always kept fans and songwriting first, and I think as someone who loves songwriting more than anything, that’s something that I’ve learned from her, to always keep that at the forefront.”
Like any creative truly in love with songwriting, Ballerini’s attention is already turning to the songs that will make up her sophomore album.
“From what I’ve written so far, the lyrics are more rooted, but it’s still country-pop. I’ve never shied away from a big ol’ pop beat in the background. It’s my thing and I love it so much. I’m super open about it because I love it so much,” she says. “I’m getting back to that spot of, ‘What does your life look like right now? What’s your snapshot going to be?”
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