When Kelsea Ballerini released her debut effort, aptly titled The First Time, in 2015 for then emergent indie label Black River Entertainment, the album cemented Ballerini as an artist with songwriting chops, effervescent personality and sublime blend of pop and country hooks. She became one of country music’s brightest rising stars.
The First Time spawned three No. 1 hits, “Peter Pan,” “Dibs” and “Love Me Like You Mean It,” along with the Top 10 “Yeah Boy,” making Ballerini the first female country artist to notch a trio of consecutive chart-toppers from a debut album. She earned a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist in 2017, and an ACM Award for New Female Vocalist of the Year, in addition to iHeartRadio and Radio Disney award wins.
Such early success can breed pressure to retread the same lyrical and sonic territory to sustain the momentum. Instead, with her sophomore endeavor Unapologetically, which releases today (Nov. 3), Ballerini expands the sweep of influences she assimilates into her own music.
“I first thought, ‘How do I get back to where I was when I made the first record so I can do that again?’,” she told MusicRow, “but I was trying to go back to my 19-year-old self and that’s not who I am anymore. I had to let myself be 22 and 23 when I was writing this album, and make that into music.”
While Ballerini winked at the furthest reaches of her pop, rock, and hip-hop influences on her first project, this time around she adopts them more fully, from the a flirtation with R&B on “I Hate Love Songs” to the electro-pop effects employed on “Miss Me More.”
“The way that [her first album] was accepted made me want to push it further. On ‘Miss Me More,’ you can hear that Bieber-esque pop thing and ‘Get Over Yourself’ that chorus is a bit of a rap. That doesn’t take it out of country.”
On her debut album, Ballerini relied on co-writers and producers including Forest Glenn Whitehead and Jason Massey, forming a largely untested but trusted group of fellow creatives and dreamers. The First Time earned gold status, while “Love Me Like You Mean It,” “Dibs,” and “Peter Pan” all went Platinum.
She reunited with Whitehead and Massey as producers on Unapologetically (and with Whitehead as a co-writer), but explored new creative endeavors with Shane McAnally, Hillary Lindsey, Nicolle Galyon, Jimmy Robbins, Lindsay Rimes, Ross Copperman, Zach Crowell, Ashley Gorley, and more. McAnally, Robbins, and Rimes also contributed production to select tracks.
“Honestly, I couldn’t get into a room with a hit writer to save my life on the first record,” she says, laughing. “So the fact I have this opportunity on this album was a gift. I shared stories and opened up to them and to have them add their perspectives, that’s why the record sounds like it does.”
Ballerini cites Lindsey as a co-writer she had on her “wish list” for years.
“As a young female songwriter, she is the reason I write songs. She is exactly what I want to be when I grow up. She’s incredible and I love writing with her,” Ballerini fawns of Lindsey.
Like its predecessor, Unapologetically features 12 songs all co-written by Ballerini. The singer-songwriter penned more than 200 songs for the album. Unapologetically is a transition album, one Ballerini calls “the movie of my life the past three years.”
The album follows a chronological arc, opening in the depths of heartbreak on “Graveyard,” accepting the end of a relationship and the consequent process of self-rediscovery with “Machine Heart” and “Roses,” and crowned by the airy self-confidence needed to find love again with the album’s final five tracks.
“You really get to know an artist by listening to the whole record. I love that you can feel it go from dark to light. You can feel the whole temperament of the album change, just like my life has. It’s really cool.”
Midway through Unapologetically comes “In Between,” a solo write for Ballerini, and the last song she penned for the album. “In Between” is a gorgeous coming-of-age portrait conveying the dreams and ambitions, shifting social roles and newfound wisdom of a woman entering adulthood, on lines like half head up in the clouds/half feet down on the ground, and Sometimes I’m my mother’s daughter/sometimes I’m her friend.
“I realized I had written a lot about people that had been defining people in my life, but I realized I hadn’t written about just my life,” Ballerini says. “That song is the time-stamp of the record, the song I’m going to listen to when I’m 50 and remember what I was feeling when I was 24.”
Her career now bolstered by a string of hits, Ballerini didn’t waste the good fortune, instead poring over every aspect of the album, from song selection to the album cover.
“I wanted the album cover to look happy and sad at the same time. No matter what song you are listening, to I wanted that album cover to make sense. So if you are listening to ‘Graveyard,’ it looks like the saddest cover in the world because I’m curled up on a chair. But if you are listening to ‘Machine Heart’ or ‘Unapologetically’ it looks like you are resting after walking through a battle.”
Scattered throughout the album are snippets of audio intended to infuse life moments into the songs—a voicemail from Ballerini’s mother tags “In Between,” while ripped audio from footage of a high school football game intros “High School.” Her fiancé and Warner Music Nashville artist Morgan Evans offers harmonies on “Unapologetically.”
Vocally, Ballerini comes across as comfortable with warm, conversational singing—accepting her instrument’s limitations. Those lessons can be attributed to countless hours logged on the road, opening for Rascal Flatts, Lady Antebellum and Thomas Rhett.
“When I made my first record I had never done a full-band show before. My voice only knew singing over my guitar. My favorite singers are belters like Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson. I always wanted to be a singer like that, but I’ve learned that’s not my voice. Once I learned what my voice can and can’t do, I think that helped a lot on this record.
“Vocally we didn’t make it perfect. The only time we had for recording was when I came off the road and my voice was tired. On certain songs, especially ‘I Hate Love Songs,’ ‘High School,’ and ‘Machine Heart,’ you can hear it. On all three of those days, my voice was nearly gone and you can hear how tired I was. And I just let that be ok. For every song we did vocals for maybe two hours. We didn’t overthink it. It sounds like me and I’m really proud of that. I’m glad that it is not perfect.”
Self-acceptance, and the confident worldview that often accompanies it, has been a mainstay in Ballerini’s first two albums, and that’s by design.
“I just think there is so much crap everywhere all the time, just negative stuff, especially for young girls. I don’t want to be a part of it. I want anything that people hear from me to make them feel good. Even if it is a vulnerable sad song I want there to be an encouraging lyric. It leaves you feeling better and that’s what I feel like I need to contribute to the world right now.”
Ballerini will perform with Reba on next week’s CMA Awards, and will launch The Unapologetically Tour in February 2018, with special guest Walker Hayes.
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