For her fourth studio album, multi-Platinum singer-songwriter Kelsea Ballerini found herself reflecting on a season of change in her life.
Her third studio album, Kelsea, was released March 20, 2020, just as the world began to feel the thundering start of the pandemic, which put a damper on the project’s release. Though the record performed well, debuting at No. 2 and 12 on the Top Country Albums and Billboard 200 charts, respectively, and spawning four official singles, such as “Hole in the Bottle” and “Half of My Hometown,” Ballerini was open about her disappointment in the timing of the release.
With the pandemic raging on through 2020 and 2021, Ballerini did what a lot of creatives did: took some time to herself, reflected on her life, and wrote songs. She emerged with 15 new songs and a sharp creative vision for her fourth studio album, Subject To Change.
Ballerini and her label Black River introduced the project with her currently climbing country radio single, “Heartfirst,” a flirty track combining ’90s country with Ballerini’s signature country-pop songwriting. Subject To Change was released in its entirety in September.
The sound of the record reflects that of “Heartfirst,” with various ’90s references throughout, although Ballerini says it wasn’t necessarily intentional.
“Faith Hill, Trisha Yearwood and Shania Twain are obvious references for this album, but it also was Sixpence None The Richer and Sheryl Crow,” Ballerini tells MusicRow. “But I didn’t necessarily set out to make a ’90s-sounding record, it’s just naturally influenced by what I was listening to.”
For the creation of Subject To Change, Ballerini did set out to make a cohesive project with a clear through-line, for which she tapped producers Shane McAnally and Julian Bunetta. Jesse Frasure and Alysa Vanderheym are credited as producers for the album, as well, for their work on the last track on the record, “What I Have.”
“My last album was such a quilt. Every song had its own identity as far as the songwriter group and the producer group. Each song was its own moment. I’m proud of [the Kelsea album] because it was the first time that I allowed myself the freedom and the confidence to play around. This time, I really wanted to go back to making a streamlined record,” Ballerini says. “I still wanted it to push boundaries, but I wanted it to feel like a cohesive story. It was really important to me to have production that really helped bring a vision to life and streamline it through the whole project.
“Shane and Julian not only produced it, but oversaw the whole thing. They were able to give me outside perspectives on songs they weren’t a part of writing. They brought it to life in such a beautiful way that honors country music, but also honors everything else I’m influenced by.”
While McAnally and Bunetta’s production is polished and interesting, it doesn’t get in the way of the star of Subject To Change: Ballerini’s songwriting.
For this album, Ballerini started the writing with one of the record’s gut punches—a solo write called “Marilyn” that’s based on Ballerini’s new familiarity with the struggles of the beautiful but tragic life of Marilyn Monroe. The singer-songwriter has made it a tradition to include one solo write on all her albums. For her debut, it was “The First Time.” For Unapologetically, it was “High School.” For Kelsea, it was “LA.”
“It just holds me accountable, to be honest,” she shares of the practice. “Songwriting is my favorite part of what I do. I still crave being in the room with people like Shane, Hillary Lindsey or Nicolle Galyon who sharpen me as a writer. In the same breath, I want to honor myself and trust myself to be able to take an idea all the way through and not always rely on other people. Doing one solo write on each record is just my way of holding myself accountable to that.”
The song that set the tone sonically for Subject To Change was one of the more ’90s-country sounding tracks, “Love Is A Cowboy.”
“‘Love Is A Cowboy’ was the first song that I wrote with other songwriters with the intention of writing for an album. It felt like a direction that really honors my songwriting evolution and feels sonically different than anything that I’ve done before. That really interested me,” Ballerini shares.
A highlight of the 15-track project is “What I Have.” The tune, written alongside Vanderheym and Cary Barlowe, is extremely country and shows off Ballerini’s honeyed vocals and sharp ability to convey a message.
“I was on a writing retreat. Alyssa and Cary were working on doing harmonies for [another song] ‘The Little Things’ and I was staring out the window at the ocean. I was just having a moment of reflection,” Ballerini recalls. “One of the things so many people have learned over the past couple of years is to take inventory of your life. We’re constantly changing and that’s such a theme of this album. I was just having a moment to myself, taking inventory of how my life looked in that moment and how it was the simpler things that were making me the happiest.
“I said, ‘Hey guys, can you stop the track on “Little Things?”‘ They stopped and I literally sang the chorus to ‘What I Have’ in the room. We ended up pausing on ‘The Little Things’ and wrote ‘What I Have’ in about 30 minutes,” Ballerini says. “It fell out of the sky. The record is the original demo. We tried to re-record it and it just didn’t capture the honesty and the pureness of the magic of how we wrote it.”
Like “What I Have,” many of the tracks on Subject To Change convey a growth and acceptance in Ballerini. Her “Doin’ My Best” finds her grappling with things in her life that are hard to face—such as growing apart from a friend or being called out on social media. In “Walk In The Park,” she sings about being complicated. In the title track, Ballerini puts out a big disclaimer that she, as well as all of us, are ‘subject to change’ at any time.
“Every record of mine has bookmarked two years of my twenties. This one is from 26 to 28. There’s a lot of growing up that happens in those years, but also I sat still for the first time since I’ve been in my twenties,” Ballerini says, adding that she’s learned in therapy that her coping mechanism is business.
During the pandemic, Ballerini was able to sit with her feelings, work on herself, and evaluate her relationships—which is clearly reflected in the maturity of the songwriting on the project.
“I started processing my life differently. Having that time really allowed me to go deeper and have more time to work on myself, my friendships and relationships. As well as my songwriting and writing in general. I got to write a book. All those things really helped me accelerate growing up.”
Throughout her time in the public eye, Ballerini has managed to stay pretty vulnerable with her fans as her audience grows, while also holding some parts of herself close and protected.
“It’s a dance. I’m in a season of life right now where I’m re-figuring that out,” she admits. “I do feel a responsibility to not just show the glittery parts of my life and ‘job.’ That would be really easy to do, but it’s just not real. I feel responsibility as someone that some people look to to be more authentic, even if it’s a little bit uncomfortable sometimes. I definitely don’t tend to do it right all the time and I’ve had a messy journey with social media, but I’m constantly doing my best.
“That’s where I’m at with everything in my life,” Ballerini sums. “I’m showing up the best I can.”
Ballerini has taken Subject To Change on the road for a 10-night-only tour. She hits Los Angeles’ Greek Theatre on Thursday night (Oct. 5) with four shows following. Click here for more details.