Interview: Kelsea Ballerini Lets Fans Into Her Life on ‘Unapologetically’
Kelsea Ballerini is unapologetic about the wide range of emotions and life experiences she shares on her sophomore album, Unapologetically, out Friday (Nov. 3). The 12-track record, which Ballerini calls a "labor of love," goes from heartbreak and mourning to new romance to lasting love. Unafraid to share her deepest emotions, Ballerini bravely bares her soul, at least partly as a gift to her fans, who have supported her since her debut single, "Love Me Like You Mean It," was released in 2014.
"I don’t even know how to describe it in a few words," Ballerini tells The Boot. "It’s a chronological story, because I love albums. I think that’s how you get to know artists, by listening to the whole thing, not just singles. And so, I was thinking, ‘How do I make people want to listen to the whole thing?’ I was like, ‘Well, I’ve written about my life, why don’t I just put it in order and just lay it all out there, with how it happened.’
"And so, it’s a story, and it starts really dark, and it gets really light. It was really freeing to write it as honestly and as openly as I could, and then put it together," she adds. "I listen to it and I get emotional because I’m like, ‘I remember that.' And people who have followed me the last three years, since I put out the first record, they’re going to hear a song and they’re going to hear details in it, and they’re going to know what it was about, and that’s really cool."
I listen to it and I get emotional because I’m like, ‘I remember that.'
Ballerini co-wrote all 12 songs on Unapologetically, teaming up with several hit writers to complete the album. The fact that so many people were eager to co-write with the 24-year-old is a testament to how far she has come since her freshman record, The First Time.
"I couldn’t get in a room with a hit writer to save my life the first time around," admits Ballerini. "I had the opportunity to get in the room with Hillary Lindsey and Shane McAnally and Ashley Gorley -- they run Nashville. And just being in the room with them makes you a better writer, and that was the case."
However, Ballerini also went back to a couple of the tunesmiths who helped her create her freshman project. Among those names are Forest Glen Whitehead and Jennifer Denmark.
"I really wanted to keep some parallels with the first record," Ballerini notes. "It’s really cool to have people that did get in the room with me and did take the time to take a chance on me the first time around, paired with some of the biggest writers in Nashville."
Ballerini feels strongly about writing every song on her records, even thought that decision isn't always easy.
"I will always write every song," insists Ballerini. "I’m an artist because I’m a songwriter. And I think that’s part of my story that we didn’t really tell a lot from the first record. We put out singles like "Dibs" and "Love Me Like You Mean It" and "Yeah Boy" -- that shows the fun, flirty side of me as an artist. But this time around, I want people to know I’m a songwriter.
"We got pitched songs that were undeniable song smashes," Ballerini continues. "It was a wrestle. But they just weren’t my smashes."
More pressure? Yeah. But more creative as well.
So much has changed for Ballerini since The First Time was released in 2015, including her own life experiences. In hindsight, the Tennessee native is amazed at how little she knew about being an artist when her career took off.
"I had never made a music video. I had never done a full-band show when I made the first record. Literally all I knew, when I was in the studio, it was the first time doing this. And all my voice knew was me and a guitar," she reveals. "So I think that’s been the biggest change, is just learning my voice and learning how to put together a live show and what translates live. Because sometimes things that are on the record don’t translate live. That was a big lesson."
Ballerini may not have known what she was doing when The First Time was released, but that certainly didn't show in record sales or on the charts. The First Time has been certified gold, for sales of half a million units, and spawned three No. 1 singles, including "Peter Pan," which spent two weeks at the top of the charts and helped Ballerini earn her first-ever Grammy Awards nod, in the all-genre Best New Artist category. But all that success doesn't mean that she is more confident with her sophomore record.
"I’m so anxious," she concedes. "I’d be lying to tell you that I was so cool and calm and collected. I’m not; I’m very anxious. Just because it’s been so long. And the first time around, I was signed as a writer for a year before I was signed as an artist, and all of a sudden, we put out "Love Me Like You Mean It," and it was time to make a record. It was like, 'Twelve songs! I like these! Let’s go.’
"And I’m so proud of it and everything it did. But this time around, it’s been intentional," Ballerini adds. "This is the first time that I was writing songs knowing that they had the potential to be on the radio. I had no idea the first time. So I had a different perspective. More pressure? Yeah. But more creative as well."
Ballerini was just approaching adulthood when The First Time was released. Now older, engaged (to singer-songwriter Morgan Evans) and with more life experiences under her belt, her maturity and growth can be found not only in her songwriting, but in her resilience and fortitude as well.
"I’m just growing up," Ballerini says. "So, it’s hard to say what this career has changed in me, versus what growing up and life has changed in me. But I think the biggest change, regardless of where it came about, is just that I trust myself a lot more. I think, when you’re starting out and you’re young, you kind of just go where you are led, right or wrong, good or bad. I think I just trust myself a lot more right now."
I think I just trust myself a lot more right now.
Trusting her instincts also means judging if Unapologetically is successful for her, not by sales or chart position but by the criteria Ballerini determined would make the album something she was proud of and believed in.
"My two filters for this record and the songs, not only were ‘Is this part of the story of my life?’ but ‘Is this going to connect live?'" she says. "And 'Can you see a video in your head for it?’ And all of it passed that test for me, personally."
Ballerini recently announced her headlining Unapologetically Tour, which will kick off on Feb. 8 in Birmingham, Ala., with Walker Hayes serving as her opening act. Details can be found on her website.
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