A ‘progressive twist’: Country star Kelsea Ballerini picks R&B tune on ‘Songland’

Lyndsey Parker
Editor-in-Chief, Music

In an era when Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus can team up for the song of the summer with “Old Town Road,” country singer Kelsea Ballerini is understandably feeling adventurous. “It's a really fun time in country, where outside influences are a part of mainstream country, like a country root with kind of a progressive twist on it. I'm looking for something different, something that I haven't done before,” she declared Tuesday on NBC’s new talent show Songland, aka “Shark Tank for Songwriters.”

So, when Darius Coleman, whose credits include writing for Empire and working with Timbaland, came in to pitch his slinky acoustic R&B jam “Better Luck Next Time,” it was a match made in genre-crossover heaven. “Most of my sessions are all for pop music, but how amazing would it be if this young black guy from Philadelphia wrote Kelsea's song? That would be, like, hashtag-goals, all the way,” he laughed.

After listening to four possible songs to record, Ballerini actually immediately discarded the most obvious and, well, easy choice: an old-fashioned, Patsy/LeAnn-style waltz called “Easy,” penned by Nashville newbie Jess Jecoy. That left Kelsea with “Better Luck Next Time,” along with the bittersweet electronic pop song “Lying (Next to You),” written by Bieber-esque boy band singer Jack Newsome, and Daniel Feels’s Maroon 5-meets-Paul Simon bop “Crush,” all of which were hooky but didn’t sound like anything that’d get even light airplay on CMT.

However, it was obvious from Coleman’s first audition that his sparklingly jazzy yet emotionally weighty tune was the frontrunner. Ballerini had explained earlier, “I always kind of go for either a proper jam where I just want to dance around and feel good and feel empowered, or I want to, like, cry. The middle ground doesn't really get me.” And the vengeful kiss-off song “Better Luck Next Time” seemed to tick all of her songwriting boxes. She was singing along while Coleman was performing it, and she continued singing it even after he had exited the room. “I just can't get it out of my head. I can still sing it to you. And I think that's really telling,” she noted. “That's a country hook, whether [Coleman] meant it that way or not. … I feel like that is something that would fit on country radio right now.”

Well, that part about how love “hit like a shot of tequila without the lime” certainly was a classic country line — but Coleman definitely needed to fine-tune the song a bit with his assigned mentor, OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder, to make it more Kelsea-ready. And that was when Coleman achieved another one of his “hashtag-goals,” because Tedder, a superstar songwriter who’s worked with Beyoncé, Adele, and Kelly Clarkson, had been tacked to Coleman’s vision board for a while now. “My initial instinct for this song was finding the right key so that in the chorus [Kelsea] can sing in her head voice and it will feel like this big lift,” advised Tedder, explaining that he learned how to pick keys while working on one of the biggest monster singles of the past 15 years, Leona Lewis’s “Bleeding Love.”

Coleman and Tedder changed the key to make it a “little bit more comfortable” for Ballerini, and switched from acoustic to electric guitar, but to be totally honest, Coleman’s second performance of “Better Luck Next Time” didn’t sound too different from his original. Then again, the song was pretty much perfect to begin with. Tedder seemed very pleased, declaring that he was “covered in goosebumps.” And more importantly, Ballerini was squealing like a gleeful child. She knew she had a hit on her hands… even if it still didn’t sound all that country. “I think it'll sound magical on you,” Coleman assured her.

Kelsea was sold. “There are two songs out of the three that I feel like are songs I would have put on my last record. But I'm kind of in this place right now of pushing myself and trying things that II've never done before. [“Better Luck Next Time”] feels like something that I'm headed towards. ... It's a lane that I haven't really done, and it feels like something that would be challenging for me, which I like. … It felt like ‘me’ enough, but also a departure enough to push me.” And her final version, already up on all major streaming services, is sufficiently twanged-up so that it actually won’t sound out of place on her Stagecoach setlist. It actually sounds magical on her, just as Coleman promised.

So, Darius Coleman doesn’t have to wait till next time to have better luck; he just wrote country star Kelsea Ballerini’s new single with his idol Ryan Tedder! Apparently vision boards, and Songland, work. Tune in next week as four more aspiring songwriters pitch the Jonas Brothers. I’m a sucker for this show.

Kelsea Ballerini congratulates winner Darius Coleman on 'Songland.' (Photo: NBC)

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