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Kelsea Ballerini sounds excited. “I'm good,” she gushes over the phone when we connected earlier this summer. “I'm in rehearsal with my band for the first time in what feels like forever, so I'm in quite the good mood. I was worried that I was going to forget all my songs, but it's kind of like riding a bike. Thank God.”
Like everyone, the country-pop singer had to put her life on hold when the world shut down last year. The timing couldn't have been worse: Ballerini released her third studio album, Kelsea, on March 20, 2020—right as the magnitude of the pandemic became clear. The 27-year-old had been working nonstop since she was 19, when her chart-topping debut album, The First Time, took over Nashville. Suddenly all of her tour and promotional plans were canceled. It was a loss she grieved tremendously.
But if you've been listening to Ballerini, whose songs contain a running theme of empowerment and endearing “I've got me” confidence, then you won't be surprised to learn she's already back at work on new music. While details are sparse, she does say she's continuing to push her songwriting into a more vulnerable space like fans saw in her recent single, “Homecoming Queen."
“I started writing songs when I was 12, when my parents were getting divorced,” she says. “It's always been therapeutic and a safe place for me to spill my guts. I think the second that I start filtering is the second I start losing the reason I'm doing all of this. I've intentionally tried to be as honest as I can be. Somehow the more honest and detailed and personal I am, the more universal it becomes in a really crazy way.”
And because of that honesty, we asked Ballerini to partake in Glamour’s new series 5 Songs, 5 Stories, in which your favorite artists reveal the origins behind meaningful tracks from their catalogs. Read on.
“Love Me Like You Mean It”
As the first single from her debut album, The First Time, “Love Me Like You Mean It” was Kelsea Ballerini's introduction to the world, in 2014. It was an instant hit. Cowritten with Josh Kerr, Forest Glen Whitehead, and Lance Carpenter, the love song reached number one on the Billboard country chart and number 45 on the Billboard Hot 100.
I dropped out of college when I got my publishing deal to be a songwriter. I really wanted to be an artist, but I didn't have the songs yet. So I spent that whole year finding my tribe of collaborators and cowriters and starting to hit upon a sound that felt unique and true to me. I was writing two sessions, sometimes three sessions a day. I was running the circles to try to figure my sound out, because I knew my purpose was to sing the songs I was writing.
One night, two of my frequent collaborators and really good guy friends were like, "Hey, one of our other friends is bringing pizza. We're going to hang around and listen to demos. You down to hang?" So me, Forest Glen Whitehead, Josh Kerr, and Lance Carpenter sat around the lobby of this publishing house, eating pizza, and talking about the stuff we were listening to. Forest said, “Kelsea, I really want to hear you do something with the swag of ‘Take a Bow’ by Rihanna.” Josh picked up a guitar, and we started with the staccato, the “If you're gonna...” We started messing with that and threw in every sassy phrase we could think of.
It felt fun and flirty and young and all the things that I felt like I was at in my life then. It was the song that got me my record deal. It was the song that I got to put out into the world first, and it was my first number one.
The first three songs for The First Time we had were, “Love Me Like You Mean It," “The First Time,” and “Peter Pan.” I'll never forget this: We sat around a conference room at the record label and had a conversation [about which song to release first]. We knew “Peter Pan” was the song, but it could easily become gimmicky. We wanted to protect it. It couldn't be the first single, because then I'd just always be the “Peter Pan” girl. So we thought about the climate of country radio at the time and people like Sam Hunt, who were really pushing boundaries and having other influences from the R&B and pop world. “Love Me Like You Mean It” followed suit with that.
There's magic to a first single. Whether it's massive or not, it's the song that starts your career. It's the song I've also sung the most over the last seven years, but I always have an appreciation and love for it. Because I write everything, it honors where I was at in my life then. Right now I would never write “Love Me Like You Mean It." But at 19 that was exactly where I was and what I wanted to say. That gets me excited still.
I still think it's such a good message. When I look back on my first record, I wanted there to be a positive, empowered energy through the whole thing. “Love Me Like You Mean It” set the tone. If you don't listen to the words, it's a bop. I love that. But if you do listen to the words, it's telling your partner, “If you don't respect me, this is not going to work.” I love that I led with that message because that's always been an arc of my career, trying to layer things with confidence and empowerment.
Cowritten with Forest Glen Whitehead and Jesse Lee, “Peter Pan” was a breakthrough for Ballerini's career. The ballad, about a lost love who refuses to grow up, topped the country charts and reached number 35 on the Billboard Hot 100.
If I could pinpoint a moment that my life changed, it's this song. I love taking something—a phrase or word or whatever—that feels so obvious and trying to write it in a way that breathes new life into it. Peter Pan is so universal. Everyone knows that story. It was so much fun to write a story of a relationship that fails because there's a lack of maturity and commitment and wrap that into a fairy tale people know. At the end it's: “You're just a lost boy. And you don't know what you lost, boy.” There's that one little twist that's like, “I got me.” That, to me, is my favorite part of the whole song. It's saying, “I'm going to be sad. I'm going to honor my feelings. But at the same time, it's your loss.”
I dated a guy in high school for two and a half years, and he was very much a Peter Pan. When I went back to Knoxville to do my first headline show, my ex was there, and I ran into him afterward. When he walked into the bar, I screamed at the top of my lungs, “Everyone, it's Peter Pan!” It was a full-circle moment. I'll never forget that.
It's the song in the set I protect the most. So we either start the set with it to be like, “All right, let's go.” Or we end the set with it to be like, “Thank you for waiting this long.” There's an energy around the song—people are ready to just sing along at the top of their lungs.
“Miss Me More”
“Miss Me More” is the third single from Ballerini's second studio album, 2017's Unapologetically. The hit single pushed the boundaries for the singer's sound, blurring the lines between country and pop more than her fans had ever heard from her before.
“Miss Me More” was my first-ever cowrite in L.A. I didn't let myself do that for a long time because I was so worried I was going to push the boundary too far or overstep my roots. But with the success of my first album, I had more confidence in myself to be creative and try things. I wrote the song with David Hodges and Brett McLaughlin, two people I hadn't written with before but am a fan of. I came in with the hook, “I thought I missed you, but I miss me more.” It was from a breakup I had gone through.
I knew sonically that it was going to push boundaries. I knew it could be a moment where people would question me. But I loved that, because I thought back to Shania Twain and Garth Brooks and Faith Hill and all these amazing artists that have come before me and have had those moments.
“Miss Me More” was the song that expanded the people who listen to my music to be a little bit older. “Love Me Like You Mean It" and “Dibs” skewed younger. But with “Miss Me More,” people who had gone through longer, bigger, harder seasons of life related to that song in a different way. The greatest honor of my entire life is when I'm in a meet-and-greet and someone is vulnerable enough to tell me their story and how they relate to a song.
I obviously write everything about my perspective and my experiences, but it's so incredible when someone else has their own path and connects with it on a completely different level over the same words. This is the first one where it wasn't just like, “Oh, this is me and my boyfriend's favorite song.” It was, “This is a song that gave me the courage to leave an abusive relationship.” That gave me a whole new set of wings going into writing the next record.
“This Feeling” (with The Chainsmokers)
If “Miss Me More” was Ballerini's first dip into the pop pool, then “This Feeling” is a dive straight into the deep end. Written by EDM duo The Chainsmokers with Emily Warren for their album, Sick Boy, the 2018 single was a radio hit and has been certified double platinum. Ballerini released the track on the deluxe version of Unapologetically.
“This Feeling” came at a really pivotal time in my career. I love collaborating with other genres and other artists, and I was just finally getting brave enough to do that with “Miss Me More” and “This Feeling.” They were out at the same time, and there was this new wave of fans I was meeting. It gave me a new confidence as an artist. The Chainsmokers are worldwide superstars, and that audience connected on a song that aligned with everything I was writing about anyway.
My album was called Unapologetically, and that song and whole album is about following your heart instead of your head. The lyric, “They tell me think with my head, not that thing in my chest.” It felt aligned and right. It was my first time doing anything outside of the country genre, and it was such a fun experience. It made me really grateful for the people who love when I'm able to blur those lines.
Working with The Chainsmokers was fun. They're such songwriters; it's definitely not a situation where you just sing your vocal and send it in. We met up to do the vocals, and they were like, “Try singing it like this. Let's stack 18 harmonies here.” It was definitely a different experience than me with country, because sometimes my demo vocal, where I'm sitting on the ground with a glass of wine, ends up being the one that's on the radio. I try not to overthink that stuff, but I learned that in pop music and EDM, every breath and every syllable is so important in the way they produce it all. It opened my eyes to that different world.
Ballerini's third studio album, Kelsea, was released in March 2020, just as COVID-19 became a worldwide pandemic. Despite the difficult timing, her lead single, “Homecoming Queen,” became certified platinum and climbed the country and Billboard Hot 100 charts.
I was opening for Kelly Clarkson and busier than I'd ever been in my life and loving it, but also not really taking care of my heart and myself. I had Nicolle Galyon and Jimmy Robbins, who I love writing with, come on the road with me one particular weekend. They're my friends, so we can go a little bit deeper. Nicolle asked how I was doing, and for first time I felt safe enough to be honest. I said, “I feel so guilty telling you that I don't think I'm good. I don't think I'm okay right now.”
And she was like, “Kelsea, if you could see the way that everyone, perception-wise, sees you. You're like the homecoming queen of Nashville. You waltz in and get a record deal and have a number one off the bat. You're sitting here on your tour bus opening for one of your favorite people, telling me there's a lot more going on behind the surface. That's what you need to tell people.”
Everything is so filtered and finessed and not as it seems right now in our world. I finally felt brave enough to go, “This is not me being ungrateful. This is not me diminishing this incredible life I get to have. It's me saying, ‘I'm human. Life ebbs and flows, and I'm going through it right now.’”
I love the line “dancing with your best foot forward.” To me, it sums up the song. It's about trying to be the girl who dances, trying to be the girl who's happy, trying to be the girl who's always finding the silver linings, trying to always do the right thing but also acknowledging that's not always easy.
When someone else says something you're thinking, it empowers you to feel like you're allowed to feel that too. I feel that as a fan of music. It was really healing for me to go, “I've been sweeping stuff under the rug. I've been faking it. Here it is.” I had that connection with fans who were like, “Thank you for acknowledging that not everything is so glittery all the time.”
I wrote my first record when I was 19, and then I was put into a cannon and just shot out. It was crazy. I kept my head down and ran with it for three and a half years, and then came up for air. I've been on this journey of trying to grow up and do it with grace, but also do it right and feel all my feelings and get to know myself as a 27-year-old now. The farther I dive into getting to know myself and writing about it, it seems like the better this whole journey is going to be in general. Especially now. I'm making a new record, and that's the road I'm going down.
We put the record out on March 20, the week the world shut down. It was tough. I grieved the loss of an album and the loss of the plans around it and all of that, because it was too late to not put it out. I also felt so guilty for taking up any space in a time where the world was scared and hurting. It was messy. I grieved, and then I reset and remade it into an album called Ballerini, and then I fell back in love with it and love it more now.
Anna Moeslein is the deputy editor at Glamour. Follow her on Instagram @annamoeslein.
Originally Appeared on Glamour