The morning I spoke over the phone with Kelsea Ballerini, the 24-year-old country-pop star was multitasking. She was in New York, where she’d had a show the night prior, and had me on speakerphone as she tried on dresses for the April 15 Academy of Country Music (ACM) Awards — Ballerini was up for Female Vocalist of the Year (which went to Miranda Lambert) and Video of the Year for “Legends” (“It Ain’t My Fault” by Brothers Osborne won). She had a concert in New Jersey that same night, one in Richmond, Virginia, the next, and then was flying to Los Angeles to do James Corden’s show. It’s a schedule that would make anyone’s head spin, but Ballerini is loving it.
The singer is still reveling in the life she’s carved out for herself as one of country music’s hottest stars, a position to which she rose quickly. In 2014, Ballerini released her debut single, “Love Me Like You Mean It,” which immediately shot up the Billboard Country Airplay charts to number one, a feat not achieved since Carrie Underwood’s 2006 “Jesus, Take the Wheel.” The next two singles off her 2015 debut record, The First Time — “Dibs” and “Peter Pan” — found similar success.
Since then, the singer/songwriter has toured the world, gotten married, and released her sophomore album, Unapologetically, for which she received a 2016 Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. Ballerini will finish her tour in Santa Barbara on April 25. The following is a portion of our interview.
“Legends,” your first single off Unapologetically, is catchy and beautiful, and yet its lyrics are tragic. What led you to write that song? Actually, I call it my chameleon song because it’s changed meaning for me so much. I wrote it about a breakup that I was going through like three and a half years ago. I wrote it because I wanted to have a song about the perspective of looking back on a relationship fondly, because I really feel like that’s when you’re truly able to move forward, is when you can remember and just acknowledge why you were in it for so long. So, that was my song of trying to acknowledge part of the good. Now, honestly, I’m just in such a different place in my life. It’s a love song, but it’s also a song about my fans. It’s also a song about just my friends and people that I love. That’s what I love about it, is that it’s chameleon.
You’ve recorded two critically acclaimed albums; you’ve gotten married — life has been a whirlwind. How are you coping with success? Yeah, it is. It’s good, though. I mean, when I moved to Nashville, I was 15 years old and starry-eyed and naive, and I had no idea what to do. But, I dreamt about all of this. I dreamt about being able to headline a tour. I dreamt about being able to put out records. You’re on speakerphone right now because I’m trying on ACM dresses. Like, I’ve dreamt about all of this. So, yeah, it is a whirlwind, and it’s definitely overwhelming, but in the best kind of way.
Is it true that Keith Urban’s “Stupid Boy” made you veer from pop to pop country? Yeah. I was writing songs before that, and I guess I just didn’t necessarily know where they fit. Then I heard “Stupid Boy” on my friend’s Myspace page, and it freaked me out. I just fell in love with it. So I went out and I got [Urban’s] Love, Pain & the Whole Crazy Thing, Dixie Chicks, Sugarland, and Taylor Swift. Those four [artists] were my true cannonball into country.
Taylor Swift has moved into pop, seemingly leaving country behind. Do you try to direct the sound, or are you just writing from inspiration? It’s important to just write what is true to the idea and the song. But that being said, the first thing that we ever put out is a song called “Love Me Like You Mean It,” and it is very, very, very pop country. And to see the way that that was embraced by country radio made us just feel more confident to keep pushing that boundary of country pop. That’s what’s so cool about country right now, is you can turn on the radio and hear country pop, country soul, country folk. But, it’s all rooted …. It’s a really cool time.
How long have you been writing songs? I started writing songs when I was 13. I wrote my first song when I was 12, but it was just so bad that it doesn’t count.
How does the songwriting process go for you? Do ideas come to your head and you start sketching them out, or does a whole song come at once? It’s different every time, and that’s why I love it. …I have a song called “Dibs” … I saw the word “dibs” in Seventeen magazine and put it into my phone because I thought it was super-cute. Then months later I wrote it. Then “Stilettos”, off my last record, that came from a Pinterest quote. I mean, honestly, it comes from wherever, and I think that’s the cool part — you never really know what to expect.
How is all the touring? Are you feeling like you need a break? Headlining’s awesome because, I mean, [the audiences] know the whole album. When you open, people are familiar with the songs that have been on the radio, but the rest of it is still very much still introducing yourself. But with headlining, it’s people that know the record top to bottom, and it’s just such a magical bonding experience.
How is it now to be recognized and all that stuff that comes with fame? It’s awesome. A lot of [fans] are around my age … That’s the coolest part, especially meet and greets. I see people, and I’m starting to learn their names because they come to so many shows, and I know if they just got out of a breakup or if they’re falling in love, and it’s what … I’ve been going through the last few years. So, it’s really cool …. And what’s going to be really great is Santa Barbara is actually the last stop on the tour, so that’ll be a really emotional show.
Are you working on any new record? I’m always writing. I have two of my favorite writers on the road with me right now. I feel like you never know, like I said earlier, when it’s going to strike, and so I’ll write all the time. And then when it’s time to make another record, hopefully I have it ready.
Goldenvoice presents Kelsea Ballerini, with opener Walker Hayes, Wednesday, April 25, 7:30 p.m., at The Arlington Theatre (1317 State St.). Call (805) 963-4408 or see thearlingtontheatre.com.