Move Over Taylor Swift, Kelsea Ballerini's Coming for Your Crown

Before she hit the road on her “The First Time” tour, she kindly took the time to chat with me about role models, her second record, and, of course, working with Jason Aldean.

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Oct 25 2016, 6:33pm

Kelsea Ballerini is not to be trifled with. In the three years she's devoted to music, she's released an EP that garnered high praise from Taylor Swift, and a full-length record, aptly called The First Time. The Tennessee songwriter's take on pop country is comfortably reminiscent of early Taylor Swift, but with a very sharp Shania Twain edge. Those two names in particular loom large in Ballerini's still-evolving personal mythology—and hell, she's even been mistaken for the 1989 singer. 

In September, Ballerini had to clarify that a song she posted to her Snapchat was actually hers, and not Swift working on new material. That wasn't the first time. Long ago, Ballerini says that during her first meeting with a record executive, she was told that country music already had a Taylor Swift. She admitted to me that that experience took the wind out of her sails in a big way, but like Shania and Swift before her, she wasn't about to let a little setback stop her.

Now, Ballerini is a well-established, record-breaking country artist, singing poppy songs about divorce, heartbreak, and good clean fun in her brazen Tennessee twang. "Love Me Like You Mean It" and "Dibs"  were back-to-back number one hits, and with the former, Ballerini became the first solo female country artist since Carrie Underwood to score a number one hit with her debut single (Underwood did so with "Jesus Take The Wheel" in 2006). Then, when she released "Peter Pan"—a bubblegum country bop that takes aim at cheaters and heartbreakers—that one hit number one on two separate charts, placing her as the first solo female country artist to do so since Wynonna Judd in 1992. On top of all that? Ballerini wrote all three of her number one hits—something no female solo country artist has done before.

Though she wouldn't outright admit it—she's got too much ingrained Southern charm to do so—Ballerini occupies a feminist space within country music. Whether she's out there breaking long-held records, collaborating with megastars like Jason Aldean, or simply relentlessly pursuing her goals and securing a position right next to some of Nashville's heaviest hitters, she is living, thriving proof that women are more than just tomatoes in country music's salad. Women in country music have been making and smashing records left and right for decades, and Ballerini is one of the newest, most exciting members to join that exclusive sisterhood. Before she hit the road on her "The First Time" tour, she kindly took the time to chat with me about role models, her second record, and, of course, working with Aldean.

Noisey: So you're working on [your second record] now?
Kelsea Ballerini: I am. I've been writing since I put the last one out. I have a ton of songs, I think I'm in the process of figuring out exactly what I want it to snapshot.

What ideas are you throwing around?
I write about my life, but a lot has happened in the past two years. It's figuring out how I want to tell it and show it. Honestly, it's how personal I want it to get. Obviously my life has changed a lot, with the music that's happened, it's figuring out what exactly it is I want to say.

Are there any times when things are too personal?
I have a song on my first record called "Secondhand Smoke," it's about my parents' divorce. I put it on the album because it was a message that needed to be on there and it's a huge part of my life. It's one of those songs I can never sing live. Its purpose is to just live on that record. It's super personal and I can't sing it live.

How is this record going to be different than your first one [ The First Time ]?
It's going to show the growth of me as a human. I put out my last record when I was 21. I'm 23 now, and I'm still getting into adulthood. I got out of a relationship at the beginning of this album. I fell super hard in love. It will talk about all of it.

What was it like finding out that your third single had gone to number 1?
It was special. It made history, which is really cool to be a part of that. More than that, it's my favorite song I've gotten to put out. For me, that was the one that I really, that I put a lot of stake in. That means that I can go deeper on my next album, and it was embraced bigger than the first two. For me, from a creative standpoint, it opened a lot of doors.

You have a duet with Jason Aldean out on his new record. Can you tell me a bit about working with Aldean?
One of the writers of the song wrote me and told me they were thinking about me for a duet. Obviously I said I was interested…it's Jason Aldean! They sent me this song. I thought it was so beautiful. I always think it's really cool when an artist like Aldean, who's super rugged and super country, shows a softer side of his artistry. I loved what the song said, and I'm proud to be a part of it. We actually recorded it separately and put our vocals together on the track.

How did you feel collaborating with Jason Aldean, who's this symbol of bro country? You've done so much work and have aligned yourself with artists like Maddie and Tae.
Ballerini: I think that it's really cool that you can turn on the radio right now and hear Aldean, who's that rock country, and me, who's pop country, and Sam who's R&B country. You can hear all these different artists being true to their roots: where it's country but it's there's also another genre present. The more people allow themselves to do that, the better.

Do you feel like there should be more women in the top ten?
Ballerini: That's a tough question. I think that there's a lot of really incredible question. There are so many in town, and I am so amazed and it makes me feel so good. It's just a continuation of people having open minds about it. It's not a lack of talent; it's a lack of people getting behind it right now.

What do you mean by "lack of people getting behind it?"
Ballerini: I think that for a long time, for whatever reason, it was hard to get girls on the radio. I think that it's coming back around. I think, hopefully, there'll be a new tide of labels finding girls and getting them to radio.

What makes you feel that way?
Ballerini: Two years ago it was Carrie and Miranda, and now it's Carrie and Miranda, and me and Kacey Musgraves and Maddie and Tae, and more that are on the radio. There's this big crew of girls that are in Nashville and are waiting for someone to pick them up and bring them there. They're incredible, and I think it will happen.

Do you see yourself as a role model for girls growing up, wanting to break into country music?
Ballerini: I'm aware that some people may look at me like that, but I am still so new that I am constantly looking to people that are above me, that have gone through it before. I am still looking up to my role models to help me navigate through everything.

Who are your role models?
Ballerini: Musically: Taylor Swift and Hillary Scott, people that are my friends and people who I respect what they've done in their careers. They've done it with grace. Those are the two that I go to, look up to, and ask questions to.

I know that when you first started, you were compared a lot to Taylor Swift. Do you worry at all, being friends with her, that people will stop seeing you as your own, independent self?
Ballerini: I think that it still happens sometimes. I adore Taylor and I love Taylor. If people see similarities with us, I hope that it's because I put fans in the front and I put songwriting in the front. She has set the bar for that. I hope that's the similarities people see.

Are you ever particular about the songs you write, like "this song has to be a certain way or has to have this message?"
Ballerini: I feel like whenever I write, I write what I need to that day for myself. Normally it's going to be what someone else wants to hear as well. I'm a super normal 23-year-old human girl. If I'm feeling insecure that day, then someone else is going to going to relate to that, because they feel that way too. I don't start writing with a certain message in mind because I don't think that's genuine.

You're not necessarily a normal 23-year-old; you have this big, inspiring music career. How do you balance that in terms of staying grounded?
Ballerini: I really do have a super normal life. I do go on the road and it's super fun, it's really like a dream world. I'll go home and be like, "did that really happen?" I'm with my dog in my sweatpants, I go out to dinner with friends, I watch Stranger Things. I really make an effort to have the most normal life that I can because I know that it's crazy and not normal what I do when I'm on the road. I make sure to counteract that.

What was one moment for you when you were like "holy crap, I'm a famous singer!"
Ballerini: I don't think I've had a certain moment where I was like "a-ha, I've made it!" I call them mountaintop moments, and they've happened a lot lately. They're just moments where you stop for a second and are like "oh gosh, this is something I'm going to remember." The latest one was when Peter Pan had just gone number one. I had already had my celebration with my label, but it was the weekend after. I was finishing up my tour with Rascal Flatts, and I was in Detroit, and I started singing it. I was like "you guys this just became my third number one song." And for whatever reason, that's when that actually hit me. I bawled my way through the whole song. I'm never going to forget that moment in Detroit. I'm going to always remember that now.

Being a woman in country…what are the things that are tougher for you to overcome?
Ballerini: I don't know if it is being a woman or being young, but I have worked really hard for people to listen to me. I will never be, nor will I want to be, the kind of artist that puts on a dress and sings songs that I don't relate to and shows up to things people tell me to show up to, and is just a pretty face. That's never going to be who I am. People have assumed, since I was young, when I first moved to Nashville at 15, that I just wanted to be a singer. I didn't just want to be a singer, I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to be involved in every part of it, to be able to write my songs and think about what I wanted to do and who I wanted to do it with. I learned when I took myself seriously, then others did too. That's what I really stuck to, and it's really helped me.