Kelsea Ballerini gets compared to Shania Twain a lot. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, after all, the singer herself cites Twain as one of her biggest influences. At 23, getting consistently compared to your idol is usually a good thing for a musician. But as is often the case when it comes to emerging artist descriptive shorthand, the easy equation to Twain does Ballerini a disservice. She’s completely her own woman, and that’s part of what’s driven her debut album The First Time to the success she’s achieved in just one short year.
Ballerini, who is also a dead ringer for Taylor Swift with long blonde hair and an easy Tennessee smile, writes songs from a strong feminine perspective that often skewer romantic double standards, or get to the heart of a broken relationship with gentle wisdom that belie her young age.
The balance between pop production and heartfelt country story-songs is part of what makes her so accessible and so appealing, but it’s the honest assessment that sometimes kicks men to the curb or demands more from them that has everyone invoking Shania’s name. Still, Ballerini’s voice has its own honey, and her writing has its own kick. As a songwriter, she isn’t afraid to assert her own desires, and manages to have empathy even when she’s walking away.
After a debut self-titled EP in late 2014, Ballerini released her first full-length, The First Time, in May of last year. The record was preceded by her first single “Love Me You Like You Mean It,” which reached number one on the Billboard Country Airplay chart, an extremely rare feat for a female artist in a climate that is less than forgiving to female artists, let alone unestablished ones.
In fact, the last female artist to get a number one with a debut single was Carrie Underwood and “Jesus Take The Wheel,” and only eleven women have ever done it, period. That stat alone should give you a good sense of what a female artist in country is up against, and how incredible Ballerini’s success is. She didn’t stop there, either.
Her next two singles”Dibs” and “Peter Pan” both went to number one, as well as going gold. This feat makes Kelsea the first female artist to ever have three consecutive number one singles from a debut album that were all written by the artist.
The industry stood up and took notice of Ballerini’s distinctive force, nominating her back in 2014 for CMT’s Next Women of Country, and inviting her to play at the Grand Ole Opry last February, before her album had even been released. Since then, she’s been touring with Rascal Flatts, writing songs for her next album, and planning her first headlining tour.
That momentum carried into this year, too. At Wednesday night’s Country Music Awards Kelsea is up for Female Vocalist Of The Year and New Artist Of The Year, and will be performing. Her latest single “Yeah Boy” hit radio airwaves two weeks ago, and it’s currently at #35 in its third week. In between all this, Ballerini took some time to talk with Uproxx about her record-breaking singles, her admiration for other women in country, and who she listens to in the midst of heartache.
You are the first woman ever to have three consecutive No. 1 singles on country radio. How does it feel to set a record like that?
To be able to finally release my favorite song off the album was already enough for me, but to know that we just made history with it, is bigger than I could have ever dreamed. Honestly, being the first woman to do this just inspires me push and challenge myself to become a better artist to make the best music I can.
Do you think the tides are changing in country radio for women? If so, why?
Definitely! Country as a genre evolves so much every time you turn on the radio, I hope that all of our places will evolve too. I mean we’ve come so far already, I’ll be listening to the radio and hear a classic country legend like George Strait one minute, directly followed by a country/R&B song from Sam Hunt. I think its in a really eclectic season right now, and to be a be part of this new wave of female powerhouses like Cam and Maren Morris makes me so excited how we all can help the genre expand as a whole.
Where were you the first time you heard your song on the radio?
The first time I heard “Love Me Like You Mean It” on the radio, I was on the ramp merging to get onto the interstate, and I heard the intro: “Up next is country new comer, Kelsea Ballerini with her debut single “Love Me Like You Mean It” and I just laughed and cried at the same time. I’ll never forget it.
What do you think it is about your songs in particular that they have been resonating in such a strong way?
I’ve always tried to be honest in my songwriting and write about what I’m feeling and going through in my life, whether that be fun and flirty or heartbroken. I believe that the more honesty and relatable I am, the more connected I can be with my fans and listeners.
Your debut is over a year old now, have you been back in the studio and writing in the meantime? Is there a new album slated for 2017?
I am working on my new album right now! I try to write as much as I can whether that be co-writing with different people while I am home in Nashville, or sometimes I bring writers on the road with me. This year has been packed with touring, but I’ve found little breaks to get a head start on the record. I’m hoping that everything falls into place for the new album in early to mid 2017. I can promise that there will be a new single after “Yeah Boy” that no one has heard yet that may give you a preview of what my new album is going to look like! I’m so excited.
Your songs are written from such a distinctive female perspective, it feels so refreshing as a female listener to hear myself represented in that way. Are there female country singers who inspired that same kind of feeling in you when you were coming up?
Growing up listening to the incredible talent of females like Bonnie Raitt, Dolly Parton, Shania Twain, Carrie Underwood, and Taylor Swift — to name a few — were and still today are such inspirational role models in all aspects of my growth as an artist. They’ve proved that they can each connect to people in a way that is unique and powerful to their own artistry, and I’ve always said I will always be a fan first, so I think that mindset has helped me learn and digest so much from such talented people like them in this genre.
As an artist about to start a headlining tour, what are your goals to make it a special experience for your fans? Lately, it seems like the trend of bringing out surprise guests onstage has become prevalent, who is the dream performer you’d like to surprise your fans with if anything was possible?
My main goal for this headlining tour is to put together a show all for my fans; old and new, and let it be an escape for people that come For us to create and celebrate in our own little world every night. We’re still in the planning process of the tour, but I do love a good surprise, so we’ll see how lucky I can get convincing someone to let me be a fan girl for a night!
“Peter Pan” is your latest No. 1, a song that directly calls out men who deal with the same old commitment/maturity card that so many women face when trying to find a lasting relationship. I think it’s resonating so much because literally every woman I know has been there. When you’re coping with your own heartbreak what artists or records do you turn to?
Some records that have always remained all-time favorites of mine that I turn to to help cope with things in my own personal life, or for inspiration are Kelly Clarkson’s Breakaway, John Mayer’s <emContinuum, Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black, Taylor Swift’s Fearless, and Keith Urban’s Love, Pain & The Whole Crazy Thing.
On the other end of the spectrum, “Yeah Boy” zeroes in on that initial spark of falling in love. How did you feel when you heard that Taylor Swift is a fan of the track?
She has been someone that I have admired in all aspects of her career since day one, and to hear that she even knew I existed, let alone driving around listening to my music, was one of the most surreal moments of my life. It really just reassured me to keep working hard to give people a reason to want to listen to my music! She’s a good friend now and someone I look up to so much.
Do you have a favorite moment or memory from going on tour with Rascal Flatts?
My favorite part of touring with Flatts was being able to watch them sing 75 minutes of #1 hits every night and watching them connect with the audience. It’s so inspiring and drives me to grow as an artist who can someday do the same. Plus, they arefunny.