Of all the Nashville artists who released albums during the pandemic, few got as raw of a deal as Kelsea Ballerini. Her third record, Kelsea, dropped March 20th, right as the uncertainty and rightful fear of Covid-19 was taking hold across the country. Music was the last thing on anyone’s mind.
Still, Kelsea arrived as her best album debut yet on the strength of the single “Homecoming Queen?”, an introspective, self-aware ballad about letting down your guard and showing your true self. The project lost steam soon after release, however, sending the 27-year-old singer into a funk.
“We put it out just at the most unfortunate time,” she says. “I still felt like people wanted music and needed music to feel connected and comforted, but at the same time, I was so scared to take up any space with anything other than what was going on in the world.” Hesitantly, she tried to bury the memory of Kelsea and all it represented. “I had to grieve that almost like a loss. And I got to a place where I was like, ‘I’m just going to make a new record.’ So I started writing.”
But when Ballerini played the material for her manager, Jason Owen, who also oversees the careers of Kacey Musgraves and Dan + Shay, he suggested she reconsider her feelings about Kelsea instead. “He said, ‘Can you please do me a favor and try to find a way to fall back in love with this album?’” Ballerini recalls. “So, we had the idea to scrap the whole thing, except for the heart of every song, and rebuild it.”
Like the character in “Homecoming Queen?”, Ballerini let her guard down, revisiting the 13 songs on Kelsea with the intention of stripping away what she calls “the glitter and production” — the makeup that can often mask the intricacy and cleverness of her lyrics. What emerged was Ballerini, at once a companion piece and a counterpoint to Kelsea, surprise-released in September.
On Ballerini, songs like “Club,” originally a propulsive pop-country jam, becomes a mournful piano ballad. The message of disillusionment with the superficial nightlife remains the same as in the original, but it’s more pronounced here. Ballerini is dejected, isolated in a room full of people, and already lamenting the morning after: “I don’t want to wake up on the floor of the bathroom/looking at the stamps on my hand like a tattoo.”
“LA,” Ballerini’s rumination on fame and the celebrity hierarchy, stays similar to what’s on Kelsea, with perhaps a few more clouds of self-doubt over the California sun. “I don’t think I’ll ever fully settle into being any level of a public person,” she says. “In Nashville, I’m like a goldfish in a pond, but in L.A., I’m a minnow in an ocean. I never know where I fit.” (Despite fantasizing about letting her hair down in the Pacific in “LA,” she has no intentions of ever moving west. “L.A. would eat me alive,” she says.)
The Tennessee native says the most challenging song to revisit for Ballerini was “Hole in the Bottle,” her current single. “It is so particular,” she says of the original, with its programmed handclaps and stuttering drums. On Ballerini, the vocals remain country, but the arrangement is more back-porch, emphasizing string instruments and saloon background vocals. Her Ballerini-styled performance of the song for September’s ACM Awards was a highlight of the broadcast and proved that while she may pursue crossover success and duet with pop stars like Halsey, her roots are deep in country soil.
Now seven months since Kelsea was released, Ballerini appears if not reborn, then at least more self-assured. She’s become the artist she never knew she wanted to be.
“I keep calling it my pivot point,” she says of the Ballerini project. “So many people in the industry have said, ‘I like this version better.’ And it’s giving me this new confidence going into whatever is next. I can break out of this country-pop sound a little bit more and strip it back or I can do both. There’s space for both, and there’s got to be acceptance for both.”
Ballerini has been writing again, but there’s no concrete plans for another album. She’s re-focused on the record she nearly walked away from — and returns to what her manager Owen advised her. “He said, ‘On a personal level, you’re going to regret leaving this behind,’” Ballerini recalls. “So just take a beat and breathe.”