Kelsea Ballerini grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, as the daughter of a radio programmer at a country radio station, but she actually discovered the format through one of its most charismatic artists. Before that, she was fond of pop stars like Britney Spears and classic singers like Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra.
“I was writing country songs, but I wasn’t listening to country yet. I grew up on a farm in East Tennessee, so my roots are country, you know? But I didn’t know where those songs came from or where they fit,” she recalls. “Then I heard ’Stupid Boy’ one day and immediately I was like, ’What is this? Where did this come from?’ I went and got Keith Urban’s record, Dixie Chicks, Sugarland and Taylor Swift. And that’s what did me in. I thought, ’This is country music, and this is what I’m writing.’ I feel like I fit here.”
Now 21, Ballerini is gliding up the country charts with her debut single, “Love Me Like You Mean It.” This year, she also digitally released her self-titled debut EP and joined the ranks of CMT’s Next Women of Country. Leading up to the holiday season, Ballerini chatted with CMT.com about her musical aspirations, her attachment to social media and her secret to success.
Ballerini: Yeah! I grew up loving music, like, loving it. I was involved in church choir, leading worship and all the choirs in my school — even glee club. I always loved performing and music, but I didn’t want do it [as a career]. I wanted to be a vet. I really thought that’s what I wanted to do. It was a real job, and I could stay in Knoxville, you know what I mean?
When I was 13, I started writing songs, and it fell into my lap all of a sudden. I wrote poems and journals, but that’s when it switched for me to songwriting. That’s when I wanted to do everything. It was like a fire all of a sudden. I started coming to Nashville and moved here when I was 15.
What lit that fire? Was it a certain song or artist?
No, my parents split up, and it was the outlet that I needed. I found it right in that time. I started coping with life through that way and never stopped.
Music is perfect for that. Did you do this with guitar or keyboard?
No, when I first started writing songs, for the first two years, I didn’t pick up a guitar. So I would write the lyrics and I would sing the melody, but I didn’t have music to it. There was a lady named Beth Smith who I took voice lessons from, right when I started writing. … She was an incredible piano player, and she had Garage Band on her computer, which I thought was the coolest thing. You could record your voice! We’re in Knoxville, so there aren’t a lot of recording studios.
I said, “Hey, I wrote this song. Can you put music to it?” I sang her my song, she put piano to it and we recorded it. That’s what we did at every voice lesson from then on. It never was a voice lesson. Then I picked up the guitar at probably 14 or 15. I still have those demos. I sound like a little baby!
I think “The First Time” is a special song. It sounds like it flowed out of you. Is that the case?
Yeah. I started writing songs by myself. That always came from whatever I was feeling and being honest about that because I never had any intention of anyone ever hearing them. So that song on this EP is the truest to that. It talks about a girl sitting on her front porch waiting for a guy that doesn’t show up. And that’s what was happening in real time in my life. I was sitting there and had those lines in my head: “I should know better” … “Why am I still crying?” And I literally went upstairs and wrote the song. It’s definitely the most special song to me on the EP.
I know you are active on social media. How has that helped you with building your career?
It’s been great. The thing that’s been most important to me is being interactive with people that are listening to my music. For me, the coolest thing the last couple of days is that people who have never heard of me will find my EP and listen to it and say, “I love this song!” I’m able to say thank you to them or ask how it relates to them. I love having that conversation with someone I’ve never met before who’s enjoying something that I wrote and being able to connect and share that.
So when somebody writes to you and gets a reply, it’s actually from you.
Yeah. Oh, totally! Absolutely, yeah. It’s annoying to people because I am always on my phone. All the time. It’s joined at my hip.
You’re trying to get heard as a young woman in country music. Has that been challenging?
Well, I had this year of just being a signed songwriter. I was writing fulltime, all the time. I think that was the most crucial time in my whole life and career because it made me focus on finding a sound and finding people that help feed into that and find out what is different about me. … I had to learn that lesson of, “OK, there are a lot of girls in town. How do I make myself different?” Really, it’s stepping back and asking, “Who am I? What do I want to say, and how do I want to say it?”
I had read that one of the labels in town had a meeting with you and quickly decided you were too much like somebody else.
Yeah, actually the first trip to Nashville I ever took, I was 14. I was working with a guy who was from Nashville but lived in Knoxville. It was when a lot of young females were launching, and he promised me, “You’re going to walk out of this with a record deal. You’re going to do this.” So we had two record label meetings set up that day. I walk in, and I’m awkward. You know, you’re always awkward at 14. I had this big, pink, sparkly guitar case that was bigger than me.
I’m singing in this big office to the CEO of a record label. I could barely play the guitar. He looked at me and goes, “You know, there’s already a [blank] and it broke my heart. I canceled my second label meeting and went home because I didn’t want it yet. But it ended up being a fire for me and a lesson I was glad I learned early on. You really do have to be different. You really do have to set yourself apart.