Kelsea Ballerini Talks new album and choosing the best songs to describe the last two years.
Kelsea Ballerini’s debut album, The First Time, spawned three No. 1 consecutive singles – “Love Me Like You Mean It,” “Dibs,” and “Peter Pan” -- making her the first female artist to accomplish the feat since Wynonna Judd, in 1992. It also earned her a GRAMMY nomination and an initiation into CMT’s Next Women of Country club. Two years after the release, she performed across the globe, graced the Grand Ole Opry stage, and headlined her first tour. When the promo run ended and it was time to start thinking about album number two, the country songstress found herself a bit intimidated.
I couldn’t even write for six months because I was like “I don’t know where to start,” she tells GRAMMY Pro. When the dust settled and the singer/songwriter began to force herself back into the groove “I was like, ‘Dude, fear sucks. Write a bad song. Who cares? You have to write a bad song to get a good one,’” Ballerini revealed. To bring out her evolving style, the 23-year-old teamed up with several of her songwriting idols to collaborate with, including Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne. She also rounded up her favorite Nashville hitmakers and took them on weekend writing retreats. By the end of her songwriting journey, Ballerini went from having writer’s block to having drafted a pool of 200 potential songs for the new album.
GRAMMY Pro caught up with Ballerini to discuss what she learned about herself as an artist from her first few years of touring, the secret to writing a killer sophomore album, and how the key to having a successful writer’s retreat is to go into the weekend with a plan.
You recently released your new single “Legends.” How did that song come about?
I wrote “Legends” almost 2 years ago. It was when I was first starting to write for this next record. I was going through a breakup at the time and I had written so many songs about the sadness, bitterness and anger you go through when you experience a breakup. I really wanted to write a song about that moment where you look back on it and are like, “you know what? I’m going to choose to look back on the good parts. I chose to love what we had and really let it go.” I feel like when you accept that is when you can move on. “Legends” was me being like, “I’m going to choose to look back fondly on this.”
How is album #2 coming along?
It’s great. I’m so excited!
You had such amazing success with your debut album. Did you feel any pressure to outdo yourself with the follow up?
I did feel pressure. I wrote and recorded a lot of my first album before I even had a record deal so we didn’t even really know that we were making an album. The second record is really the first full intentional album that I’ve made. I’ve known since the beginning of the writing process “you’re writing for your sophomore record,” whereas the first one I didn’t know that. I think it’s definitely more challenging but it’s also way more thoughtful. This album is really thought through, which has been really fun and creative to be able to put together.
Do you have to do anything to push the “I’m writing for my actual album” mentality out of your mind?
Totally. I couldn’t even write for 6 months because I was like “I don’t know where to start.” You sing your first record over and over again for 3 years and those are songs that I wrote when I was 19. I’m 23 now and “who am I now? What do I sound like now?” I think it took me 6 months of being really scared to figure out that voice. I was like, “dude fear sucks. Write a bad song. Who cares? It’s ok. You have to write a bad one to get a good one.” I just let myself write and I ended up writing over 200 songs for this record.
What did you do differently in the studio this time around?
I think it was really important for me to just write. I wrote twice a day, three times a day sometimes if I was in Nashville. I did a couple of different writing retreats where I would bring out my favorite writers and we would write all day everyday for 3 or 4 days. I think in doing that, you kind of write to what you want to say. I wrote over 200 songs so a lot of them are not great and definitely not exactly where I wanted them to be but it got me into the heartbeat of the next record.
The hardest part about making this next record was time; I didn’t have a lot of it. I’ve been touring non-stop so it was hard to find the time to be home and just have a day to just write and not have somewhere to go. I think having those writing retreats was the only time that I could just focus on songwriting. We did one right before the cutoff of the album and 2 of the songs that we wrote on that are on the record.
What are your tips for making writing retreats successful?
I think what helped me is I wrote until I found a couple of core songs. My core songs for this next record were “Legends,” “Graveyard,” and “Unapologetically.” Those were the 3 that as soon as I wrote them, I was like, “OK this are your pillars. This is your cornerstone.” So I would go into write and I would play these songs and I would say, “OK this is where this record is going. This is the overall heartbeat and vibe and sound of it” -- just so we could all get in the same headspace. That’s what we did on the last record too. We wrote “Love Me Like You Mean It” and “Peter Pan” within months of each other. And I played those two songs in every writing session that I went into and I was like, “This is what my record. This is what we’re building out from.”
You co-wrote “Legends” with Forest Glen Whitehead. Was it fun to return to the studio together?
Forest is my musical partner. We’ve written 100 songs together. He helps me find my place as a songwriter. He co-produced my first record and co-produced this one. He is just very hands-on with my records. We wrote “Legends” with Hillary Lindsey and she is the reason that I’m a songwriter. I remember being absolutely obsessed with her. This was our first co-write, which is really really special.
What are some of the things that you learned from working with her?
With the first record, I couldn’t get in the room with a hit songwriter to save my life. My first album was me and my friends who hadn’t had any success. The second record, I wanted to keep that but also add in some outside voices to try and hear what they brought. I have songs with Shane McAnally, Ross Copperman, Josh Osborne and Luke Laird.
They brought out something in me where they would say one thing and then let me ramble off a bunch of crazy stuff and then help me sort through it and then let me ramble off. I feel like the best kind of songwriters are the ones that will inspire you and then just let you go.
You’ve described your new music as bolder and a lot darker. Was that a natural evolution?
I feel like listening to my first record, it was kind of like me becoming an adult. In doing that, you have a lot to cover within 12 tracks. I didn’t really allow myself to get too deep because I wanted to talk about being young and being insecure and having my first crush and having my first heartbreak. Covering all of that within 12 tracks, you don’t really get super in-depth. With this record, having already introduced myself to people who have heard the first one, I’m able to talk more about me and life and what’s happened. Even as a songwriter, I’ve been challenging myself to talk about things that I’m feeling. It’s been fun to get a little more in-depth with emotions and life.
How would you describe this new stuff stylistically?
It’s still very country pop. Production wise, it’s very similar to the first one. We love walking that line. Jason Massey who is co-producing this record -- he did the first one as well -- is from Los Angeles and Forest is from Louisiana. They have this amazing roots country banjo heavy sound with 808 synth beat drops when they come together. It’s a cool thing that they do.
You wrote 200 songs for the album. What was the process of distilling that down to the final album tracks like?
I think you have to figure out what you want the album to be. The first one I wanted it to be an introduction. This one, I wanted it to be a chronological introduction of the last 2 years. Once I decided that’s what I wanted it to be, I asked myself, “What are your 4 best breakup songs that you feel really tell the story?” And then it goes into growing up and it’s like “OK what are your favorite life songs that you feel tell exactly where you are at right now?” And then it goes into love and it talks about falling in love and getting engaged and all that. I literally went through all my songs and I picked the best songs of each. We’ll do a deluxe so that will give life to a few more songs.
I love to be a songwriter too so I’m open to giving the songs to other people or getting in the room with other people and writing for their project. I’m so into that, especially now that I’m done with my album!
You were all over the map the last few years touring in support of your debut. What did you learn while out on the road?
I think just how to entertain people. I had never put on a live show until I put out my first single. Opening for Lady Antebellum, Rascal Flatts, and Thomas Rhett, who have been touring for years, taught me how to put together a show and interact with the crowd and my fans.
You also headlined your first tour.
Putting together a 75-minute show when I had 3 singles out was very intimidating. However, when I actually did it, headlining was the most rewarding thing I’ve gotten to do so far. When you’re on big tours, like right now with Lady Antebellum, the majority of the crowd knows my 4 singles on the radio but they don’t know my record. You kind of forget that your record had a life. But headlining, those people know every word to every album cut. They know the songs that you put on YouTube 5 years ago; they give life to your whole album. It’s really rewarding to know that every word mattered. For me, there are 2 things that no matter how big or small the venue, I always want to have at my show. That’s a really big hype entrance and a really stripped down vulnerable acoustic moment because growing up and going to shows, those were always the moments that I felt the most – the moment before the artist goes on stage and everyone sits on the edge of their chair and that moment where there is a giant sing-along and so much heart to it. I think building those two moments were the most important to me.
What’s next on the agenda?
The album comes out November 3, So I’m very excited about it!