Breakout Star: Kelsea Ballerini Is Taste of Country’s 2015 Artist of the Year
In a sparkling gold minidress, Kelsea Ballerini strutted the stage in front of 20,000 screaming fans at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena, belting out her chart-topping debut single "Love Me Like You Mean It." Beside her stood her friend, idol and benefactor Taylor Swift, who'd welcomed Ballerini to the 1989 World Tour stage with an affectionate embrace.
"It was amazing. It was so full!" Ballerini remembers. "[Taylor] sent me a letter and a picture saying ‘thank you,' and I looked at the picture and I'm like, 'I cannot believe that even happened. I need to put this away right now'."
Swift handpicked the 22-year-old — whose biggest live performances to that point had been brief TV awards show appearances — to join her for the first of two sold-out nights in Music City, in a moment that would go viral and significantly increase Ballerini's celebrity wattage. It was the high point of one of the most spectacular breakthrough years for a female country music artist.
Only a year ago, Ballerini was a largely unknown artist signed to independent label and music publisher Black River Entertainment. "I was going to every country music station, saying, 'Hi, I'm Kelsea, I have this song called 'Love Me Like You Mean It,'" she recalls. Radio tours are an essential step in breaking new artists, but it's a highly competitive environment, especially in recent years. Even established female artists have struggled to gain traction, let alone a young female upstart repped by a small indie label that hadn't yet demonstrated the ability to promote a career-making record for an artist.
"I knew the odds were not at all in my favor," Ballerini admits, settling back on a leather sofa in front of a glowing fireplace at Black River's offices in Nashville. She wanted to be realistic about her chances of success in radio, which had been dominated for three years by male artists.
"When you look at it a year ago, Top 30 was probably a good showing for a debut female," says Fletcher Foster, Ballerini's manager. "There wasn't much that you could compare yourself to that was much better than that."
But then lightning struck.
Released in September 2014, "Love Me Like You Mean It" grew legs in a way that country radio hadn't seen from a young female artist in nearly a decade, mushrooming over the course of a 37-week run to capture the No. 1 spot on Billboard's Country Airplay chart. (The last female artist to hit No. 1 with a debut single was Carrie Underwood in 2006.) The song anchored The First Time, her May studio debut released by Black River Entertainment, which bowed at No. 4 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart.
"My personal goal was [a single in the] Top 30, because in my head that meant it was played on most stations, most people have heard it once, and that's a good introduction," Ballerini says. "It was embraced way bigger than my original goal, which taught me to dream bigger!"
The runaway success of the song is attributable to a few factors: Ballerini's songwriting is infectious; "Love Me Like You Mean It" adeptly blends country instrumentation, pop beats and rapid-fire hip-hop cadences. A song with hooks like that filled the hole created when Taylor Swift fully pivoted to Top 40 with her latest album 1989. According to Billboard Senior Editor Alex Gale, female country artists, most notably Ballerini, have benefitted from Swift's absence on the country scene, especially as "bro-country" — with its core themes of trucks, partying and young, scantily clad women — has taken over the airwaves. "Obviously, there are millions of female country fans out there, and even if you're a male country fan, no one only wants to hear guys singing all the time, bro-country or not," Gale says. "Kelsea absolutely has a lot of pop in there, and I think she, as a star, is a very approachable… She's very unguarded, and ["Love Me Like You Mean It"] fits that in some ways."
Swift's influence was more direct than simply not being around anymore, however.
"She found my EP before anyone did," Ballerini says. "It was crazy. She found it and tweeted about it, and I wrote her a letter just about how much she had inspired me, and I had actually just gotten the masters for my record that day, and I burned her a CD of the masters for my album and wrote her a letter and just told her thank you, and we became friends after that."
From there, Swift welcomed Ballerini into her much publicized squad of friends, offering support and career advice, including one key piece of wisdom about public image.
"I was trying to figure out how to present myself, and I was trying really hard to be very polished, give the perfect answer and use my media training and all that stuff, and that's just not who I am. I'm 22 years old," Ballerini says with a customary laugh. "I'm not like that. She told me, 'It's going to feel like too-cool-for-school wins sometimes. Just know that in the long run, being warm and human and you is going to win. It might take longer and it might not seem recognized sometimes, but that's what's going to win.' That's always in the back of my head when I say something stupid or whatever. I'm like, 'I'm just gonna be me.'"
Being herself has paid off in spades. Beyond the astounding sales, Ballerini received glowing reviews from industry giants Billboard and Rolling Stone, and she was highlighted by People as "One to Watch." She presented at the American Music Awards, where she was also nominated for Favorite Female Artist, and announced the Country Music Awards nominations with Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler. Ballerini debuted on the Grand Ole Opry, and was named one of CMT's Next Women of Country. She also performed at Billboard's Women in Music event in December, where she received the Rising Star award.
"She's a good person, and I think that comes off when she meets radio, and when she meets the fans," says Mike Wilson, VP of Radio Promotion at Black River. "She has a great time meeting fans. She always will stop and take the extra few minutes. People want pictures, and she's the queen of the selfie. She kind of takes over and she has fun with it. She's like that with radio and fans, everywhere she goes. It's refreshing to see that. Some artists want do to what they need to do and move on, and Kelsea's always ready to go that extra mile with the fans or whomever."
In retrospect, perhaps Ballerini's current status as one of the most important young women in country music was inevitable.
"I had this conviction when I was 14 years old that I was going to be a country music artist," Ballerini says. "That's all I really wanted to do, and I didn't really care to do the normal type of stuff. I was very dead set on doing this."
To understand the diversity of Ballerini's music, you have to go back to her childhood on a farm near Knoxville, where she grew up listening to rap, pop and country. Her first concert was Britney Spears. She displayed an early penchant for musical performance — she once snatched the mic out of someone's hand at age 6 during a karaoke performance on a cruise ship to sing "Amazing Grace" — but didn't get serious about writing her own songs until her parents divorced when she was 13.
"I remember I was talking to my mom, I couldn't go to sleep, and I was just a mess," Ballerini says. "I went upstairs, and I wrote this song called 'Bring on the Rain.' I didn't know Jo Dee Messina had that song yet, but that's fine," she laughs, throwing back her head and letting out a howl like no one is watching. "Oops! But I wrote it in like 10 minutes, and I came back down, and before I wrote that song I was just in this dark, broken spot, and when I had written the song, I was fine. And for me, that's when I was like, 'I feel like this is just a gift that I've been given, and that I just want to treat it with the most care I can, and put it in the right place.'"
She nurtured her talent in classic country style, via a series of performances in church and at school functions, all the while developing both her singing and songwriting. Ballerini would write lyrics and melodies, sing them into GarageBand and then take them to a friend who would add piano parts. Once she learned guitar, she was able to write on her own, and she and her mother began to make the monthly trek to Nashville, where young Kelsea would play her rough songs for industry insiders.
"I would sit there and clunk on my guitar that I could not even play and sing these songs that were terrible at the time, and people were telling us, 'If you really want to do this, come to Nashville and do it every day,'" she recalls. "It wasn't just a hobby; it was something that I was very, very serious about, and I think [my mother] saw that."
Her unusual ambition and drive made her "stick out like a sore thumb" among the other kids. "But I believe it's a blessing to know what you're good at, what you want to do and what you're passionate about young, because then you have your whole life to pursue it."
She recounts one of her early meetings with a high-powered executive in Nashville, when she was just 14 years old. "I remember him telling me, 'Kelsea, Nashville works like a pendulum. One male will launch and be a phenomenon, and a bunch of males will launch after him, and it'll be easier for them. Then a group will launch, and a bunch of groups will launch. You just need to wait until a new female launches, and then it's gonna be easier for you,'" she says. "In my 14-year-old head I thought, 'Nope, I'm gonna be the female. I want to be that female that knocks it back over.'"
So, by age 15, Ballerini convinced her mother to move with her to Nashville, allowing her to pursue her goals in earnest. She began to watch country video channels religiously, pinpointing the top writers, directors and producers in the business.
"She just sparkled," says her manager Fletcher Foster of seeing her live for the first time. "I was just blown away, not only by how she reacted onstage, but after that, just the one-on-one reaction that she had with the fans, and particularly the girls that would come up there and want to talk to her, want to engage with her. It was just magical, and that's when I knew I was in."
A contract with Black River came when Ballerini was 19 and had already developed a catalog of 230 songs. She spent the following year studying the finer points of songcraft by working with other writers. That didn't result in a cut from another artist, but it did result in her getting signed as an artist. She was part of the writing process for all of the songs on her debut album The First Time, in a career arc that is, not surprisingly, reminiscent of Swift and perfectly timed with a groundswell of female-led success.
"To be a part of this wave with Cam and Maddie & Tae and Mickey Guyton, I feel like we're that pendulum, and I feel like we're this class of girls that are knocking that pendulum back over," Ballerini says. "And there's so many new artists that are about to launch next year that are so incredible, like Maren Morris. We just get to be new females together. It's something I'm so proud of."
Billboard's Alex Gale thinks it's important that today's new crop of female artists stands toe-to-toe with male artists. "They're not only providing a female perspective, but in some ways they're challenging the male perspective. Women are really leading the charge and really breaking down the boundaries or so-called rules that you couldn't break at country radio. They're breaking them and succeeding."
"I literally work all the time right now, for now," Ballerini says. "I have a dog, and I have an apartment, and I have a best friend, and my best friend and my dog go on the road with me, so that's exciting. But I really work all the time right now. I have some time off in December, so I don't know. Just hanging out — being in town is my favorite thing ever. I love being in Nashville. I feel like I get a new wave of creativity every time I come home. But I'm 22: I'm young and I'm down to work right now."
While Ballerini is grateful for the career-launching year she's had in 2015, she's already looking forward to 2016. The singer-songwriter makes a list of goals each year, and her current list included being invited to be a part of the CRS New Faces of Country Music showcase, which has been confirmed. Her goals for the coming year include landing a cut as a songwriter for another artist, arena touring — which she calls "my shiny dream" — and working on her sophomore album, which she and her team do not anticipate releasing until 2017.
She intends to mostly keep the same team of writers and producers intact for the upcoming project.
"I've gotten the chance to get in the room with some really brilliant writers that I've wanted to write with for years, that I think will definitely be on the record, but I also have my little group that wrote with me when no one else would, and I'm really proud of the stuff that we write together still, so I think it'll be a little bit more half-and-half," she says. "And I want to write more songs by myself on the next album, because I want people to know that I'm a songwriter."
She's also dreaming of collaborations with some familiar names on the forthcoming album.
"I hope to write with Gavin DeGraw and Taylor Swift — I want both of them on my album," Ballerini says. "I wouldn't hate my life [if that happened]. We'll see. I'm a fan of both of them. I just want to be in the room and hang out."
Billboard's Gale sees a bright future for Ballerini. "I think her next album is really going to be a key breakthrough moment for her, with this history and the momentum that she has. It's probably one of those things where you're going to see the built-up momentum, and she's probably going to capitalize on it with the next album," he explains. "I think people are ready for it, and she keeps coming with these songs. I think she's established what her sound is, and she can keep feeding her fans and growing her fanbase."
After all of her success this year, in addition to the promising future that shimmers on the horizon, Ballerini seems determined to remain the same genuine person that she has been up until this point.
"I really want the same person that people see onstage to be the same person that goes out to dinner in Nashville, or the same person that grocery shops, or takes pictures with my dog at home. I just want there to be a consistency and realness there," she says.
"Before we even started everything, I went and got a tattoo, and posted a picture with a glass of wine, because I was like, 'I need people right now, up front, to know that I try to be a good person and I love Jesus, but I have a tattoo and I drink wine,'" she adds. "I just need that to be out there, because I don't want to disappoint anyone," she states. "It's really important for me to be real, consistently, as a person, an artist and a songwriter."
In the end, that genuine quality is inseparable from Ballerini's overall appeal.
"I want to be a good person first and a good artist second, and I think everyone on the team has that same mentality," she says. "And I think that when you operate as a unit and you have that mindset of treating people well first and then making good music second, you're going to find some kind of success, whether it's how you picture it or not. I think there's no way that can't be successful."