Age: 21 | Occupation: Singer-songwriter
Credit: Brad Lovell

When Kelsea Ballerini’s single, “Love Me Like You Mean It,” topped the Billboard country charts last month, she became the genre’s first woman in nine years to have a debut tune hit No. 1—and just the 11th female ever. It’s not hard to see why she’s scored. On her killer pop-country album, The First Time, the Tennessee native spins dear-diary lyrics into bright sing-alongs—a result, she says, of her love for another genre. “Rap has the most clever phrases, little four-word lines,” she says. “My favorite thing to do is find tricks like that.”

Another element to her rise: Taylor Swift—who abdicated her country throne for pop megastardom this year—endorsed the singer early on, sharing with her 60 million Twitter followers in March that Ballerini is “SO lovely.” And while that accolade is, well, lovely, Ballerini is proudest of how her success has proved naysayers wrong. (In May, a prominent consultant advised radio stations to cut back on female tunes to boost ratings, starting a controversy in Nashville dubbed #Saladgate.) “I’m thrilled that’s part of it,” she says. “The celebration’s that much bigger.”

EW caught up with their latest Breaking Big to discuss everything from finding her voice to the presence, or lack thereof, of women on country radio, her favorite songwriting tricks to what tunes she’s got on heavy rotation. Highlights from an insightful conversation, below.

On finding out “Love Me Like You Mean It” had hit no.1: I knew it was either going to hit no.1 or stay at no.2—I was hopeful but I also didn’t want to get my hopes up because no.1 is such a big deal. So it was the Sunday that the chart comes out and we had a label call scheduled for 2 o’clock so we had the video camera going just in case and sure enough, they were like, ‘Kelsea, you have the number 1 song in country music!’ And I just bawled. I think even the part of me that was hopeful…just hearing those words is an incredible feeling. I don’t even think its fully sunk in yet. There are these moments when I talk to people and hearing stuff about how Carrie was the last debut female to hit no.1 nine years ago that makes me stop and think, ‘Holy crap, what did we just do’ [laughs].”

On becoming the face of the #Saladgate conversation: “I welcome it but I never meant for it to be that way. We released a song when we thought the music was ready. We did a 21-week radio tour and we really worked hard, but I never meant to have the song be the poster child for women in country music right now. But I’m thrilled that’s a part of it.”

On finding her voice: “People have told me to not do this since I moved to town at 15 years old. They’re like, ‘especially being a female’—oh my goodness!’ And you know, I moved to Nashville at a time when every young blonde was moving to Nashville and no one cared. It was perfect though because it made me stop and realize that I couldn’t be what everyone else was trying to be or be the artist that everyone was trying to mimic. I had to figure out who I was, and I think that was a very valuable lesson.”

On her setting her eyes on the prize: I do remember one specific instance where, I must have been 15, I had just moved to town, and I had this mentor who was a very big player in Nashville. I sat in his office and he said, ‘Kelsea, it works like this: Nashville is a pendulum. A guy artist will launch and be huge and a bunch of others will follow because then it’s easier for guys. And then one group will launch and it’ll knock the pendulum back over.’ And he said, ‘Kelsea, you just need to wait until a female launches, then it’s going to be easier for you.’ And I remember my 15-year-old brain thinking ‘Absolutely not, I want to be the one to knock the pendulum back over.’ This has been my goal, ever since he said that.”

A version of this article appeared in issue #1373 of Entertainment Weekly, on stands July 17.