Nashville’s brightest young singer had to endure some personal hell to make her triumphant new LP

By Madison Vain
October 31, 2017 at 09:15 AM EDT
Credit: Ben Ritter for EW

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Country music is a notoriously male-dominated industry, but one woman makes conquering it look easy: Kelsea Ballerini. The first three singles from the Tennessee native’s sparkling 2015 debut, The First Time, went to No. 1 on Billboard’s country airplay chart, a historic feat for a female performer. That album also earned her a Best New Artist nomination at the 2017 Grammys and crowned her the heir apparent to the country-pop throne previously occupied by Shania Twain and Taylor Swift. Over some very strong cocktails at Mother of Pearl in Manhattan’s East Village, the newly minted superstar, 24, dishes on her second album, Unapologetically (out Nov. 3), taking shots with Shania, and her master plan to sell out arenas.

Credit: Ben Ritter for EW

Round 1: Dressed Can (Austin Eastciders Pineapple Cider, cinnamon, absinthe, lime, rum)

Entertainment Weekly: Well, first of all, cheers!
Kelsea Ballerini: I need a cheers! I’ve never had a No.1 [country] song on iTunes, and it just happened in the car on the way here.

But you have had a record-breaking string of No. 1 singles elsewhere.
When I came out, there was this huge conversation about how it’s hard for women [in country music]. Plus, I’m on an independent label, so the combination made me a super underdog. But I didn’t know that at the time, I was so naive. I was just hoping for the best. Then [Ballerini’s debut single] “Love Me Like You Mean It” started working, and it was like a firecracker.

That led you to joining massive artists such as Lady Antebellum on tour and singing at the Grammys.
That’s what you want, but you also become very lonely. And when you’re in a bad relationship, that gets amplified and magnified. There’s this sadness with it that no one really talks about, and that I never showed, because I was so grateful to be doing it.

Was it hard on your friends from home when your career took off?
Yeah, you lose a lot [of people]. But then I have, like, seven super-close friends that I don’t work with, and they don’t care at all. One’s a nurse, one’s a vet.

You’ve mad some new friends, too. Taylor Swift gave you an early career boost when she tweeted about loving your music.
Taylor, Lady Antebellum, Nick Jonas — there have been a couple of artists that posted about my stuff or performed with me really early on, and it made such a big difference. It really is such a big part of my story. I’m aware that my platform isn’t as big, but if I hear music that I love from a new artist, especially in country music, I post about it.

Who’s the most surprising person you’ve seen at one of your shows?
Shania came to a show, and she took a shot with me before the show, too! [Laughs] It’s the craziest thing that people I studied, like Shania or Taylor, have turned around and reached out to me. Sometimes it feels like, “Am I alone?” And then you have people like that turn around and say, “You’re not.”

Credit: Ben Ritter for EW

Round 2: Taste the Rainbow (Kiwi, watermelon, pineapple, banana cognac, lemon, lime, pisco, overproof rum)

[Takes a sip of her drink] Whoo! Wow! This is about to be the most personal interview ever.

Unapologetically sums up the past three years of your life. It covers a major breakup, being single, your career taking off, and then finding love again with country singer Morgan Evans, whom you’re marrying later this year.
For real, it’s crazy.

What’s it like to listen to the first half of the album, where there’s a lot of hurt and anger on songs like “Miss Me More” and “Get Over Yourself”?
It was a tough period, for sure. But I don’t think I’d be in my relationship now if it weren’t for that. It sounds cliché, but I really do think that. I felt like crap when I was writing it, but now when I sing it, I know that I had to feel that emotion to feel the depth of love that I feel now.

What was the biggest challenge with this album?
For a long time I tried to go back to “Okay, how did I make the first one? Where did I write it? Where did I record it?” And eventually I was like, “Stop trying to be your 19-year-old self!” It took me a minute to figure that out.

There’s a song in the middle of the record called “In Between” that talks about leaving youth and entering adulthood.
That was the last song we wrote for the album. When I listened to the original 12 songs, I realized that I had written a lot about the two guys that had defined my last three years, but I hadn’t written a lot about myself — and I was the constant in all of it. That song was for me.

Credit: Ben Ritter for EW

Round 3: Shark Eye (Passion fruit, lemon, maraschino, dry curaçao, bourbon, rye, tiki bitters)

Did you expect that you would end up with someone in the industry?
We both always said we would never be with an artist. And then we were like, “What?! You’re my person?” But the biggest thing is that we have such a huge respect for the other person as an artist. I’m not fully happy if I’m not doing music and working, and he’s not either.

Where do you see the most growth on this LP?
When I made my first album, I had never done a full-band show. The only way I knew how to sing was with my guitar at open-mic night. So even getting in the studio was something so new to me. Now I’ve toured the last three years and been in the studio a ton, and my voice is different.

Your circle of collaborators has also expanded: You worked with powerhouse songwriters like Shane McAnally (Kacey Musgraves, Sam Hunt) and Hillary Lindsey (Little Big Town, Lady Gaga).
I used to get copies of their demos that were being pitched around town to Carrie Underwood and Luke Bryan, because I wanted to know what they were writing. I wanted to know what the bar was. They made me a better writer.

You interact with your fans a lot, especially on social media. What’s been your favorite fan experience so far?
I was on tour with Lady Antebellum, and there were these two really young twins, who were both developmentally disabled, and they came up. They were so sweet and both cried. When they walked away, their dad was like, “I can’t imagine what your life’s like, but I want you to know that the only time they’re ever completely calm is when they’re listening to your music.” I had to shut down my meet-and-greet because I was weeping.

When you think about people you’ve mentioned — Lady Antebellum, Taylor Swift, Shania Twain — are their careers the kind you want for yourself?
When I signed my record deal, they were like, “What’s your goal?” I said, “I want to come up on a hydraulic lift!” And it sounds so silly, but an arena tour, that’s my goal. I used to study tour videos that people would give me. The lights, the videos, the production, the set list — you get to create a world for people to step into for two hours. That is the most sacred thing.