"The last few years have been about digging into who I am as a young woman now," says the 26-year-old singer.

By Marcus Jones
March 18, 2020 at 10:15 AM EDT
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 14: Kelsea Ballerini visits Music Choice at Music Choice on February 14, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

The first time singer Kelsea Ballerini spoke to EW, shortly after she became the first female artist in nine years to have topped the Billboard Country Airplay chart, she shared a story of how a mentor had told her “Nashville is a pendulum. A guy artist will launch and be huge and a bunch of others will follow...and then one group will launch and it’ll knock the pendulum back over.” 

Five years later, Ballerini has four No. 1 hits under her belt, and has just achieved her highest Airplay debut with "Homecoming Queen?," the lead single off her upcoming album Kelsea. As she recently shared with EW, “I was lucky enough to be a part of the wave that knocked [the pendulum] back over." 

Ahead, the now 26-year-old artist reveals why her new project is her most vulnerable work yet, how her songwriting has changed, and what she’s doing to help the next generation of female Country artists.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your goal with this new album?

KELSEA BALLERINI: I've always been under the [notion that] every album represents the two years of your life that you spend making it.... For me, the last few years have been about digging into who I am as a young woman now, how I feel about myself, and the things I struggle with, the things I love, the things I've found a lot of joy in, the things that make me really anxious. That's what I ended up writing about because that's what I've been walking through and experiencing. So it's kind of like the get-to-know-myself album.

Your first EP was self-titled. Does releasing a record called Kelsea feel like a full-circle moment? 

That's interesting. I guess so. I actually haven't thought of that.... Having it just be called Kelsea is like you call your friends by their first name, and you call people that you know well, that you've had deep conversations with, by their first name. To me, that was what it represented. It's the record that puts us on a first-name basis. It's definitely a departure from the very beginning where that was my initial handshake to people.

Were there any new sounds you were going for while making the new album? 

Yeah. The first two albums, I found Jason Massey and Forest Glen Whitehead, who helped me come up with this really perfect blend of country music and then everything else that I grew up listening to that I love. It's always really walked that line of country but crossover. With this album, instead of keeping that streamlined sound, I really wanted to let the songs determine the production. You hear a lot more organic, real rooted country sounds on this album [and] you also hear a lot more boundary pushing, which is exciting for me. I had so much fun making those artistic decisions in the studio to, you know, put a banjo there, put a beat drop there, and let the song determine that.

Your last album had a big storytelling element throughout it. Does that come easily? Is figuring out the narrative of a song like “Homecoming Queen?” one of the first parts of songwriting for you?

Yeah, I think the first single from each album really represents a lot about what you're about to hear. Putting that song out as the first single was like opening the door to saying you guys resonated with "Miss Me More," which was coated in empowerment, but really was vulnerable, saying “I locked myself for two and a half years in a relationship and had to fight to get myself back.” That became the song that people really started connecting to on a deeper level, telling me stories of [it] getting them through big dark times in their life. I was like, “OK, so if that works like it did, I need to dig deeper.” So I started writing songs like "Homecoming Queen?," and  "Overshare," and "A Country Song," and "LA." And "Homecoming Queen?" felt like the perfect introduction to all of that chapter of music.

The Kelsea singles you’ve released show both your fun and more vulnerable sides. What are the next songs off the album that you’re excited for people to hear?

All of it matters so much to me. It's hard to pick anything. I think the first song and the last song of an album say a lot because I think the first song sets the tone for what you're about to hear, and the last song sets the tone for what you're going to hear next. And that’s for sure the case with this album. So I would say [“Overshare” and “LA”] are two of the most important songs as far as what they say.

Was your experience on NBC’s Songland influential at all in writing this album?

I think it was. With that song, ["Better Luck Next Time"] and the way it was received, it really made me realize that people want good music, and they don't necessarily identify [with] really strict genre lines as much as I always really worried about. 

Country radio continues to have a problem with its lack of female musician airplay. Do you feel like the streaming market gives you more leverage, showing female musicians have found a wider audience than just traditional country fans?

Yes and no. I think that the inequality is not just at country radio. I think that's definitely been where the conversation revolves. It's also showing up in playlists, so I think it's maybe a conversation that should be bigger than just radio. I do think that streaming in general allows the playlists to be more than a top 40. It allows people that don't have a record deal to share their music, it allows people to build an underground fan base, it allows people to put out songs that aren't 30-week singles. It allows people to have a lot more freedom with their music, which is really beautiful.

Does speaking out about the lack of women on country radio come more natural to you now?

I'm really aware of it, and it's interesting for me to talk about because I am one of the lucky women that gets played on the radio [and] put in playlisting and streaming. So I always try to talk about it from a place of being super gracious because I'm grateful that I have those opportunities. But it's also my responsibility as someone who's had success in radio and streaming to make sure that the next crop of women are taken care of and given the same opportunities that I was. I think the best thing that's come out of the conversation is the music that new women in country are making right now. You're seeing people like Tenille Townes, and people like Ingrid Andress, and people like Ashley McBryde, and they're so identifiable, and so unique, and so good because they have to be. If nothing else, we are getting some of the sharpest, most hard working, determined female artists that are coming out of the conversation. I think that's a win, and hopefully they keep getting opportunities like they're starting to get right now.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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