Kelsea Ballerini Chronicles Heartbreak and Love on ‘Unapologetically’: Interview
Two years removed from the infamous Tomatogate debacle, when a country radio consultant claimed women were the tomatoes on radio’s proverbial salad (men are supposedly the lettuce), Kelsea Ballerini came out swinging. Her deliciously-bouncy debut single, “Love Me Like You Mean It,” climbed to the summit, shattered the glass ceiling and setting off a flurry of think pieces, declaring the female drought to finally be over.
Two years later and things haven’t changed much, except Ballerini’s star shines brighter than ever. With three other hits to her credit, including the sweeping gem “Peter Pan,” the star drops her second studio effort, the aptly-titled Unapologetically—an electrifying and bold collection of lusciously pop-produced stories detailing the past three years of her life. From beginning to end, the record, jump started with opener “Graveyard”—on which she laments feeling buried six-feet under the emotional decay of a relationship—strings together tales of heartbreak, fury ("Get Over Yourself"), acceptance ("Roses"), strength ("In Between"), vulnerability ("End of the World") and finding her soulmate ("Legends").
Today Ballerini commands attention unlike ever before, stepping out of Taylor Swift’s shadow and situating herself as today’s pop-country queen. “Miss Me More” tumbles from her fingertips on onto her guitar, clever wordplay abounding as she exudes a fearsome bite. Meanwhile, "I Hate Love Songs" is a slinky waltz akin to Little Big Town's "Girl Crush" and finds the starlet unfurling things she loathes, like [Ryan] Gosling, Shakespeare and "cakes with white frosting, names in a heart-shaped tattoo." Frankly, she thinks "Cupid is stupid" (gurl, same), and she doesn't hold back expressing exactly what is boiling just below the surface. She also reflects on "High School" and the power of a budding relationship, which bestows the same kind of thrill "Music" does.
Unapologetically reads as strong a statement as she could make, wielding smarter songwriting and more fearless production choices—hat-tip to producers Jason Massey and Forest Glen Whitehead, who both worked her debut, The First Time—than most of her contemporaries. She turns things up to 10, reclaiming her womanly independence and taking the male ego to task, cutting open stereotypes and wringing her hands of all of it. Rather than defining her own self-worth on a man, and depending on him to save her from herself, she allows time to grieve, to pick up the pieces herself and to move on. Ballerini is here: Hear her roar.
Below, the singer chats about writing with pop titan Leland (Troye Sivan, Daya) on the album's clearly-destined second single, continuing to walk the pop/country line so dexterously and her progressive nature.
How did you get linked up with Leland, who co-wrote "Miss Me More," along with David Hodges?
I followed him on Twitter, because I’m obsessed with Troye Sivan, and he wrote a lot of that record [Blue Neighbourhood]. I was out in LA and had a morning off. I messaged him, “Hey, my name’s Kelsea. I’m a country singer, and I love you and what you’ve written with Troye and Daya. I was wondering if you could write today?” And he could. It was this perfect storm.
How did “Miss Me More” exactly come together?
I had had the hook for a long time. It was my first time writing out in LA, and Leland is such a good pop writer. We wrote with David, as well. I was like, “I have this hook of like ‘I thought I’d miss you but I miss me more.’" And we all went to the sassiest version of ourselves and wrote it. It was so much fun.
Did you have relationship where you lost yourself in it?
Oh, yes. My album is a chronological story of my life over the last three years. It really does take you from a breakup through self-discovery and growing up to falling in love again.
How did you decide on the album’s concept, of crafting an intentional story line from beginning to end?
I wanted people to listen to the whole thing. It’s such a single-driven industry now. The only way you really get to know an artist is by listening to the whole record. I knew I wanted to do something. Then, when I was listening to the songs I wanted to put on it, I was like, “Oh, I’ve written about my life, why not put it in order and let it be a chronological story?”
Did you feel you needed to be much more progressive with the album’s production style?
No, I don’t think so. I used the same producers, and I think the songs called for a little more outside influence. The production should really just match the song. If there is a big lyric, like on “Miss Me More,” naturally, you’re gonna put a beat drop behind that. If it’s a really delicate story, like “High School,” that’s going to be led by an acoustic guitar. As long as it highlights the song and the lyrics, then, it’s good.
Were there specific styles or influences you wanted to emulate?
Not really. I love music and listen to everything. Obviously, I listen to pop, R&B and rap. You can definitely hear that more on this record. But this one is even more grounded in country, which sounds silly because I know there’s a lot more pop production on this one. Lyrically, it’s more grounded in country.
Do you find balancing those styles comes easily?
On the first record, it was embraced so well. My first single was “Love Me Like You Mean It,” and that was a super pop-country song. When that worked like it did, I realized that I could keep doing that. I tried to push for a little more on this new record.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to "Tomatogate" as "Saladgate," as well as incorrectly stated that the incident occurred "one month ago." We regret the error.
Kelsea Ballerini's Glittering Gift Guide: