Kelsea Ballerini on Her New Album, Working With Hitmakers and the Line Between Pop and Country

Kelsea Ballerini’s biggest hit off her smash debut album was “Peter Pan,” a song knocking boyfriends who won’t grow up. She won’t face any charges of hypocrisy with her new album, “Unapologetically,” a sophomore set that shows the 24-year-old country star doing a fine job of growing up in public, lyrically and otherwise, and filling the niche for sophisticated but age-appropriate country songwriting that a certain fearless pop emigrant left behind.

On the eve of the album’s release today (Nov. 3), as she landed in New York to make an appearance on Stephen Colbert’s show Friday, Ballerini spoke with Variety about her desire to make the album into a true song cycle, and why “intentional” is the adjective she keeps coming back to for the new collection.

It’s been two and a half years since your debut album, “The First Time,” and well over three since the first single from that album. What’s changed in that time?
With the first album, I had written most of it and had most of the demos before I had my record deal — we just put better vocals on those demos and turned it into the album. So this one is the first-ever intentional album I’ve made, from writing the songs, knowing that I was actually writing for an album, to figuring out the concept of the album and recording. I wrote something like 200 songs, and I had no idea what I wanted to say yet. And then one day I was like, “Man, I just want to make a chronological story of my life the last two and a half years.” If you listen to it from track 1 to track 12, it’s in order. It starts with a breakup and starts gnarly and dark and starts angst-y, and then it goes into kind of like that moment where you find yourself again, and through growing up a little bit and fighting off some insecurities — and finding some new ones! And then it goes into meeting the guy that I’m now marrying, and it ends really light and full of love. I love records, and I love diving in and figuring out what that artist has to say in those 12 songs. So it really is a story album.

You have a new song called “I Hate Love Songs” that comes toward end of album. You’ve insisted this is a true statement for you, but people wouldn’t necessarily guess that.
It’s funny. I thought I had love songs on my first record, but then I realized, “Hey, you better love me like you mean it” — that’s not necessarily a love song. Or it’s a very sassy, young version of a love song. This record and the place that I’m at in my life now have really opened the door to that actual emotion. So “I Hate Love Songs” is the song on the record that is kind of that transition of “Uh-oh, you’re about to turn me into that girl, and here I go.”

As an aside, you start that song off by singing, “I hate Shakespeare and Gosling.” You’re probably okay dissing Shakespeare, but were you ever worried that if you run into Ryan Gosling some day, you may have some explaining to do?
I’ve never really thought of that! I don’t hate Gosling… I would love to meet him. I’ll apologize in person.

To the extent that some people do actually still listen to albums in full and in order, did you ever wonder whether it would work for people to start the album in a dark place, with a song called “Graveyard,” of all things, and make people wait till the end for the happy songs?
Well, even with the dark and angsty part, there’s a lot of empowerment there. It’s gonna take you on the emotional journey that I’ve been on from 19 to 24, but even though the front is dark and the back is light, the empowerment is what’s consistent through the whole thing.

You have a song called “In Between,” about having a sort of young-adult midlife crisis, that reminds me a lot of the old Britney song, “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman.”
Yeah, it’s like my version of the Britney song — exactly. It’s the last song we wrote for the record and my favorite song on the record, and that’s the one that’s really just for me [as opposed to being about a relationship]. It captures as honestly as I could exactly where I’m at in my life right now.

So every single lyric on the album is literally autobiographical, including all the good and bad relationship stuff?
Yes. It’s super-honest. As a songwriter, that’s what I signed up for.

So presumably that goes for things like “I didn’t wear my high heeled shoes because I couldn’t be taller than you”?
That is a true line.

You worked with a lot of very powerful Nashville co-writers this time: Shane McAnally, Hillary Lindsey, Zach Crowell. You weren’t worried that people who are that accomplished at cranking out hits would make your writing any more generic?
For the first album, I literally couldn’t get in a room with a hit writer to save my life. But I think that’s what made the first album so different and so special, that I got to just really make it with my friends, and we were all naïve and had no idea what was going on. That just added a magic to it. But I think being able to get in the room with Shane and Hilary this time added a different perspective to the record. Being able to go in and tell my stories and talk about where I’m at in my life with these people that have magical perspectives, you can hear that really did evolve my songwriting and my sound.

There’s very little on the album that would sound out of place on pop radio. Where is the line between country and pop?
My first single to country radio was “Love Me Like You Mean It,” and it was very, very pop-leaning, but it was still rooted in country. I tell everyone: I grew up on a farm in east Tennessee, and my first concert was Britney Spears. That’s my music, and that’s me. I feel like country artists are known for being honest and truthful. And I just feel like it’s my job as a country artist now to be honest about the fact that I love pop music and I love rap music and I love rock music, and I think it’s okay if all that bleeds into my music as influences. It’ll always be rooted in songwriting, and it’ll always be rooted in the Southern lifestyle that I grew up in. But, yes, this record is on that line, because I just don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

You’re headlining shows but sticking to theaters and not arenas. But Entertainment Weekly just called you “country’s newest superstar.” Do you have a sense of where you are in your career?
Oh God. I’m the new kid. It’s nice of people to say that, but it’s not where I am. I have a lot to prove. And do I want to tour arenas? God, yes. Is that where I’m at? God, no. But headlining, no matter how big or how small, is the most rewarding thing ever, to know that every song on the record had a life (in concert), and to hear people sing it back.

You’ve gotten cosigns from undeniable superstars from across generations — Shania Twain, Taylor Swift, and you’re singing with Reba McEntire at the CMA Awards next week. Now you’re taking 19-year-old Bailey Bryan on tour with you.
It’s such a big part of my story, between Taylor posting about my EP when “Love Me” wasn’t even top 40 yet, and then taking me out on stage, and then Shania posting about me and bringing me out on stage, and then Nick Jonas performing with me really early on. It’s been a big deal to have people that have blazed trails in music reach out to help me. I’m still super-new and aware that my platform is not big compared to those artists. But yeah, if there’s an incredible artist I love like Bailey Bryan, if I can have her open a show for me, oh my gosh, I want to, because I think she’s incredible.

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