Coming off a successful debut, 2015’s The First Time, she had been writing and co-writing (teaming up with such A-list collaborators as Ross Copperman, Shane McAnally, Ashley Gorley and Hillary Lindsey) for some time. The main thing she knew was that she wanted a thematic thread for the album. Fortunately, that connecting idea was already there. She just had to find it and develop it in the music she was accumulating.
“I mean, I never stopped writing from the first record,” Ballerini says. “I just kept on writing, and all of a sudden it was time to make the second record and I had over 200 songs and I had no idea of what to do with them.”
She did know she wanted to put the songs together to make something cohesive.
“I guess I’m old school because I love listening to actual like full albums,” she says. “I think as the music industry continues to change — continues to be more singles-oriented — I wanted to think of a way that people would still want to listen to the whole thing.”
She didn’t have to look much further to find a connective thread.
“I just figured I had already written all of these songs about my personal life and growth and breakup and falling in love and all of that, and I figured if I made it the story that it was and put it in order, maybe people would listen to the whole record,” Ballerini says. “That’s how you get to know someone.”
The singer/songwriter had no shortage of topics she could have covered since the release of The First Time, including those that come with becoming a successful recording artist. Ballerini’s debut album produced four singles. The first of those songs, “Love Me Like You Mean It,” became the first debut single from a female artist to go No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart since Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus, Take The Wheel.”
“Love Me” was followed by another No. 1 hit, “Dibs,” which made Ballerini only the fifth solo female Country artist to get back-to-back chart-toppers with her first two singles. Her third single, “Peter Pan,” topped both the Country Airplay and Hot Country Songs charts.
But while Ballerini’s career was getting off to a terrific start, things weren’t going as well on a personal level for the now-24-year-old native of Knoxville, Tenn. As the hits were coming, Ballerini was seeing things go sour with a boyfriend. The difficult breakup that resulted provided the starting point for Unapologetically, her sophomore album.
The album opens with “Graveyard,” a delicate ballad on which Ballerini wrestles with the heartbreak and emotional bruises from the relationship, while resolving to pick up the pieces and move on. The next track, “Miss Me More,” laments the notion that she lost her identity and sense of independence while caught up in the romance and rush of love (“I forgot I had dreams/Forgot I had wings/Forgot who I was before I ever kissed you”).
“I think the best thing you can do after a breakup is just realize what you learned from it and realize the positives,” Ballerini says. “You realize what you do want to be like and what you don’t want to be like. And I think that was a really crucial relationship for me (for) learning that stuff.”
As the album moves on, things shift from loss into the second chapter of the story: moving forward. Over the course of the tracks “Machine Heart,” “In Between,” “High School” and “End of the World,” listeners hear Ballerini rediscovering her sense of self and her confidence, rebuilding her life, moving into adulthood and finding the footing she needs for whatever comes next.
The final four songs on Unapologetically introduce that next chapter: new love.
In the spring of 2016, Ballerini traveled to Australia to co-host an awards show with Aussie Country artist Morgan Evans. Sparks flew and the two have been together since. The album’s title track pretty much tells the story of love re-entering Ballerini’s life and her finding herself willing to go all in with her new beau, ready to take their journey together, wherever it may lead.
That’s exactly what Ballerini has done in real life, as she and Evans married late last year in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Life sounds pretty magical for the couple so far.
“Everyone has been asking me like, ‘So what’s different?’ I’m like, ‘Nothing, that’s why we got married. I didn’t want anything to be different,’ ” Ballerini says. “I think that’s the best part. That’s the comfort. We’re so content in our lives separately and together, and we were both so focused on our careers (last year), it was amazing to take two months to just celebrate the holidays and celebrate getting married with all the people that we love and have nothing change.”
Musically, Unapologetically finds Ballerini largely sticking to the template of The First Time to create a warm, mainly mid-tempo and ballad-oriented soundtrack to her stories.
While several songs are rooted in Country, Unapologetically also has a Pop dimension, particularly on tracks like “Machine Heart,” “End of the World” and “I Hate Love Songs,” which incorporate electronic tones and rhythms into the mix. This musical approach, along with her ability to write songs that resonate with teens and young women, has earned Ballerini comparisons to Taylor Swift, who started out in Country before embracing the wider-ranging sound and modern production of mainstream Pop; Swift has become a supporter and friend of Ballerini’s.
Now Ballerini hopes those who catch her in concert will get to better know the music, messages and woman behind the new album as she continues her current tour with Keith Urban. Speaking before the tour had started, Ballerini sounds excited about teaming up with Urban again.
“I opened for him for a few fairs and festivals when I was first getting started, but never really got to spend any time with him or really watch his show,” she says. “I really think he’s just one of the best artists in music, not just Country music, but just music, and for me certainly, just one of the most influential artists and songwriters.
“Honestly, it’s just really cool to be able to go do what I do for 45 minutes and walk off stage and absolutely fan girl every night.”
Ballerina has been playing a good bit of Unapologetically, in hopes that it connects with the larger audiences on Urban’s “Graffitti U” tour.
“I just invested so much heart in it,” she says. “(It’s) just really important… to see it connect, because it’s so close to my heart.”
Kelsea Ballerini opens for Keith Urban Sunday at Riverbend Music Center. Tickets/more info: riverbend.org.