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Kelsea Ballerini realizes she is “subject to change”, going from “Dibs” to divorce and beyond, and channeling Shania

Kelsea Ballerini walks into a penthouse suite of a West Hollywood hotel with a big smile, a full bottle of wine and two glasses, and that’s a good sign for an interview right away. She has a lot to offer, she has just released a well-reviewed album, “Subject to Change”, and she is about to play in a place where she dreamed of being the headliner, the Greek Theater in Los Angeles. Ballerini is coming out of a previous album cycle in which he landed a country hit No. 2 with “Hole in the Bottle” and a hit n. 1 with “Half of My Hometown”, which scored a couple of CMAs. But the wine may not be for purely festive purposes. “Interviews make me nervous,” he admits, settling down and pouring.

That’s probably truer now than when he was promoting his three previous albums. There’s the fact that she recently revealed that she was getting a divorce, something that wasn’t made public until she’s already done her first press round for the new album. No one would mistake “Subject to Change” for a purely sectarian album at this stage in their life, not a lead single like the excellent “Heartfirst”, which celebrates falling in love, or a girls ‘night out anthem like “You’. King Drunk. ” , Go Home “with guests Kelly Clarkson and Carly Pearce. But there’s pretty much material for an entire interview alone on the album’s autobiographical highlight,” Doin ‘My Best, “which covers everything from his tweets to more complained to marriage counseling and the termination of his friendship with Halsey. It’s an interesting time to be, and talk about being Kelsea Ballerini, share some new personal pain while putting on the hottest show in the country and make him feel honest too.

What has become clear from her Greek show is that if, man, you feel like watching and hearing a woman sailing the modern country, Ballerini is a worthy successor to her idol, Shania Twain, in many ways. This is not only because he can wear a jumpsuit, among other costume changes, but also because of his ability to embody pure pop and pure Nashville and doesn’t even make you think about all the shades in between, at least not until you sit down. for a conversation like this.

And even though the singer doesn’t spend much time on her show leading the audience through the hardest things they could go through, Ballerini kept things real when she sang the closing ballad on her new album, “What I Have.” “, changing a key line in the chorus from “I have a roof over my head, I have a hot body in bed” to “I have myself in my bed.” Dibs on self-ownership, that’s it.

(The following interview has been edited for space and clarity.)

You were on “CBS Mornings” with Anthony Mason, who is a country music champion, and he spoke very kindly to you about what you are going through personally …

I love it. We had a really deep conversation about my book when it came out and I had never met it before. In the book, I talked about an eating disorder and how I witnessed a school shooting when I was in high school, my parents’ divorce and a lot of other things. I was very nervous about talking about it and he handled it with gloves. So I said, okay, I can do it again.

Well here’s something Anthony Mason didn’t ask. He weighed heavily on my mind, because no one else seems to have asked you. It seems to me that it is the elephant in the room …

Oh, God. I’m nervous.

It has to do with a song from your new album, “I Can’t Help Myself”. It seems like such a deliberate homage to Shania. Or am I just imagining it?

[Relieved.] Of course it is! I had never done a modulation before. I’ve never done a two-tone song. This is a very country thing from the 90s. But then again, obviously the whole record is inspired by 90s music, especially country women. And so we wrote in mod and were trying to find a way to get the pre-chorus up. And we said, “Guys, how can we obviously not trample Shania and Mutt and what they did, but pay homage to what they did?” So we took every page out of his book. And Shania is my queen. Everybody knows. My God, what an incredible artist. And the more I know her, the more I think, “Of course you’re Shania Twain. You couldn’t be cooler. ”

You greeted her at the “ACM Honors” show not long ago, including wearing her dress from one of her seminal videos.

When they asked me to honor it, I said, “How can we make it bigger?” And so the dress happened, but then I also thought, “If I’m going to do ‘Man! I feel like a woman’, I want her Las Vegas dancers to be shirtless on the Ryman stage. That’s what she has. For the country: it has exceeded all limits and this must be recognized. Because people still say [about Ballerini’s performance] “Oh my God, they didn’t have shirts.” I say, “Yeah, and they didn’t even do it in the 90s. Calm down!”

You said you and Shania had a long, personal conversation late at night after filming.

Yes, I’ve known her for a couple of years and we had a great relationship between mentor and student. This conversation happened before the news broke about what I’m going through [with the divorce], but I was going through it and needed some advice. So we had a big party dinner with both of our teams and cheered for her prize, and then I sat on the balcony of her hotel room for a couple of hours and she was really honest, open, warm and lovely. Right now, I have fewer friendships with artists than ever, but what I do have are genuine friendships. I put it in that category.

And Shania’s advice to you was not “Take 15 years off, like I did, kid”?

No, it wasn’t. Her advice was, “You owe people music, and that’s it.”

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - AUGUST 24: Honoree, Shania Twain and Kelsea Ballerini attend the 15th Annual Academy of Country Music Honors at Ryman Auditorium on August 24, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by John Shearer/Getty Images for ACM)
Honoree Shania Twain and Kelsea Ballerini outside the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville for the 15th Annual Academy of Country Music Honors, August 24, 2022 (Photo by John Shearer/Getty Images for ACM) Getty Images for ACM

It’s a generally pretty upbeat album, although very reflective and with different moods and themes on it. But just to address maybe the elephant in the room, it’s not a divorce album per se. You’re friends with Carly Pearce, who appears on the album, and she went all-out and made a divorce album. But if you were going through hard times, did that make you want to sort of escape to writing some of the more cheerful stuff? It’s not a dour album.

Mm-hmm. I have two answers to this. I would say it’s the most upbeat, boppy — as the kids say — and breezy record, sonically, I’ve ever made. It also has the most meat on the bones of anything that I’ve ever put out. And I think it depends on what you want to listen for, but you’ll find it. It’s not a divorce album. And if I had to label it as anything, I’d label it as a processing album. I think you hear more of that self-discovery and more of that unraveling on this record than I maybe even realized, to be honest with you, while I was making it.

This album covers a lot of styles or subgenres of country, but fairly subtly and unjarringly. It’s not like, “Oh, she just had mandolins and now there’s electronic sounds” — even though that is happening.  Maybe that’s one advantage of being on your fourth album, versus very early in a career where people are always wondering, “Are you country or are you crossing over?” Maybe you’re past the point of facing those questions all the time…

Uh-uh. [Laughs.] No, not yet. I just think my reaction to those questions has changed. I used to be so offended that people said I wasn’t country. It hurt my feelings, because that’s how much I identify as a country artist, that it hurt my feelings that people felt so polarized by my music that they had to go to the internet or write articles telling me that I wasn’t what I have wanted to be my whole life. And then I just realized that there’s enough people that think I am that I have a career, and that’s who I care about and make music for… And so I just don’t worry too much about it now.

It feels like people give women a harder time about moving back and forth across boundaries.

Of course they do.

The album has a surprisingly easy flow to it, even when you have a couple songs that are pretty hardcore country and then go into songs that probably would fit in the pop camp for most people who would just hear it with the naked ear.

I credit a lot of that to (co-producer-writers) Julian (Bunetta) and Shane (McAnally) I knew that on this album I wanted to work with producers that were gonna do the whole record, because I didn’t do that last time. I’ve always A&R-ed my own records, and I wanted help this time — I wanted one or two people that were gonna really challenge me on stuff. And they did. They’re my friends and brothers, and so they were able to really challenge my ideas on what I wanted this record to be and sound like. I think the reason that a song like (the extremely country) “If You Go Down (I’m Goin’ Down Too)” and (the more pop) “I Guess They Call It Fallin’” can live on the same record is because, A, I wrote them both, and B, they streamlined the sound. We had the same musicians in the studio for the whole recording process, and they had their hands on the whole thing. I think that’s the throughline.

A name that pops up a lot in the credits is Alyssa Vanderheym, not just as a co-writer but at times as an engineer and even on one track as a producer. You’ve spoken about wanting to use more women as collaborators in the studio.

I wrote eight songs out of 15 with her… I’ve never worked with a female producer before. … She’s a crucial cornerstone of this record. Listen, I’ve had to really recalibrate what it is to be like a woman supporting women. I think it’s twofold. I think on an artist front, I have less artist friends than I’ve ever had, but I have really good relationships with my artist friends — they’re my sweatpants friends, and it’s nurtured off camera, away from red carpets, and it’s proven to be way more healthy and honest for me. And then the other side of that is, yeah, I think the other way to support women in music is the ones that are not on camera. My team is full of women. My record has more women collaborators on it probably than ever. I’m mindful when I’m hiring people now. I want to be more inclusive — because it’s only a blind spot until it’s not, and then you need to hold yourself accountable. So it’s a twofold lesson that I’ve learned.

There’s a little bit of a female solidarity theme on this album at times, whether it’s the song you do with Carly and Kelly Clarkson, “You’re Drunk, Go Home,” or “If You Go Down (I’m Goin’ Down Too).”

Yeah. I just don’t know what I would do without my friends. I’m an only child, and I’ve always wanted a sister my whole life. And especially in the season of my life, which — it’s not a secret — is a bit chaotic and light and dark at the same time, the way that they’ve shown up has been like sisters, like blood. And so I wanted to have a song that that honored them, but also had wit and had sass. Because I remember when we wrote “Hole in the Bottle,” I was like, “This is too silly. There’s no way this is gonna make the record. It’s too silly.” And I’m so glad it did, because it unlocked my personality on stage. I don’t always just want to be singing mid-tempos; I like being funny and quirky, and so I really enjoyed what that became on stage. And on this record I wanted to have the sentiment of the depth of what my friends mean to me, but wrap it up in a giddy tone.

I love Carly. She had one off day in months and flew up to my show in Chicago and surprised the crowd, and then afterwards, again, not for the camera, we sat down and actually caught up. And we’ve seen each other through failed singles and seen each other through No. 1s and so much else — like divorce, for both of us now. And when they call her name for female vocalist of the year, I’m happy for her. And I mean that. And Kelly, oh my God. I would literally die for her. Push me in front of a train for Kelly Clarkson. She’s always been one of my heroes and, just as life would have it, we’ve crossed paths so many times. I’ve opened for her on tour and I sat in her seat for “The Voice.” The one thing we haven’t done is collaborate. I asked Carly first, and when she signed on, I was like, “Who would bring something completely different? Kelly.” I texted her in the morning and she did vocals that night. Total badass.

THE VOICE -- "Live Finale" Episode 2014B -- Pictured: (l-r) Kelsea Ballerini, Kelly Clarkson -- (Photo by: Trae Patton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Kelsea Ballerini, Kelly Clarkson at a “The Voice” live finale (Photo by: Trae Patton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images) NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

At the other extreme, you have the saddest song on the album, “Marilyn,” about Marilyn Monroe. Why her, and why do you have that sound bite of her on the end, where she hems and haws when asked if she’s happy?

I just think for me it was, that’s how out of touch with yourself you can get, where you actually don’t know if you’re happy. I use Marilyn as the metaphor of someone who presents such whimsy and seems flirty and glittery, but there’s so many layers more to that, and to her. I think that we all feel that on different levels now — everyone’s Internet-famous, you know! But I wrote that song in 2020… It means something completely different to me now, coming out during this stage of my life. I’m not playing it on tour because I literally can’t sing it. But that question at the end — the interviewer asked, “Are you happy?” And she said, “Um, am I happy? Um, let’s see.” To me it’s the most bone-chilling moment, on an album that’s about self-assessment and growth — you have to be so careful to not get to the point where you don’t know if you’re happy or not.

How do you feel to present this album and be on tour during this season of your life? Because obviously most performers want to be upbeat and cheerful. But you did put up an Instagram video where you were very honest and frankly downbeat about the divorce, when that became public. It seems silly that you have to think about things like timing  — like, when will the public learn about this, as opposed to the album launch. But how did you feel about having that news come out so close to the album release?

It’s been… hmm… interesting. Obviously, to make a big life decision like that, by the time it’s newsworthy, a lot’s already happened to get to that place. So, I’m like obviously still grieving. But I’m also healing now. That’s the point where I’m at. But I don’t think I realized how many people cared like that. And that’s been pretty difficult, to show up and want to talk about a record that I love, and end up doing divorce press, you know? It’s been a learning lesson, and I’m trying to show up honestly and vulnerably, but also protect a very active situation that’s happening in my life, in a matter of the heart.

I’ve always been pretty open with everyone about everything. And I think this is the first time in my life where I’m starting to realize that maybe I need to have better boundaries about things that are more personal, because it has been hard. Like, for example, I play Chicago, I get a call that I have to get all the personal stuff out of my house, I red-eye to Nashville on my one day off, I pack up my house, I fly to Denver, I play a show, and no one knows. It’s very real, what’s going on. I just feel like I’m trying to compartmentalize, while also reworking how much of me I’m willing to share moving forward. … It’s a push and pull. Definitely it’s a relationship that I’m assessing right now, of how much, moving forward in my life, am I willing to share? Because it feels invasive, and then I realize that it’s my own fault that it is invasive.

So do you have regrets about having put up such a vulnerable Instagram video?

Oh no, I’m glad I did that. I put out a song that week, and it was a song that was slated to come out that week and I couldn’t move it. It was also the one weekend that I had before promo started, where it was like my last weekend to break down. I drove to the beach with my three closest girls and I was a mess, you know? And I was also promoting a song and… I felt like a sociopath (not revealing both sides). I want people to remember that I’m a human.

But I’m extremely happy and grateful and proud of this record. And when I show up happy, I mean it. I’m celebrating right now. My life is beautiful. I love this album. I’m playing the Greek tomorrow! I don’t want those feelings to be overshadowed by the fact that I’m also going through a divorce. And it is really sad and is really hard — but those two things are true at the same time. If I’m only showing one and not the other, then that’s not real or true or what’s actually happening. It’s a balance that I have not mastered yet. And will I ever? Probably not. But it’s one that I’m really trying my best at.

0627 Texture 300 crop EMBARGOED 9.23 Daniel Prakopcyk 1
Kelsea Ballerini (Photo: Daniel Prakopcyk)

When fans come to a show and you seem ready to party, you want them to believe that that’s the real you, too.

Yeah. Because I’ve done a lot of work on myself the last couple of years. I’ve really taken inventory of the things that I want to work on and the things that I’m really proud of, and I think you hear a lot of that on this record. But the thing that I’m navigating right now is, like, I think we live in a culture where sadness is commendable, because it’s relatable. And happiness is something that people kind of don’t want to see anymore from people. And one thing that I’m personally working on is just, when I’m happy, doing it completely — like, uninhibited — and when I’m sad, feeling that as well, the fullness of that. But I think for a long time I felt guilty to be happy.

That’s interesting to hear — that as happy as you’ve seemed as a public personality, that’s the side you have the most trouble embracing.

I mean, welcome to therapy with me, Kelsea Ballerini.

This is not a purely confessional album. But you do have one song that’s a whole mini-memoir unto itself, “Doin’ My Best.” You had the desire to document everything that was happening in a moment in time with that?

We were close to done with the album, and I was listening to board tapes from the first week of tracking, listening to “Muscle Memory” and “You’re Drunk, Go Home” — knowing that they were staples on the record, but I’m more or less playing a character in these songs. Like, this is not where I’m at in my life right now. And I wrote this book of poetry last year, and it unlocked this piece of me where I was like: What if I just keep going there? What if I’m that open? And I had this realization that I didn’t have a song that was quite like that on the album that represented that growth.

And so that’s when I asked Alyssa, “Hey, do you have a track?” And I went down to the ocean and I just didword vomit and took ownership for everything that I have felt that has been messy or noticeable or cringy. That’s a song that’s been one that everyone’s obviously asked me about, but it’s also been one that the fans scream when they sing it back to me at the shows. Because that’s all we’re in control of as people is showing up, rolling up our sleeves and doing our best. And if at the end of the day you can lay your head on the pillow and go, “Did I do my best today? Yes,” then you should sleep well. And to be able to take ownership of all these things that people have publicly watched me kind of figure out, it’s like standing in your power a little bit.

You refer to a difficult relationship with a fellow artist in that song, talking about “track 4” on your previous album and losing the friendship with the artist who appeared with you on that song (Halsey) after it came out.

People have tried to make it into this shade fest. That’s not it at all. It’s truly just me saying also what I was talking about earlier — like, what does it mean to be a woman supporting a woman? And then how do you also protect that while having a working relationship? Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. And it’s messy, and it’s one of the things that I’ve tried to figure out. It had nothing to do with wanting to shade. It was just me acknowledging that everyone was like, “Oh my God, they had this song as friends and all this stuff and then all of a sudden they weren’t.” [Pauses, laughs.] I did not answer that well! I’m gonna regret that,

You have lines in “Doin’ My Best” about deleting Twitter off your phone, after some backlash to a comment you made about Morgan Wallen and Nashville, when that was breaking news. You have a Twitter account, but somebody must run it for you now?

Yeah. I got off of it the day after the tweet. It just wasn’t healthy for me anymore. I also realize that maybe that’s one of the social apps where it’s easy to breed negativity. Even on my TikTok and my Instagram, I have words that are filtered that are just triggering to me. Like, I’m tired of people asking if I’m pregnant. I’m tired of people asking who I voted for. I’m tired of all of it, you know? So there are words that I just omit so I can still have a presence on social media that feels OK for my mental health. And Twitter just was not one of those places for me.

So you’re singing “Doin’ My Best” live and fans are screaming it back at you?

We end the show with “Doin’ My Best,” and everyone was like, “Kelsea, end the show with a hit.” And I was like, “No, no, no, no. We have to end the show with a minute-long screaming cathartic therapy session where we all just scream ‘I’m doing my best’ for a minute.” That’s the end of the show. It feels important right now.

0051 Clean crop EMBARGOED 9.23 Photo Credit Daniel Prakopcyk
Kelsea Ballerini (Photo: Daniel Prakopcyk)

You mentioned the “sparkly girl who sings ‘Dibs’” image  — have you felt like there’s something to overcome or evolve from after starting so young?

There has. I put so much weight on being a role model, because I was the most impressionable preteen and teenager. Anything that the artists and people that I loved in pop culture were doing, I wanted to do it, and so I realized that now I’m that for some people. I used to think that meant I can’t misstep or misspeak and I had to be in a glass box, basically. I’ve really just recalibrated that now, because if I was a mom and I had a daughter, I would want her to be surrounded by people in her real life and the music she listens to that are people that are showing up as they are, and showing that in the best and most pure way that they feel they can.

And so that’s even why the tone… And I don’t mean my vocal tone, I mean my tone of lyric, my tone of voice on this album — it sounds like a 28-year-old wrote it. Because I let myself talk on this record like I talk to my friends on a Friday with a glass of wine. I’m just not so worried anymore about saying something wrong. I’ve done that, and you learn from it and you keep going and you’re human. And I think when you take the fear away from that, to go to the whole theme of the record, the album is called “Subject to Change” because the idea is we’ve all been subject to change the last couple of years. And what if we take all the space that that fear takes up and just go: It’s inevitable. That’s how you become who you’re gonna be, and all that space that fear of change is taking up, I’m gonna use to enjoy the moment and enjoy my life, because it’s not gonna be the same tomorrow. It never is. But right now, this is real. This moment’s real. We’re drinking wine at this beautiful place in L.A. You know that’s gonna change. But right now, it’s wonderful.I think when you have that discovery — whenever you have it in life; I just had it recently — it allows for a lot more living to happen. True living.

So that’s something you’d say has changed for you since the “Kelsea” album a couple years ago?

Yeah. Oh my God. What hasn’t changed since the “Kelsea” album a couple years ago? Well, I still have a very cute dog.

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Kenny Chesney joins Kelsea Ballerini on stage as a surprise at the Greek Theatre during “Half of My Hometown,” Oct. 6, 2022 (Photo: Chris Willman/Variety)

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