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Interview: Kelsea Ballerini talks new music, songwriting and UK fans

We caught up with the US country star ahead of her performance at BBC Radio 2 Live In Hyde Park.

Kelsea Ballerini
Credit: Sony Music

Kelsea Ballerini has rapidly become one of the biggest stars in country since she released her debut single, Love Me Like You Mean It, in 2014.

The song topped the Billboard Country Airplay chart, making Kelsea the first solo female country artist to hit number one on debut since Carrie Underwood. She’s since followed that with four further number one hits – including Miss Me More earlier this year – as well as two top five albums, most recently 2017’s Unapologetically. She’s also a regular visitor to the UK, performing at C2C: Country to Country in 2018 and opening for Lady Antebellum.

Ahead of her performance at BBC Radio 2 in Hyde Park last month, I spoke to Kelsea about her latest single homecoming queen?, why she loves performing in the UK, her songwriting process and plans for new music.

Hi Kelsea! How are you finding the festival so far?

It’s amazing! We just got here, but the backstage is amazing. We’re sitting across from a teepee right now, which is fun [laughs].

Do you approach festivals differently to other shows?

Yeah, ’cause festivals, especially this line up – I haven’t performed with any of these people before, so to be able to be part of a line up that’s different and eclectic and I think I’m the only country artist, which is really cool. I know that I haven’t met a lot of the people out in the audience before, so I think it’s gonna be really fun to introduce myself and my music to a whole bunch of people in Hyde Park.

You’ve just released your new single homecoming queen? – what can you tell us about it?

Yeah, it’s the first single off the third record, and it’s like a week old today. It’s my baby. But yeah, I kind of wanted to start the next record with a song that brought it back to the heart of songwriting which is my true love, and just be a little more vulnerable than I’ve been before on other singles. So I’m excited to have that out.

Would you say it’s typical of what the sound of the next record will be?

No. It’s funny, I feel like every other time we’ve put out a single I’m like, ‘this is kind of like a hint at the record’. But I’m still working on the album so it’s hard for me to say fully what it’s going to sound like. But we have nine or ten done, and it’s a little bit of everything I would say. We have a song with horns on it, we have a song with a string quartet on it. So it’s a little bit of a lot, which I think is going to make the live show a little bit more fun and energetic. I’m excited to finish off the record, honestly.

Were there any songs that were particularly easy or particularly difficult to write for this album?

homecoming queen? was definitely one of the more difficult ones. It’s always hard to just let myself go there and let myself get sad, because I think that’s what the whole song’s about – giving yourself permission to just have a bad day. So I think that was probably the hardest to write. And then the other ones, they’ve just been fun to write. There’s a lot of just energy I think so far.

You’ve spoken on social media about how this has been quite a transitional year for you. Is that something you’re feeling with the record in terms of your sound or how you’ve approached it?

I think I’ve always been really mindful of the line between pop and country. I’m a country artist, I’m very honoured to be a country artist, and I think just like the last record I pushed it a little farther. I’ll probably push it farther on this one too. I think homecoming queen? is a super, super country song, more so than most of my singles beforehand. But I think there’s also probably a little bit more of a pop leaning side to it too. So I think there’s a little bit more of both.

I also wanted to ask you about appearing on Songland recently…

Has that aired here yet?

No, we can get clips of it on YouTube but that’s it…

OK, because I’m playing the song today and I was like, ‘wait, I wonder are they even gonna know this song?!’ That’s so funny.

No we’ll know it, trust me! You know what UK country fans are like, we’ll dig into stuff and we’ll find those deep cuts…

Rad. It’s true. Every time I’ve played here, you guys are like, ‘album cuts matter’, which is so fun.

Songland was incredible. My friend Shane [Macanally] – I’ve written with Shane for years, and I was actually writing with him and Ryan Tedder in LA, months and months ago, and they were like, ‘hey, do you care if the producer of this show that we’re working on comes by and says hi?’ And I had just done something with The Voice, so I knew her, it’s the same producer. So she came by and they were kind of talking. They had just shot the pilot with Charlie Puth and were so excited, and I was like, ‘this sounds amazing!’ They were like, ‘well would you wanna do it?’ and I was like ‘of course!’

Cause I think whenever you can highlight songwriters and just their importance – like there would not be a lot of artists without songwriters. There wouldn’t be any. So I think that the spotlight that that’s shining on that side of the music industry is a really beautiful thing. And then also just seeing my friend Shane turn into a superstar is really cool.

Kelsea Ballerini at BBC Radio 2 Live in Hyde Park

Credit: BBC/Sarah Jeynes

 

This is your fourth trip over to the UK…

I think it’s my fourth time over here. That sounds right.

So what is it that keeps you coming back?

‘Cause I love it. I think one of the coolest things ever was when I put out my first single five years ago, and we started travelling here and Australia and Canada, whatever. It’s so mind-blowing to me that a song that I write in a room in Nashville can go across an ocean, and matter to someone. So I think every time I get to go somewhere that’s not my neck of the woods and see that obviously music matters, but just to see my song have a life somewhere else is encouraging and exciting and makes me just wanna be here more.

Is there anything that surprises you about UK audiences? Do they react to different songs compared to crowds in the US?

I would say I’ve noticed it’s not as single driven here. It’s more album driven. And I’ve talked to other artists too. It’s really exciting to be able to play a song off a record that we love and know that it’s gonna be received well. Whereas sometimes you just wanna play the singles, and I’m playing a couple of album cuts today and not playing a couple of singles. I’m excited.

I also wanted to ask you about getting inducted into the Opry – what was that like?

I think as a country artist just even playing the Opry is just like a pinnacle moment. Have you been?

Not yet, no…

OK. It’s dreamy. You have to do it. Go on the stage, walk in the circle. And I made my Opry debut four and a half years ago. And I’ve always wanted to be as much of a part of the Opry as I can be, but I never thought that four and a half years later I’d be inducted. I was just like, ‘I’ll play as much as I can’, but I think just the fact that such a legendary stage is really putting their arms around new country, and especially new country women. In the last 10 years there’s only been two other females inducted and it’s Carrie Underwood and Crystal Gale. So to be able to be a part of that legacy is incredibly inspiring. And honestly when that happened I was like, ‘you need to make an exceptional third record to earn the fact that you’re an Opry member’. Because it was so early and so amazing.

Do you feel there’s more of a shift now for female artists breaking through in country music over the last couple of years or so?

You know, yeah. I think we’ve been around and we’ve been working really hard, and I think the conversation’s been around for a long time, and I think finally the conversation’s turning into action. I think people are finally sick of talking about it and they’re like, ‘oh wait, this is really good, I’m gonna play it’. All I can really say to that is I wouldn’t know what it’s like to be a female country artist if I didn’t have a female country artist to look up to, like Carrie, like Taylor, like Shania. And I think it’s really important for the young girls that are in their bedroom right now, I think it’s important for them to have me and Maren and Lauren Alaina and Maddie and Tae and this group of girls that are working our tails off right now. Because it matters not only to us and our dreams but it matters to the little girls that are needing someone to look to.

What’s the one song you wish you’d written?

House That Built Me, Miranda Lambert. Or Somewhere Over The Rainbow. They’re kind of like way different, but growing up Somewhere Over The Rainbow was my favourite song of all time. And then I think House That Built Me, as a country song is just like the greatest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. I weep every time I hear it. It makes me wanna just curl up in my old house and cry. Super emotionally stable! [laughs]

What do the next few months look like for you? I think you’ve said the plan is the record comes out early next year…

Yeah, early next year. The next few months I go to Australia after this – a couple times actually – and then have a couple more shows here and there. Really just working on the record. We’re gonna release a couple more songs this year, just to let people see more of what the album will be, and then yeah, album next year.

Can you give us any hints about what those new songs will be like?

There’s two that are just from the record. One is a bop, as the kids say, and one is – I write a song by myself on every album, so the second one is one I wrote by myself.

Do you have any collaborations planned for this record?

I do. I’ve got two.

I spoke to Walker Hayes recently and he mentioned you’d been working together…

I love Walker! We have a song we wrote together that I love. Yeah, I’ve never really done a collaboration on any of my albums before, and then we did the song with the Chainsmokers and I just loved joining forces with someone else and doing something. So I really wanted to do more of that. So there’s two.

Are there any plans to come back to the UK soon?

Yeah, I’m sure we’ll be back at some point next year. I’m very excited about it. I wanna tour here.

If you do then the fans will definitely all show up and sing…

And I’ll hold you to it! [laughs]

Kelsea Ballerini’s new single, homecoming queen?, is out now.

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