Dark days behind, Kelsea Ballerini looks ahead

Pictured above: Kelsea Ballerini. Photo by Sarah Barlow.

By Alan Sculley
For the Call

Kelsea Ballerini will open for Kelly Clarkson at 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 23 at Chaifetz Arena, 1 S. Compton Ave. Tickets start at $32.

Going into her second album, country rising star Kelsea Ballerini didn’t know how the project would take shape.

Coming off a successful debut album, “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 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 said in a phone interview. “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. I guess I’m old school because I love listening to actual, like, full albums. And I think as the music industry continues to change to be more singles-oriented, I wanted to think of a way that people would still want to listen to the whole thing. 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. That’s how you get to know someone.”

She had no shortage of topics she could cover since the release of “The First Time,” which gave her three No. 1 hits on the “Billboard” magazine Country Airplay chart — “Love Me Like You Mean It,” “Dibs” and “Peter Pan,” while a fourth single, “Yeah Boy,” went top 3 in country.

But while the hits kept coming for Ballerini’s career, things weren’t going as well on a personal level for the now-25-year-old native of Knoxville, Tennessee. A difficult breakup with a boyfriend provides the starting point for the “Unapologetically” album, with “Miss Me More” striking a particularly insightful moment as Ballerini laments the notion that she lost her identity and sense of independence while caught up in the rush of love.

“I forgot I had dreams/Forgot I had wings/Forgot who I was/Before I ever kissed you,” Ballerini sings.

“I think the best thing you can do after a breakup is just realize what you learned from it and realize the positives,” Ballerini said. “You realize what you do want to be like and what you don’t want to be like and all that stuff. And I think that was a really crucial relationship for me of learning that.”

As the album moves into its fifth song, things shift from loss into the second chapter of the story – life. Over the course of the songs “Machine Heart,” “In Between,” “High School” and “End of the World,” listeners hear Ballerini rediscovering her sense of self, her confidence and rebuilding her life.

The final four songs on “Unapologetically,” introduce that next chapter – new love.

In spring 2016, Ballerini traveled to Australia to co-host an awards show with Aussie country artist Morgan Evans. Sparks flew, and the two married in December 2017 in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

“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 said.

While several songs are rooted in country, “Unapologetically” also has a pop dimension, even incorporating synthetic tones and rhythms into the mix.

Now Ballerini hopes fans further get to know the music, messages and the woman behind “Unapologetically” as she opens for Kelly Clarkson. She plans to feature a good bit of the album, which has produced a No. 1 Country Airplay single in “Legends” and new single “Miss Me More” climbing toward the top 20.

“My album is a story, from top to bottom. Yeah, it’s a chronological story and I really want to keep telling people that,” she said. “Especially with this record, I just invested so much heart in it. And for me, it was just really important to play my album and to see it connect because it’s so close to my heart.”

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