In 2014, when Kelsea Ballerini was writing what became her breakout album, the following year's unexpected smash debut The First Time, the Grammy-nominated singer had almost zero time to sketch out its creative nuances. Having long been signed exclusively as a songwriter to the independent label Black River Entertainment, Ballerini was writing songs with the expectation they'd be cut by other artists. "And then all of a sudden I had a record deal and it was time to make an album," she recalls with a laugh of the whirlwind months that preceded The First Time.
Not surprisingly, her experience recording its much-anticipated follow-up, Unapologetically, due November 3rd, was a decidedly more deliberate affair. "This is the first intentional album I've ever made," says Ballerini, who scored three consecutive Number One singles off her debut with "Love Me Like You Mean It," "Peter Pan" and "Dibs." "From writing it to creating it to making all the tracks, just all of it. So it's definitely a different kind of involvement than I've had before."
Ballerini describes her new album's creation process as "completely a puzzle. We did a little bit everywhere." That's because the singer-songwriter has spent the past few years on an endless tour, hitting the road with artists like Lady Antebellum, Sam Hunt and Rascal Flatts. "I found when I'm on the road, I'm totally in artist mode," she says. During rare breaks in the action she decamped to Nashville and worked on Unapologetically with some of country music's biggest hitmakers, including Shane McAnally and Old Dominion's Trevor Rosen.
Haven written her debut album while still a teenager, Ballerini, now 24, says she made a concerted effort this time to showcase her maturity and evolution as both a young woman and artist. She found radio success with flirty and innocent songs like "Love Me Like You Mean It" and "Dibs," but is in a different headspace these days. "I've changed and gotten to grow up so much since that last album was written," the singer explains. "I'm excited to sing about who I am right now."
That being: a reflective and decisive songwriter with hard-nosed grit and sunny hooks to match. On the new album highlight "High School," Ballerini paints a vivid picture of returning to her native Knoxville only to feel as if time had stood still. "'Cause it's five years later and you can't get off of the elevator / That's going up, 'cause you're growing up' / And the world gets cruel when you're still living in high school," she sings. The tender song, arguably her most well written yet, she notes, was the sole track on the album she penned by herself. It's also the oldest on the record: Ballerini wrote "High School" the same week she mixed and mastered The First Time. The song, which she calls "my baby," is "a real story about seeing someone that I was super-close to when I lived in my hometown that hadn't changed at all. It made me realize how much I had changed."
On breakup songs like "Miss Me More," Ballerini further declares her newfound maturity. "I found my independence / Can't believe I ever lost it," she sings, and despite now being engaged to Australian singer Morgan Evans, Ballerini says "being so happy and solid in my relationship now it almost makes the breakup even sadder to know that love was so not there and non-existent in that moment."
Having extended time in the creation process also allowed Ballerini to take a more thematic approach to the project. Unapologetically, she explains, plays out "like a chronological story. And it starts with a breakup and it goes into growing up and then it goes into falling in love. When I was listening to my favorite demos I had when it was time to start making a record I realized that I had talked about my life and my life has really come in three sections in the last two and a half years. And that was loss, it was life and then it was love. So that's what the album ended up being."
Writing every song on the record was paramount for Ballerini. "I would not be an artist if I wasn't a songwriter," she says. "It's the first part of me and it's the biggest part of me." That meant turning down "undeniable hits" from radio-tested songwriters including Hilary Lindsay and Liz Rose. Ballerini admits she at times second-guessed herself in this regard, "but the bigger part of me was like, 'It's not your heart.' That for me is why I'm an artist. I write things because I want to put it out into the world."
Ballerini acknowledges she has an army of hardcore, super-dedicated fans eagerly anticipating her new release, but as someone who once waited in line for hours to meet Lady Antebellum and Taylor Swift, she's keeping a level head about it. "I remember working extra to save up enough money to go buy concert tickets to sit in the nosebleeds. I remember those moments and I was such a dedicated fan. So I think that's why I welcome it and I appreciate it so much. Because that was me."
And despite winning Best New Artist at this year's iHeartRadio Music Awards and being nominated for Female Vocalist of the Year at November 8th's CMA Awards, Ballerini says she often still believes she's an unproven talent. "I still feel like I'm a new girl on an independent label," she says. "The odds are still against you. Even though we've had an amazing ride with the first record there's still that fact. I didn't make the record with that in the back of my head, but I know that's unfortunately that we're up against. All I'm able to do is make a really great record and work really hard and hopefully those odds keep going away."