When country newcomer Kelsea Ballerini was narrowing down tracks for her debut album, The First Time, out May 19th, she saw a cohesive theme coming together: positivity. So it took a lot of other people convincing her to include a very personal song born of sorrow, “Secondhand Smoke.”
“I haven’t been able to sing it live yet, because I sob every time,” Ballerini tells Rolling Stone Country of the tune, which was inspired by her parents’ divorce. “It’s so many people’s story, and a story that needs to be told because I know when I was 12 and 13 when [the divorce] was happening, I felt super alone. I want to be a voice of comfort for people going through that.”
The Tennessee native actually found her songwriting voice while mourning the end of her parents’ marriage. She started writing lyrics at 12-years-old, as a means of escape. But back then she’d just write about “a boy I thought was cute,” she admits with a laugh, as she wasn’t emotionally ready to put her feelings on the split to music back then. It was about eight years later that she finally got the courage, while in a songwriting session with Josh Kerr and Jordyn Shellhart.
“Jordyn said the title ‘Secondhand Smoke,’ but she didn’t know what the song should be about,” the now 21-year-old Ballerini recalls. “Immediately, I thought it could be a story of being in a household that’s broken and that’s all you know, but you decide that you’re not going to feel like that.”
“Am I the product of a problem that I couldn’t change?/Got his eyes, got her hair, so do I get their mistakes?/I know that you can’t walk across a bridge that’s already burned, so/What am I supposed to do, I can’t help that they chose/To breathe it in, but I don’t want to choke/On that secondhand smoke,” she sings in the somber, yet uplifting tune, making it actually fit right in with the rest of the album’s optimistic vibe.
“The reality is hard but I’m going to choose differently — I want people to take that from it,” says the singer-songwriter. “And I love my parents; I have the coolest parents ever. . . separately. [Laughs] So it’s not a knock on parents and their choices. It’s saying, ‘This is all I know, and I’m going to learn and grow from it and turn it around.'”
Ballerini is the writer or co-writer of every song on The First Time, including the now Top 15 debut single, “Love Me Like You Mean It.” Pre-order the album here.