When Kelsea Ballerini was designing the merchandise to accompany her third album, Kelsea, she wanted one item in particular: sweatpants.
Not crop tops, not koozies, not a special-edition pop socket, but sweatpants. The whole idea just rings differently now, as much of America and the world at large shelter in place, trading work attire for anything with a drawstring. Ballerini was supposed to be traveling for 21 straight days to promote Kelsea, doing the standard stops at talk shows and radio stations, and orchestrating surprises across the country. Instead, she ended up at home in her downtown Nashville apartment, “dropping” the album to a few fans via a safe, social distance-acceptable drone. It’s not exactly The Tonight Show, but it’s an approach that makes sense for an album that’s about, in part, finding the comfort in just simply being at home.
“Isn’t that ironic,” Ballerini tells Rolling Stone Country. “I’m not going to lie, I had a few days of just being flat disappointed and pacing my floors trying to find a way around something there is no way around. However, the more I zoom out, the more I realize that this is a time where people want and need music more than ever.”
Obviously, Ballerini can’t play shows (tour dates are in flux), so she’s been doing other things to get the album off the ground and heard in a complicated landscape. In addition to those unconventional drone drops, which she and her team planned spur-of-the-moment right before release day, she’s started a TikTok, gone live on Instagram, and even done a quarantine-friendly workout with her trainer, in those special Ballerini-branded sweatpants — which boast the lyrics to her song “Club,” about how the allure of the nightlife fades with age but the insecurities linger. “I don’t want to go to the club,” the sweatpants say in white lettering. That’s even a little prophetic, too, as all nightlife in Nashville has been shuttered: She couldn’t go if she wanted to.
Like “Club,” much of Kelsea tackles the arm-wrestle between the stardom she’s reached and the normalcy she craves; about getting used to slowing down and embracing stillness, about insecurities and adjusting to a life lived not only in the public eye, but also heavily online. The LP is also about finding what keeps her centered, when the house lights go down, the phone is off, and there’s nothing left to put a filter over her thoughts. It’s not too dissimilar from what so many people are confronting in their own existence right now, as the consolations and costumes we turn to seem inconsequential in an increasingly unstable world.
“I’m finding a lot of peace in putting some music into the world right now, especially music that talks about finding the value in ‘home’ and friends,” Ballerini says. “We need to find comfort in both of those things through this strange, uneasy time.”
It is midmorning in the lobby of an Instagram-paradise Nashville hotel, and Ballerini, in a pink blazer and ripped jeans, is doing something that will feel completely taboo a little more than a month later: hugging. She hugs hello, she hugs a friend who happens to be walking by, she will hug the creators of Crime Junkies, who are currently staying upstairs (it’s the only podcast she really listens to, along with Dolly Parton’s America).
It would be surprising if Ballerini, who broke through with songs like “Love Me Like You Mean It,” “Dibs,” and “Yeah Boy,” off of her debut LP, The First Time, were anything but a hugger — her breed of country has always felt relaxed and intimate, conversational without the weight of a confession. A skilled songwriter, she loves a good metaphor (high school as a parable for the struggles of fame or adulthood is one she returns to often) and a good lyrical flip, making a song about hating love songs a love song itself. She honed both of these on her second album, the Grammy-nominated Unapologetically, a concept record that traced the ending of one relationship through the birth of the next.
So where did she dig next, to get to Kelsea?
“Therapy,” she says point-blank, sitting on a large leather chair in the middle of the lobby. After touring almost incessantly since her debut, Ballerini was having a hard time adjusting to home life and staying still back in Nashville instead of focusing on what’s next. “If I am not good, at 26, at being home, what’s going to happen when I don’t have as many opportunities to get on the road?” she says. “So I started investing in therapy, spent more time with my husband and dog, and went home to Knoxville [Tennessee] a lot. It evened me out in a really healthy way.”
Kelsea is a document of that process: of identifying her anxieties and insecurities, her guilty pleasures and her grounding roots. But instead of all that getting washed over in some sort of motivational haze, Ballerini isn’t presenting solutions. The lesson here is that, sometimes, just telling the truth is enough.
For Ballerini, that’s epitomized in the album’s opening track, “Overshare,” which finds her making amends with her constant need to fill the void, or her social media pages. “Silence makes me scared,” she sings. “So then I overshare.”
Though most people don’t come close to the 2 million devoted Instagram followers Ballerini has gathered over the years, the sentiments in songs like “Overshare” aren’t just the purview of the famous — in the age of the internet, everyone can feel like they are under a magnifying glass — like they owe the world a live-story of their feelings or their lunch, all honed by Facetune.
“Everyone, especially my generation, is feeling that right now,” she says. “Yeah, I’m addicted to my phone and it makes me feel weird and competitive and narcissistic and insecure, so I should probably talk about that.” Touring with Kelly Clarkson helped open her up to a world where perfection is discouraged (“If she had a day she felt bloated, she’d just announce it onstage,” Ballerini says), and she’s been listening to Lizzo — Ballerini was dancing next to Trisha Yearwood at the “Truth Hurts” singer’s Nashville concert last year.
The album’s first single, “Homecoming Queen?,” also charts that process of balancing humanity with expectations, and the need to appear perfect at all costs, even when the currency is paying with your own happiness. Ballerini works hard to stay in touch with the real world outside of celebrity, which sometimes means pulling up the curtain through song, and sometimes just taking a few more trips through a drive-through for chicken nuggets. “Especially in the celebrity culture we have — and I’m not talking about myself, I’m a D-list country singer — I’m around people that are, like, really, really famous,” she says, “and I look at the way the world looks at them, and I look at the way they look back at the world.”
Of course, Ballerini isn’t “D-list.” She’s now a member of the Grand Ole Opry, had a hit with the Chainsmokers (“The Feeling”), and features collaborators and co-writers like Ed Sheeran, Halsey, and Kenny Chesney on Kelsea. But that sort of open self-deprecation while never sacrificing confidence is part of what has helped the Knoxville native carve her own signature niche. The other part? Her blend of pop and country, which, on Kelsea, reaches its most interesting apex, mostly because she’s simultaneously the most country, and the least, she’s ever been (on the gorgeous, song-poem closing track, “LA,” she asks, “If I let down my hair in the ocean air, will Tennessee be mad at me?”). It’s also reflected in her choice of featured artists. It would be hard to pick two singers further apart than Chesney and Halsey, who appear on “Half of My Hometown” and “The Other Girl,” respectively.
“I’m somewhere in the middle of that, and that’s why I love it,” she says. “Half of My Hometown” is one of her favorite songs she’s ever written, and she even texted Chesney at 2 a.m. to ask if he would be willing to add vocals. While tracks like “Club” and “Bragger” are purely pop, other moments, like “Hole in the Bottle,” are the twangiest Ballerini has been yet. And then there’s the aptly named “Country Song,” which is both an ode to her core as a writer and also serves as a sly debunk of whatever a proper country song is supposed to be — or what’s allowed to be mentioned. It talks about sex point-blank. “It’s honest,” Ballerini, who co-writes all of her songs, says. “The whole song is about the reasons I write songs, and what they have gotten me through.”
Ballerini has been finding her voice in many ways. In her live show, she displayed phrases like “It’s never OK to call a woman a bitch” behind her as she sang, and she stepped into territory she’s always been hesitant to until recently: gender inequality in country radio. When a tweet circulated in January that showed a station claiming to abide by a rule to never play two women in a row, she finally chimed in. “To all the ladies that bust their asses to have half the opportunities that men do, I’m really sorry that in 2020, after years of conversation of equal play, there are still some companies that make their stations play by these rules. It’s unfair and it’s incredibly disappointing,” she tweeted. Kacey Musgraves did the same (“Smells like white male bullshit and why long ago I decided they cannot stop me,” she wrote). It’s not that Ballerini hasn’t cared deeply about any of it, it’s just that, as a rare woman with Number One singles, she didn’t want to seem ungrateful.
“It’s really hard for me to talk about equality on country radio because I get played on country radio,” she says. “We have a good relationship, they play my songs. My career has happened because of country radio. But when you see something that blatant, it’s a slap in the face to every woman. It offended me just enough and hit me pre-coffee to where I said, ‘Screw it, we’re going there.’ ” She and Musgraves ended up texting each other after. “We were saying, ‘Well, cool, I think we might have pissed off everyone in Nashville today.’ ”
Ballerini also texted her manager, Jason Owen: She wanted to know if he was angry with her. Maybe she finally overshared too much.
“No one can be mad at you,” he said. “Because you told the truth.”