If Kelsea Ballerini needed a reminder of just how far she’s come in her 23 years on this planet, March 23, 2017 was surely it. Not only did she play her hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee, she did so at the Civic Coliseum - the very place she used to watch big gigs as a small girl.
“Those are the moments for me where I really need to take a deep breath so I don’t cry onstage,” she beams over the phone to Music Week in her warm Southern accent. “Last night, I saw everyone from when I was growing up. It was special.”
Such moments have hardly been in short supply. In 2015, this extremely talented yet unknown country singer-songwriter released her debut The First Time on the independent label Black River Entertainment.
Since then it’s gone Gold in America, selling over 300,000 copies (with 200,000 sales from streaming); and she’s also shifted over two million singles, has 80m YouTube views and is fast approaching 250m streams.
Oh, and she performed at the Grammys this year (“I will never be that nervous again in my life,” she laughs), where she was also up for for Best New Artist. It seems people can’t get enough of her pop-tinged country - an infectious sound that was perhaps inevitable given her influences.
“I’m super open about listening to pop and country, and I think that’s really transparent in my music,” she says. “I grew up listening to Shania Twain, Faith Hill, Dixie Chicks and also Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys - that was my melting pot. I love both genres, but my roots are very Southern, so country’s first.”
You can hear all of the above working away throughout The First Time. It’s a super-slick record that showcases her impressive range of vocals, genres, and emotions, ranging from bruised balladry exploring the naivety of love on Peter Pan, to the thermonuclear sass firestorm of Dibs.
“I wanted it to be a snapshot of a 12-21 year old girl’s life,” she says of her debut. “I talked about first crush, young love, first heartbreak, feeling insecure and my parents splitting up.”
A lot of people are finding these stories relatable, and no more so than Taylor Swift, who first tweeted about Ballerini when she only had an EP to her name. Soon enough, Swift hoisted her onstage in Nashville in front of a colossal crowd.
“To sing a song of mine, that had just gone to No.1, in that arena with her was really surreal,” she says. “To have her to call and ask questions to and get advice from has been so beyond valuable as a new artist. She’s really special.”
So, too, it seems is Ballerini. In 2016, she became the first female artist in a quarter century to launch three country chart-topping singles from a debut. What comes next should be interesting, particularly with her turning her focus abroad.
Last month, Ballerini released the international version of her debut in the UK, and is set to come over twice this year. If this suggests she’s busy just riding high on the back of her debut, that’s not true. Its follow-up is due soon.
“I have half of it done,” she offers. “As a songwriter I got to get deeper into the craft. It’s a lot darker and lighter in mood than the last album, it has a lot more from both ends of the spectrum as far as emotion [is concerned].
We’ll have an album out by the end of the year, absolutely.”