You wouldn’t know that Kelsea Ballerini is jet-lagged. The 23-year-old country-pop star and best new artist nominee -- who just returned from a vacation with her new fiance, country singer Morgan Evans, in his native Australia -- strides into an open-air bar in East Nashville with a coltish energy that betrays the decade of dance lessons she took growing up in Knoxville, Tenn. Ballerini even spent the flight home picking apart tracks from her sophomore album-in-progress, the follow-up to 2015’s effervescent The First Time, written and recorded with collaborators as green as she was and released on a 5-year-old indie label, Black River Entertainment.
Ballerini says she “popped out of nowhere,” but there are clear parallels to her friend Taylor Swift’s ascent nearly a decade ago. This time, country radio knew better than to underestimate a driven young female songwriter who presents her pop-schooled songs like diary entries. Ballerini’s first three singles, “Love Me Like You Mean It,” “Dibs” and “Peter Pan,” were all Country Airplay No. 1s. “She’s on fire right now,” says Jason Aldean, who invited Ballerini to duet on his 2016 song “First Time Again.” “She just has this really cool voice.”
“I love pop,” says Ballerini. “I’m the little girl who grew up on a farm in East Tennessee but also the girl whose first concert was Britney Spears.”
Along with Ballerini, Grammy voters recognized her fellow country-pop game-changer Maren Morris in the best new artist category. “Women are resonating now,” says Ballerini. “You turn on the radio and hear Miranda [Lambert], Carrie [Underwood], Martina [McBride], Trisha [Yearwood]. And then you hear new artists like myself, Maren, Cam and Lauren Alaina. It’s working.”
This isn’t the first year you have been eligible for a nomination. Why did “Peter Pan” make the difference?
“Love Me Like You Mean It” and “Dibs” are the kind of songs you roll down the windows and jam. But you’re not going to put on your headphones and get emotional with them. “Peter Pan” was the first song that I showed that side of my songwriting. It’s a ballad, and it has depth to it.
Look at what those kinds of songs have done for Adele at the Grammys.
Absolutely. There’s something really beautiful about a girl being vulnerable. So often we feel like we need to be defensive in our music. I love being able to just be like, “I’m hurt. This is how I feel.”
Was there a particular moment when you felt like you had found solid footing within country?
I don’t think I have that yet. Because I still get in the room with people and feel nervous. I still feel like I need to get better.
What difference has it made that there were no big names attached to your debut album?
A couple of months ago I was hitting a wall every time I tried to write, every time I tried to pick a producer, every time I tried to do something different than the first album. Then I just decided, “Make an album that you’re proud of. Make it with your friends. Just do it the same way again.” So the same two guys [Jason Massey and Forest Glen Whitehead] are producing it. I’m writing it with most of the same people.
No one was watching when you made the first album, unlike now.
It’s healthy pressure. It makes me want to make it really good. But it crippled me for a bit.
Have you learned from the way Taylor Swift handles the obsession with who and what her songs are about?
I have been super cool with things being public. I think that’s part of being relatable. But I think I’ve had to learn to be OK with not being polished all the time. I don’t get to just share the pretty things. Now I’m learning what to keep to myself. I got engaged Christmas morning and had to wait until the night to post about it. Waiting almost killed me.
Why did you have to wait?
Because we had to tell his parents, too! They weren’t up yet because they were in Australia.
Are you taking your fiance to the Grammys?
I think I’m going to take my mom. Leave the fiance at home for this one.
Who's won the most Grammys? What are Grammy awards made of? Watch Kelsea Ballerini, Anderson .Paak and Lukas Graham play Grammy Trivia with Billboard below.
Watch Kelsea Ballerini and her stylist choose outfits, strike poses and shoot pics for Ballerini's Billboard cover in Behind the Seams below.