Kelsea Ballerini is putting a whole new spin on that old adage about making hay while the sun shines.
She sings “Oh, hey” at the start of the first and second verses in her debut single, “Love Me Like You Mean It,” and in her follow-up — “Dibs,” released to radio on July 1 via Play MPE — there’s a four-person “Heeey!” gang vocal in the chorus. Given the cheery nature of both songs, she really is making “heys” while the sun shines.
“It’s like a thing now,” she says with a laugh.
You might even think of calling her the “Hey Girl” if Billy Currington didn’t already have dibs on the title. For now, it’s best to think of her as a rarity in contemporary country music — a new female who scored a No. 1 single with her first release and has a sophomore offering that’s buoyed with the same bright attitude.
“‘Love Me Like You Mean It’ and ‘Dibs’ have very similar vibes,” she allows, “and that really helped do ‘Dibs’ how I needed to do it.”
“Love Me” was completed and ready to roll when she penned "Dibs" last year with songwriters Josh Kerr, Ryan Griffin and Jason Duke at Black River Music Publishing in Nashville. All four had already finished writing assignments that day and weren’t scheduled to work with each other. But as the friends hung out, they drifted into music-making and started creating something with a completely different tone than either “Love Me” or “Dibs.”
“We started out on this really sad and slow idea,” recalls Ballerini. “We tried to write it for like 30-40 minutes, and it was just never working.”
Kerr had to check in at a recording session in the studio, so he left the room for a bit. While he was away, the remaining three decided to chuck the ballad and try something else. Ballerini had logged the title “Dibs” in her phone, and she brought it up in the conversation.
“I thought it was like a cute, little flirty thing,” she says. “All of a sudden, it was off to the races. We started with the chorus, and as soon as we did the ‘hey’ we were obsessed with it.”
Kerr was shocked when he came back to the room to discover they had built nearly an entire chorus without him. That refrain leaned on wordy, rhythmic lines punctuated by that gang shout-out: “If you got a kiss on your lips that you’re lookin’ for somebody to take — Hey! — If you got a heart that ain’t afraid of love, ain’t afraid to break — Hey!”
But the “heys” were actually less an obsession than a point of contention at the beginning. Ballerini and Griffin loved ’em, but Kerr and Duke thought they were cheesy.
“The more we sang it, we were all doing the ‘heys,’ and it just became a catchy thing,” says Ballerini.
The room was probably too cramped for a four-person writing session — especially on a song that made them impulsively want to move. Kerr played guitar at one end of the couch, Ballerini occupied the other end, and Griffin and Duke sat on the floor as they pulled it all together in a scant 45 minutes.
In contrast to the long, winded lines in the chorus, they instinctively loaded the verses with shorter phrases and more pauses. “The chorus was so wordy and flowy and stuff that we wanted to completely change the feel ,” explains Kerr, “so that when the chorus comes, it just drops into this hand-surfing-out-the-window kind of thing.”
Kerr suggested the rap/recitation that punctuates the chorus, and they dismissed any notion of adding a bridge, instead doing a breakdown on the third run at the chorus around the two-minute mark. That section effectively works as a bridge, giving it a slightly different texture, with Ballerini singing the final “hey” in that refrain.
“Songs can have too many words, and I think this is just one of those,” says Kerr. “If you had put a bridge in there, it could have been too much.”
They wrote two versions of the song that day — one for a girl, one for a guy — and Kerr produced both demos, applying to his production the “heys” the four writers had shouted in the tiny writing room.
When they turned in the demo, it got high marks from executives, but Black River vp publishing Celia Froehlig was quick to nix any possibility that Griffin would record it in his new deal with Sony Music Nashville — it’s one thing for a woman to get assertive about dating a guy, but if a man gets possessive, it sounds creepy.
“Nobody does that in real life, and if they do, it’s not getting them any girls,” explains Kerr. “It might get them a slap in the face.”
Even before she recorded it, Ballerini started playing “Dibs” as she set up “Love Me” on her radio promotion tour, and it routinely got positive feedback from programmers. With that in mind, producers Forest Glen Whitehead and Jason Massey combed through YouTube videos of those station visits and fashioned the final product in a way that kept the best parts of the acoustic performances that seemed to win over those key broadcasters. The two producers played all the instruments themselves, using just one electric guitar among a bundle of acoustic stringed instruments — including guitar, banjo and mandolin — weaved so intricately that it’s hard to tell where one begins and another ends.
“We dubbed and overdubbed,” says Whitehead. “I love things that just sound over the top and really lush. What you may think is one or two acoustic guitars, there’s probably five or six layered up under there with different voicings, so it’s a lot of layers that build that really acoustic sound.”
Ballerini did only a handful of takes on the final vocal, and Whitehead brought up Kesha’s “Tik Tok” — with its much-discussed “brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack” line — as they cut it. The point wasn’t to coax a polarizing performance, but to get one that was immediately identifiable.
“The main goal as far as capturing Kelsea’s vocal in that song was just to bring out her personality,” he says. “We really wanted to make her sound animated.”
SiriusXM and Radio Disney started playing “Dibs” even while “Love Me” was climbing Country Airplay, making it an easy choice for a second single. Black River asked for a remix before it shipped, but it was a simple exercise. The only instruction was to bring out the “heys.”
Thanks to its familiarity, a number of programmers jumped on it at least two weeks prior to the official add date, and “Dibs” is already at No. 39 in its fourth week on Country Airplay.
“At live shows, most everyone knows it,” says Ballerini, pointing out its advantages. “And it’s a summertime single.”
That observation underscores the point: Ballerini really is making “heys” while the sun shines.
This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.