It’s been nearly two years since the release of Kelsea Ballerini’s sophomore album, the Grammy-nominated Unapologetically, and the country firecracker is prowling around the Songland set this week looking for another hit. She states that she always keeps an ear out for either a “proper jam” or a song that makes her cry. Did she come to the right place?
“She is the perfect example of someone who is really versed in the traditional and the pop country,” says panelist Shane McAnally — who, along with fellow producers Ester Dean and Ryan Tedder, helps guide Kelsea through what’s on offer from this week’s quartet of wide-eyed songwriters.
First up is Jack Newsome, a 22 year old from Runson, NJ with a mop of bang-swoop hair circa 2010. Right on cue, Jack informs us, “A lot of people think I look like Justin Bieber.” He goes on to mention that he was formerly a member of a boy band called NY5. A quick Google search finds a video by the kiddie quintet for a song called “NYC Girls” that’s so scandalously dire, it’s almost good-bad. Almost.
Jack belts out his double-entendre pop tune “Lying (Next To You)” for Kelsea. Shane declares, “You brought the smile in this room,” before dubbing the budding tunesmith “Dr. Dimples.”
Next up is singer-songwriter Jess Jocoy, who is from Seattle but now firmly planted in Nashville. Her song “Easy” was penned after friends warned her that a certain ex was bad news. Judging by the old-timey country vibe, it has Kelsea written all over it.
Well, perhaps. Shane points out that the lyrics to “Easy” don’t fully convey Jess’ story, and Ester asks why she didn’t keep the song for herself. Jess notes that she wants what’s best for the song. Shane says there are good bones there, but the panelists seem a tad unsure. We shall see.
In walks Virginian Daniel Feels (not his given last name, but let’s just go with it), who is peddling his upbeat guitar-pop gem “Crush.” After Daniel’s performance, Ester exclaims, “I like this song!” Kelsea and the three panelists then proceed to spontaneously make some rhythmic changes to “Crush,” which gives Daniel all kinds of feels.
Finally we meet Darius Coleman, a talented gent from Philly who wrote his offering “Better Luck Next Time” about a girl he knows who was cheated on. “Most of my sessions are all for pop music, but how amazing would it be if this young black guy from Philadelphia wrote Kelsea a song,” Darius ponders. “That would be like hashtag goals all the way.”
For the record, “Better Luck Next Time” is a hashtag gorgeous acoustic guitar ballad, and Darius is very humbled to meet Ryan Tedder, who he admits is on his professional vision board. Ryan gives hopeful Darius a hug, and he leaves the room with Kelsea still humming “Better Luck Next Time” while Ryan and Shane accompany her on their guitars.
After some thinking, Kelsea decides to cut Jess and her tune “Easy.” As the “Peter Pan” hitmaker puts it to the Seattle transplant, “I don’t wanna touch this, because this is your story and it needs to be your story. I believe you should just trust yourself as an artist-songwriter.” Way to cleverly stroke the ego while dumping someone at the same time, girl.
From there, Daniel Feels is paired up in the studio with Ester, while Darius Coleman works on “Better Luck Next Time” with his vision board fave Ryan, and Jack Newsome goes from boy band obscurity to reshaping “Lying (Next To You)” with Grammy winner Shane. While they’re reassembling “Crush,” Ester and Daniel Facetime Kelsea, who tells the pair to scale back the production. Daniel opts to strip things down all the way to acoustic guitar, and they bring in a female singer to perform it for Kelsea so that the country-pop star can better envision herself singing the track.
Elsewhere, Shane tells Jack he’s worked with Kelsea and she can be hard on lyrics. This means they have to try to think like her. Shane decides to doctor the “Lying (Next To You)” lyrics so that both parties in the song are being untruthful with each other. And this is why he’s got a shelf full of awards, folks. When it comes time for Jack to perform this retooled rendition, the panel is blown away by the lyrical switch-up in the “Lying (Next To You)” outro.
Like Shane, Ryan is no stranger to entering a studio with Kelsea. “I’ve worked with her a number of times, so I have the advantage of knowing where her voice sits best,” the OneRepublic frontman tells Darius. Ryan aims to get “Better Luck Next Time” in the right key so Kelsea can truly shine. Once Darius in back on stage, belting out the only slightly-altered version of the number, Kelsea is singing along. Ryan — who has yet to score a winning single on Songland to date, is looking very pleased with himself.
“There are two songs out of the three that I feel like are songs I would have put on my last record,” Kelsea announces when the time comes to make a final decision. “But I’m kind of in this place right now of pushing myself and trying things that I’ve never done before. One of the songs to me feels like something that I’m headed towards.”
And that song is “Better Luck Next Time,” which is a win for Darius and Ryan — and you, if you dig it, because Kelsea’s recorded version is available to stream on Spotify, and already soaring in the Top 10 on iTunes.