On a recent rainy night in Manhattan, Kelsea Ballerini kicked back at an East Village bar, wearing a sweater dress and high ponytail after a long photo shoot, and ordered a glass of white wine. Before sitting down to chat though, she posed for one more photo — wine in hand — in the archway of the same room where she had just struck poses for the camera.
Hours later, the image ended up on her Instagram with the caption, “press day, vino night” — a typical post for the bubbly but savvy Ballerini, who, since her 2015 breakout, has focused on social media as a crucial tool to telegraph the fact that yes, she’s a chart-topping country artist, but she’s also a 26-year-old from a small town in Tennessee. Emphasizing the latter has become increasingly challenging since her last album, 2016’s Grammy Award-nominated Unapologetically, and it’s a big reason why her next, due March 20, is simply titled Kelsea.
“I’ve just started to regain ownership over my life,” says Ballerini, who signed with Jason Owen’s Sandbox Entertainment in 2018 after parting ways with her longtime manager, Icon Management’s Fletcher Foster. She credits Owen with pushing her to take some time off the road while finishing the project. “I was so nervous to not run myself into the ground for four months,” she admits, “because that’s all I knew.”
During her downtime, she remained active on social media, cryptically tweeting lyrics and posting studio shots on Instagram, while also sharing glimpses into her world outside of music: a Grecian getaway with her husband, country singer Morgan Evans; early mornings with her dog, Dibs (named after her second No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart); happy hour with fellow Nashville star Maren Morris. Her approach is working: With 2 million Instagram followers and nearly 1 million on Twitter, Ballerini is the most-followed female country artist among those who have debuted in the past five years.
Ballerini’s widespread appeal of course stems first from her music, which incorporates more pop production than many of her country peers — something especially prevalent on Kelsea. Though none of her own songs have landed on pop radio, Ballerini is on the cusp of a crossover: She featured on The Chainsmokers’ 2018 hit “This Feeling” (which reached No. 9 on the Pop Songs chart in February 2019) and opened on Kelly Clarkson’s Meaning of Life tour last spring. And lyrically, Kelsea is Ballerini’s boldest album yet, whether she’s reveling in the joys of downing a bottle of wine, talking about sex or revealing her struggles with anxiety.
Those may sound like perfectly acceptable topics for a 26-year-old to sing about — and in Nashville today, it’s true that they’re no longer as taboo for female artists like Ballerini and her contemporaries. Still, she is ever-conscious of the image she’s projecting to fans — especially younger ones — and maintaining an unfiltered presence on Instagram helps reassure them that she hasn’t changed, even if her lyrical content has. “I always lead with the young-fan lens,” she says. “I’m so protective of that because I know that there’s not many females right now, especially in country, for little girls to look to. But I also think being a role model means [being] someone that is authentic, talks about their real life and isn’t just cookie-cutter.”
She learned that approach firsthand as a fan herself, watching acts like Miley Cyrus, Jonas Brothers and, above all, Taylor Swift engage directly with their followers. “Even as [Swift has] reinvented herself for every season and record, she has always kept her fans right at the front of every decision she makes,” says Ballerini. “I think I always was like, ‘Well, Miley’s doing it, Taylor’s doing it. I want to do it too.’ ”
“Kelsea knows who she is, whether it’s when she’s writing songs, at a fashion show or onstage,” says Lucia Kaminsky, head of digital at Sandbox. “That translates onto socials.” Kaminsky’s team — which manages Ballerini’s social media, streaming strategy, overall brand design, digital content and fan club — meets with Ballerini a few times a month to ensure that their communication isn’t “just an approval process.” But when it comes to social media, Ballerini mostly takes the reins. “She really does know how to use all of [the platforms],” says Kaminsky. “That’s unique, to be honest — not all artists are comfortable doing that.” (She notes that Ballerini particularly “shines on Twitter at midnight”).
Though Ballerini says she has no plans to join TikTok (“That’s for the kiddos,” she says with a laugh), she knows developing her social media presence is as important as anything she does in the studio. She’s already thinking about starting a line dance challenge to promote her next new song. “It’s the way that I hear directly from the people who give a shit,” says Ballerini. “It has become my way of measuring success. For so long, I was searching for it in a No. 1; I was searching for it by selling out a club or theater. That connection with fans — them being honest with me, me being honest with them — has become how I value where I’m at.”
Keep It Real — And Consistent: Ballerini wants her fans to see the same person on Instagram that they would if they spied her out to dinner with her husband or on Good Morning America. Instagramming a recent trip to New York, she juxtaposed a shot of herself in an Yves-Saint Laurent top and Alexander Wang skirt with one of herself messily eating a hot dog on a city street corner. “I’ll make sure that I’m not over-posting just looking like I have my life together,” she says, adding that she follows advice she once received from Swift: “In a nutshell: ‘Don’t stress. Just be yourself.’ ” Kaminsky calls her approach “intentional, but also very natural to her.”
Get Personal: Ballerini finds the most value in direct-messaging fans, whether it’s to clue in loyalists on a new release or cheer up someone having a bad day, and she tries to do so a couple of times a week. “That’s not about anyone else,” she says. “I don’t need people to see me doing that” — though she did recently use an Instagram post to offer an encouraging response to a fan’s handwritten letter. She’s also known to sign on to Twitter for spontaneous Q&As. (Her filter-free answers have won her the name “Spillerini” from fans.)
Know Your Platform…: Though Ballerini has a say in all of her social media activity, she’s most confident navigating Instagram — and is, in fact, the only person who knows her password, guaranteeing that she’s the sole poster. She’s also honest about where she’s less comfortable. “I have help with Twitter and Facebook because I’m so bad at saying, ‘I have a new merch bundle,’ ” she says. “Even though I’m excited about it, it’s just not what I want to post.” Content that Ballerini doesn’t share herself gets a “Team KB” signoff.
…And Make It Work For You: Ballerini often shares clips of herself covering her favorite artists’ songs on Instagram and Twitter, but not YouTube, which she uses purely for official music videos and tour clips. “I want people to know I’m a music artist, and the best way for me to do that isn’t always posting a photo from a tour,” she says. Posting covers “is my way of reminding people that’s what I do in a way that I feel they can absorb without feeling like self-promotion.”
Do Your Homework: Ballerini has been vocal about the gender disparity on country music radio for the majority of her career, most recently in a January Instagram post: “It’s my job to say it out loud and post about it,” she wrote, “because of the girls moving to Nashville (or wherever) that are ready to outrun and outwork and outplay everyone.” But to bolster her own confidence, she’ll always do research before making a serious statement — in the above case, getting perspective from CMT vp music strategy Leslie Fram, other artists and country radio executives. “That helps me be like, ‘Here’s my role, and here’s what I can do.’ ”
‘To Think Big, You Have To Think Small’: For her most recent album launch, Ballerini invited to a Nashville party 50 of her biggest fans — some of whom she knows on a first-name basis. They didn’t know she would be there to unveil the news herself, and she snapped a picture with the fans alongside the album’s artwork to effectively serve as the project’s announcement. “Telling 50 people in a room was the thing that I wanted to be blown up,” says Ballerini. “We were able to collect [footage from] that and then make that the announcement that we hoped more people would see and people would talk about more. To think big, you have to think small.”
Remind Fans That You’re One Of Them: Ballerini isn’t afraid to gush over other artists on social media. She has shared an old meet-and-greet photo with Swift, completely lost her cool upon spotting Blake Lively during New York Fashion Week (“SHE’S REAL GUYS,” she tweeted) and paired a pic with the Jonas Brothers with a video of her teenage self trying to meet them in 2008. Though Ballerini can’t help calling the latter “cringey,” both she and Kaminsky know the value of being relatable. “That’s the kind of thing that can’t be contrived,” says Kaminsky. “She knows when something is gold.”