“Life with him was an adventure. But sometimes an adventure just has to end for a new one to begin.”
Kelsea Ballerini‘s ending summation of the guy in her “Peter Pan” video — a leather-jacketed daredevil with a seductively perfect smile — points to an issue that many women face as they weed through the frogs to find their prince. Men who live on the edge are wild and exciting, but they tend to create a lot of drama, too. The dependable guy who pays the bills on time and calls when he says he will isn’t as sexy in the short term.
Finding the right mix of those two things is the challenge for the adult American male. Some are able to make room for both their inner child and the steadfast man. Many choose one of the extremes, as does the guy in “Peter Pan,” a song that goes much farther below the lyrical surface than Ballerini’s introductory hits, “Love Me Like You Mean It” and “Dibs.”
“I’ve gotten to show that fun, young, youthful, flirty side of me — that’s totally a side of me — but I’m really excited to balance that out with that depth and that emotion,” says Ballerini, putting “Peter Pan” in context. “I think that that’s an even bigger part of me that I’ve been waiting to share.”
Waiting indeed. Ballerini wrote the song about two-and-a-half years ago, when she had a songwriting deal with Black River Music Publishing but hadn’t yet snared a recording contract. She shared the writers room that day with “Love Me Like You Mean It” co-writer Forest Glen Whitehead and Jesse Lee, a former recording artist who charted one title for Atlantic in 2009. Lee and Whitehead had written one song before that was placed on hold, but never recorded, by Jana Kramer. Lee had carried around the key lines from the “Peter Pan” chorus — “You’re never gonna grow up/You’re never gonna be a man/Peter Pan” — for about six months. And even Lee isn’t quite sure why she shared it that day.
“I had never written with Kelsea. She didn’t have a record deal, and I’d never heard of her,” remembers Lee. “Usually, us writers in Nashville, we don’t bring our favorite idea to unknown people in the room that you don’t know if you’re going to gel with.”
So Lee hedged her bets. She told Ballerini and Whitehead that she had a great idea, but if they didn’t absolutely nail it, she would take it back and rewrite it with someone else.
“The pressure was on,” says Ballerini. “Immediately, I think we all were super-inspired. Whether it’s a guy or not, everyone has been in a relationship where someone can’t quite match them emotionally, can’t quite grow up like the other person can. We probably wrote that song in two hours, if that.”
Lee described the carefree guy with the opening words — “the smile, the charm” — and they got through the initial verse fairly quickly. Lee and Whitehead, according to Ballerini, left the room for a bit, and while they were gone, she fashioned a pre-chorus — “You’re just a lost… boy…/With your head up in the clouds” — that captures the isolation and misguided motivations -behind the guy’s personality.
“He’s not necessarily an asshole,” says Lee. “He just doesn’t know how to be great in a relationship.”
Lee was the driving force in the chorus, working the mythical island of Neverland into the lyrics. And it was Whitehead who reshaped the “lost boy” pre-chorus into the song’s bridge, bending the melody and addressing the guy directly: “You don’t know what you lost, boy/Too busy chasing stars.”
“That’s probably my favorite part of the song,” says Ballerini, “because I feel like it sums the whole thing up.”
They recorded a guitar-driven worktape that day in the Black River writing room with Ballerini singing lead and Lee on harmonies, cautiously optimistic that it was going to work.
“We finished the song, and we all just looked at each other and were like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this sounds like a hit,'” recalls Lee. “That doesn’t happen that much. Sometimes it does, and then three days later you’re like, ‘That does not sound like a hit. What were we thinking?'”
Their evaluation didn’t change on “Peter Pan,” even after they made a more formal demo about a week later. They got outside confirmation, of sorts, when Kimberly Perry got excited about it. Her brothers were less enthusiastic, so The Band Perry passed. Not long after, Ballerini got her recording deal, in December 2013, and the three writers agreed she should keep it for herself.
Whitehead and Jason Massey co-produced it in their home studios, layering the instruments around the vocal that Ballerini put down on the “Peter Pan” worktape.
“Kelsea captures the best vocals the day that you write the song,” says Whitehead. “We tried to go back in the studio and beat these vocals, but we couldn’t beat whatever emotion she was feeling when we were writing. ‘Peter Pan’ is like most of the songs [on The First Time]. The initial vocals that we get after writing in the room that day usually are the ones that make it on the album and to radio.”
They built much of the track’s sound around baritone guitars, using the lower frequencies to convey the song’s dark sadness, and Massey came up with a repeated, two-note guitar section at the start of the bridge that sounds much like an ambulance siren, a warning perhaps of the internal emergency the woman in “Peter Pan” experiences when she finally understands the guy is emotionally out of reach.
Ironically, though “Peter Pan” was founded upon a fairytale character, the production leans less on programming and more on real instrumentation than Ballerini’s first two singles.
“This just needed to sound real,” says Whitehead. “It’s not a fun song by any means. It’s supposed to just suck you in and captivate you.”
The Peter Pan character has shown itself repeatedly to Lee since they wrote it. Geico has an ad with a bratty Peter Pan kid (actor Thomas Barbusca, whose unusual name is slightly reminiscent of Ballerini’s); a friend who refers to himself as “Peter Pan” was part of Lee’s wedding party; and when a house that Lee had her eye on went on the market, the listing included the words “Peter Pan” in the caption for a room that is now her music room.
In the meantime, Black River issued a radio edit of “Peter Pan” (the only change from the album, according to Whitehead, is that they shaved off a three-stroke drum lick from the opening) through Play MPE on March 2. It is No. 28 on Hot Country Songs in its third charted week, and the video underscores the weight of the song, which Ballerini always viewed as a key track that’s being released at just the right time to capitalize on her career momentum.
“This was a song that I wanted to put out from the second I wrote it,” she says. “It’s my baby on the album. I didn’t know when we were going to put it out, but I knew we needed to wait until it was going to be heard.”
Her adventure continues…
This article first appeared in Billboard’s Country Update — sign up here.