When Kelsea Ballerini launched her career, she made a promise to herself: include one solo write on every album. As she readies her fourth full-length, Subject to Change, out Sept. 23 on Black River Entertainment, she assures she has kept her word. “It keeps me accountable to not always rely on a co-writer,” says Ballerini, who won her first Country Music Association Awards, published a book of poetry and scored her fifth No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart in the past year.
“Since I wrote my first record at 19, I’ve had a lot of internal struggles on how to gracefully grow up,” says Ballerini, now 28. “I don’t want to abandon that girl that sings [her 2016 Country Airplay chart-toppers] ‘Dibs’ and ‘Peter Pan,’ but I also want to honor who I am now in my late 20s. The last couple of years and the forced space, I’ve had a lot of time to kind of get right with myself and lean into my feelings.”
While she’s always writing between projects, she says that there comes a time “to gather all the demos and figure out the theme. When I was listening through the first 80 songs I had, there was a lot of juxtaposition and change captured.” Another recurring concept? The little things in life. “I have a Jeep. I drive every day. I like cooking and making pasta for my friends. I zoomed in what makes me happy and human.”
Ballerini’s poetry book, Feel Your Way Through, released last November, included poems about struggling with an eating disorder and her ongoing healing from witnessing a high school shooting. The writing process for the book had a profound impact on Subject to Change. “I credit a lot of the openness and the more poetic side of the songwriting to the book,” she says. “I feel like that opened my mind creatively and helped me work outside of the [standard song] structure. That creative freedom unlocked a part of me I hope to keep pushing in any kind of project that I do.”
In 2020, as Ballerini was spending more time at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, she found herself listening to music from The Corrs (the band’s “Breathless” inspired Ballerini’s own “Heartfirst”), Sheryl Crow, Sixpence None the Richer, Shania Twain and Trisha Yearwood. “Instead of listening to new releases, I listened to the music I grew up on, and that’s the influence for this record,” she says. “Really organic-sounding records.”
The ballad “Love Is a Cowboy,” which Ballerini wrote with Jesse Frasure and Parker Welling, underwent the biggest change from demo to final. “It was originally an uptempo, live banger,” she says. Producers Julian Bunetta and Shane McAnally “listened to it and were like, ‘This song is special, but we are not able to really hear it.’ We stripped it and felt every instrument needed to add something to the story. It’s one of my favorite production moments.”
Ballerini’s solo write on Subject to Change turned out to be “Marilyn,” a musing on the late icon. The vulnerable track concludes with audio from a Monroe interview (her estate approved its usage) where the actress is asked if she’s happy. “That was the twist of the knife at the end of the song, where I’m acknowledging that everyone wanted to be like her — but did she?” questions Ballerini. “Having her voice solidify that to me was a goose bump moment.”
Ballerini welcomed several female collaborators for her upcoming project, including Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild, a co-writer on “Subject to Change” and the project’s first single, “Heartfirst.” Alysa Vanderheym is a co-producer on the project, and wrote “Heartfirst” with Fairchild and Ballerini. “It’s interesting because in the conversation of, ‘Yes, we need more women in country music,’ what does that actually look like? We need more female artists and collaborators but we also need more female opportunities throughout the whole chain of events, you know?,” Ballerini says. “I intentionally wanted to write with more women this time. For me, when you are making a record about emotions, when you connect with a woman creatively, you’re gonna be able to tap into that in a whole different way.” Of working with Vanderheym, she says, “I had never worked with a female producer before, though I’ve worked with a lot of other female writers. But with Alysa, it was a whole other level, just being able to hear sonically things that match what we’re saying in the song in a different way.”