The weekends have become a pretty fun time for Kelsea Ballerini.
While on tour across the country, the Black River Entertainment recording artist has been keeping up with the weekly country countdown shows — and with good reason. Her debut single, “Love Me Like You Mean It,” has been steadily climbing the Billboard Country Airplay chart — currently sitting at No. 14. Hearing her song on the airwaves is an experience that she relishes.
“Yesterday I got in my car to see my mom. ‘Love Me…’ was on, but I thought it was my CD and not the radio,” she said. “Then, afterwards, they come on and announce my name. I thought, ‘This is so cool.’ It still catches me off guard.”
Her success with the single is defying quite a few odds. For starters, she’s a female artist — a new one, at that. Also, being on an independent label makes her impact even more unique. These fact are not lost on her. “There are all these barriers and obstacles that I feel that somehow we are jumping. It’s so exciting to be a part of women breaking back through,” she admits. “To be a part of that wave is a really good thing.”
One place where the Knoxville native definitely has a cheering section is at CMT. The network named her as one of its “Next Women of Country” last year and she was named as the co-headliner of its 2015 tour, pegging her as definitely one to watch. “One listen to her music and it’s clear that Kelsea has undeniable confidence and strong sense of self; an attribute that’s often illusive to an artist so early in their career,” said Leslie Frame, CMT’s SVP, music strategy. “She’s definitely poised to be one of this year’s breakout stars and CMT is committed to leveraging off all our screens to get her there.”
Part of that talent includes Ballerini’s songwriting. Originally signed to Black River’s publishing arm, Ballerini considers being a tunesmith at the very core of what she does. “Being a songwriter is really the base of being an artist, for me. I wrote or co-wrote everything on the record and I’m still writing all the time. It’s the foundation of what I do and it’s very important to me.”
That gift is apparent on such tracks as “XO” and “Stilettos,” where the subject matter takes a definite turn from what you might expect — something she loves to do. “My favorite songwriting trick is writing something like ‘XO.’ In my brain, I thought ‘This is probably going to be a love song. How can I change that and find ways to twist that. As a songwriter, it’s your job for the song to take twists and turns that people don’t expect.”
Ballerini wrote or co-wrote each song on her debut disc, The First Time, set for release on May 18, and says she’s been writing continuously since she was 12. “I am already excited about writing for the next record,” she says. “For me, it’s about picking the songs and the message of what I wanted to put out there.”
Messages are all over The First Time, especially on cuts like “Square Pegs,” which she says is important to her. “I wanted to have songs about love, relationships and heartbreak, but I wanted to also have songs that were about life outside of boys. The last two songs we wrote for the album were ‘Underage’ and ‘Square Pegs.’ I was in the mindset of wanting to write about something else. I’ve always been drawn to the message of ‘Be yourself. Love yourself.’ I need to be reminded of that all time. As a young female, I struggle with that. I think that writing that song was therapeutic for me. I get to remind myself and other people to be yourself, to rock you who you are and don’t worry about if it fits.”
Ballerini knows the importance of having someone to look up to with that philosophy. “I am a fan before I am an artist,” she stresses. “I was that twelve year old girl that looked up to Taylor Swift. I get what that role is, as a fan. I think that because I know that, I’m really careful and intentional about what I say and what I put out. I want to be that role for anyone who wants me to be that. Being able to be on the other side of that has really helped with the perspective of who I need to be.”
With the album coming out next week, Ballerini definitely plans on visiting the store herself to pick up her copy. “I think I am in three cities on album release day, but I am pretty sure that I get to go home to Knoxville and get my album there. I can’t wait. I think I will freak out, because I still buy the albums. I’m used to going to Walmart and grabbing it there. It’s going to be cool to see my face on there.”
In conjunction with the “CMT First” campaign presented by Reese’s, Billboard.com is excited to bring you this exclusive look at six of the tracks from The First Time: