Go ahead and jump.
Some people are paralyzed by risk; Kelsea Ballerini, judging from the upbeat tone of her new single, “Heartfirst,” prefers to follow the Van Halen playbook.
“It’s been a theme throughout my whole musical journey,” she says of embracing risks. “I really do believe that nothing good in life comes unless you jump, unless you just take the chance. And love obviously — like, relationships of any kind — are that.”
Ballerini took a creative risk that mirrored the message of “Heartfirst” when she penned it in July 2021 with Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild and songwriter Alysa Vanderheym (“Talk You out of It”) at Vanderheym’s home studio in the Nashville area. They poured some wine, listened to some music and came up with a pulsing Fleetwood Mac sort of groove.
They didn’t know where it might lead, but they did what the song suggested — go ahead and jump — with no idea what results their evening collaboration might yield. “It’s not often that I start a song without a hook,” says Ballerini. “This is the first song that maybe I’ve ever written that’s been out into the world that I didn’t start with the title.”
Instead, Ballerini served up the opening lines, mirroring the track’s pulse with a series of phrases that synced with the underlining eighth notes: “Met him at a party/ Accidentally brushed his body/ On the way to get a drink at the bar.”
“Kelsea has a natural kind of rhythmic singing in her style anyway,” Fairchild notes. “And then Alysa does, too.”
The song’s random meet-up leads the two characters to leave the party, and the melodic accompaniment morphs into a syncopated evaluation of the consequences: “It may not be next week what I need.” That’s not quite the way Ballerini would say that in conversation, but that wasn’t quite necessary, either. “That’s the beauty of songwriting,” says Fairchild. “You can kind of twist [words] and turn ’em a little bit, and it doesn’t have to be necessarily perfect.”
The pop-leaning chorus puts a cheery shine on the unknown: Was this going to last forever or lead to a heartbreak? By the end of that stanza, the woman is determined: “I’m gonna jump right in, baby, with my heart first.”
It was at that moment that they found their title, and that they finished illustrating how aware the lead character is as she evaluates her romantic risk. Her head and heart are both involved, she’s balancing the fear of being hurt against the fear of being alone, and she’s embracing the moment but also considering its effects on her future. “There’s not really songs that talk about that,” Vanderheym notes.
Verse two emphasized the uncertainties using magic cards, permanent tattoos and astronomical bodies to make the point — “Hopefully, we didn’t mix metaphors too much,” quips Vanderheym — and their second pre-chorus would change “next week” to “next year what I need,” emphasizing that long-term thinking.
They also invented a post-chorus the second time around, using a linear melody that adheres to those pulsing eighth notes: “I gotta have it/ Gotta see if this works.” Before the night of writing was over, they created space for a short guitar solo and extended the post-chorus for the third, and final, run-through of the titular section.
Ballerini, who frequently cuts the final vocals of her singles on the day she writes them, worked through the demo that night, with Fairchild and Vanderheym joining her to stack a bundle of breezy harmonies. But Ballerini changed that pattern with “Heartfirst” once she aligned with producers Shane McAnally (Old Dominion, Walker Hayes) and Julian Bunetta (Thomas Rhett, Niall Horan) in the first quarter.
Everyone agreed that “Heartfirst” should be the first single on Ballerini’s next album, which is still in production, so they made it their sole initial focus and put everything about the demo under a creative microscope. They tried four different tempos and three different keys, ultimately bumping it up two beats per minute faster and raising the pitch a half-step. Those changes were relatively small, but they paid off significantly when Ballerini cut “Heartfirst” at Nashville’s Blackbird Studio D with a band anchored by drummer Evan Hutchings.
“It felt a little bit brighter,” Bunetta recalls. “It wasn’t as relaxed, and it forced her to push vocally rather than to kind of sit back and sing easy. And then the energy really of the drum sound, rather than it being a close-miked, deep kind of heavy kit — we wanted to give it a little more snappy, roomier, bigger kit.”
They established a faint synth pad to carry the pulse, and the band passed the rhythm around the room, with Alex Wright’s synth, Craig Young’s bass, Hutchings’ drums, a newly introduced instrumental intro riff and the melody itself all covering nearly every eighth note along the way.
“That’s just the product of great musicians listening to each other and finding the magic,” says Bunetta.
With the upgrade from the demo, the song freshened its sonic influences from Fleetwood Mac to ’90s country — Faith Hill’s “This Kiss” providing one reference — and ’90s pop-rock, including Sheryl Crow and Sixpence None the Richer. The instrumental intro brought an additional twist, with Bunetta blending a mandolin, a piano played in octaves and couple of electric guitar notes to build a compact line that uses a portion of the chorus melody to introduce the song.
The linear post-chorus also received more attention. Instead of waiting for it to appear after the second chorus, Bunetta and McAnally inserted the first four lines after the initial chorus, then expanded its sweep after the second and third choruses, too. “Shane and I both saw that that was the magic moment of the song,” Bunetta says. “That was the moment that reached out of the speakers and grabbed both of us. So we both thought that that had to happen after the first chorus.”
Steel guitarist Whit Wright overdubbed whimsical notes later at Bunetta’s house, and they put Ballerini through the wringer on the final vocals, working her five-and-a-half hours, covering not only the lead voice but all the harmonies, some of which were stacked with eight parts or more.
“The only other song that I’ve ever spent that much time on was when I did ‘This Feeling’ with The Chainsmokers,” she says. “I guess in pop music, every single little thing is so thought-out, and we treated it like that with this vocal.”
Bunetta also encouraged her to replace the guitar section with a bridge, which she wrote during those five-plus hours at the microphone. “The song needed the soaring kind of anthem melody, which is honestly so nostalgic and is like a ’90s song in that moment,” says Vanderheym. “So I think it really tied it together.”
As a result, the character’s front porch becomes the final dividing line as she makes her risky decision. She delivers it in a way that suggests where the night is headed while leaving much to the imagination, including uncertainty about their future.
One thing is certain: The song was well-received upon its release. Black River issued it to country radio via PlayMPE on April 7, debuting at No. 24 on the broadcast-driven Country Airplay chart dated April 16. It dances to No. 37 in its fifth week on the list.
Understanding risk is a message that should resonate particularly with women in the current climate. “Diving in heart first is a very empowered thing to say,” Ballerini notes. “You’re saying, ‘I’m going to take ownership of my heart and of my life.’”