“My body has adjusted to jetlag now. I think I just have permanent jet lag”.
Kelsea Ballerini is just back from the UK. She’ll be back there in March for the C2C festival, before shooting over to Oz for CMC Rocks. The week after we talk she’s playing a one-off show at her old high school, then her new album ‘Unapologetically’ comes out. Somewhere in there she’s getting married. I thank her for doing the interview this early – most singers wouldn’t be awake yet. It’s fine, she was up prepping for a Spotify session she’s taping later in the day anyway.
The permanent jetlag she jokes about is one of the side-effects of being the Queen. The early years of a monarch’s reign are normally the busiest. Between the first #1 single, training the dragons and/or corgis, the Grammy nomination, endless (but fun) touring, defeating the army of frozen zombies and making album #2, there’s a hyper-intelligent songwriter wielding her talents in service of her audience.
Some monarchs seize the throne and then protect it selfishly, rehashing the formula of their breakout hits ad nauseam until their audience moves on. Kelsea keeps her head in the game with a simple commitment to staying true to the woman she is - and continues to become. The unspoken underlying truth is that she’s taken care of the person behind the artist too. You don’t have to fake authenticity if you’ve got it for real.
“When I first got offered my record deal, I kind of made a deal with myself. I really wanted there to be a consistency, where if there was a little girl that followed me on Instagram and then saw me out at dinner, it would be the same person. I didn't want there to be a false reality. So even stupid stuff, like I post about drinking wine, because I never want anyone to see me drink wine one night and be disappointed. I never wanted to disappoint anyone. I never do.”
Less than two years ago, Kelsea made her maiden voyage to Australian shores, playing head-turning mid-afternoon festival sets for an audience that was still in the process of falling in love with her debut album. When she returns in March, she’ll be one of the headliners for the sold-out CMC Rocks QLD 2018 (“It’s insane.”). Witnessing her raise the roof of Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena opening for Lady A recently, I was impressed by the remarkable but inevitable evolution of her stage show.
“I love live shows. I grew up studying tour DVDs. I've always just been obsessed with the whole atmosphere of a show - not just the songs they play, but how their setlist flows, how they build the hype before they come on stage and when they when they send the band off and it's just them and the guitar… I've always just been obsessed with putting shows together.”
So much of what has made Kelsea successful is in evidence in our conversation – a granular attention to detail, sincere humility with no pretense of naiveté and a strong tether to the mindset of her fans. Many artists struggling with the balance between serving themselves and serving their audience. For Kelsea, there’s barely a distinction.
“When I was playing headline shows last year, I was really shocked that they were mostly my age. I thought they were going to be a lot younger. It made me think ok, I really can write a record about where I'm at in my life right now, because they're going through the same things. They're falling in love and they're having their heart broken and they're growing up and they're insecure. I think seeing that really helped me kind of solidify being myself on this record.”
The old cliché is that you have your whole life to write your first album and then a couple of frantic years to write the second. The process paralyses some people, but Kelsea avoided the trap by not writing songs for the follow up to a wildly (record-breaking, history-making) successful debut album. She just kept writing from the minute her debut album was done. One song was even penned while ‘The First Time’ was being mastered.
He's still driving that 1970 hand-me-down truck
And he's still wearing that red and black jersey
Waiting for the band to start up
He's still showing up twenty late, finding hearts and rules to break
Why would he wanna change when every memory still bows to him?
The song in question is ‘High School’, written by Kelsea entirely solo (a rarity on a country album). It’s a new execution of a theme she took to #1 last year with ‘Peter Pan’, the best song on her debut – the arrested emotional development of men. Listening to this song, you can’t help but draw the contrast between the character depicted here and Kelsea herself. The message is implicit – just because you’re young doesn’t mean you can or should act like a kid.
He's still calling that first love, first time, pretty-eyed blonde
And she's still letting it ring 'cause his ring isn't what she wants
'Cause she traded in prom queen for a big city dream
And a slate that's clean, but
Your heart just don't get it and that's why you can't forget it
'Cause you're living like you're seventeen
I could’ve written an entire essay comparing ‘High School’ to Bruce Springsteen songs like ‘Thunder Road’ and ‘Glory Days’, where the desperation of emotionally stunted men whose lives peaked at the prom are rendered in gorgeous purple prose. Kelsea is not the kind of writer who goes in for character assassination (aside from the deft wordplay she deploys, she’s not going to get Elvis Costello comparisons anytime soon), but she finds nothing to celebrate in those people clinging to the glory of immature irresponsibility.
The mythic figures of music have legends built on their volatility and childishness. Fleetwood Mac sniped at each other passive-aggressively in the lyrics to their classic songs. The Who drummer Keith Moon dropped TVs into hotel swimming pools. Johnny Paycheck shot a guy.
Kelsea turned 21 a week before her first single entered the charts, and is releasing her second album two months after her 24th birthday. Yet underneath the undeniably contemporary production and youthful vibrancy, she wields an emotional intelligence beyond her years. When many kings and queens ascend to the throne, ‘their brain gets smart and their heart gets dumb’ (to misquote Smash Mouth). The songs on ‘Unapologetically’ are the product of smart brain and a wise heart.
While I doubt Kelsea sits on a throne made from all the different magazines she’s been on the cover of in the last three years, it’s definitely an option for her now. While the Khaleesi of Game of Thrones relies on her eccentric drunk counselor to check her hubris [SIDE NOTE: I was going to push this Mother of Dragons analogy a lot harder, until I found out Kelsea doesn’t watch the show. Her fiancée will appreciate it though], there seems to be little danger of Kelsea’s litany of accomplishments going to her head.
“I'm still new. You know I'm very aware of the fact that I could stop being on the radio tomorrow. They could decide that someone else was better in my spot. I know that every day I need to not and never take it for granted. I think that I think honestly the biggest thing I've learned is that talent obviously is important, but work ethic to outweigh the talent is really what's important. I think that's that's really what we've tried to do. I'm a young female on an independent label. It's not easy and and I think that I've just learned that I need to make the best record I can make that I can hang my hat on, whether it is the biggest success or the biggest failure in country music this year. But more than that, I need to outwork everyone else. And that's what we try to do.”
Long may she reign.