I first meet Kelsea Ballerini for a photo shoot during a torrential downpour in New York City. The shoot is in a laundromat, symbol of all that is hard but also necessary when you're on your own in the adult world, and I am drenched by the time I walk through a tiny metal frame door. The storm is obviously no damper for Ballerini, who is not only not drenched but radiates sunshine on her own despite the gloom outside. In fact, when I come in she is jumping into a laundry basket, all smiles and 3.5-inch heels. Ignoring my sogginess, the Grammy-nominated country singer Ballerini — who's wearing a white lace top covered in hearts, stars, and lightning bolts, no cowboy boots in sight — nimbly extracts herself from the basket and zips over to hug me like we're best friends reuniting again a few years out of college.
I promised myself that I would be the same person on stage as I was out to dinner with my friends, as I was on Instagram. I never wanted anyone to see me anywhere and be disappointed, if that makes sense. So I share everything.
For fans of the country-pop star, this is nothing new. Ballerini brings that same lively, fun, and approachable energy you see on stage into everything she does. "I made a promise to myself when I signed a record deal when I was 19," she tells me as she sips on an espresso at a café a few doors down from the laundromat. "I promised myself that I would be the same person on stage as I was out to dinner with my friends, as I was on Instagram. I never wanted anyone to see me anywhere and be disappointed, if that makes sense. So I share everything."
And she does — her Instagram feed jumps from a glam shot of her latest TV appearance to a video of her dancing around her living room makeup-free in slippers and an Aerosmith T-shirt. The only thing missing in her video was the caption: #Mood.
Ballerini has, quite literally, grown up in country music. She started writing her own melodies and lyrics when she was just 12 years old, and her mom moved her from Knoxville, Tennessee, to Nashville when she was 15. "[My mom] watched it change from a hobby to a passion," she tells me. By the time she was 21, she had hit No. 1 on Billboard's Country Airplay chart with her single "Love Me Like You Mean It" — the first female country star to get there since Carrie Underwood in 2006. That same year, Ballerini joined Lady Antebellum on their Wheels Up tour with Sam Hunt and Hunter Hayes.
Ballerini continues to rise to the top of country now. In 2018 so far, Ballerini has headlined at the famed Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and rocked the 2018 American Country Music Awards stage. She’s also currently touring her way across the country, singing hits from her sophomore album, Unapologetically. Her newest single, "I Hate Love Songs," peaked in the Top 40 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart in the United States. The song has a doo-wop vibe, but Ballerini's voice brings an unmistakably country twang. She sang it for James Corden on The Late Late Show, wearing a pale pink, oversized blazer and a dainty heart ring on her finger. Again, no cowboy boots in sight.
In edging this line between country and pop, Ballerini has come up against the Taylor Swift comparison time and time again. In fact, as soon as I mention Swift's name, the look on her face shows she knows exactly where I'm going. The two are good friends, and the 10-time Grammy winner played a "massive part" in Ballerini's journey.
"She tweeted about my EP before my first single was even Top 40," Ballerini says. "When people compare us, I hope that it’s because she’s always kept songwriting and her fans at the forefront. And that’s always something that I hope to take from her and what she does."
But the women are not one in the same. "Obviously she’s in a super different place in her life," she says. "She’s in pop and I’m really happy in country."
The best kinds of artists are the ones that change but stay the same.
It's evident that, although Ballerini toes that same line, she means it when she says she's happy in country and wants to keep pushing the genre. And there’s still one big box in particular that Ballerini plans to check off her bucket list.
“I really want to headline an arena tour,” she tells me. “I grew up going to see people in arenas. I feel like you can kind of just create a mood and a world that people step into for a couple hours… with all the bells and whistles and sparkles and all that.”
By the looks of it, she’s not far off. Unapologetically peaked at No. 3 on Billboard’s Top Country Album chart after its debut in November and spent 21 weeks floating there. But in moving up the ladder, there comes a deeper responsibility. For Ballerini, that's staying relevant with her music.
"The best kind of artists are the ones that change but stay the same, if that makes sense," she tells me. "It’s hard to do and I think that’s why a lot of artists have a shorter career. ... It’s something that I want to learn from people like Taylor [Swift] and like Keith [Urban] and people that somehow reinvent themselves but stay the same."
Constantly growing, yet staying true to who she is — it's the epitome of Ballerini's work ethic. She may be touring the country with artists like Rascall Flatts and Thomas Rhett, but she's still ordering chicken nuggets for every meal (it's her drunk and sober food of choice, of course).
Lead with my heart, not always my head.
Ballerini's sophomore album echoes this same idea. Unapologetically gave her an outlet to tell her narrative of growing up. "This album is a story," she says. "It starts with a breakup, and then it goes into growing up and growing pains, and then it goes into falling in love."
She adds, “I think for a while, when I was just starting out, I just tried to be perfect all the time and I tried to say the right things all the time... and it was just exhausting. It wasn’t authentic, either. I think this last three-year period while I was writing this record and putting it out and even now, I’ve just chosen to just be who I am. Lead with my heart, not always my head, and it makes for a happier person.”
"I Hate Love Songs" is a perfect case study for that. Thousands of love songs are written the way the rom-com movies portray it — with flowers, hearts thumping, and googly eyes galore. But that's not what love is like for Ballerini.
"Essentially, what I love about this song... is it’s all the clichés that society and the world paint love to be and that’s just not what it is," she says. "I feel like just those moments of [the] pureness of love, that’s what it really is. But it’s kind of like, the humor of fighting through all the glitter and all the bull."
The love theme comes up again and again with Ballerini. I can tell that even though she may hate love songs, she loves love. It's as obvious as what she's wearing: her heart literally on her sleeve. And as she moves her hands when she speaks, I notice a platinum wedding band stacked with her engagement ring that also reads — what else? — "Love."
Ballerini tied the knot in December 2017 to musician Morgan Evans in what was, quite possibly, the most perfectly millennial wedding of all time. The two said their vows barefoot on the beach in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Ballerini wore a flowing gown with layers of tulle and a lace bodice. And that's about where the traditions stopped. They (and their 100 guests) took a shot of tequila after being pronounced husband and wife. Ballerini told People at the time of her wedding, "It’s a little bit different, but that’s how we started.” During the reception, the couple celebrated by eating tacos, churros, and ceviche while sipping on margaritas. All that was missing was a pineapple pool float and some rosé.
It goes without saying that getting married is a huge step to take in any person's life, regardless of whether you're 24 or 42. You're building a new beginning — a new family — with another person. But Ballerini says marriage isn't as groundbreaking as it's touted to be — it's the emotional change that's greater than anything.
"It’s the same person and it’s the same life, but... there is this newfound confidence in it," she says. "It's hard to explain. Even with you’re engaged you’re like, ‘I’m with this person forever, look!’ but when you’re married, there’s this new feeling of ‘no matter what.’"
When you know, you know.
Despite being told by some that the 24-year-old is "too young" to marry, Ballerini knows a good thing when she sees it. “I always thought, 'when you know, you know' was absolute bull. But it’s not, it’s just not," she says. "My parents are divorced and I always said I’d proceed with caution, and I did. But when you know, you know."
And to her, the least glamorous parts of living with Evans have been the parts she loves most. As Drake would put it: Sweatpants, hair tied, chillin' with no makeup on... these are the pieces of newlywed life that Ballerini looked forward to most.
"I just think there’s something really cool in showing your not-perfect self to someone," she says. "It’s just real life."
As she tells me about her new husband, Ballerini seems undeniably in love. But she's quick to mention how hard she and Evans work to put their relationship first. Though she’s jumping from city to city on tour, Evans is also a country music artist, and he's also on tour, singing his latest single, "Kiss Somebody," for fans all over the United States through the end of September. The pair got long-distance advice from a few friends: Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman.
“We have a two-week rule. We’ve only broken it once," Ballerini says. "We learned it from Keith and Nicole; they have it. I just think as much as we are in this phase of our careers where it’s like, building the foundation and it’s really important to be busy and to be doing as much as we can, obviously our relationship comes first. We’re learning to be able to say no to things if we need to, to get to each other. Instead of going home, I’ll fly to him or vice versa. But this is definitely the year of putting in the effort."
Especially with a woman who wants to have a big career, I think it’s important to find a man that wants her to have that career just as much as she wants it.
I tell Ballerini that I'm a year older than she is and getting married in July. Though the similarities pretty much end there (she's a country music star with chart-topping songs and legions of fans screaming her lyrics, and I have 817 Twitter followers), I can level with her when it comes to juggling her relationship with her growing career. Her advice? "Find someone that lifts you up in that... I feel like, especially with a woman who wants to have a big career, I think it’s important to find a man that wants her to have that career just as much as she wants it."
It's something Ballerini tells me was difficult for her in the past. "It was for me in my other relationships," she says. But not with Evans. "That’s one thing that I love about Morgan is he wants me to be busy," she adds. "He wants me to be fulfilled by my work as well as my relationship."
Ballerini has built a life for herself in every sense of the word since first moving to Nashville when she was a teen: She's got the southern charm, the smooth voice, smash hits, a blissful relationship. So, what could possibly be next? Well, she's about to take country music even further with the coming release of the next few singles from Unapologetically.
"My first single was called 'Love Me Like You Mean It' and it was really, really country-pop and really, really country-pop for the time," she says. "And it worked and they embraced it. I think because of that, we’ve kind of been given the confidence by radio to try different things and try things that wouldn’t necessarily have worked five years ago on the radio. And I think we’ll keep trying to do that."
As I wrap up my interview with Ballerini and pack up to leave, I think about how many big things she'll do with the future of country music, how grown-up Unapologetically is, and how strongly it positions her to take on this new era in her life, her career, and her relationship. I reach the door and turn to wave goodbye, and Ballerini's standing at the counter. In some ways, she's the ultimate millennial grown-up — already enjoying the results of her hard work and on the brink of even bigger wins, but also as normal as can be, asking the barista to sample more gelato. It's like she's any regular 20-something paying too much for coffee, yet she's poised to change the course of an entire genre of music. And you get the sense that she will.
Hair: Tarryn Feldman using Oribe Hair
Makeup: Tarryn Feldman using Babor makeup
Location: The Eco Laundry Company
Managing Editor: Kylie McConville
Director of Features and Brand Initiatives: Margaret Wheeler Johnson
Editor At Large: Kaitlyn Cawley
Creative Director: Adrian Moreno
Art Director: Becky Brown
Bookings Manager: Guillermo Perez
Photo Editor: Clare Thigpen