[Exclusive] A Q-and-A with Kelsea Ballerini

With a string of history-making hits, vocalist, songwriter and performer Kelsea Ballerini has certainly experienced a meteoric rise. She is the only female country artist to send three consecutive songs from a debut album to No. 1, and the platinum “Miss Me More” brings the total to five. As if opening for Kelly Clarkson and headlining her own Miss Me More Tour didn’t keep her busy enough this year, she’s also been working on a third album and has already released two singles from it.

The industry has taken notice of this talented woman who calls Nashville home. Kelsea has received two Grammy Award nominations, won two Academy of Country Music Awards and taken home Best New Artist at the iHeartRadio Music Awards. In April, she was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry as its youngest current member. On Dec. 14, she will add another accolade to the list when she receives the Nashville Symphony Harmony Award at the Symphony Ball. We recently caught up with the singer to chat about this new honor, her music teacher, role models and holiday plans.

Congratulations on being named the Harmony Award winner for the Symphony Ball this year. You've already received awards and nominations. Does this award from the Nashville Symphony differ in any way?

Yeah, absolutely. I think every award has a different weight because some are fan-voted, some are peer-voted and then some are just really all about the industry around you. And ever since I moved to Nashville when I was 15, I just wanted that community to see me and to hear me and to embrace me. I think that's everyone's dream in Nashville, to really feel embraced by that community that has the reputation of being a family. And to me, this recognition really feels like being part of that community and it feels really encouraging and exciting.

You're in the company of some pretty big names, like Dolly Parton, Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban, Trisha Yearwood, Vince Gill and Taylor Swift. You're still pretty new in the industry compared to these other people. How does it feel being in their company?

It's the same way I feel about getting inducted at the Grand Ole Opry this year. Essentially as an artist, I'm 5 years old, you know what I mean? I've been doing this for five years. And so compared to these legends that have been a part of the Opry or [have] received this honor, I am new, but I feel like I've tried to really show my respect and my love and my roots of country music the last five years and have tried to show that I'm not going anywhere and that I'll always work as hard as I can to make sure that I represent country as well as I can. I think hopefully that's what they see.

Have you had a chance to think about what you're going to perform at the Symphony Ball or any idea what we might expect?

I'm not going to lie to you. I haven't gotten that far yet. It's almost CMA week and that is consuming my whole brain. But I will make sure that whatever it is is thought through and great when it happens.

So I guess in that case, you haven't thought about what you're wearing either.

I haven't, but it's a ball, so I'm just going to go there. I'm such a girly girl, so any chance I have to do music and dress up simultaneously, it's a really good day.

Speaking of that, a lot of us had the pleasure of hearing you perform at the 2017 Symphony Fashion Show. Do you have any special memories from that night or that experience?

Absolutely. Well, I love fashion. I think that it's just another way that you can express yourself and kind of show how you're feeling. One's with words, one's with clothing. And I've always been a fan of Zac Posen, who was the featured designer that year, and that allowed me to get to know him. He actually had known my song “Peter Pan,” and it was one of his favorite songs at the time, which was crazy because I'm like, "You're New York-based, and you're so in that fashion culture." I never would've thought that he would've been listening to "Peter Pan,” and he did, and so I remember wearing one of his gorgeous, gorgeous dresses standing onstage in this gorgeous room and looking down and seeing Zac Posen singing along to “Peter Pan" and just thinking, "Oh wow, this is something I'm not going to forget.” Since then, we've gone on to be friends and he custom-made my CMA dress last year. He's wonderful. We got to meet and start that friendship because of that event.

Both the Fashion Show and the Symphony Ball support the Nashville Symphony and the role that it plays in bringing music to the community, especially through its youth education programs. In what way is that important to you? 

I'm super involved in music education, whether it's through CMA or just offhand. I mean, I wouldn't have the opportunities and really the confidence that I have as an artist if I didn't have specifically my high school music teacher. I really believe that just like you have classes like math and science and all of that where you can discover what you're good at, you should absolutely have the ability to have all the arts to see what you're good at.

Music education in school, that's the age where you're trying to figure out who you are and what you want to be, and music ... helps you express yourself. Those are all really healthy things to have as tools. I think it's so important. Becky Thomas, my high school music teacher, was the one who taught me about work ethic and how that has to be paired with talent to even have any kind of opportunity and to win at those. So I've always tried to really highlight the importance of that.

You mentioned working with the CMA. Are there any other causes or nonprofits that are dear to you?

I've probably done the most with music education and then St. Jude. I know country music in general is really aligned with St. Jude, but I went out to do ... Country Cares. They do that big event at St. Jude and I went. I think I was two singles in, so it must've been like four or five years ago. And long story very short, I had never been. I learned all about the facilities and all the research they do and just thought it was an incredible place. But then I met a patient there that just really touched my heart and we became friends and she was my date to the CMAs that year and we've stayed in touch. She comes out to every tour that I do. And so because of her, I feel really attached to St. Jude. So I'm really glad that in country music, a lot of the guitar pools are benefiting St. Jude. We have the big radiothon that we do. There's a lot that kind of points that way.

What a special experience to have a personal connection with that.

Yeah. I mean, I think that's kind of why people get involved with whatever organizations they get involved with is because something feels personal about it, and she made it really personal for me. Her name's Allie.

You said you're just 5 years old as an artist. Are there ever moments when you just want to pinch yourself and say, "I can't believe this is happening to me”?

Every day. Every single day. I mean, I work really hard. Me and my whole team, we work really, really hard and we keep our heads down and we try to just show up and do the best we can. And personally, I’m always challenging myself to be a better songwriter, be a better musician, be a better artist. And so whenever stuff happens, we always celebrate every little victory because we're like, "We did this. We've earned this. We've done this together." And whether it's when a song hits top 20 [or] getting a performance slot on an awards show, we celebrate every win because we work really hard for it. And I believe in every baby step being a step towards a dream, which is a big deal.

Along the way, what women have been an inspiration and role model for you?

I always say I learned the most from four women, and I'll tell you why. So it would be Shania Twain, Kelly Clarkson, Taylor Swift, Britney Spears, and I learned something different from each of them. With Shania, I think that she was just the first person for me growing up that I remember being absolutely fearless and not staying in any kind of box or boundaries. She wrote her own songs and was such a businesswoman, but also in her music videos and her performances and her fashion, she just pushed boundaries. She thought outside the box. I've always wanted to follow in those footsteps from her.

With Britney, she has my first concert. I was a giant Britney Spears fan. My dad always jokes that I used to go around the house and we called it the Britney growl. It's [lowers voice] “Oh baby, baby.” He jokes that I just used to go around the house just doing the Britney growl, sounding like The Grudge. But I think with her, I learned the value of a brand. I thought she was such an airtight brand. When you saw any image or certain outfits, you knew it was Britney.

With Taylor, I think the way that she keeps her songwriting and her one-on-one connection with her fans at the forefront of her career, she does it better than anyone else. And that to me, getting to watch her so closely, has been like a master class on how to do that, how to keep both of those things in check and in priority.

And then with Kelly, I think that she's just the realest artist I've ever gotten to be around. She's so authentic. She's not scared to say something silly or be self-deprecating in a way that makes her relatable. And that [is something] I think the world needs a lot more of in female artists. So those are my four.

You've spent some time with Kelly recently. You were an opening act on her tour, but now you've been headlining your own. What's the difference?

One is a learning experience and a challenge. I think with being an opener — which I've gotten to open for a lot of incredible artists — you have the opportunity to go out and introduce yourself, which is a challenge sometimes. People are there to see Keith Urban. People are there to see Kelly Clarkson. So you have to make them want to come back and see you next time. And so me and my band always huddle up before and we're like, "OK, let's go get 'em." We really lean into the challenge of that, and you learn a lot. On every tour, at least once a weekend, we'll go out and watch the entire show front of house, take notes, take photos of lighting that I like, take notice of when they strip it down for the first acoustic song, take notice of how they use the hydraulic lifts. I'm such a student when it [comes] to opening tours.

And then headlining, man, it's a room full of connective energy. It's a room full of people that know the album cuts. They know the story behind why I wrote the album cuts. They're invested in not only the songs that they hear on the radio but all of it. And that's a different kind of energy, and it's doing the Miss Me More Tour this year, [which] I would say is the highlight of my career so far.

“Homecoming Queen” is wonderful, and it’s going to be on the new album. Is there anything you can share with us about that?

I'm all up in it right now. I'm in the mixing process, and it's so much fun. This album has been so much fun to make. I think that with every album, obviously it's kind of like the snapshot of my life, the two years that I write it. And this one's been interesting because I've never been busier. I have these contradicting feelings on this album of, "Oh my gosh, I'm so happy to be doing this.” Also, “I really miss my friends.” Also, “I can't believe that I am doing a headlining tour.” Also, “my friends are going out tonight and I can't go and I have FOMO." It covers so many real feelings of being 26 and what that looks like for me. So yeah, we'll get to release a couple more [songs] before the record comes out. I'm very much looking forward to it.

I’ve seen the YouTube videos of you and Halsey teaming up for the CMT Crossroads taping. Is there anybody else you'd like to collaborate with?

I've never put a collaboration on one of my albums before. I honestly had just never done one in general until The Chainsmokers song and I just fell in love with it. I fell in love with having two forces come together and create something. So this next album I have two and one is one of my favorite top artists that's one of my really good friends and one is my country hero. And so those are the people that I would want to collaborate with in any world, so I'm really stoked about it.

You've called Nashville home for a while. What do you love about living here? 

I've lived in Nashville for 11 years. It's definitely home. I think wherever you learn to drive is where home is because that's kind of where you learn where everything is. I love it for a couple of different reasons. I love it because there's the buzz of downtown and Music Row, and there's always something going on. There's always live music. There's so much energy, and then I love that you can drive 25 minutes and be in the middle of nowhere. I think it's one of those special places that offers both. And I think for any creative, you need both to really have a balanced life and a balanced mind.

What are some of your favorite places to go or things to do when you are here?

When I moved to Nashville, I was 15, and me and my mom lived in Franklin, near downtown Franklin. Whenever I need to clear my head, I just head out that way and either walk around that cute little downtown area or maybe go out further to Leiper’s Fork. It's so beautiful and it feels like you're just really far away.

Other than singing for us at the Symphony Ball, do you have any special holiday plans?

Honestly, this is the first holiday that I can remember where we are just going to lock our door and stay home, and I'm so excited about it. Since we've been married, Morgan's family lives in Australia, my dad in Knoxville, my mom in Nashville, so we just do a lot of traveling for the holidays, but we also do a lot of traveling for our real life. So this is the first year where we've already done all the family stuff and we're just going to see mom, see dad — we've already seen his family — and put up a Christmas tree, burn some sugar cookies and stay in.

Thanks so much for talking to us and we can't wait to see you at the Symphony Ball.

Thank you. Me too. Now you have me thinking about it.

Photograph by Piper Ferguson