Kelsea Ballerini creates music with a level of lucidity scarcely found elsewhere. Unlike others, her lyrical openness has never translated into harsh, straight-talking candour, rather, it’s always been conveyed with a comforting sensitivity.
Which is why, when news of her divorce from fellow country artist, Morgan Evans, broke in August 2022, it didn’t feel like we were observing distant characters in the usual celebrity-infested fishbowl. Kelsea Ballerini has always felt like the megastar-next-door, and this made her most recent project, Rolling Up the Welcome Mat all the more heart-rending.
The drawn-in melancholy of the EP followed on from the unrestrained euphoria of 2022’s SUBJECT TO CHANGE, which found Kelsea strutting into sepia-tinged anthems like ‘YOU’RE DRUNK, GO HOME’ and ‘IF YOU GO DOWN (I’M GOIN’ DOWN TOO)’. Serving as a completion of SUBJECT TO CHANGE’s titular theme, Rolling Up the Welcome Mat blew open the ornate, lustrous balcony doors of Kelsea’s marital penthouse, to reveal strewn furniture, shattered glass and a tragic emptiness.
Although just six tracks long, Rolling Up the Welcome Mat is an unquestionable masterpiece. Its comparative brevity may well obstruct its ascent into the echelon of all-time great projects, but it would otherwise fit neatly in with the likes of Lemonade and Adele’s 30.
As we meet on an unusually balmy February afternoon in London, a relaxed Kelsea beams in a leafy hotel rooftop bar. It feels apt that the sun chooses to settle on the Knoxville native’s smiling face, as she discusses the respective light and shade of SUBJECT TO CHANGE and Rolling Up the Welcome Mat.
Kelsea speaks warmly and with interest, without any sense of wariness or reticence, offering a powerful sincerity as she delves into the catharsis that songwriting provides for her. There’s an excitable glint in her eye when discussing SUBJECT TO CHANGE, and despite the sombreness that appears whenever the EP becomes the topic, she doesn’t try to disguise the freshness of her wound.
Kelsea bares her soul, but then recalls Shania Twain’s profound advice to always save something for herself. On the one hand, there’s an air of vulnerability and an endearing willingness to be self-deprecating; but at the same time, each word carries an underlying sense of security.
She acknowledges that SUBJECT TO CHANGE was an album of juxtaposition, with ‘WALK IN THE PARK’, ‘WEATHER’ and the title track all exploring the ebbs and flows that we experience in a relationship.
But arguably, with the release of Rolling Up the Welcome Mat set against the stormy backdrop of divorce, commentators have attempted to superimpose this theme of antagonism and discordance onto the EP, forcing listeners to take a side with every new revelation and accusation.
It’s inextricably a project born from divorce. But, while it may seem counter-intuitive, it becomes clear throughout our conversation that Rolling Up the Welcome Mat does not actually have opposition at its heart. Rather, it revolves around finding balance and harmony with oneself - a mission Kelsea Ballerini now seems to have completed.
Although SUBJECT TO CHANGE did explore aspects of your divorce, Rolling Up the Welcome Mat takes a much more in-depth approach. Were the new songs written around the same time as SUBJECT TO CHANGE?
SUBJECT TO CHANGE is like the bookmark of being 26 to 28. I wrapped up writing for that project around March of last year. To me, you hear a lot of introspection and evaluation of myself and my relationships, all in the heart of growing up. My life has changed a lot since March, so the Rolling Up the Welcome Mat EP was kind of the sister project to SUBJECT TO CHANGE and the next season of my life explained.
Songwriting has always been how I process my life and my emotions. It’s the purest part of what I do, and recently it’s felt like the only way to handle my life.
There’s no emotional shield protecting the sentiments on Rolling Up the Welcome Mat. Did that make you more apprehensive about putting the EP out into the world, compared to previous projects? Or have you made peace with this level of intimacy?
All I’ve ever done is write about my life. I’ve always loved music, and I’ve always been involved peripherally, like I led worship at church and I was in glee club.
But my parents split up when I was 12, and I started writing songs about my life and it quite literally saved me. Sometimes I try to finesse it and make it into a really pretty metaphor, or give it a glossy hook, but sometimes I really don’t and I just create a train-of-thought kind of song.
SUBJECT TO CHANGE has a lot more of a conversational tone than my previous records, and then Rolling Up the Welcome Mat goes a step further than that.
Do you find that the creative process is more intense and more visceral when you’re writing from a place of pain, compared to a place of joy and levity?
I haven’t thought of this before, but my gut and knee-jerk answer is that when you’re happy, you’re probably out to dinner with your friends or you’re on a date with your person. You’re busy being happy. When you’re sad, you’re busy being alone, and when you’re alone, you’re looking for something to make you feel less alone. For me, that’s music. So I think it makes sense that a lot of the bigger projects come from heartbreak.
What inspired you to put together a short film with the new EP, and what was the experience of writing and directing that like?
The whole project came together really naturally. I was writing a lot, because I had a lot to write about, and that felt like the healthiest way to handle it. As I was writing through my journey, I realised that it was a story that I wish I would’ve had last year when I was making difficult decisions.
So I decided to make it a project to put out. I knew then that I wanted to put my weight into it and really go there, and I just kept wanting to pull back more layers of my experience. The short film was the swan-dive, I guess.
Although Rolling Up the Welcome Mat centres around your specific, personal experiences, if there is one lesson or message the listener takes away from it, what do you hope that is?
I think the point of music is to connect people. Whether it’s a bop like ‘HEARTFIRST’, or whether it’s a guttural truth like ‘Just Married’, I think the point is to be honest and put it out there, and then hope it finds the right people.
Turning that question around a little, when you’re going through a tough period, do you turn to a happy song to help lift you out of that space, or do you turn to a sad song that you can empathise with?
I find it hardest to write happy songs. But oddly enough, even though there are meaty, tough lyrics on SUBJECT TO CHANGE, at the same time, it’s the most upbeat record I’ve ever put out - I don’t know how that happened!
The whole record is a juxtaposition of itself, so it does make sense. It’s so heavily 90s country and pop-inspired that I wanted it to feel nostalgic, breezy and sunshiney so you could just hear it. But if you wanted to listen to it, I wanted it to be a story.
For me, the song that epitomises that 90s country influence is ‘YOU’RE DRUNK, GO HOME’. You’ve spoken in the past about how Shania Twain is a mentor to you - what’s the best piece of advice that she has given you?
Shania is such a resilient woman and artist, and has weathered a lot of things in her life both publicly and privately. She’s done it so eloquently, while still making music and remaining ‘Shania Twain’. I’ve definitely leaned on her.
She looked me in the eye once and told me, “All you owe anyone is music”, and I think through this last season of life, that advice has been in the back of my mind. I’m a chronic over-sharer, but I’m learning what to keep for myself now.
One of my favourite songs on SUBJECT TO CHANGE is ‘DOIN’ MY BEST’. But when you released it, the media focussed on the lyrical content and the ‘revelations’ it contained, such as its reference to falling out with Halsey. Was it frustrating that, musically at least, the song itself perhaps didn’t get the credit it deserved?
I am in a new season with that in general, and it’s all very different for me. All I’m in control of is writing my experience, and hopefully staying soft and open enough to share it - I hope I never change that. I’m not in control of what people write about it, and I’m not in control of how people hear it.
The book of poetry I put out last year was the first time that I dipped into subject matters that were a little trickier to navigate, and it was met with so much love; I connected with people in a different way than I had before. I think ‘DOIN’ MY BEST’ was the extension of that musically, where I was like, ‘Alright, I’m gonna go there’. I recognise that there will be things that people have read about me or wondered about me, so I thought I’d go ahead and address it myself.
The further we go into your discography, the more it feels as though you’re making songs and albums for you, rather than for country radio, or to try and appease any outside voices. Is this something that’s come with experience?
I think I made my first album for me, because I thought it might be the only album I ever get to make. I didn’t have any expectations, because I didn’t really know what to expect - I was 20. I had four singles off that project which changed my life, and then I had all this pressure I put on myself, and that maybe other people put on me too.
I wanted to make a follow-up record that was equally as successful, so although my second record was the Grammy-nominated album, I would say for that one, I was sonically chasing what I was supposed to do. Then I feel kelsea was the first time where I felt comfortable enough to explore. I wrote in LA, I wrote with other artists, I had collaborations for the first time - I just played. Then on SUBJECT TO CHANGE, I feel like I came back to the first album version of myself.
On the new EP in particular, it feels as though you’re experimenting with a different sound and exploring some new territory. Was this a conscious creative decision, or a natural extension of what you were wanting to express?
I think SUBJECT TO CHANGE is the most country record I’ve ever made, and then Rolling Up the Welcome Mat is just its own thing. I didn’t think about anything other than the story. I didn’t think about where it fits, or how it sounded, or how long the songs were, or if they would ever be on a playlist or the radio. It was just the truth.
When you’re making a commercial record that’s going to be sold at Walmart, you think differently. So when I make my next ‘record‘ record, I don't know - and I love that I don’t know.
And is there any word on the next ‘record’ record…?
(Laughing) No, I’m tired! I got nothing!
You’re hosting the CMT Awards in April. How excited are you for that, especially given the fact that you had to host it from home last year?
I’m going to quarantine for two weeks prior just to be safe! I’m excited - it’s moving to Austin this year, so I feel like it’ll have a new energy. I like the CMT Awards because they feel like an honest look at where country music is right now - more so than what’s on the radio and what’s in the Top 40. It's a bigger snapshot of what’s going on, and I think that’s really important. Plus, it’s fan-voted, and country music is all about fans.
You also attended and presented at CMT’s 2023 Next Women of Country ceremony. There’s a really exciting wave of new female artists coming through that were included in that group. Who are you most excited about?
I love Georgia Webster - I stan her. She’s out here on tour with me again, and she will be throughout the whole HEARTFIRST era. I just love her music so much. I don’t pretend to know shit about shit, but what I’ve learned is that there are so many talented people out there.
What is that X factor that we talk about? More so than luck and the stars aligning, I think it’s a culmination of talent, kindness and work ethic. I’ve watched Georgia be all three, and I’m really excited about her.
Looking at the industry now compared to when you first started releasing music in 2014, do you think it is getting easier for women to get onto country radio, or is there still a long way to go?
You know, I can’t break the Top 40 right now, so it’s hard for me to say. I hope so - and I don't know what the litmus test is anymore. Are we looking at country radio? Are we looking at playlists? Are we looking at women getting signed to labels? Are we looking at what we’re getting paid to play at festivals? Is it all of it?
I know that my role in it is to genuinely, both publicly and privately, lift up other women, whether it’s bringing Georgia on tour, or making an EP with just one other person and it being a woman. My team is mostly women. I’m always eager to learn more ways to help push that forward. I think being inclusive needs to be at the forefront of everyone’s intentions. Whether you’re putting together an album or a music video, or you’re hiring a band, I think it’s important to be really mindful about it.
You’ve also got an exciting Saturday Night Live appearance lined up! How are you feeling about that?
Oh my God, I’m so excited! It’s one of the most prestigious things you can get asked to do as an artist. I’ve had it at the top of my list for almost a decade. The fact that it came through around this project that I made solely for myself - with the least amount of public persuasion - is kismet. I’m sure in hindsight I’ll be like, ‘That’s exactly how it needed to be’.
We’re really excited about your UK tour, and we hope you’ll be coming back again soon. How are you feeling about the run of shows you’ve got lined up over in the US with Kenny Chesney?
I love Kenny - I feel like I should be a walking Kenny billboard. I didn’t know him before we did ‘half of my hometown’ together, and the song has just become such a pillar of my career. The thing I will always point to when I look back at that song is that I know Kenny Chesney like family now, and a song brought me that. I’m excited to tour with someone that’s my friend, that I grew up on. I know his entire setlist back to front - every word. I can go do my thing on-stage, and then I can go to the front and jam out!
Rolling Up the Welcome Mat is out now via Black River Entertainment. For more on Kelsea Ballerini, see below: