Growing up means never apologizing for who you are, and what you've been through. And for Kelsea Ballerini, one of Country's new voices, growing up also meant having the courage to put it all – the loss, the love and the highs and lows of life – into song. The result? Unapologetically, Ballerini's sophomore LP, a collection of songs – all which she wrote or co-wrote, as on her Gold-certified debut The First Time – meant to share her experiences over the past two years like a sonic journal, inviting listeners to open the book of her story and listen along.
From the first notes of "Graveyard" to the concluding chorus of "Legends," Unapologetically is a snapshot of Ballerini's life since the release of The First Time, all told through songs that push Country's boundaries and reveal just how personal the GRAMMY nominee's writing can be. Though it could have been easy for Ballerini to just collect a loose selection of hits, she decided to make an "intentional album" instead, carefully curating tracks that unfolded within the record as her own musical documentary in three parts. It's not the norm to write albums this way, nor is it easy, but Ballerini goes with what is in her heart.
"I had to let myself be OK with being vulnerable," says Ballerini. "My first album, I wanted it to be an introduction, just reaching out my hand. I had a song about my parent's divorce, about being insecure – it was one song per emotion. In doing that, I wasn't really able to articulate the depth of those emotions. Now, having gotten older, having gone through a big breakup and having fallen in love in a massive way, I had to say, 'hey, let yourself feel that, let yourself write that.' The end product was this record, which is a chronological story of my life these past few years."
That record is Unapologetically, an album that found Ballerini battling through her insecurities and coming out stronger, telling the story of the many ways her life has changed in the past several years from start to present, when those first loves turned into heartbreaks, those first thrills turned into bittersweet experiences and a girl turned into a woman. It wasn't an easy thing to retrace all those steps, but she did it, working with songwriters like Ross Copperman, Shane McAnally, Ashley Gorley and Hillary Lindsey and her production team from her debut, Jason Massey and Forest Glen Whitehead, writing over 200 songs but culling them into twelve sharp chapters in her life journey.
And that journey begins with loss.
Most things end, not begin, in the graveyard, but that's where Unapologetically starts: with "Graveyard," a moody and masterful meditation on burying ourselves in a relationship. Fans of The First Time might not expect such a somber note to kick things off, but it sets the musical template for what comes next: the edgy ode to self- rediscovery of "Miss Me More," the smooth sass of "Get Over Yourself" and the anthemic "Roses."
"I was going through a breakup that was really hard on my heart, and finding success at the same time,” says Ballerini. "It was a big tug of war between my heart and head, and career and personal. It was messy. I didn't show it at the time, but now I get to." Indeed, these songs peel back the curtain on her personal life – but, in Ballerini fashion, they always offer her fans a way to cope together, to make the vulnerable feel empowered, and to move on to the future.
And in that future? Life.
Because sometimes when you're broken, you have to learn to live again. Picking up the pieces after heartbreak are songs like "Machine Heart," which deals in the struggle for self-love and perfection through tender vocals, and "In Between," which is Ballerini taking syncopated stock of her exact place in the world: "sometimes I play grown-up, and sometimes I play pretend," she confesses.
"Perfect doesn't exist, and I'm exhausting myself trying to be something that isn’t real," she says. "And I know if I am feeling that, then ninety percent of the other girls that listen to my songs are feeling that too." There's "High School," Ballerini's soft, twangy meditation on growing up, and "End of The World," a moment to realize that, even when it feels like we might have hit our limits, life keeps going on.
And life's just better once we've found true love.
But leave it to the newly-engaged Ballerini to enter this phase of Unapologetically with a Motown-tinged, tongue-and-cheek nod to romanticism on "I Hate Love Songs." Indeed, the back end of Unapologetically is all about getting lost in this love, but not losing yourself. The title track is a dynamic pop-country anthem about heading into a romance with no abandon, but it took living through songs like "Graveyard" to get here. And "Music" is a stunning, R&B drenched dip into the emotional impact that a lover – not unlike a good song – can bring to our lives. Lastly, there's "Legends," the album's closing track and the first single that ties it all together.
"'Legends' feels like a song about loss, about life and about love," she says. "And it just depends on the perspective you listen to it from on how you hear it. I wrote it two years ago when I was going through a breakup. But now, it's a love song. It's about a love you are reflecting on. About loss, life and love."
Throughout all these songs, Ballerini and her creative partners use a dynamic sonic palate: electronic textures, acoustic instrumentation, clever beats, layered melodies and a full range of Ballerini's vocals, perfectly imperfect – unlike an auto-tune- obsessed generation, she embraces the gorgeous frays within her notes. And she doesn't worry about genre barriers, either.
"We let ourselves be a little more free," she says, referring in particular to her relationship with producer and collaborator Whitehead, an integral part of her creative process. "You want to make the lyrics pop, and you want to make how you wrote the song translate, and sometimes that's a banjo and sometimes that's a beat drop. If the heart of the song gets across, I don't care which one it is."
Ballerini has come a long way from her hometown in East Tennessee, and it's not an overstatement to say that Ballerini's rise has been meteoric. The Black River Entertainment artist is a GRAMMY nominee for Best New Artist, banked three consecutive No. 1 songs (a record, as she's the only female Country artist to have done so from a debut), played slews of tour dates and nurtured a growing reputation as one of Nashville's sharpest writers. But Ballerini, who got her start in music at the age of twelve as a young girl learning to cope with life's trials and tribulations, is never one to stay stagnant. She wanted to make an album even more vulnerable and honest than she's even been, and use everything she's lived to build that next chapter.
And part of what makes Unapologetically so special is that – even after o[ening for Country greats including Alan Jackson, Lady Antebellum, Tim McGraw, Carrie Underwood and Keith Urban and headlining her own tour, in addition to winning scores of accolades (including an ACM Award, a Billboard “Rising Star” Award and an ACCA for Breakthrough Female of the Year) - she’s kept in touch with life’s most important truths, and relayed that honesty through songs that make us laugh, make us smile, make us think and make us dance.
"You have to use your intuition and your heart, and do things your own way," she says. "That's what I hope my next chapter really is. I've just wanted every song, even the vulnerable ones, to make you feel empowered. There is so much strength in being vulnerable."
Vulnerable: though loss, life and love. That's living Unapologetically.