Kelsea Ballerini got a heck of a 23rd birthday present last week — her third consecutive number-one single and the honor of being the first female country music artist to reach that milestone with her debut album.
“If it goes number-one on my birthday, I’m drinking Champagne all day,” Ballerini said during a visit to New York right before she achieved that honor with “Peter Pan.”
That single followed “Love Me Like You Mean It” and “Dibs” to the top of the country charts. Those songs, like all of the 12 cuts on her album, “The First Time,” were written or co-written by the Knoxville, Tenn., native.
Like many other country singers, Ballerini got her start in the glee club in school and singing in the church choir. Once she moved to Nashville, the traditional path is to hit the bar circuit, “but I was 15,” she said with a laugh, “so my music didn’t really speak to that crowd.”
Instead, she opted to participate in a writers’ circle that led to a song-publishing gig when she was 19.
Despite her chart-stopping success, Ballerini said she didn’t set out to be a singer. “Performing and being an artist are challenging. Songwriting is something that comes more naturally to me,” she said.
With her heartfelt music that speaks to her life as well as her girl-next-door good looks, Ballerini has been compared to the megastar all young country music singers now aim to be: Taylor Swift, whom she counts as a friend — although she still pinches herself that she can be buddies with someone like Swift. “I’m not good around famous people,” she said.
In addition to Swift, Ballerini cites everyone from Shania Twain and Britney Spears to Adele and Faith Hill as inspiration. “I’ve always been drawn to strong females,” she said.
That strength also shines through in her own music. While “Love Me Like You Mean It” and “Dibs” are “superfun to sing and listen to,” it’s “Peter Pan” that shows her true skill as a songwriter. “That’s my favorite song,” she said of the track, which speaks to her disappointment that a guy she fell for “will never grow up…will never be a man, Peter Pan.”
She said: “I’m a songwriter and that shows my depth.”
A study in contrasts, Ballerini is also perky and carefree, taking selfies during a photo shoot, mugging with mannequins and chasing pigeons in a park.
“Life is good,” she said.
Not only have her first three singles gone number-one, she was also nominated for Female Vocalist of the Year and New Artist of the Year by the Country Music Association. The awards will be presented on Nov. 2. She’s also been on tour this summer with Rascal Flatts.
In the midst of all this, Ballerini is working on her second album. “I’m still in the creative process,” she said, admitting that it’s a lot harder to focus now that she’s touring and in-demand for interviews, photo shoots and television appearances.
“I had my whole life to prepare for the first record,” she said. “It was about my life from 12 to 21. This one is from 21 to 23, so it’s more in-depth.”
Her personal style has also evolved as her fame grows. “I’m a girly girl,” she said. “I always played dress-up for play time and I’ve always loved fashion and beauty. For me as a young woman, it’s fun to reflect the mood I’m in and what I’m feeling that day.”
On this day, she wore a micro-mini outfit from For Love & Lemons. But she was quick to point out: “I’m wearing shorts underneath, y’all” as she kicked up her stiletto heels for the camera.
Ballerini admits she’s not adverse to taking fashion risks. For the recent Academy of Country Music Honors event, she hit the red carpet in a bright yellow skintight jumpsuit with cutouts from Georges Chakra.
She likes to push the envelope and take a stand against the drab “big prom hair and big prom dresses” that many country artists gravitate toward, she said, adding, “Nobody is taking any fashion risks in country music.”
Ballerini will soon release a fourth single from her first album, “Yeah Boy,” and hopefully offer up some new music by early next year. She’s also going to headline her first tour starting in December.
“I’ve got a lot to learn, but I love the idea of creating a little world for an hour or 90 minutes,” she said. “My biggest dream is to headline a big arena tour someday with all the bells and whistles and fire. I love all of that. I know some venues won’t allow it, but I imagine what it would be like if I just glitter-bombed everyone.”