“There’s so much more going on in people’s lives than they show you,” says Kelsea Ballerini, taking a moment to gather her thoughts. “That’s true for me.”
The 29-year-old country singer, who despite her perpetually cheery demeanor and aw-shucks personality, has been fighting some serious battles. “I’m experiencing that literally right now,” says Ballerini who, while promoting her new album, the excellent Subject to Change, is also in the midst of a public divorce from her husband, fellow country singer Morgan Evans. On one hand she says she’s excited to release “this record that I’m so in love with and so proud of and I’m the busiest I’ve been in years; on the other, she adds, “I’m also really going through it in my personal life.”
It’s this juxtaposition — between the feel-good and the contemplative — that not only defines Ballerini’s life at the moment but also her mature and refreshing new LP. She calls Subject to Change “the most upbeat, breezy record” she’s ever made. But it’s undeniable that some of its finest moments, like on “Marilyn,” a haunting dive into Marilyn Monroe’s skeletons, exist when Ballerini — as she’s done in some of her most personal work, from “High School” to “Homecoming Queen” — pulls back the curtain and lets us into the darker corners of her life.
“I just think from the beginning I have really tried to be consistently me,” she tells Rolling Stone during a break from rehearsals for her Heartfirst Tour of theaters, which kicks off this weekend in New York. As Ballerini sees it, Subject to Change is a direct reflection of her maturation over the past few years — a rough stretch that saw her release her third album, 2020’s Kelsea, the week the pandemic started, cancel its subsequent tour, and, like so many of us, resulted in her grieving what might have been.
Now looking back at what became Subject to Change, Ballerini says, “I loved the idea of going, ‘Change is inevitable.’ And we’ve all as humankind experienced that heavily the last couple of years. So what if I make the theme of this album the idea of just blissfully accepting that tomorrow is probably going to look different than today? And instead of being terrified and looking at it like it’s this monster under the bed, what if I just live now? Sometimes that looks messy and sometimes that looks confusing and sometimes that looks really amazing and beautiful.”
Subject to Change features some of Ballerini’s most sonically progressive material to date, from the bluesy “Muscle Memory” to the whimsical title track. But it’s “Doin’ My Best,” a propulsive hand-clapper she added late in the writing process, that sees her truly letting her hair down like never before. Written in a stream-of-consciousness style during a vacation in Mexico, or a “word vomit” as she puts it with a laugh, the song is essentially one long Ballerini confessional. The singer addresses everything from her pandemic depression to her divorce, her decision to ditch Twitter and, interestingly, the dissolution of her friendship with onetime collaborator, the pop star Halsey who featured on Kelsea’s “The Other Girl.” “I was friends with a pop star/I put ‘em on track four/But wish I could take it back/I would have never asked/If I knew we wouldn’t talk anymore.”
When asked what inspired her to air out her dirty laundry in such a public way, Ballerini says it was a no-brainer. After all, she says, she’s prided herself on being nothing if not transparent with her fans. “It’s all already out there,” she insists. “Putting the last album out the week the world shut down and having a season of darkness after that is out there. The fact that I’m going through a divorce is out there. Having famous friends that I post about all the time and then they’re no longer in my life is out there. The fact that I fumbled on Twitter and no longer have it is out there. So why not take ownership of that?”
It helped that Ballerini had supreme confidence in her collaborators. Whereas on Kelsea she worked with nearly a different set of writers on every song, this go-round she stuck with a smaller team, principally featuring Shane McAnally (Kacey Musgraves, Old Dominion) and Julian Bunetta (Harry Styles, Maroon 5). Those two writers served as a balance for Ballerini: McAnally kept things “anchored in country” while Bunetta pushed her to embrace her poppier inclinations. “It became this perfect trio,” she says.
Achieving this balance between country and pop is something Ballerini says she has come to embrace as a sort of challenge. “I think I have a different relationship to what I think country music means to me now,” she says. “I certainly intend to always keep watering those roots. But I also just think artists are doing themselves a disservice to box themselves in and not creatively explore things that inspire them.”
Recorded over two one-week sessions in Nashville studios including Blackbird and Starstruck, Subject to Change leans into Nineties country and pop vibes, taking influence not only from Ballerini friends like Shania Twain, but also rootsier acts including Sheryl Crow, Sixpence None the Richer, and the Corrs. The retro sonics of the project came from the decision to record mostly live in the studio with an A-list set of Nashville musicians.
As for her own relationship with performing? Ballerini says it’s an ever-evolving proposition. She admits that for a while things began to feel monotonous every time she’d take the stage.
“This is not sexy to say, but the truth is I think especially the way that country tours, it’s so much. And I feel like I get to a place pretty often midway through a tour where I just become a robot. I know exactly what I’m going to say and when I’m going to say it and what part of the stage I’m supposed to stand on during what song. And I lose myself. And I lose the connection.”
It was her losing the ability to tour during the pandemic, however, that ultimately helped Ballerini recalibrate her love for the live show. Things are different now: Last year, when opening for the Jonas Brothers, she’d ask herself before every single show, “Are you in your body? Are you here?,” she says. “I wouldn’t have known to even do that beforehand.”
Now, Ballerini has found the moment. And she’s living in both the good and the bad. “I am not so wrapped up in messing up anymore,” she says. “I’ve done all of that. I know how it feels. I’m human. I can handle it. I’ll be OK.”