In an era when Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus can team up for the song of the summer with “Old Town Road,” country singer Kelsea Ballerini is feeling adventurous. “It's a really fun time in country where outside influences are a part of mainstream country, like a country root with kind of a progressive twist on it. I'm looking for something different, something that I haven't done before,” she declared Tuesday on NBC’s new talent show Songland, aka “Shark Tank for Songwriters.” So, when Darius Coleman, whose credits include writing for Empire, came in to pitch his slinky R&B song “Better Luck Next Time,” it was a match made in genre-crossover heaven.
“Most of my sessions are all for pop music, but how amazing would it be if this young black guy from Philadelphia wrote Kelsea's song? That would be, like, hashtag-goals, all the way,” laughed Coleman.
After listening to four possible songs to record, Ballerini actually immediately discarded the most obvious and, well, easy choice: an old-fashioned, Patsy/LeAnn-style waltz called “Easy” penned by Jess Jecoy. That left her with the bittersweet electronic pop song “Lying (Next to You),” written by Bieber-esque boy band singer Jack Newsome, and Daniel Feels’s Maroon 5-meets-Paul Simon bop “Crush,” both of which were hooky but didn’t sound like anything that’d get even light airplay on CMT.
However, it was obvious from Coleman’s first audition that Ballerini was gravitating towards his song. She’d explained earlier, “I always kind of go for either a proper jam where I just want to dance around and feel good and feel empowered, or I want to, like, cry. The middle ground doesn't really get me.” And “Better Luck Next Time” a vengeful kiss-off song to the one that got away, seemed to tick all her songwriting boxes. She was singing along before Coleman was even finished performing it, and she continued singing it even after he exited the room. “I just can't get it out of my head. I can still sing it to you. And I think that's really telling,” she said. “That's a country hook, whether [Coleman] meant it that way or not. … I feel like that is something that would fit on country radio right now.”
Well, that part how love “hit like a shot of tequila without the lime” certainly was a classic country line, but Coleman needed to fine-tune the song a bit with his assigned mentor, One Republic’s Ryan Tedder, to make it more Kelsea-ready. And that was when Coleman achieved another one of his hashtag-goals, because Tedder, a songwriter who’s worked with Beyoncé, Adele, and Kelly Clarkson, had been on Coleman’s vision board for a while now. “My initial instinct for this song was finding the right key so that in the chorus [Kelsea] can sing in her head voice and it will feel like this big lift,” said Tedder, explaining that he learned how to pick keys when working on one of the bigger singles of the past 15 years, Leona Lewis’s “Bleeding Love.”
Coleman and Tedder changed the key to make it a “little bit more comfortable” for Ballerini, and switched from acoustic to electric guitar, but to be perfectly honest, Coleman’s second performance of the revised version didn’t sound too different from his original, but the song was pretty much perfect to begin with, anyway. Tedder seemed very pleased, declaring that he was” covered in goosebumps,” and more importantly, Ballerini was squealing like a gleeful child. She knew she had a hit on her hands… even if it still didn’t sound very country. “I think it'll sound magical on you,” Coleman assured her.
She was sold. “It's a lane that I haven't really done, and it feels like something that would be challenging for me, which I like. …It felt like me enough, but also a departure enough to push me.” And her final version, already up on all streaming services, is sufficiently twanged-up that it won’t sound out of place in her Stagecoach setlist.
So, Darius Coleman doesn’t have to wait till next time to have better luck; he just wrote country star Kelsea Ballerini’s new singer with his idol Ryan Tedder. Apparently vision boards, and Songland, work. Tune in next week as four more aspiring songwriters pitch the Jonas Brothers. I’m a sucker for this show.