Seated in a sunny suite in downtown Nashville, Kelsea Ballerini starts the conversation like we’ve known each other for years and are meeting to catch up over lunch. “Where are your earrings from? Do you need a water? What part of town did you come in from?”
Some of that energy is the Nashville way, and some of that is a window into Ballerini’s warm and incredibly open nature. The pop-country singer-songwriter — arguably the preeminent female artist in that space at the moment — is on the verge of releasing her fourth studio album, SUBJECT TO CHANGE, available Friday, September 23rd. She’s barefoot and wearing a bright blue dress that she explains is the same color palette as the album artwork. “Because I’m a crazy person,” she jokes.
The album is a cyclical journey of fifteen tracks, all of which were co-penned by Ballerini. “This record is representative of the last two and a half years — which has been an interesting two and a half years for everyone, obviously,” she explains. While just about everyone working in the arts experienced some sort of personal transformation during these recent years of turmoil, not everyone dropped a book of poetry, as Ballerini did. Feel Your Way Through was released in 2021 and became a national bestseller. “It cracked me wide open as a writer,” Ballerini says of flexing her creative muscles in this entirely different space.
She describes SUBJECT TO CHANGE as an album built on a foundation of juxtaposition and contrast. “It’s that moment when everything is about to change, but what’s in my control is realizing that I have what I need,” she explains. “I guess they call it fallin’ cause you end up on the ground,” she sings on “I GUESS THEY CALL IT FALLIN;” later, on the light and airy “HEARTFIRST,” she’s “ready to jump right in with my heart first” nonetheless.
Many moments on the album feel heavily influenced by ’90s pop-country, and she cites Sixpence None the Richer, Sheryl Crow, and Shania Twain throughout the conversation. One of the tracks where this shines through most brightly is the joyful, nostalgic “I CAN’T HELP MYSELF.” There can never be too many songs about getting a call from the girls and spending too much money on a spontaneous night out, and Ballerini specifically mentions the importance of female friendships in this era. “It’s become a pillar of my whole life,” she shares. “They’ve brought so much light into my life.”
On the other side of the coin is “IF YOU GO DOWN, (I’M GOIN’ DOWN TOO),” which she sees as a place to channel Thelma & Louise energy. The ode to female friendship is where things get real — “If it all goes bad and we end up on the news, if you go down, I’m goin’ down too,” she sings. “Hypothetically, if you ever kill your husband, I’d be lying through my teeth.”
There are certainly more introspective and personal moments throughout SUBJECT TO CHANGE; “LOVE IS A COWBOY” and the tender “MARILYN” peel back the curtain a bit. The latter is a track that Ballerini wrote entirely on her own, an exercise she maintains at least once an album cycle to stay at her sharpest. She’s candid about the work she’s done in therapy and the introspective efforts that went into the album.
“There are songs on this record that I’m a little nervous for people to hear,” she confesses. Track 13 of SUBJECT TO CHANGE is titled “DOIN’ MY BEST.” “I was friends with a pop star, I put ’em on Track 4/ But I wish I could take it back, would’ve never asked/ If I knew we wouldn’t talk anymore,” she sings. (On Ballerini’s 2020 album KELSEA, pop artist Halsey appears on “the other girl,” the fourth song on the album.)
Ballerini doesn’t shy away from the subject when asked about the line. “I’m a human, and life is messy, and there’s some things that I wanted to take ownership for,” she shares. “It’s a little embarrassing and a little cringey, but that’s my human experience.”
The title of the track in question, “DOIN’ MY BEST,” holds extra significance for Ballerini, beyond just appearing as the name of one of the songs on the record. She reveals that she chooses a word each year to set the tone for the 365 days to follow. She found herself journaling on this past New Year’s Eve, only to throw out everything she wrote. “It was seven pages of bullshit,” she recalls. “It was a rant about everything about me not being enough.” Instead of choosing just one word this year, she landed on a phrase — “I’m just doing my best.”
Next, she’ll be embarking on a 10-show trek, designed to be intimate and emotional in a way that reflects the journey of the album itself. The leap from the studio to tour might not be too large, seeing as the record was cut entirely with a live band. The same session musicians returned to the studio each day, lending a familiar, cohesive feeling to the record. “I’ve always loved living in the sonic space that challenges the boundaries between the line of pop and country,” she shares, and recording in this format reflected that idea.
Ballerini describes herself as a “sequencing freak,” structuring the album to fit the narrative in her mind. To her, the LP ends on an exhale of sorts, an intentionally chosen rough cut of “WHAT I HAVE.” “Messy guitar, messy one-take vocal,” she recalls. It’s a grounded moment that proves the idea of juxtaposition she envisioned for the record, balancing out some of the glossier, pop-infused moments found elsewhere.
“Even the bad days ain’t all that bad,” she sings on the final verse. Like the rest of us, Kelsea Ballerini is just doing her best, and the result is an album to be proud of.
Catch Kelsea Ballerini on tour; tickets are available via Ticketmaster.
SUBJECT TO CHANGE Artwork: