Kelsea Ballerini had her first meeting with a Nashville record label when she was just 14 -- and at the time, it seemed like it might also be her last. "There's already a Taylor Swift," the now-23-year-old Mascot, Tennessee, native was told.
So she packed up her pink sparkly guitar case, headed back toward Knoxville, and... kept writing. "I tried to not write for a couple days, but it didn't work," she said. She wrote, and wrote, and got a publishing deal, and wrote some more, and after eight years, got her first major co-sign.
Driving around with the @KelseaBallerini EP on repeat.. SO lovely:)#yeahboy #lovemelikeyoumeanit
- Taylor Swift (@taylorswift13) March 9, 2015
The response to Swift's endorsement was instant and helped the self-titled project debut in the top 40 on the Top Country Albums chart. That was a year and a half ago. Now, Swift and Ballerini are Instagram-certified friends (at the time, the latter shared a vintage meet-and-greet photo), and Ballerini has a gold album (the criminally underrated The First Time) with three Country Airplay No. 1 hits under her belt -- the first time a solo woman has hit that mark to start her career since Wynonna Judd in 1992 -- all of which she co-wrote. "Right now in country music, you can turn on the radio and hear Sam Hunt, who's R&B country; Chris Stapleton, who's soul country; Little Big Town, who's indie country; and then me, who's pop country," says Ballerini over the phone from the porch of her brand-new house in Nashville. "It's just this really cool, eclectic time."
Notable in that list is that Ballerini is the only solo female artist -- a telling rebuke of country radio's ever-so-slowly-eroding boy's club. The buzz from her singular success is enough to inspire countless "next Taylor Swift"-themed articles (as it happens, Swift's country chart debut was exactly 10 years ago with "Tim McGraw"), but though she cites Swift as an influence, Ballerini has carved a progressive path to No. 1 all her own. "Instead of writing a big breakup album -- like, an 'I'm gonna kill you in your sleep' kind of album -- I just wanted to write a flirty one," she tells Billboard of her 2015 debut. In and out of country, that's a more subversive proposition than it seems: Even in 2016, lines like "Tell me baby what's your status, and are you tryna keep it" (from her second single "Dibs") are typically left to the guys. "My next single, 'Yeah Boy,' is like that too," Ballerini says. "As a young woman, I just think there's something really confident and empowering about being able to flirt back."
Dance -- specifically hip-hop -- not country music, was Ballerini's first love. "Growing up, I remember thinking country music was all honky-tonks and beer and trucks -- Britney Spears was my first concert," she says, despite the fact that she grew up in rural Tennessee and her father was a sales manager at a Knoxville country station. When she heard Keith Urban's 2006 flip-the-script single "Stupid Boy" on a friend's MySpace, though, Ballerini was converted. "I was like, what in the world?" she recalls. "I loved music before that and wrote songs before that, but it pulled at me emotionally so quickly -- I hadn't really connected with a song like that before." Her parent's divorce a year prior had inspired her to start writing, but soon after arming herself with albums from Urban, Sugarland, the Dixie Chicks and, yes, Taylor Swift, Ballerini realized country was where she belonged. "In my album, you can hear that that's my version of country," she says. "Honestly, looking at Taylor I was like, 'She's young, she writes her own songs, and she plays the guitar -- I should do that too.'"
After that not-so-fateful label meeting, Ballerini eventually made the requisite move to Nashville at 15 with her mother, kept churning out songs, and after a few semesters studying communications and marketing at Nashville's Lipscomb University (which shows -- she's just about the most poised 23-year-old you can imagine), she signed a publishing deal with Black River Entertainment, her current label, at 19. "I had 250 songs when I signed -- then I wrote full-time for a year and a half," Ballerini says of her output. "When I was younger, I heard that for every 100 songs you write, you get 10 good ones and one hit -- and that's proven to be so true. There's a lot of really, really terrible ones."
That's the mentality fueling her next album, which she says will be done by the end of the year and out early in 2017. "It's totally capturing the last two years of my life, which involved both a big breakup and a lot of pure growing up," Ballerini adds. "Then I found the best guy in the whole world [her beau, Australian singer-songwriter Morgan Evans]. I feel like it's just going to tell the story in that order." Though she says she'd like to work with OneRepublic frontman and hit songwriter Ryan Tedder in the future, it's Hillary Lindsey -- who skews country but was just tapped by Lady Gaga for her upcoming album Joanne -- that Ballerini cites as her favorite writer. "She's like the reason I started writing," she adds. "[Lindsey]'s set the bar so high in general, and the fact that she's a chick just makes it even more epic."
Lindsey, along with Shane McAnally, Ross Copperman, Josh Osbourne and Luke Laird -- all Music Row stalwarts -- are some of the co-writers Ballerini fans can expect on the upcoming yet-untitled project. "That's basically my wish list of people to collaborate with, and they'll be on my album," she says, "so I'm stoked." Ballerini insists the project will "absolutely" be country, despite a preview of the poppy "Roses" (so poppy that fans immediately, and wrongly, assumed it was a Swift collaboration) on her Instagram. Forest Glen Whitehead, one of the executive producers of The First Time, remains a crucial part of Ballerini's team. "He's still kind of the cornerstone for me," she says.
For now, Ballerini is wrapping the record and preparing to launch her The First Time tour -- and occasionally turning to Taylor for advice when the going gets tough. "She's like my big sister," she says. "She's walked this so gracefully, so she's the person that I go to when I'm like, 'Hey, this is what I'm struggling with right now. How do I navigate this?'" The singer's meteoric rise has brought its own lessons -- ones that most twentysomethings can likely relate to. "I've learned that I'm a better artist when I get time to just chill and be a human, so I think finding that time to carve out -- whether it's walking my dog [Dibs, named after the song] in the park, or having friends over -- is the best way to counteract the craziness."
Moments in chill mode aside, Kelsea seems as ready as anyone on country radio to keep breaking down barriers -- and, of course, making hits. "I've always been drawn to strong women in every genre," she concludes, "people who push the boundaries because they're just epic."