Kelsea Ballerini opens up about moving on, finding joy and discovering herself

Kelsea Ballerini turns 30 years old in 30 days.

She, like many other 29-year-old fans of popular music, has spent the better part of 2023 listening to SZA’s diamond-selling global smash “Kill Bill.”

Unlike them, though, the Knoxville-area native is a five-time Billboard Country Airplay chart-topping mainstream superstar who is reckoning with the finalization of her 2022 divorce from Australian country performer Morgan Evans.

Her Aug. 11-released EP, “Rolling Up The Welcome Mat (For Good),” is as much a final ode to moving on as it is a continuing series of anthemic Ballerini songs that join her and her fanbase in artistic and personal synergy.

She’s speaking to the Tennessean seated, with high heels removed and legs comfortably folded under her, in a backstage dressing room at the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Ford Theater. The “Penthouse” singer’s body language offers that her statements come from a place more candid than usual. She describes living her life unencumbered for the first time in the decade since she became a label-signed professional artist.

Kelsea Ballerini is releasing an extended version of her EP

That evolution has been so cathartic that it loosed seven songs. They arrived, she says, like the metaphorical record of her time in an emotional prison. That sentence has now been expunged from a guilt-ridden conscience.

Defeating imposter syndrome, growing her fanbase

Two hours after speaking with The Tennessean, a private screening of a 20-minute short film serving as a companion to the EP aired. The film, which she wrote and Patrick Tracy co-directed, was met with five rows of her Nashville area-based superfans screaming lyrics to songs like “Mountain With A View” and “Blindsided” back at the screen.

“It’s taken me a decade to defeat the imposter syndrome that makes me feel like people don’t know my music,” Ballerini confides. “However, in the past 12 months, because people began to care about what I was doing outside of music, this super-terrifying thing has happened where people care about my art and my life equally.”

“As much as I created it, this music loudly belongs to my fans — having this type of interplay with my fans has changed the expectations of my career,” the vocalist says.

The past 12 months have seen Ballerini move from attempting to control her career’s trajectory to simply trying to being in service to those who find themselves in her art.

That change in perspective has keyed a surge in popularity directly tied to how her doubling-down on precise, concise lyricism plays on social media platforms like TikTok. There, she has roughly two million followers who have liked her posts approximately 40 million times.

Maturity, self-love and comfort in what’s next

Complicating matters for Ballerini is that the lifelong country music fan is well aware that the genre’s media and conservative value-driven expectations for artists and the images the present.

Teenage stardom is followed by being old enough to drink. You’re old enough to drink until you’re 20 years married with a farm, house, kids and double-digit multiples of No. 1 singles. Then, you’re a Hall of Fame-venerated Grand Ole Opry member.

Ballerini has chosen to go at her own pace.

Kelsea Ballerini wipes away tears with Kimberly Schlapman and Karen Fairchild of Little Big Town as she accepts her invitation to join the Grand Ole Opry after Bellerini joined the group to sing their hit

“It’s exciting to be comfortable with continuing to navigate the exploration of my most authentic self,” she says. “Maintaining overwhelming stats that cause crazy, exhausting pressure isn’t what actually matters. Achieving stereotypical standards of success can change your life. But, learning [what else can exist beyond that] is important, too.”

Stoicism, indifference and unexpectedly making her best work yet

Diving into “Rolling Up The Welcome Mat” with Ballerini yields fascinating results six months after its release.

Ballerini is fully reflective after acting in a short film, performing material on an episode of CMT Storytellers and performing on Saturday Night Live. She is at ease for what she said feels like the first time in a half-decade, as she contemplates music that may ultimately be viewed as redefining her artistry.

Asked to identify the psychological launching pad for this era of her work, Ballerini offers a surprising answer.

“Stoicism and indifference,” she says.

“I’m capable of soft feelings, but I’m also now aware that I also have an emotional place where I have nothing left to feel and run out of s***s to give,” she continues.

Her EP emerged from her mind first as soulful singer-songwriter ballads like “Blindsided” and “Leave Me Again.” Eventually, warmer, more traditionally pop-country-styled guitar-driven work like “Mountain With A View” developed.

The Tennessean's Marcus Dowling interviews Kelsea Ballerini backstage of the Country Music Hall of Fame's Ford Theater Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 8, 2023. Ballerini is releasing an extended version of her EP

She describes the process of creating the EP as a “protected” one where achieving bold, emotional confidence mattered more than censoring foul language (“How Do I Do This”) or observing genre lines.

The girl who grew up on a farm and listened to Britney Spears also loves Sheryl Crow, as well as SZA being unhinged over a breakup.

“I used to be this flirty, fun and glittery person. Then, life put me in a different headspace. Now I’m discovering who I am right now.”

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