Kelsea Ballerini Dishes on Touring With Rascal Flatts, Collaborating With Nick Jonas and Why Taylor Swift Is a Good Role Model (Q&A)
The country artist, who was honored with Billboard's 2015 "Rising Star" award, also discussed why Kelly Clarkson is her "favorite of all-time," why she still gets nervous performing, and her cameo appearance on 'Nashville' (and why acting in the future is a "heavy pass").
Kelsea Ballerini is living up to her honoree title of "Rising Star."
Though the 22-year-old country artist was awarded Billboard's 2015 "Rising Star" award at the leading music publication's 2015 Women in Music event and will perform on opening night of Nashville's CMA Music Fest on June 9, she admits to The Hollywood Reporter, "I still feel like I’m introducing myself. I still feel like I’m getting in front of people for the first time."
But in the year following the release of her debut album, The First Time, three of the singer's singles have hit country radio airwaves and topped Billboard charts (among ranking on numerous lists, "Love Me Like You Mean It" and "Dibs" made The Hot 100 list and hit No. 1 on the Country Airplay list, where "Peter Pan" also placed), proving Ballerini to be a member of country's elite.
The morning after the songstress gave a surprise performance of "Need You Now" on the Troubador stage alongside Lady Antebellum's Hillary Scott and Charles Kelly at the L.A. leg of his Driver tour, the Tennessee native spoke with THR about touring with Rascal Flatts, collaborating with Nick Jonas, revealed if acting is something she'd want to dabble in and why she thinks Taylor Swift is a good role model.
How does it feel to perform alongside Lady Antebellum? Does it still feel surreal to be on stage with performers that you looked up to?
Yes, and it’s still a new thing, especially with Lady A[ntebellum]. My examples are always Lady A and Taylor [Swift], because those were the two people that I would have wanted to meet at my first CMA Fest when I was like 12, so to be able to even know people like that and be able to learn from people like that is cool! To be able to be on stage with them is my dream — my 12-year-old self’s dream.
Do you still find yourself getting nervous when going on stage?
I’ve gotten used to my normal set on tour, but when it’s special things, like singing on stage with someone or an awards show, I get painfully nervous. Especially because it’s still the first time a lot. ACMs was my first full-out awards show performance, so I was painfully nervous to the point where I don’t quite remember the performance.
Did you think your career would move this quickly?
No. It’s so crazy because I still feel like I’m introducing myself. I still feel like I’m getting in front of people for the first time and just saying, "hey." So to be able to do that now with that already happening, honestly, it just makes me encouraged to keep putting out music and to keep working hard. We’re starting to talk our next record and it just makes me excited to keep, hopefully, making good music that people like. But no, I did not expect it to be this quick. It’s cool!
Has there been someone in the country music world that gave you a memorable piece of advice about pursuing your dreams?
I’m probably closest with Hillary [Scott], which is funny because I loved her so much as a fan. She’s someone who I feel has been so graceful throughout her whole rise into superstardom. She’s really encouraged me as a human first and an artist second. I think that when you surround yourself with people that really help you live as a human first and artist second, that’s how it works well. She’ll text me Bible verses and bring me dinner. We had this big event in Nashville called CRS (Country Radio Seminar), and after that I took a few days and went away and on Valentine’s Day, she showed up with food because she knew I was in a cabin by myself and fed me. She’s like a big sister.
It’s good to have people as a mentor in your industry. Taylor Swift mentioned in an interview that she doesn’t have female musician role models.
I think that because she didn’t have that person, she’s very good at being that for other people.
Your first album, The First Time, dropped last year. Tell us about the heart and soul that went into creating that album.
It’s 12 songs, so we’re three singles in now. It’s cool too because I feel like, with making this record, I really wanted to capture 12 when I first started writing to 21 when I put it out. The singles “Love Me” and “Dibs” show the young, fun, youthful, flirty side, which is definitely a side of me, and then “Peter Pan” is kind of the next step — a little more mature, a little more depth. It’s kind of cool to take people through my life and my emotions as a young woman. I just wanted it to be me. I didn’t want it to be perfect. For me, I just wanted to make an album where people could listen to it top to bottom and they would feel like they knew me at the end of it. That’s kind of what I want with my live show too, is people walk away and they’re like, “we’re buds.” I want to be that — I want to be that open with it.
You’re touring with Rascal Flatts in June. How did that collaboration come about? Did they approach you?
They did. Last year, we had the opportunity to open for Lady A and Hunter Hayes and Sam Hunt, but it was never a full tour. We opened for a lot of different people and did 30-minute full band, hour acoustic — just random stuff all over the board — so this has been really a year of getting in tours top to bottom. With Rascal Flatts, I’m such a fan of them and I feel like they’ve been so gracefully relevant through decades of country music. I feel like that’s the kind of artist that I want to learn from, especially starting a live show career, because I’ve only been doing live shows for like a year. Those are the kind of artists that I want to learn from and I think that they’re probably the best at it.
If you could collaborate with a male and female performer dead or alive, who would you choose and why?
Frank Sinatra — he’s a favorite. For female, Kelly Clarkson.
She’s my favorite of all-time — my favorite artist. People are always so surprised by that. I think that she’s the best vocalist in the whole world, but my favorite is watching her interviews because she’s so 200 percent herself. It’s my favorite.
Let’s chat Nick Jonas for a second. You performed with him at the ACMs and now he’s doing CMT Crossroads with Thomas Rhett.
We’re trying to steal him.
Is there any chance he could do a surprise appearance on tour?
I would love that. I would love to work again with him for sure. I’m a huge fan of him. I was a huge Jonas Brothers fan, unapologetically, when I was 12 or 13. His solo stuff is just incredible and it was really cool to collaborate with him on the awards. I’d totally do more with him if I could.
Was that a nerve-wracking experience to go on stage with him?
I think because it was my first awards show performance full out, it kind of eased my nerves to partner with someone who’s so experienced because I thought, “If I mess up, he has me.” It kind of eased my nerves a bit. He’s such a sweet dude. We’ve known each other for a year, so it wasn’t a weird, “Hey, I’m Kelsea. Hi, thanks for singing.” It was a little more casual, which was good.
Are there any country stars down the line that you’d really like to partner with?
Yeah, most of them. Everyone. I’m still such a fangirl. It’s so much fun. I remember telling myself when I got to start having artist opportunities, “Let yourself be a fan, because you are. The minute that you walk in a room with Carrie Underwood and you’re too cool to freak out, you need to check yourself.” I just let myself be a fan.
You have a cameo in Nashville. Is acting something that you’d want to dabble in eventually?
It’s a heavy pass for me. In Nashville, I just sang my songs. I just released my music video for “Peter Pan” and there’s this scene where I have to run up to this plane that almost just crashed and get mad at the extremely hot model that I met that morning. I was so awkward in the 10 minutes that I had to do that scene. I ended up having to yell about pizza because I couldn’t actually act like “you didn’t just crash a plane. I’m not mad at you. You’re really hot. I’m awkward.” So no, I’m not an actress. Never going to happen.
Did you ever watch Connie Britton on Friday Night Lights?
I didn’t, but all my friends are obsessed with her from that show. I just know her from Nashville. She’s so beautiful. Her hair! Why is it so good?
Did she give you any advice on set?
I haven’t met her. I was with Chip Esten. He’s so cool. Such a cool guy.
You’ll be performing at CMA Fest on opening night. How did you react when you were asked to perform?
Oh, I freaked out. The thing is, CMA Fest was my thing as a fan. It’s everyone’s thing. That’s where everyone gets together — all the superfans, everyone who loves country music and all the artists — and it’s a big celebration of that year of country music. Last year, I got to play my first official CMA Fest show and it was on a stage outside of Bridgestone Arena and it was really cool because they said it was the most people they’ve ever had on that stage. It was the first I’ve ever really gotten to experience that. I’d never played Riverfront or any of that. I literally have this picture — if you see a picture of the stadium — there’s these two red, satellite-looking things on top of the stadium and I have a picture with my back against it on the very top row of the stadium watching. It’s cool.
What has your mom said about your rise to stardom? How has she adapted?
She’s really good at being super supportive and she’ll show up to everything and celebrate with me, but she’s also very good at being like, “Kelsea, when you’re in this house, you’re my daughter. You are not an artist. If you want to talk about it, you can — but please don’t.” I like having her with me to share those cool moments. Moms are the best.
If you didn’t pursue singing as a career, what do you think you would have done instead?
I think I would have been a writer; I would’ve tried to be a songwriter. But if music wasn’t in the equation, probably a hair and makeup artist. I just like it. I like making people feel pretty.
It’s a form of art.
It is a form of art! It’s a girly girl thing and I’m such a girly girl.
What advice do you have for country artists who are pursuing their career, but feel like giving up?
It’s hard for me to give advice because I feel like I’m always still asking for it all the time. I think for me, a lot of people said “no” a lot and a lot of people said “girls don’t work.” I think the second that I just started being myself and letting that matter, that’s when it started working out a little bit better; and just kind of being OK with blazing my own trail and saying what I wanted to say and not really worrying where it fell. I think that’s kind of where it worked.