‘I just acknowledge that life is so messy’

The title of Kelsea Ballerini’s new album is Subject to Change, and that certainly sums up her state of mind right now. She just experienced a major shift in her personal life, announcing that she is divorcing her husband, fellow country singer Morgan Evans, after nearly five years of marriage. And while she doesn’t discuss the details of the split in her Yahoo Entertainment interview — which was conducted just days before the couple’s announcement — as she starts a new chapter both personally and professionally, she does open up about most her vulnerable record yet.

“Obviously, we’ve all changed a lot the last couple of years, because life has forced us to. … And I feel like the last few years, in my twenties, I’ve grown up so much. I’ve learned so much about myself in this extra space that we’ve kind of been forced into,” says the country/pop superstar, who just turned 29. “And I loved that Subject to Change represented my life. It represented everyone’s life, and it kind of thematically took me through the story that I was writing. And so, we just kind of went back and forth, like, ‘Do we make it broad, or do we just make it like very much so about me?’ And we ended up just going very inward, very personal, to set the tone for the whole record.”

This is hardly the first time that Ballerini has looked inward to create her art. Subject to Change serves a companion piece of sorts to her 2021 confessional poetry book, Feel Your Way Through, in which she wrote about everything from her body-image issues, to witnessing a school shooting as teen, to the backlash she received for what some people considered her tone-deaf and simplistic, if well-meaning, tweet reacting to country star Morgan Wallen’s use of a racial slur.

Kelsea Ballerini (Photo: Black River Records)

“Writing Feel Your Way Through was super-cathartic, obviously, because some of it’s light, and some of it’s like funny stories, and some of it’s stuff that I’ve just certainly never talked about before and covers a lot of trauma,” Ballerini says. “I felt so free releasing that book, and I think it unlocked this part of my creativity, but also just like my soul, as like crazy as that sounds. I felt the way that people connected to that gave me the confidence to kind of keep pushing in that direction. So, there are certain songs [on Subject to Change] that you listen to and it’s almost a little jarring, how honest it is.”

Ballerini cites two Subject to Change tracks, “Marilyn” and “Doin’ My Best,” as the ones that “probably the most opened my chest up.” The former, inspired by the ultimate idealized/objectified woman, Marilyn Monroe, is connected in a way to Ballerini’s Feel Your Way Through poem “Kangaroo,” in which she wrote about her body dysmorphia and past battles with eating disorders. “Marilyn is a metaphor in this song for me,” the singer-songwriter explains. “Marilyn to me in this context represents a woman who presents herself in one way, and deeply feels another. I certainly relate to that, and I think that with social media, maybe everyone relates to that.”

As for “Doin’ My Best,” that track, like Ballerini’s poem “The Right of History,” addresses her above-mentioned Wallen social media controversy. In that song, she sings about getting her “ass kicked on Twitter,” and she tells Yahoo Entertainment, “Honestly, I haven’t had Twitter since, and it was a good lesson for me. I think I’m a chronic people-pleaser, and being an artist and a public person, I’ve really had to learn how to stand up for things that I believe in. But sometimes when you’re doing that, you’re going to stumble and you’re going to do it wrong. And, you know, I didn’t do it all the way right. … I think that the intention is one thing, but I think the rebuttal to [that Wallen tweet] was my not acknowledging the systematic racism that has occurred — which I fully understand. I stepped back, I listened, I learned. … I got my ass kicked, and I learned a lot from it. And I take ownership of that fully.”

Ballerini adds with a laugh, “And I also do not miss Twitter literally at all!”

Ballerini says she took a step back from social media in general for her mental health. “I honestly think it was after that incident that I kind of realized that I had a choice. It was like, ‘Do I just shut up and just post the pretty parts of my life, and just not open myself up to this anymore?’ Because I’m really sensitive and I feel it all, and I think that’s what makes me good at my job. Or, ‘Do I work on myself personally in therapy… and stay open and find the tools?’”

Ballerini has been an ardent advocate for mental health awareness in the country music community for years, and she is her own advocate — but that wasn’t always the case. “Growing up in Knoxville, Tenn., it was never something that anyone talked about. Like, I didn’t even know the term “mental health,’” she says. “I was forced into therapy twice, from two different things that happened to me when I was younger: One was my parents’ divorce, and one was the school shooting that I wrote about in the book. And neither was my choice to go. And so, my younger relationship with talk therapy and just mental health was very negative. It wasn’t until I grew up, and people started normalizing it in the media and talking about it, that I even was interested in rediscovering that path to mental health. … I would say the last five years is really when I’ve dove in and started to really take care of myself in that way. And it’s just been such an important part of my life, to take care of my brain and my mind and my soul like that.”

Opening up about her past trauma — like her experience witnessing the murder of her classmate Ryan McDonald during a 2008 cafeteria shooting at Knoxville’s Central High School, which inspired her poem “His Name Was Ryan” — has helped her heal. “It was one of the last poems that I wrote for the book, and I remember I was sending drafts to a couple of my really close friends, and my friend Christina was like, ‘If you’re going to go there and talk about all the big things that have made you, you’re leaving something out. Maybe it’s time that you do talk about it.’ And that was what I needed.”

Writing about her life has also fostered Ballerini’s strong bond with her fans. “When you talk about big things, whether it be body dysmorphia, eating disorders, gun violence, families breaking up, whatever it is… when you’re able to have a conversation about something, you automatically build community,” she explains. “And when you have community, you’re able to move through things, more healthily and quicker. Like, I still suffer from PTSD [from the school shooting]; I’m a performer and I’m onstage a lot, so I have to be told if there’s pyro around or else it’s like not a good day for me. It’s very much something I deal with on the regular, so I think just putting that information out there, I hope, will help people like understand my reaction to certain things [onstage].”

Ballerini has taken advantage of her platform to speak out in many ways, including addressing “Tomato-gate,” a country music scandal stemming from when radio consultant Keith Hill used an insulting salad analogy, describing male artists as “lettuce” and female artists as mere tomato garnish. It could be argued that Ballerini’s success (she’s had had four No. 1 singles on the Country Airplay chart, and is the only female country artist to hit No. 1 with her first three consecutive singles from a debut album) has reopened doors for female country artists. And Ballerini says, “I do see it starting to shift over a little bit and be more inclusive; I’m hopeful.” But she admits there’s still a long way to go.

Kelsea Ballerini (Photo: Black River Records)

Kelsea Ballerini (Photo: Black River Records)

“I mean, I want say [things are changing at radio], but then I look at the chart. I obviously checked where [the Subject to Change single] ‘Heartfirst’ is today, and I think there’s like three women in the top 40. So, I don’t know. All I know is what I’m in control of — and what I’m in control of is showing up as a woman in country music, lifting other women up that I believe in, writing with other women, working with women, producers, working with women on my team.

“I do have a collab on this record with Carly Pierce, who I’ve just known for like 10 years. We’ve seen each other through so much life and through every season of our careers and have always wanted to do a song together. And then Kelly Clarkson, who has just been like my freaking idol from the very beginning — I asked Kelly to be a part of the song, and she did vocals that night. It’s called ‘You’re Drunk, Go Home,’ and it’s just like a country little sassy bomb. I’m really excited about that. I love having two women from separate genres, that all respect each other, be a part of it. I just want to surround myself with epic women creatively, in a business sense. That’s what I’m in control of. And I think that when more women are able to have the opportunity to do that, that’s how real change happens.”

As Ballerini nears her thirties as a newly single woman, she marvels at how fans have joined her on her journey, even when she has made mistakes or shown the less pretty parts of her life. “I just acknowledge that life is so messy and so multifaceted,” she muses. “When it’s good, it’s good, and we should feel that. But when it’s not, it’s not, and we should feel that too. … I just feel the more in-depth I can go into those topics that I feel strongly about the, the better.”

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