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Country Star Kelsea Ballerini on Her Songwriting Breakthrough in ‘High School’

5 minute read

Country star Kelsea Ballerini made a stir with her 2015 debut album The First Time, nabbing a Best New Artist Grammy nomination in 2017 for her fresh take on America’s heartland genre. A few years older — and wiser — Ballerini is now back with her sophomore album Unapologetically, out Nov. 3, a collection that she says more closely tracks who she is as an artist and a young woman. A prime example: the nostalgic, bittersweet ballad “High School,” premiering here in its acoustic version on TIME, with an official release Sept. 22. It’s one of the only songs she’s written entirely on her own, giving it, she says, a new level of personal resonance.

“When you write a song by yourself, there’s a different level of vulnerability that you can tap into,” she explains of the country tune, which tenderly recalls adolescence and celebrates the ups and downs of growing up: “You’re still living in the hallways/ where everybody stopped and stared and cared and knew your name,” she sings. “You can remember, but you can’t go back.”

Ballerini also wants fans and critics to know that she’s a songwriter at heart. When she moved to Nashville at 15 to start her career, she jumped at every chance to work with others, honing her craft — and losing some of her own confidence in the process. “I started relying on other people’s creativity so much that I stopped believing in myself enough to write a song by myself,” she says. So “High School” holds a special place for her as a window into her earnest identity as an artist. She spoke to TIME recently to explain why.

TIME: What’s the story behind “High School”?

Kelsea Ballerini: Honestly, this is the one song that I’ve written by myself in the last two years, so it’s really special to me. I wrote it so quickly. I think sometimes when you go back to your hometown after your life has changed so much, you realize that some things don’t change — and some things do. And I was one of the things that did. Part of that was really bitter, and part of that was really sweet. I think it was just one of those songs where I realized that I’d changed a lot.

Is there anything that fans might be surprised by on your new album?

The album is a chronological story of my life over the last two years. It starts with a breakup. It starts really dark and angsty, and that’s the place I was in two and a half years ago when I was putting out my first single. Obviously, that’s something I chose not to show at that time. It feels freeing to tell everything that’s been happening.

And where does “High School” fit in that order? What part of the story does it match up with?

“High School” is actually the first song I wrote for this record. But the album actually goes in three sections: we’re calling it loss, life, and love; that’s the easy way to split it up. I put “High School” in ‘life,’ because it’s not necessarily about the boy that the song is referring to: it’s about that moment when you realize you’ve outgrown your young self. You’ve changed, and you’ve evolved and you don’t fit somewhere anymore.

How was creating an album this time different from work you’ve done in the past?

The first record, I was signed as a songwriter for a year, and that’s when I wrote most of the songs. All of a sudden I had a record deal and we had to make a record, so essentially we just gathered up my favorite demos and added a couple instruments. This album, Unapologetically, is the first intentional album I’ve ever made, from writing songs to pitching to concepting the album. All of that was thought through in a much more intense way. I’m so much more invested in this record.

You’ve said before that you grew up with a pop influence in your childhood before gravitating to country later on. How does that early pop exposure influence you now?

Whenever anyone ever asks me how I would describe my sound, my answer is that I grew up on a farm in east Tennessee and my first concert was Britney Spears. That is the truest description of my music that I can give. [The last album] led with a song called “Love You Like You Mean It,” which was very pop country, and it worked. And that gave me a lot of confidence. Country music — we pride ourselves in being honest and truthful. That’s what the format’s built on. The honest truth is that I love pop music and I love country music, and the honest, true songs that I write are going to be influenced by those two.

People draw comparisons between you and Taylor Swift, whose album is coming out just a week after yours. What do you think of those comparisons?

You know, I love Taylor. She has been someone I have watched so closely, because I feel like she’s done everything in her career with such grace. If there’s anyone whose career that I hope to have a similar path to, it’s hers. And honestly, she’s one of my friends. Knowing her like I do, whenever we get compared, it’s a compliment.

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Write to Raisa Bruner at raisa.bruner@time.com