Kelsea Ballerini | A Career Is Born in Public, Talent in Privacy

Via Issue 191, Fresh Cuts

Written by

Ilana Kaplan

Photographed by

Adam Franzino

Styled by

Annina Mislin

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Nestled in her Nashville cottage, Kelsea Ballerini is playing docent as she describes the framed illustration of Marilyn Monroe to her left. It isn’t, she insists, a carefully curated interior decorating decision, but a personal choice to have the blonde bombshell’s presence sprinkled within the rooms of her maximalist home. “It’s just good juju,” she tells me over Zoom from her study, where her labradoodle, Dibs, is snoring beside her.

Ballerini, a blonde country-pop darling grappling with the increasing intensity of the Hollywood limelight, has found facets of Monroe’s story to be inextricably linked to her own—so much so that there’s even an eponymous track about the late sex symbol on her 2022 album Subject to Change. “I wrote about my push and pull with the ways that I relate and don’t relate to her,” Kelsea says of the song “Marilyn,” beaming with pride. But mostly, Monroe’s presence has come to exist as a reminder to “nurture my real life in my home.” It’s the wisdom absorbed (and not brushed off) by someone who’s embracing the softness of their thirties—and it’s what Ballerini is most cozy in.

MICHAEL KORS COLLECTION sweater and shorts, CHRISTIAN LOUBOUTIN shoes, and PANDORA JEWELRY earrings, necklace, and rings.

So, how did Ballerini spend the 2024 Grammys the night prior? Like a quintessential 30-year-old, of course. After the star-studded event, she had an intimate dinner with her mom, her aunt, her best friend and her best friend’s parents. That’s your thirties, I tell the country star. “It was just comfortable and tangible growth for me,” she smiles.

In the past, however, Ballerini has always been the self- described girl who “can’t miss a party,” something that recalls her own middle school trauma of being an outsider craving an invitation to pre-teen get-togethers. “In the last 10 years, moving into a space where I started getting invited to the ‘cool parties,’ and I always felt like I had to go,” she tells me. Now, she’s more content ditching the glamor for something a little more low-key.

MICHAEL KORS COLLECTION sweater and shorts, CHRISTIAN LOUBOUTIN shoes, and PANDORA JEWELRY earrings, necklace, and rings.

But Ballerini has had quite a bit of time to shift her perspective. The Tennessee-born singer signed her first record deal at 19 with Black River Entertainment. She shared her debut single “Love You Like You Mean It” in 2014, which reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart and dropped her first EP later that year. She’s since released four albums: The First Time (2015), Unapologetically (2017), Kelsea (2020), and Subject to Change (2022). Along the way, she’s earned four Grammy nominations, performed as a musical guest on Saturday Night Live, and collaborated with artists including Halsey, The Chainsmokers, Kenny Chesney, Kelly Clarkson, and Carly Pearce. She also married fellow country singer Morgan Evans along the way.

MICHAEL KORS COLLECTION sweater and shorts, CHRISTIAN LOUBOUTIN shoes, and PANDORA JEWELRY earrings, necklace, and rings.

It’s been a 10-year climb for her in the music industry, and there was a time, she tells me, that the “starry-eyed fan-girl” in her was in the driver’s seat. “It’s not sexy to admit that it’s true,” she confesses, “and I would argue that any person in the entertainment realm has felt this in some capacity.” But Ballerini was just a teenager when she got her first taste of the music industry. Of course, she was driven by the allure of fame. Who wouldn’t be? “I would love to say from the very beginning all I cared about was just making a record quietly and hoping that it found the right people,” she says. “If I was a good liar, I would tell you that, but I’m not.”

It’s been paramount for Ballerini to strike that balance of artist and human, especially because much of her personal life has become public fodder. That’s easier said than done for a creative whose craft is also catharsis. In 2022, she and Evans divorced after five years of marriage. A few months after it was finalized, Ballerini shared her second EP, Rolling Up the Welcome Mat, which helped her cope with the end of her relationship. “That’s how I’ve processed my very big feelings since I was a 12-year-old,” she says of her connection to songwriting. Unlike her other projects, she tells me, this project was made “so selfishly.” She didn’t ask her label for a budget or a marketing plan. She “quietly” wrote, recorded, and delivered it to them with no intention of performing the songs live. Though she’s always written music to help people see themselves in her art and create community, Rolling Up the Welcome Mat was primarily for her—at first.

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But the EP’s impact veered away from her original intention. She initially didn’t want to rehash the painful moments detailed throughout the six tracks of the record, but she’s since found it healing to play them for fans who’ve connected with the EP. Now, she’s blossomed a “new relationship” with the songs. She looks forward to singing “Penthouse”—a heart-wrenching piano-flanked ballad about keeping up appearances—more than she does “Peter Pan,” arguably her biggest hit. I ask her what the project represents to her now: “It’s connection, it’s honoring vulnerability, it’s celebrating strength. That’s what I think of now.”

Ballerini credits the journey of making Rolling Up the Welcome Mat with ushering in her imminent musical era. For now, she’s treading lightly with what information she can reveal, and a round of guessing games from me results in fits of nervous laughter in between carefully worded replies. What she can say is she’s leaning into “the intention of writing the truth of my life and not rounding the edges of that.” 

Rolling Up the Welcome Mat gave her the space to process her divorce, but her music has yet to reflect on what’s happened since—like falling in love. Ballerini has been romantically linked to Outer Banks actor Chase Stokes since January 2023, and has blissfully entered a new phase of her life. Her next album is going to be more reflective of life after Rolling Up the Welcome Mat. “I want to make a record about what it feels to be 30... what it feels like to be falling in love and feeling a new level of safety,” she says with a sweet lilt. “Having the space in my life to experience all of it first had to happen for it now to reflect in the music.” The record in question, she says, is being approached in a completely different manner from her previous records, with arguable exception to Rolling Up the Welcome Mat. “I put together my dream group of people that I wanted to make it with and I’m making the whole record with the same people,” she says. “And it’s all women.”

Despite my prying, Ballerini remains tight-lipped on many of the specific details about the album, though she reveals that she’s had three artists on repeat: Post Malone, SZA, and Noah Kahan. Before I even need to ask, she interrupts herself: “That being said, I am making a country record.” Ballerini feels that there’s been an “expectation” for her to not make a country record, however, she’s “never been more excited” to make one.

MISSONI top, GUCCI shorts and belt, and PANDORA JEWELRY earrings and necklace.

Still, I wonder: Would she ever follow in the footsteps of, say, Taylor Swift and make the full country to pop jump? The answer isn’t exactly straightforward. My short answer is, ‘no.’ My long answer is I want music, not just my music, to have no bounds,” she says. Ballerini wants her music to be “malleable,” but she’ll always consider herself a country artist. That said, don’t expect her to ever turn away the inclusion of an 808 on a song. “Hell no,” she scoffs.

Music, for Ballerini, will always be her priority, but she has other goals for 2024. Lately, she’s been looking at how her idols like Shania Twain, Reba McEntire, Taylor Swift, and Reese Witherspoon have become such successful businesswomen and considering how she wants to evolve. “I finally have the confidence to ask myself, ‘What else?’” she says. She wants to pursue other creative avenues, which she believes will help her evolve as a person. That includes helping someone else on their musical journey, touring the venues she grew up watching concerts in, and venturing into acting. She won’t, however, be guest-starring on Outer Banks anytime soon.“When it comes to my relationship there’s a beautiful level of him showing up on tour, or at my respective award shows, and me getting to go to set and showing up to his events, where we just get to [be] each other’s support system in person,” she says. “That to me feels really safe.”

Ballerini is admittedly still grappling with protecting her privacy since fame was a “slow burn” for her. “I don’t have it figured out yet,” she sighs, “And I wonder if anyone really ever does.” She prides herself on being authentic—an open book who hangs out with her dog and you can split a bottle of wine with. “That helps me kind of feel a bit safer in the shift of eyeballs and the shift of people wanting to know what’s going on with me,” she quips. “But I also do feel the need to be a little bit more self-preserved than I ever have.”

Still, Ballerini—the person and the artist—has always been someone that people can relate to. She’s adamant about not being disingenuous on either count. “It’d be really unfair of me to be putting out records and putting my personal life on the internet and then be fussy about someone wanting something from me,” she shrugs. “That’s what I’ve signed up for.”

GUCCI top,DIOR skirt, and PANDORA JEWELRY necklaces.

For now, Ballerini is trying to keep herself centered in her own way. That includes therapy, which she has scheduled just after our conversation. “Right now, I’m really in bed with therapy,” she laughs. She’s attempting to acknowledge her growth and celebrate it. “I spent a lot of my life so focused on what’s next—my Virgo’s in the driver’s seat—and I’m really challenging myself this year to slow down and celebrate and acknowledge all of it,” she shares.

Part of this process comes down to balance, creating space for her public and private personas to thrive. “I’ve had really wonderful experiences that made me want to run home and lock my door with my real life,” she admits. “So [it’s about] having space for both. I love it when I get to step into artist mode. But the beautiful thing is, after a decade of doing it, I also love— equally—stepping back into my front door.” 

MICHAEL KORS COLLECTION sweater, top, and shorts and PANDORA JEWELRY bracelet and rings.

Photographed by Adam Franzino 

Styled by Annina Mislin at Walter Schupfer Management 

Written by Llana Kaplan

Hair: Danielle Priano at Kalpana

Makeup: Kelsey Deenihan at The Wall Group 

Nails: Zola Ganzorigt at The Wall Group 

Flaunt Film: Isaac Dektor

1st Assist: Ben Flynn 

2nd Assist: Fred Mitchell 

Tech: Tyler Jennings 

Production Assistant: Maria Kyriakos

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Flaunt Magazine, Issue 191, Fresh Cuts, Kelsea Ballerini,