Kelsea Ballerini jumps heart-first into ‘Subject to Change’
New York (AP) — Change is often difficult and painstakingly uncomfortable, but also a necessary, inescapable aspect of life. For country star Kelsea Ballerini, tussling with those current growing pains are at the heart of her new album, “Subject to Change.”
“There’s a lot of realization that was happening in real time as I wrote it. And so, I think when you’re having big life realizations and pending changes and stuff like that, I just think that it takes a lot of self-reflection and ownership of your choices and what gets you there,” said the “ Heartfirst ” singer. “I’ve always been really scared of change — it’s always been something that really terrified me. And I think I have just been really wrestling with the idea of, well, it’s inevitable.”
Cut entirely with a live band, the 15-track album— her first since 2020’s pandemic-marred “Kelsea” — was released last week and refined from a trove of more than 80 songs. Mostly penned by Ballerini, who’s credited on every song, along with Shane McAnally (Kacey Musgraves, Old Dominion), Julian Bunetta (Maroon 5, Harry Styles) and Alysa Vanderheym (Blake Shelton, Florida Georgia Line), her fourth studio album traverses through love, heartbreak, infatuation, confusion and accountability.
Despite recently announcing her five-year marriage to fellow country singer Morgan Evans was ending, “Subject to Change” is far from a heartbreak album.
“It’s the most upbeat record I’ve ever put out. But there’s so much more meat on the bones,” explained the pop-country songstress. “I don’t think that growing up has to be sad. I don’t think that the process, even though it’s messy, has to be shadowed by this heaviness. And I used to think it had to.”
While Ballerini hasn’t expounded on the details of the marriage’s demise, she doesn’t shy away from finger-pointing on the record — at herself.
On “Walk in the Park,” she sings, “I’m always looking for greener grass, on a carousel that goes too fast/Up and down like a swing set heart, I’m no walk in the park.”
“‘Walk in the Park’ is one of my favorite songs because I feel like it is the moment on the record that says I am good with me. I know I’m not a walk in the park. I know I’m not always the easiest person to be friends with or be in a relationship with,” said the 29-year-old. “I own that and I acknowledge that, and I’m on my own journey and I’m working on it actively.”
That’s where the richness of the album is cradled, in Ballerini’s vulnerability and transparency, tools she credits her 2021 poetry book “Feel Your Way Through” with helping her display confidently.
On “Doin’ My Best,” which she calls one her most important tracks, Ballerini sheds light on attending therapy, singing, “And therapy for one turned into therapy for two/When you get married that young, you got a lotta (expletive) you gotta get through.”
“Therapy has been a very necessary part of my journey the last couple of years to re-get to know myself,” said the CMT music award winner. “It’s something that holds me accountable… It challenges me to grow and to be better.”
She added: “Being able to just take ownership of that I think is a big part of growing up and being able to do it on such a very bare, very straightforward part on the record — I’m proud of myself for doing that.”
Pop-heavy songs find Ballerini widening her sonic sandbox even more than previous releases, like “Heartfirst,” the album’s lead single, “The Little Things” and the sing-along, foot-tapping “Muscle Memory” where she reconnects with a past love.
But with ’90s country female singers serving as inspiration, she’s still anchored in her roots with tunes like “I Can’t Help Myself,” the fiddle-driven, Thelma and Louise-reminiscent “If You Go Down (I’m Going Down Too),” and “You’re Drunk, Go Home” — the project’s lone collaboration — in which her, Kelly Clarkson and Carly Pearce tell bar patrons their sloppy advances aren’t welcome. The album closes with the beautiful, contentment-embracing “What I Have.”
The soon-to-be single songstress is currently on her 10-date “Heartfirst” tour, while adapting — and accepting — her new normal. But her growing pains are also forcing her to be open to new experiences; earlier this month, she was a front-row fixture during the trendy New York Fashion Week.
Joking that she’d be hesitant to walk in a show because she’d “be the model that trips,” she’d consider if asked. That’s how she’s living her life these days: open to whatever may come.
“Nothing’s off the table anymore,” said Ballerini. “I feel like for so long, I was like, ‘I am this one thing.’ And now I’m like, ‘What else?’” ___
Follow Associated Press entertainment journalist Gary Gerard Hamilton at: @GaryGHamilton on all his social media platforms.