Since releasing her breakout LP The First Time in 2015, Kelsea Ballerini has become one of the most promising rising stars in country, culminating in her first Grammy nomination in December for Best New Artist.
The 23-year-old “Peter Pan” singer — and bride-to-be, following fiancé Morgan Evans’ Christmas Day proposal — spoke to PEOPLE about what the honor means to her, and how she’s gearing up for Music’s Biggest Night.
The 59th Annual Grammys air Feb. 12 at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.
Nominations came out when she was in bed.
“I would love to say that I casually forgot that the nominations were coming out and it wasn’t on my radar, but that’s just a flat-out lie! I was really anxious about it. Being validated by getting played on the radio and getting to headline a tour has been incredible, and it’s been super fulfilling,” she says. “But to me, Grammys are like the pinnacle of music, and it’s your peers looking at the work you’ve done and saying, ‘We like this. This is good.’ And I really wanted that.”
She wanted that — and she got it, when nominations were announced Dec. 6. As for how Ballerini learned of her nomination?
“I woke up to the sound of my phone just dinging over and over and over again,” she told Entertainment Weekly of friends texting her the happy news while she was still in bed.
“Being nominated, especially in Best New Artist, that validation as a songwriter?” she adds to PEOPLE. “Working on my second album right now, it just gave me this new confidence that I think I really needed that I’m thankful for.”
Representing both women and the country community in her category gives her pride.
“There was such a big conversation for so long about the lack of females in country music, which you can totally see if you look at the charts,” says Ballerini. “‘Bro-country’ was such a huge trend for a while, and there weren’t as many women on the radio. But now there’s this huge trend of women on the radio, and it’s so, so cool to be able to see that in this category.”
Indeed, Ballerini is one of four diverse acts up for the 2017 Best New Artist category, alongside EDM duo The Chainsmokers, hip-hop breakout Chance the Rapper, rapper-singer Anderson.Paak — and fellow country darling Maren Morris. But Ballerini says there’s no competition between her and genre mate Morris, who was one of the first people to reach out to congratulate her on the nomination, along with pal Taylor Swift.
“I don’t think there’s ever been two female country artists in that category before, so it’s a big deal,” Ballerini says of her and Morris’ nominations. “I’m stoked to do it with her!”
“I’ve seen both of them in concert, and I was so blown away,” Ballerini says of the divas, who scored five and nine nods, respectively. “I’m gonna definitely take a selfie: Even if it’s from, like, three rows back, they’ll be in it!”
She’ll get ready with her “big sister” Hillary Scott.
“Hillary Scott is nominated, and she’s going, so I’m gonna see if we can get ready together because that’ll definitely ease my nerves,” Ballerini says of the Lady Antebellum singer, who has become a mentor and friend over the years. “She’s like my big sister — she’s good at giving me advice and calming me down.”
Insists the “Dibs” singer, “I’m always a nervous wreck! Always, for real. I think I get nervous just ’cause I care a whole lot. Especially doing everything for the first time, you don’t really know what to expect. Even if you’ve watched the Grammys your whole life, I don’t know what it’s like actually being there — and actually having a seat. I don’t know what that feels like; I just don’t know how to do it yet, which is fun!”
Her favorite Grammys moment involves Kelly Clarkson.
“It’s definitely the award show that you watch every year and you make plans to watch,” says Ballerini. “Kelly Clarkson‘s just my favorite artist of all time, ever, and I remember when she sang ‘Because of You’ on the Grammys [in 2006] — that was an iconic moment for me as a kid. Oh my gosh, how can you not [ugly-cry watching that performance]?!”
She doesn’t prepare speeches in advance.
“I feel like as soon as you do that, it’s never gonna work in your favor,” Ballerini says. “When you just speak from your heart, it’s good — that’s how I roll.”