Kelsea Ballerini Opens Up About Stripping Down Latest Album on 'Heartfelt' New Pandemic Project

The country star — who reimagines her latest album, kelsea, on her stripped-down new pandemic project, ballerini — talks life in quarantine

Kelsea Ballerini
Kelsea Ballerini. Photo: Peggy Sirota

Kelsea Ballerini got creative in quarantine.

The country singer, 26, released her third album, kelsea, back in March, just as the coronavirus crisis was first hitting the U.S. Because of the pandemic, the Grammy-nominated songwriter didn't get to properly promote or celebrate the impressive genre-spanning record. So rather than binge-watching TV or baking banana bread, she decided to reimagine all 13 of kelsea's tracks on her stripped-down new project, ballerini.

On Tuesday, Ballerini — at home with her dog Dibs — hopped on the phone with PEOPLE to talk about the new project, life with singer-songwriter husband Morgan Evans and her pal Taylor Swift.

Kelsea Ballerini
Kelsea Ballerini. Peggy Sirota

Your album kelsea came out around the time the stay-at-home orders happened back in March. Were you hesitant to release it then?

It was right in the beginning of everything happening and the chaos of it all, so we had this big discussion: "Do we pull the album back? Or do we just let it kind of find its place in the world over the next few months?" And that's what we ended up doing because I really believe that this is a time where people are listening to more music than ever because it makes them feel connected and happy.

So how did this new project, ballerini, start to take shape?

We made kelsea, the album, to tour it. It's an album made for being commercial and being on the radio and singing it really loud with a lot of people in a big venue — that was our plan this year, to launch a big tour that happens in the fall, and then obviously all that went away.

So as we were listening to it when it came out and trying to figure out what to do with everything happening around it, I honestly just got a little bit discouraged, and I kind of got into a funk. Someone around me was like, "Dude, you just put out this album that you worked so hard on for a year and a half. You have to fall back in love with it because it's still new to everyone else." I had this challenge of trying to figure out a way, a creative way, to basically re-introduce this album to myself and then to other people again.

So we made it for people in their living rooms, people having a glass of wine, and people who have the time and the space right now that they wouldn't have normally to actually listen to a record, probably differently than they would have, had things been different this year. There's just a lot more space around the production of it, and every little change that we made was to really highlight the lyrics and what each song's saying in a completely different way that's not made for people to be jumping in the pit and confetti cannons to be going off. It's really made to be interpreted differently and listened to in a more heartfelt way.

That's interesting. I wondered if this was a quarantine idea, or if this was part of the plan all along, because the titles are kelsea and ballerini — and the covers are an extension of each other.

I'm so glad that it looks like I'm that smart, but that was not the case, no. I've been calling it my silver lining in the last few months. For artists, we're so used to making a record and then touring it and sharing it with people. And I've really felt that I've grieved that with this album because even on the kelsea version, I haven't gotten to play most of the songs live at all. So it was just a way of staying creative and staying stoked about a body of music that I really do love.

How long did you work on reimagining these songs?

We pulled the whole thing together in the last two months — it was pretty crazy. I did the whole thing with one person, Jimmy Robbins. He was a really big part of kelsea, the album, but I just sat with him and I was like, "I want to feel so comfortable to trial and error every option on every song." That's what we did. It was just the two of us in a room, we started with nothing, and we built everything back up and then got in the studio with three musicians: all wearing masks, all spaced out. And the other cool thing about this record that I'm really proud of is this is the first album where everything is live real instruments. I've been just so busy the last few months that everyone's like, "What are you doing? It's quarantine." And I'm like, "I can't tell you."

Your new "Hole in the Bottle" music video is so fun. You shot that all in quarantine?

There were seven [costume changes], and we crammed it all into one day. It was so crazy just with all the regulations and stuff on shooting. We had to do a one-day set, and we didn't have time to change hair and makeup, so literally I would yank one wig off, put another wig on, change my outfit, and run. It was the first day, honestly, out of the last few months that felt like I was doing something that felt normal and back to work. It was so nice to feel like I was moving forward a little bit.

Kelsea Ballerini
Kelsea Ballerini. Peggy Sirota

Aside from creating an album, how else have you been spending your time in quarantine? Did you have a sourdough bread phase like everyone else?

I didn't. I have been cooking a little bit, but not a lot. We've been taking a couple of road trips, staying either at friends' places or at Airbnbs in different places that we wanted to go to. We'll just order in food and walk around cities. So we've taken a couple of little adventures like that. I would love to tell you that I've come up with some new talent or I've become like an Olympic-style gymnast at this point, but no, I've done pretty much nothing — other than make an album. Thank God I have something to show for it.

How has all this time together brought you and Morgan closer?

I feel like we've done five years of marriage in five months, but honestly, ever since we met, we have not had the luxury of having a lot of time together. We both are touring artists and so we both have to intentionally block times to look forward to. We've never had this much time together, so it's been a blessing in disguise for us, personally, just to be able to learn how we work actually living under the same roof all the time. And I think it's been really healthy for our marriage just to kind of settle in. It'll be interesting when things open back up and touring starts again. We're both so eager to get back on the road, but at the same time, I think it's going to take us retraining ourselves to be apart again. But it's been great for us and healthy for us. I'm really grateful for it.

Taylor Swift & Kelsea Ballerini (in 2018). Kelsea Ballerini/Instagram

Your friend Taylor Swift also put out a quarantine album. What are your favorite tracks on folklore?

When it first came out, it was "Mad Woman." Now it's either "My Tears Ricochet" or "Invisible String" — I think those are the two that grew on me the most. And "Betty," duh! When she was most-added to country radio, I texted her, I was like, "Welcome back! Yee-haw!"

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