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Kelsea Ballerini talks pressure, #TimesUp and avoiding the sophomore slump

Thereís a reason you didnít see Kelsea Ballerini at this yearís Grammys.

"Last year was my first year going because I was nominated, and I realized while sitting there that I feel like itís the kind of thing you want to show up to when you have a reason to show up, you know?" Ballerini said by phone from her home in Nashville. "Hopefully next year Iíll have reason to go."

Itís not a bad bet. Over the past four years, the 24-year-old singer-songwriter has charmed the country world with her out-of-nowhere rise.

Ballerini was an unknown independent from Knoxville, Tenn., when her debut single Love Me Like You Mean It rose to No. 1 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart ó the first time thatíd happened for a solo female act since Carrie Underwood. Two even bigger singles, Dibs and Peter Pan, came next. Almost before the world fully caught on, Ballerini got a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist, and three straight nods for the CMAsí Female Vocalist of the Year.

At that point, Ballerini had every reason to go pop, much like the artist to whom sheís most frequently compared: Taylor Swift. Instead, last fall, she released her sophomore album Unapologetically, which fleshes out her modern sound without relinquishing her country roots. Just like on her first album, Ballerini wrote or co-wrote every song.

In December, Ballerini married fellow country singer Morgan Evans. Later this year, sheíll hit the road with Keith Urban. But first, sheís on a headlining tour that hits Ruth Eckerd Hall on Friday. Before the show, she talked about avoiding the sophomore slump and more.

If you put out a sophomore album, and it doesnít sell the same or get nominated for Grammys or CMAs, does it mess with your spirit?

The first album had songs that got attention, particularly Peter Pan. But this one, for me, I tried to make a record. I didnít want to make 12 songs that I liked that randomly kind of went together. I wanted to make it like a story and a concept. If you listen to the record from top to bottom, it takes you through my emotional journey the last few years. Thatís why I really do want the album to be heard, not just the singles that we put out.

Nobody would have faulted you if youíd done a single with Migos or something. But you clearly held back from going full pop. Is that something you had to temper your desire to do?

No, I feel like we went more pop on this record. But I feel like we also went into country. As a songwriter, I love to write whatever Iím inspired by. There are songs on this record like Miss Me More, which is definitely more pop, but then thereís also songs like I Hate Love Songs, which are more country than anything on my first record. I just explored a little bit more of those boundaries, which is really fun.

Was there any point where you worried, "What do I do with this? How do I not squander it? How do I not lose this opportunity?"

Yeah, all the time, I worry about that. I think I realized itís not just about talent. Itís about being really kind, being really intentional and outworking everyone else. Those are the things that get you respect and love and friendship and goodwill from people. And vice versa.

How long did you feel underestimated? Was there a point where you felt like people understood what you could bring to the table?

Iíll let you know if I ever feel like that. (laughs)

Now youíre a wise old sage of 24, how do you see your platform? Letís just take as an example the #TimesUp/#MeToo movement thatís sweeping through the entertainment world. Is that something you feel an obligation to be involved with?

As far as any movement, especially political stuff, when I feel really passionate about something, or if I have a story to tell about something, Iíll always speak up. But there are also times where Iím like, listen, Iím a singer, and this is one of those times when my voice should be heard through my music. It just depends on the movement and the moment and the situation.

Congratulations on getting married. Have you settled into any semblance of a routine life yet?

Our normal is not very normal. Our normal is, "Iíll see you Monday, have a good week on the road!" But yeah, absolutely, we got a lot of time to enjoy that honeymoon phase, and now weíre both back to doing what we love. Thatís amazing, to be parallels and walk our dreams together and then meet up for a couple of days a week and be like, Ah, this is so fun!

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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