WHEN Taylor Swift made her bid for pop superstardom, the Nashville country music gatekeepers went on the hunt for her heir apparents.
They found a wealth of young artists to step into the breach including the Swift-endorsed Kelsea Ballerini.
The 24-year-old singer and songwriter from Tennessee, who will marry rising Australian country star Morgan Evans next month, struck chart gold with her debut single Love Me Like You Mean It in 2014.
She went on to create American chart history when her next two singles Peter Pan and Dibs joined that song at No. 1 on the US Country Airplay charts, paving the way for her debut album The First Time to crack the top 40 pop charts there and in Australia.
Ballerini follows up her auspicious career launch with her second album Unapologetically, a collection of songs that chart the breakup of a long-term relationship and then finding love with Evans, who proposed on Christmas Day last year.
If you weren’t forewarned about the album’s two sides — heartbreak on side 1 and true love on side 2, if you were to listen to it as an old school record — you might have initial concerns about the state of her current relationship.
“Oh God no,” Ballerini exclaims when I make sure the album’s opening songs including Graveyard and Get Over Yourself aren’t about Evans.
“A lot of life has happened since the first record and I wanted to take everyone through this emotional journey.
“Those songs definitely bring me back to where I was but I think there’s a purity about that because I wouldn’t be in the relationship I am in now if I hadn’t had heartbreak.”
Like many of her peers, Ballerini is striking a connection with a young audience by wearing her heart on her sleeve in song.
She cites Miss Me More as one of the new album tracks she believes will resonate with young heartbroken women. Evans posted this week that the single-in-waiting is her “Atomic Sass Bomb”.
“No one really talks about the part of a breakup where you lose yourself, who you are without them, and that’s something so many young girls go through,” she says.
“It’s the part of your life you don’t put on Instagram.
“One of the things I have learnt from touring and doing a lot of meet and greets is young girls don’t want you to sugar-coat things, whether it’s heartbreak or falling in love extremely quickly and what everyone thinks about that.”
And yes, there is a song for that, inspired by her love story with her Australian beau.
The pair did indeed fall in love quickly after co-hosting the CMC Music Awards in Brisbane in March last year.
The album’s title track is about their whirlwind courtship and those who cautioned her about moving too fast into a new love affair after coming out of a long-term relationship.
“I wrote that song three weeks after I met Morgan,” she says.
“It’s a laundry list of things people said to me, that you are moving too quickly, you are too young and this song was me saying ‘I don’t care’.
“Following my heart is important to me, it’s very freeing.”
Evans was her sounding board for the 200 songs she wrote for the second album.
“We don’t write together but we show each other everything because we know each other better than anyone else. He hears everything, even the bad songs,” she says.
Ballerini’s career trajectory has almost been as steep as that of her love life.
Soon after Swift championed her debut EP, she tapped her to perform at a concert on the 1989 tour and has become a good friend.
While her support no doubt helped to put the aspiring country pop artist on the map to a bigger audience, scoring a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist earlier this year and Female Vocalist of the Year at last week’s CMA Awards, was all Ballerini’s talent talking.
The country pop star signed when she was 19 served her apprenticeship not on the road but by studying concert DVDs and going to any show she could to develop her live persona.
One of the artists she studied closely was Shania Twain who has also become a close friend in the past couple of years and she was invited to sing with her idol at the Stagecoach festival earlier this year.
When Twain joined Ballerini on her own tour this year, the two country pop stars did shots together before her show.
“Shania came to see the show in Toronto, she Ubered herself to the gig,” she says.
“Me and my band sometimes do a pre-show shot, she was on the bus so she joined us in the shot like a legend.”
She is astonished that her American success has extended to Australia where she will be one of the headliners of next year’s CMC Rocks festival in Queensland.
Ballerini was shocked when the festival sold out in under an hour.
“I didn’t realise I had been announced as a headliner … I’m sure someone told me but it didn’t really sink in. So I am proper nervous now,” she says, laughing.
“I’m still so new to be able to be a headliner. And every time I try to say G’day, he says stop. The Australian accent isn’t too good but I am calling myself an honorary Australian now.”
Ballerini has been supporting her fiance through the grief of the sudden death of his manager and CMC Rocks promoter Rob Potts in a motorcycle accident in Tasmania last month.
“It has been incredibly sad. I think the best thing we can do is honour him through our music, especially Morgan,” she says.
Unapologetically is out now. CMC Rocks, March 15-18, Willowbank, Queensland, sold out. Side shows are expected to be announced soon.