Holiday Arts Preview 2016

Kelsea Ballerini, from East Tennessee girl to holiday headliner

Kelsea Ballerini (pictured at a Chicago performance earlier this month) will play at the House of Blues Dec. 1.
Kelsea Ballerini (pictured at a Chicago performance earlier this month) will play at the House of Blues Dec. 1.Timothy Hiatt/Getty Images/Getty

Kelsea Ballerini got started on her country music career early — she wrote her first song when she was only 12 years old. Now 23, the Tennessee-born singer-songwriter has a debut release, “The First Time,” made up of bubbly tracks that push at country’s boundaries. Its portrayals of the heart’s affairs recall the straight talk of Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire, but other influences — from the velvety textures of mid-’90s pop-rock to rapid-fire delivery that recalls the work of tongue-twisting MCs — make for an album that sounds as inspired by streaming-music algorithms as by Nashville.

Ballerini’s girlish drawl animates peppier songs like the flirtatious “Dibs” and gives relatable gravitas to the wistful “Peter Pan,” while the head rush of attraction lends her new single “Yeah Boy” a giddy bounce. Her inviting mix of influences has resulted in three country chart-toppers, an American Music Award nomination for Favorite Country Artist, and now her first headlining tour, which stops in Boston on Dec. 1. The Globe spoke to Ballerini before her first headlining show in her hometown of Knoxville, Tenn.


Q. It must be really exciting being back in Knoxville, and thinking about how you got started.

A. It’s where I wrote my first song, and played my first song on stage, and all of that. I was 12. I forgot it was Mother’s Day the next day, and I knew that my mom loved what she calls “gifts of the heart” — you know, things that are just really sweet. I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll just write her a song.’ That was the beginning of the end for me.

Q. What initially drew you to country music specifically?

A. I grew up in east Tennessee, and my voice is from east Tennessee. You know? But on my record, you can hear that I listen to pop, and you can hear that I listen to R&B, and rap, and all that, because I love it. I feel like it’s my job as a songwriter and an artist to be honest about that, but my roots are extremely Southern.


Q. How would you say your approach to songwriting has changed over time?

A. I hope it hasn’t. I think that being in the room with bigger . . . songwriters is [an opportunity to] learn the craft a little more. But I always hope that my songwriting comes from the heart, and it comes from a place of experience, and a place of vulnerability, because that’s kind of what started this journey for me — that sentiment of it.

Q. Do you write on the road at all?

A. I do. If I don’t have other writers out with me, I’ll just kind of either start something or just write an idea down and bring it back to Nashville, but sometimes I’ll have writers out on my bus with me and we’ll write before the shows. I really enjoy that. In December, before the new year, we’ll have half the album done.

Q. What drew you to the Peter Pan story as a framework for “Peter Pan”?

A. I just loved the idea of Peter Pan because it’s a story that everyone knows — it’s timeless. Then I think, relating it to the kind of heartbreak that most people have had where not necessarily something goes wrong, or someone cheats, or anything like that, it’s just like where one person doesn’t emotionally match the other person. I think the concept of both of those was cool to me.


Q. What about “Dibs” — how did that come to be?

A. I was reading Seventeen magazine and I saw the word “dibs,” and I thought it was super cute so I put it in my song idea list on my phone. The whole time we were writing it a few months later, we actually couldn’t tell if it was too quirky or not — we weren’t sure if it was good or if it was silly.

Q. How has prepping for your first headlining tour been?

A. It’s been exciting, creating moments that I loved as a fan going to shows growing up — a dramatic entrance, or sharing new music for the first time, or going out into the audience to hug people, or just playing my guitar alone. I literally went to every concert that we could get tickets to. I was a concert junkie, and I still am. I still love going to shows and just watching because I feel like I learn so much.

Country 102.5 Holiday Jam with Kelsea Ballerini

At House of Blues, Boston. Dec. 1 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $20 and up. 888-693-2583, www.houseofblues.com/boston

Interview was edited and condensed. Maura Johnston can be reached at maura@maura.com.