Like a summer heat bowing to crisp autumn breezes, Kelsea Ballerini knows how quickly things can change.
Some changes can shake a career, like when virtually all entertainment hit an unexpected "pause" in March 2020 – the same week Ballerini released her last studio effort, "Kelsea."
Other changes can be subtle, like learning to be present for life's important moments (that Instagram post can always wait, right?).
And for Ballerini, change can create headlines – like in late August, when she filed for divorce from Australian country artist Morgan Evans, her husband of nearly five years.
But just as seasons change, people can, too.
Ballerini returned last week with "Subject To Change," a 15-song album overflowing with unvarnished truths and heart-on-her-sleeve life lessons told through the singer's kaleidoscopic view on modern pop hooks, neon-soaked country swagger and bare-boned storytelling.
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In so many words? She goes there.
"As a fan of music, when I feel like I'm getting to know who I'm listening to – and they're not just this person in a glass box that you see on a stage every now and again – that they're a human with feelings?" Ballerini told The Tennessean, part of the USA TODAY Network. "It makes me trust them more."
And on "Subject to Change," Ballerini builds trust with her listener – one song at a time.
Subject to ... songwriting
On a mid-August morning, Ballerini, a 29-year-old Knoxville, Tennessee, native, settled into a straight-back couch near the window of a corner room inside one of downtown Nashville's ever-growing roster of boutique hotels. She's within eyesight of Music Row –the heartbeat of mainstream country-music-making – and sits a brisk walk away from Bridgestone Arena, the building where Ballerini earned her first pair of CMA Awards months ago.
But Ballerini doesn't rest on her past hits or hard-earned award-season victories during the half-hour interview. She's looking ahead, despite being a little nervous about it.
"The way that the last record came out, the week that the world shut down, really made me reevaluate my ego and the way that I care about my records," Ballerini said. "I think I'm really protective of this one because of how it went down last time. But because I was so protective of this process, I really love this album. And that's all I'm in control of."
Ballerini built the 15-song "Subject To Change" from 80-plus demos she workshopped since her last album. Sonically, it takes listeners through a mixtape of 1990s influence (like the breezy pop jam "Heartfirst" and arena-country throwback "I Can't Help Myself"); country crooning (like the fiddle-doused back-porch tune "If You Go Down" and bar-rockin' "You're Drunk, Go Home"); and bold balladeering (like the modern pop introspection "Marilyn" and solo album closer "What I Have").
Lyrically, Ballerini took note of three things when listening back to her demos: "I noticed a lot of juxtaposition. I noticed a lot of inward thoughtfulness. And I noticed a lot of change."
Inspired by these themes, she co-wrote a title track and opening number to set the tone for the album. Enter: "Subject To Change."
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On the title song, she sings: "I’m subject to going from zero to feelin' obsessed/ To happy and laughin', then being upset/ But if one thing’s the samе/ It's that I'm subject to change."
At times, her songs blur fictional characters with real-life lessons (like the aforementioned "You're Drunk ..."). But as the album progresses, listeners hear an increasingly vulnerable Ballerini. The final three tracks – "Doin' My Best," "Marilyn" and "What I Have" – chronicle public and private missteps (including a line that all but name-checks a fallout with pop star Halsey); question life in the limelight; and say "no" to social comparison.
"I'm doing myself a disservice to not have a couple of things on here that bring out the uncomfortable honesty that I started showing when I wrote my book (2021 poetry collection 'Feel Your Way Through')." She added: "I kinda had this theory that (if) people make it to song 12, they earned it."
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Subject to ... collaboration
Six months ago, Ballerini swore off collaborations.
After achieving new heights as a co-billed artist – namely, on Kenny Chesney duet "Half of My Hometown" and LANY collaboration "I Quit Drinking" – Ballerini wanted to stand on "my own two feet," she said.
Then "You're Drunk ..." happened.
A standout honky-tonk tune that's built to blare out of Lower Broadway bars, Ballerini knew it needed a collaboration. Her one rule? She would only call friends for help. As a result, she enlisted contemporary counterpart Carly Pearce and pop powerhouse Kelly Clarkson to join in the rejection romp.
In the chorus, Ballerini delivers, "You're drunk, go home/ If you're tryin' to hook up, gotta do it alone/ The way you're slurrin' and the way you stumble/ Ain't no way you're gonna get my numbеr."
"I call this my first grown-up album, and I think it's because I don't shy away from going there a couple different times in a couple different ways," Ballerini said. "And this song's one of those times. The most I listened to it, I loved the visual of a trio of women singing it.
"Carly and I have been friends for years before we both had anything going on. We've really seen each other through – personally and professionally – all these changes. And Kelly, first of all she's Kelly ... Clarkson. I mean, duh."
Subject to ... touring
Ballerini hit the road with "Subject to Change" last week for a two-week tour that opened at Radio City Music Hall in New York.
She's focused on bringing out new songs – like introspective pop groove "I Guess They Call It Fallin'" – and building a night that feels like a start-to-finish bash soundtrack-ed by her growing catalog.
"I want it to feel like a celebration of the last couple of years of music that I haven't gotten to tour yet," she said. "But I also want it to really focus on this new chapter of 'Subject to Change.'"
She looks forward to singing "Marilyn" for the fans who've stuck beside her since before she topped country radio with "Peter Pan," and she can't wait for mothers to experience "What I Have" with their daughters nearby. But she may be most excited to play "Subject to Change" for the 20- and-30-something women who come to mind with the title track.
Because, like herself, Ballerini knows people change.
Or, as she said: "I did the best I could on this album, and it's something I'm really proud of."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kelsea Ballerini talks new album 'Subject To Change,' touring, more