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How Kelsea Ballerini Is Finding Her Confidence In Quarantine

Last spring, Kelsea Ballerini found herself with a new album that was all dressed up with nowhere to perform. But the time-out didn’t stop the music. It taught the country singer how to re-center and come out swinging.
By Mary Anderson
March 12, 2021
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For Kelsea Ballerini, whose red-hot career in country music has meant being in perpetual motion practically since her first hit at age 21, the Great Downshift of last year was going to take a minute to adjust to. "I'm really bad at slowing down. It's hard for me to be present," she says. "Meditation — I'm not there yet." But her guiding word for 2021 is healthy, and she means to manifest it in body and mind.

On this Friday afternoon, it's day 15 of Dry January for Kelsea; so far, so good. She's perched at the desk in the floral-wallpapered office of the new house she shares with her husband, country singer Morgan Evans, sipping water from a jumbo-size jar through her metal straw and giving a snapshot of her earlier quarantine — the half-abandoned workouts, the extra glasses of wine — which may sound familiar. "That's what this month is: It's like my reset," she says.

Only you could argue that the reset had begun much earlier. In November, when she and Evans sold their downtown Nashville condo — the one this close to the interstate, with its thrumming cars and sirens — they included in the sale all the furniture "down to the silverware," so they could start with a blank slate in a leafy nearby suburb. She credits the epic pause for bringing her, quite literally, to her senses. "It wasn't until May that we couldn't sleep in the condo because we noticed the noise for the first time," she says. "Before that, we were on a tour bus all the time." Now her labradoodle, Dibs, who is typically dog-sat by Kelsea's mom for those touring stretches, is curled up on the floor by her feet, his white fur blending into the shag.

Kelsea Ballerini in her Shape April 2021 Cover Shoot
Credit: Carter Smith

In some ways, Kelsea's bold, labor-of-lockdown project, the album Ballerini, was the soundtrack for the personal and creative catharsis she was putting in motion. Kelsea, 27, is often likened to Taylor Swift for her crossover appeal, a phenom in her own right whose first three singles hit No. 1 on the country charts and who became the Grand Ole Opry's youngest current member two years ago.

When it became clear that the pandemic would drown out the untimely March debut of her new album, Kelsea, she bravely took a pair of scissors to it. Would-be arena rockers like "Hole in the Bottle" became soulful in their stripped-down reimagined forms just six months later on Ballerini, meeting the wave length of the nation's mood. "I really wanted it to be the bare bones of the songs. Especially ones, like 'Half of My Hometown,' that are more emotional," Kelsea says of the album's soon-to-be-released latest single, which originally featured fellow Knoxville native Kenny Chesney. "This version of it allows you to feel it a little more." These are not acoustic re-recordings but often genre-bending remakes that signal this country singer has no intention of staying in her lane.

"It ended up being my way of saying that I can be all these things, and I don't have to exclusively put myself in one box," she says. "I'm more confident in my art than I have been in a long time." She shares her field notes on how to power your best life — through quarantine and beyond — and why doing things your way is sweet payoff.

Kelsea Ballerini in her Shape April 2021 Cover Shoot
Credit: Carter Smith

There's Nothing Routine About Routines

"To be honest, routine always sounded boring, but now it's something that helps me feel like I'm in control of my life. I'm baby stepping my way into it. Little things, like when you get out of bed, make the bed. Get outside for 30 minutes a day. Sit on the porch. Take the dog for a walk. I'm building that into my life, and it's not boring at all. It's really helping me feel that ownership of my life that I need. (Related: Celebrity Morning Routines That Are Actually Doable, Even for People Who Hate Mornings)

I used to think 'me time' was so narcissistic, but now I realize it's necessary. I have a SoulCycle bike, and I love to do that. I am a hot-bath fanatic. I have all my essential oils, and I do that pretty much every night. I can show up in a more present way when I'm taking time for myself too."

Kelsea Ballerini in her Shape April 2021 Cover Shoot
Credit: Carter Smith

Lentils Make an Excellent Pasta Topper

"I was never a cook. I was never home, so I never cared to. But I fell in love with it this past year. My husband, who's from Australia, is a vegetarian. I grew up on chicken nuggets and waffles, so trying to match that was really interesting.

We cook a lot of lentil Bolognese, or we'll do Mexican bowls with tempeh instead of chorizo. I've found a good groove with healthy meatless alternatives for some of our favorite stuff, which is fun. When we go out, I'll get my fix of whatever I'm craving.

I've always been an 80/20 person as far as food and drinking. I try to do what's good for me 80 percent of the time. The other 20 percent of the time, I just enjoy my life. I run through the McDonald's drive-through once a month, and it's fine. Sometimes I'll have a little too much wine, and that's OK too. I've spent so much of my life feeling guilty for things that I eat or having an unhealthy relationship with food or the gym or whatever. So I just try to be nice to myself and do what's good for me. And when I don't, I start again the next day."

Kelsea Ballerini in her Shape April 2021 Cover Shoot
Credit: Carter Smith

Work Out to Not Be Worn-Out

"I've worked out with my trainer, Erin Oprea, for five years. We're on Zoom three days a week and do a lot of strength training intervals, where you alternate two exercises until you've burned that muscle group, then move on. We cram it all into 45 minutes and call it a day. It's been really good for me in understanding that exercise isn't necessarily for the way I look; it's also about the way I feel.

And I show a lot of grace to myself: There are days when I take lots of breaks between sets and it's not the best workout in the world, and that's OK. I don't ever want working out to feel like a punishment — like I'm doing this because I didn't do something else right."

Kelsea Ballerini in her Shape April 2021 Cover Shoot
Credit: Carter Smith

Indulge in a Good Glow Up

"I just started believing that less is more. I love glitter, and when I'm touring I do the whole glam thing. It's a lot, and my skin hates me for it. But day in and day out, like today, I just wear tinted moisturizer from It Cosmetics that has tons of sunscreen. A brow gel from Maybelline [Maybelline New York Brow Fast Sculpt Gel Mascara, Buy It, $8, ulta.com]. Cheek tint. And then I have fake eyelashes on. That's my bougie thing: high maintenance to be low maintenance.

But I love makeup and skin-care products. If I wasn't a singer-songwriter, I would be a makeup artist for sure. I'm almost always testing new stuff, and because of that my skin is always reacting. (Related: What the Heck Is Skin Purging, Exactly?)

This past year, I locked into a regimen I love. My two go-tos are hyaluronic acid serum from Osea [Buy It, $88, amazon.com] and a vitamin C serum called Glow Factor [Buy It, $150, skinpharm.com] from a place in Nashville called SkinPharm."

Kelsea Ballerini in her Shape April 2021 Cover Shoot
Credit: Carter Smith

Above All, Do You

"This is a story I've never told publicly. The day before my first photo shoot, I panicked because I wanted a tattoo but didn't have one yet. And I was like, What if this single ['Love Me Like You Mean It'] works and people start to follow me? Then all of a sudden, I get a tattoo. People will be like, 'She's going off the deep end.'

So I went to the tattoo parlor the day before that shoot and got a tattoo. [The words 'How sweet the sound' are on the inside of her left forearm near the wrist.] It was just this youthfully innocent way of saying, 'I've got to be who I am from the beginning of this.'

A lot of artists and public people have a persona that they step into, but I can't do that. I don't want any surprises. I just want it all to be out there."

Photography: Carter Smith, @carterbedloesmith // Styling: Molly Dickson, @mollyddickson // Hair: Tarryn Feldman/Tracey Mattingly for Ouai, @tarrynfeldman // Makeup: Kayleen McAdams/A-Frame Agency for Charlotte Tilbury, @kayleenmcadams // Manicure: Kait Mosh/The Only Agency for Put It in Neutral by OPI, @kaitmosh // Creative Director: Noah Dreier, @noahdreier // Photo Director: Toni Paciello Loggia, @toniloggia