When Kelsea Ballerini surprise-dropped her soul-baring EP Rolling Up The Welcome Mat on Valentine’s Day this year, she never intended to even perform the songs live. Since arriving fresh onto the music scene almost a decade ago, she’s cemented herself as a country icon – but while she’s always employed country’s signature storytelling style of songwriting which led to her loyal fanbase, she’s also admittedly spent too much time worrying about crafting radio hits and not stepping on anyone’s toes. With Rolling Up The Welcome Mat, Ballerini abandoned the people-pleasing mindset of her 20s for the first time in her music career. 

After experiencing the fallout of a very public divorce – and the backlash, rumors, and criticism that tends to follow women in country music particularly – the songstress took control of her narrative by releasing six revealing tracks detailing the demise of her relationship. “My intention was to write this and release this very quietly,” Ballerini said. “But that’s not how the universe treated this chapter.”

Ballerini created this project for herself – but it resonated with her audiences like never before. Both sonically and lyrically, Rolling Up The Welcome Mat deviates from expectations in a myriad of ways. She calls out the country music industry’s hypocrisy – “Ain’t it like this town to only criticize a woman?” – and owns her worth – “It stings rolling up the welcome mat knowing you got half.” After an unprecedented and incredible fan response to the project, Ballerini utilized cathartic live performances of tracks like the heartwrenching ballad “Penthouse” as a way to connect with her audience and move through a difficult period in her own life. Songs that were initially written to be devastating and uncomfortable became empowering and even fun to perform on tour. 

Audiences screamed the version of “Blindsided” featuring the additional spunky lyrics from her SNL performance at the top of their lungs (“Now you’re singing it loud on the radio, you couldn’t say it to my face / You would’ve searched the whole world over? / Yeah, sure, okay”). Fans begged for an extended version of the brutally-honest “Interlude,” a 45-second standout on the EP. And they immediately embraced a four-letter, yet extremely significant lyric change that Ballerini made when performing “Penthouse” towards the end of her tour (“Now I don’t care where you’re sleeping, baby”).

Ballerini heard her fans loud and clear – this summer, she released a new and updated version of the groundbreaking project. Rolling Up The Welcome Mat (For Good) brilliantly brings this chapter to a close and simultaneously looks toward the future while celebrating how far she’s come. Along with the fan-favorite lyric changes, extended tracks, and a live “healed version” of “Penthouse,” the (For Good) version even includes a brand-new song – “How Do I Do This?” – about navigating the world of dating as a newly-divorced woman. “I haven’t been on a date since I was 22,” Ballerini muses on the playful country-pop track.

Rolling Up The Welcome Mat (For Good) is, at its core, a love letter to Ballerini’s fans. “It was just my way of saying, ‘thank you so much for changing this chapter of my life, and I hear you loud and clear, and here you go,’” she said. “It was really just for the people that have made it what it’s been.”

With this massive change in Ballerini’s career trajectory comes personal growth and even a shift in her mindset outside of music – amid mistreatment and backlash she’s received from inside the country industry, she’s made the decision to take risks in standing up for causes that matter to her. It’s certainly paid off – she’s been embraced by audiences across genres and reached record-breaking career highlights.

“I think there’s a full range of ways that you can challenge boundaries, and I’ve always been drawn to those artists,” Ballerini shares as she ruminates on her career ahead of making her VMA debut. “That’s naturally where I’ve always wanted to go, but I’ve always operated from a place of being scared that people wouldn’t like me. Call it turning 30, call it getting divorced, I don’t know. I just care way less about that now.”

Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for MTV

For more on Ballerini’s next chapter, V caught up with the star on the morning of her 30th birthday as she got ready to make her VMA debut that same evening and reflected on the previous year of her personal life and career.

V Magazine: First of all, happy birthday – you’re 30 today! How’s the day been so far?

Kelsea Ballerini: I’m having a nice morning. I have to be honest, I literally just cried because I’m in my feelings. So if I look crazy, that’s why.

V: Well, you look great. But if you don’t cry, is it really your birthday?!

KB: It has to happen.

V: But I’m sure it feels so good to enter this new decade with so much love and support through your latest musical chapter, which we will get into. But first things first, you’re ringing in 30 by performing on the VMAs, which is so exciting. So tell me about all the looks – I know you’re wearing red on the carpet, followed by an outfit change from a white gown to a black short dress during your performance. So how did you guys pull that quick change off?

Photography by Cibelle Levi

KB: Well, for the carpet, we wanted to do something that felt like a statement of stepping into a new decade. I feel like I’m really stepping into my womanhood, and so I wanted something that felt feminine, but strong. So we picked red, and it’s backless, and I just feel really confident and sexy in it, honestly. For the performance, we’re doing a song called “Penthouse,” and we wanted it to be the visual representation of what I wrote it about, versus where I’m at now. So the white dress obviously represents the chapter of life that EP was written about, and then the black dress represents shedding that skin and just being who I am now. I just put out a song on the re-release of the EP called “How Do I Do This?” and there’s a line in it that says, “I’ve got a little black dress, I want to use it.” So it’s kind of tying into that song as well. But it just feels like a really beautiful visual transition from then to now.

Photography by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for MTV
Photography by Cibelle Levi

V: Yeah, I love that. And you’ve always been an incredibly dynamic performer on stage. Your live vocals are incredible, but more than that, you know how to develop such a personal connection with each audience member, especially when performing a song like “Penthouse” that resonates with so many people in different ways. Has that quality come naturally to you over time, or is a part of you still nervous performing it live?

KB: I wouldn’t say nervous, but I think that I’ve really had an interesting journey with these songs in particular because my intention was to never perform them. But now, these are the songs that I look forward to performing the most because of the connection that they’ve given me to people. So it’s been a really beautiful lesson and challenge for me as an artist and just a person. My intention was to write this and release this very quietly. But that’s not how the universe treated this chapter. It’s been such a pleasant surprise how much I’ve loved singing all the songs, specifically “Penthouse,” because it does feel connected. It feels different.

V: Yeah, totally. Especially “Penthouse,” it’s so incredible to see what happened with the rollout of these songs – and also for fans to watch that transformation going from still feeling hurt by the situation you’re writing about to slowly finding healing and even empowerment alongside your audience by the end of the tour. Even changing the lyrics from “I don’t know where you’re sleeping, baby” to “I don’t care where you’re sleeping, baby” – it’s a four-letter change, but it signifies so much growth. How did it feel to release that new and updated version alongside the rest of the Rolling Up The Welcome Mat (For Good) EP this summer?

KB: The intention of the re-release was honestly just to say thank you, because there have been moments along the lifespan of this music so far that people just grabbed onto. Whether it be “yeah, sure, okay” from SNL, or that one night on tour where I just decided to change “know” to “care” and everyone started calling it the “healed version,” or people being very adamant about wanting a full length “Interlude,” whatever it was. It was just my way of saying, “Thank you so much for changing this chapter of my life, I hear you loud and clear, and here you go.” So I think for me, it was really just for the people that have made it what it’s been.

V: I think a huge part of that has been through the live performances. I think if you had decided to not perform them live, there wouldn’t be the same kind of excitement and energy around the songs created by the experience of performing them, both for you and the fans, which is amazing.

KB: It’s become this guttural therapy session. Like, I don’t even sing “yeah, sure, okay” anymore. I hold the microphone out and I feel every single person that’s ever gone through some kind of disappointment in a relationship – it’s from our guts that we’re singing it and it’s this unifying, healing, gritty feeling. It’s really cool.

Photography by Cibelle Levi

V: Speaking of live performances, I wanted to ask you about a recent performance of yours on the CMT Awards that sent shockwaves through the country music industry. After performing your hit “IF YOU GO DOWN (I’M GOIN’ DOWN TOO)” featuring four RuPaul’s Drag Race alumni, you received incessant backlash from online trolls and conservative country fans saying things like “this isn’t country” – but on the other side of that, you were embraced with open arms by countless audiences across genres, in many cases, who were first-time country fans. What does that support from so many new fans during this era of your music mean to you after receiving backlash inside your own genre?

KB: I think when you decide to stand up for something you believe in, you do it without worrying about the effects. That’s not the point. And I really, really had to stand in that the few days after that performance because the hate was very, very loud. But then I thought – if the hate is that loud for me just standing up for what I believe in, how loud the hate must be for that community. So, I am so proud of that performance. I’m so proud of CMT for allowing me and celebrating me doing that performance. I think in this chapter of my life and career, it’s just really important for me to figure out those things that I really want to dig my heels into, and stand tall in. And that’s certainly one of them.

V: Yeah, definitely, it’s so impactful. And with that, you’ve drawn people into the genre who were maybe less exposed to the varying viewpoints of artists or thought there was only one way to sing country music. So I think it’s amazing to bridge the gap between genres. And I’m sure it’s not lost on you that so many of your idols and musical influences – like Shania Twain, of course – were no stranger doing that in their careers as well. Whether it’s sonic experimentation and genre-bending or speaking up outside of music, I think country can be pretty set in its ways. But people like Shania Twain have always kept pushing the envelope in both respects. What has having that incredible support from someone as iconic as Shania, who obviously has been a mentor to you, meant throughout your career, but particularly now as you embark on such a new chapter in your music and in your personal life?

KB: First of all, these are great questions. You’re so lovely, thank you for that. I’ve learned from the best, I really have. I feel really lucky to have been a young girl with Shania Twain on the radio. I feel really lucky to have been a young artist with Taylor Swift on the radio. I’ve really, truly learned from the best. I think I’ve always just been drawn towards women in entertainment that have fearless qualities about them and challenge the status quo, whether that be through how they dress or what they speak up on. I think there’s a full range of ways that you can challenge boundaries, and I’ve always been drawn to those artists. I think that’s naturally where I’ve always wanted to go, but I’ve always operated from a place of being scared that people wouldn’t like me. Call it turning 30, call it getting divorced, I don’t know. Call it all of it. I just care way less about that now.

Photography by Jason Kempin/Getty Images for MTV

V: Yeah, I’m sure it feels freeing to let go of a lot of those expectations or preconceived notions about how women in country should act. Speaking of new chapters, your brand new song “How Do I Do This?”  that you mentioned earlier – the closing track of Rolling Up The Welcome Mat (For Good) – is the perfect way to signify the end of this era and the beginning of a new one. You announced today that you’ll be playing your dream arena show in your hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee this fall to celebrate such a bookmark year and this new level of touring. So what do you envision that to look like?

KB: Oh, I mean, that show specifically will be just a massive celebration. I’m calling it “The Homecoming Show,” because obviously I’m going back to my hometown and it’s homecoming week, but I also think this has been such a season of coming home to myself. So to be able to really put a period at the end of the sentence on this year in Knoxville is really a statement for me personally. I just want that night to feel like a true celebration of music and growth and growing up and feelings. And lots of confetti!

V: That’s so fun. Through this product in general, you’ve turned a very personal and public heartbreak into a healing journey for yourself and so much of your audience. But you’ve also undeniably reached the highest level of success thus far in your career after taking such a huge risk by being so brutally honest in your songwriting and even experimenting sonically, with songs like “Blindsided” and “Interlude” deviating from the traditional country sound in some ways. So after experiencing such unprecedented fan reception, do you think you’ll be even more comfortable taking musical risks going forward?

KB: I think that I’m not going to think about it. I’m so gently starting to write again, I’m really gonna take my time. I really don’t want to think about boundaries in any sense of my life anymore. I really just want to make music that I feel really proud of, and continue on that new level of honesty that I unlocked on Welcome Mat, and figure out how that translates in a happier season. That’s what I’m figuring out now. I’ve never been concerned about if it’s a banjo or a beat drop – I think my music’s country. Other people don’t have to agree with that. That doesn’t change me.

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