Kelsea Ballerini continues to go places, but she won’t be going anywhere when it comes to her label home, as the country star has reupped her deal with Black River Entertainment after a successful 10-year run with the independent imprint.
Most recently seen dancing with pal Taylor Swift at the Grammy Awards (where Ballerini was nominated for best country album, for her “Rolling Up the Welcome Mat” EP), the Nashville-based star is looking to be even more visible in 2024, with at least a taste of a forthcoming album due to be unveiled beginning in the year’s second quarter.
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Extra-musical projects are also said to be in the offing. Without elaborating more specifically, Sandbox Entertainment CEO Jason Owen, her manager, teases, “She can be in every section of Variety — let’s just say that — in the next couple years.”
But the record deal is the thing for now. Ballerini, Owen and Black River Entertainment president-CEO Gordon Kerr got on a Zoom with Variety to discuss their decision to keep the team together, which everyone involved described as coming together without much in the way of outside distractions from bigger label groups.
Says Owen, “As a manager, obviously where we are sitting on this incredible ride with Kelsea, as you can imagine, everyone and their mother has been stalking me for the last year, knowing that her deal was coming up and wanting in. And I didn’t entertain one offer. It was never like, ‘Here’s an offer from Universal, here’s an offer from Warner, and Gordon, can you match that?’ I never did that. Gordon and I had many meals talking about what we were looking for in this extension, in an unprecedented way — unprecedented in a way that makes us more of a team. And we worked it out literally in his office over a sandwich.”
Ballerini says, “I’ll never forget when ‘Love Me Like You Mean It’ went No. 1 almost 10 years ago, and I think it would have very easy for me as a 20-year-old then to just be so zoomed in to ‘Oh my God, this is such a mountaintop.’ But the thing that I thought about the most about that achievement was the fact that it was our first — for me as a songwriter, and an artist, and for Black River, too, it was ours. We took the time to feel it and celebrate it, and I remember that feeling special and knowing that that doesn’t happen every time for other people.
“And throughout the journey of the last 10 years, being able to be nimble, being able to pivot through pandemics and EPs, being able to find my voice as an artist and also change and challenge my voice as an artist, and feel embraced in that, just to grow up alongside my music and be supported in every aspect — I know that that is not the case every time with a partnership. So it’s great to be able to continue the relationship in a place where I feel safe to just do whatever feels right — especially after the last couple years. It feels so safe and that allows me to just be free to create. I feel like I want that for every artist, and I’m so glad that I have that here.”
Ballerini would seem to be referring most of all to the left turn she made with “Rolling Up the Welcome Mat,” a stark, off-the-beaten-track project in which she delved deep into the feelings brought up by her divorce, somewhat in contrast to the bubbly persona that brought her to the dance. Obviously that risk paid off with a trip to the Grammys, as well as the best reviews of her career. Black River’s support of that might seem to be a strong factor affecting her eagerness to reup. But she points out that the curves in her road pre-date that project, even if it was the most dramatic development.
“I think for me, that decision in my mind [to renew the deal] had kind of already been made up,” she says. “But those are definitely the things that make it feel right — like when I put out the album ‘Kelsea’ in March of 2020 and then the pandemic happened and I was like, ‘I think I wanna remake this album for a living room.'” (As lockdown kicked in, she recut the entire “Kelsea” album in a stripped-down format and released the alternate version as “Ballerini.”) “And it was never a conversation of, like, ‘Well, we just did this…’ It was always ‘Let’s go, let’s pivot, let’s do this.’
“And then yeah, after we did ‘Subject to Change’ in September (2022), which was a big-budget, commercial country album, I didn’t even ask permission — I just made this album ‘Welcome Mat.’ And I didn’t even have to feel timid to bring it. I just went, ‘Hey, I have this thing; whatever feels right, whether we just put it on streaming or whatever, I really think we should put this out to the world.’ It’s always a discussion on how to make it work best, it’s never if it’s right. and I think that’s a really beautiful thing.”
Says Kerr, “We are constantly blown away by who this artist is, what she does, and the legacy that she’s creating. So it is a natural step forward together to continue this partnership. She personally represents music as a whole with excellence, with integrity, with style and is just a class, classy artist. When you add Jason Owen into that mix, it gets amazing. In a world that’s ever-changing, for there to be stability in a partnership is something to celebrate, and we’re so glad we get to stay as a team, because we’re making history together and we’ve got stories to tell.”
Owen has his clients well spread out across different labels, with a management roster that includes Dan + Shay, Little Big Town, Midland, Kacey Musgraves and Kate Hudson (the last two of whom also have albums imminent). Having become Ballerini’s manager about six years ago, when she was well into her run with Black River, he saw that having her at a small company where she is undeniably the flagship and priority has its advantages. “Obviously I have amazing relationships with other record labels, but I can’t even describe a better relationship than what Sandbox has with Black River. Whether it’s my digital team or our touring team, the way we all work together for the best interests of Kelsea is unlike any other experience I have with anyone else, so for me it was a no-brainer. I’ve loved working with Gordon and I consider him one of my greatest friends now, thankfully. And you know I like to dream big and come up with big ideas. Some of them cost a lot of money,” he laughs. “Some of them are like, what? But I have never been told no. I have been asked, ‘Is this the right way? Should we look at doing this this way?’ Which I love, because it’s collaboration. But ultimately I’ve never been told anything but ‘Let’s go,’ and I can’t say that about most of my other experiences.”
Kerr adds, “It isn’t a matter of just ‘We’re gonna keep this thing going.’ It is 100% ‘What else are we gonna do to make this life an amazing journey together?’… It’s ‘Kelsea, what can you dream?’ Because she’s brilliant, let’s be honest.” He also gives a shout-out to his sister, Kim Pegula, and brother-in-law, Terrence Pegula, the moguls behind the Buffalo Bills and Sabers who made an investment in the music business with Black River. “The family motto is that you leave it better than you found it and make a difference with what you’ve been given. And so when you unify three hearts in Kelsea, Jason, and I in that passion, you can’t help but have this driven force to every day have this hopeful thought of, what else are we gonna do to transform this world? I can’t wait for the phone call when Kelsea says, ‘Hey, I;ve got something to say’ or Jason calls and says, ‘Hey Gordon, I’ve got this idea.'”
The three don’t have terms of their deal they’re willing to disclose, but it does go beyond just new records. Says Ballerini, “Knowing that the love of my life is writing music and making records, I’ll always guard and protect that the most, but I am so interested in ‘what else?’ — because, why not?” Owen adds that “going into the second quarter will start a new chapter for Kelsea in a very big, loud way for the next two years… and let me say this: in all aspects of entertainment.”
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