Country star Kelsea Ballerini is opening up like never before in her debut poetry collection, “Feel Your Way Through."
Deeply personal and poignant, the book addresses themes of family, relationships, body image, self-love, sexuality and the lessons of youth as the songstress chronicles her journey into womanhood. Also lining the pages are the hushed traumas she endured — an eating disorder, being bullied and witnessing a school shooting — all before the age of 20.
In an interview with TODAY, the award-winning singer, songwriter and producer revealed why she chose to finally speak out about the trauma she’s kept private for so many years.
“I just realized that I couldn't give the full picture if I didn't include some hard things,” she explained of the book writing process. “I think as I've gotten to release more records and more songs like ‘Homecoming Queen?’ and ‘Half of My Hometown,’ where I go a little bit deeper, I think it's given me a level of bravery almost to do that.”
How one day at school forever changed her
Ballerini, a sophomore at the time, details in the poem “His Name Was Ryan” how she was sitting in the high school cafeteria with other students before classes began when a shot rang out.
“The noise was sudden, loud, and sharp,” she writes.
She saw the victim, Ryan, with both hands to his heart start to bleed. While most of her fellow students went into fight or flight mode, she froze in place, watching her Spanish teacher rush to help. Ballerini saw the boy stop moving on the ground moments later, before she ran down the hallway horrified.
“I can’t be too sure, but I think I saw him breathe his last breath,” part of the poem reads.
“It was obviously incredibly heart-wrenching and very traumatic and something that I think I'll just hold on to forever,” she said.
Ballerini noted that prior to the incident, she had been begging her mom to go to Nashville to pursue her music dream but her mom kept saying it wasn’t the right time yet. “And then, the seventh day of my sophomore year, that happened. After that, she was like, ‘Let's get through the rest of the school year and let's go.’ It was just a pivotal time. It's such a big part of my life and my story.”
The “Miss Me More” singer writes that 13 years later, she’s still scared of loud noises, triggered by the news, is terrified of guns and is sensitive in crowds. Being in a profession where she is often surrounded by some of those triggers, she ensures that safety and her wellbeing are top priorities.
“I feel such a heavy responsibility to not only just keep people safe in those situations, but also not to be triggered by any little noise. It's an ongoing journey for me,” she shared. “I want to make sure that it's about connection and celebration and music and nothing else.”
On being bullied and searching for control
That wasn’t the only hardship she endured while attending Central High School in Knoxville, Tennessee — she was also bullied about her physique. In the poem “Kangaroo,” Ballerini explains that a boy on the basketball team made fun of her body and encouraged others to do the same. The singer noted that she had hated her body for years prior, but that the comments made waves in her head.
“This coincided with my home becoming divided, couldn’t help feeling like I was the only child slighted. / Too much, too deep, too real to console, I began to flail in search of control,” she wrote.
The singer started taking diet pills, referring to them in the book as “my best kept secret, my worst kept habit.”
After losing a few pounds, she decided it wasn’t enough and tried bingeing and purging. Additionally, she got a gym membership and started working out multiple times a day. It took passing out both publicly and privately for her to realize that she had taken it too far. At 18 years old, she stopped the pills, purging and multiple workouts, realizing they would never make her happy.
Having been there herself, Ballerini shared advice for anyone struggling with body image or an eating disorder.
“I think when you can have a conversation about it, it's such a key step in the healing process,” she said. “You also realize that you're not in that journey by yourself, and you have people to help grow together and heal together and also hold you accountable and all the things that are part of healing and growing.”
Coming full circle at Central High School
Despite having faced some tragic situations at her high school, the artist headed back there earlier this year to film part of the music video for “Half of My Hometown,” a duet with Kenny Chesney, who also hails from Knoxville.
“I was able to honor such a really deep rooted place for me,” she said of going back to the school.
The song — which is about leaving her hometown at 15 years old to pursue her dreams and what might have been had she stayed — earned Ballerini her first two CMA awards last week.
“I have an extra pride and gratefulness around these two CMAs because they do represent so much to me.”
At 28 years old, Ballerini has gone through more than what some will in a lifetime. She credits songwriting with helping her cope through it all.
“I started writing songs and it literally became the vessel for me, dealing with my feelings and helping understand what was going on around me.”
For more “autobiographical stories that just happened to rhyme,” readers can pick up a copy of the book which hit shelves Tuesday.