One night, two of my frequent collaborators and really good guy friends were like, “Hey, one of our other friends is bringing pizza. We’re going to hang around and listen to demos. You down to hang?” So me, Forest Glen Whitehead, Josh Kerr, and Lance Carpenter sat around the lobby of this publishing house, eating pizza, and talking about the stuff we were listening to. Forest said, “Kelsea, I really want to hear you do something with the swag of ‘Take a Bow’ by Rihanna.” Josh picked up a guitar, and we started with the staccato. The “If you’re gonna…” We started messing with that and threw in every sassy phrase we could think of.
It felt fun and flirty and young and all the things that I felt like I was at in my life then. It was the song that got me my record deal. It was the song that I got to put out into the world first, and it was my first number one.
The first three songs for The First Time we had were, “Love Me Like You Mean It,” “The First Time,” and “Peter Pan.” I’ll never forget this: We sat around a conference room at the record label and had a conversation [about which song to release first.] We knew “Peter Pan” was the song, but it could easily become gimmicky. We wanted to protect it. It couldn’t be the first single, because then I’d just always be the “Peter Pan” girl. So we thought about the climate of country radio at the time and people like Sam Hunt, who were really pushing boundaries and having other influences from the R&B and pop world. “Love Me Like You Mean It” followed suit with that.
There’s magic to a first single. Whether it’s massive or not, it’s the song that starts your career. It’s the song I’ve also sang the most over the last seven years, but I always have an appreciation and love for it. Because I write everything, it honors where I was at in my life then. Right now, I would never write “Love Me Like You Mean It.” But at 19, that was exactly where I was and what I wanted to say. That gets me excited still.
I still think it’s such a good message. When I look back on my first record, I wanted there to be a positive, empowered energy through the whole thing. “Love Me Like You Mean It” set the tone. If you don’t listen to the words, it’s a bop. I love that. But if you do listen to the words, it’s telling your partner, “If you don’t respect me, this is not going to work.” I love that I led with that message because that’s always been an arc of my career, trying to layer things with confidence and empowerment.
Co-written with Forest Glen Whitehead and Jesse Lee, “Peter Pan” was a breakthrough for Ballerini’s career. The ballad, about a lost love who refuses to grow up, topped the country charts and reached number 35 on the Billboard Hot 100.
If I could pinpoint a moment that my life changed, it’s this song. I love taking something—a phrase or word or whatever—that feels so obvious and trying to write it in a way that breathes new life into it. Peter Pan is so universal. Everyone knows that story. It was so much fun to write a story of a relationship that fails because there’s a lack of maturity and commitment and wrap that into a fairytale people know. At the end it’s, “You’re just a lost boy. And you don’t know what you lost, boy.” There’s that one little twist that’s like, “I got me.” That, to me, is my favorite part of the whole song. It’s saying, “I’m going to be sad. I’m going to honor my feelings. But at the same time, it’s your loss.”