Behind the Lyrics: Kelsea Ballerini - The Little Things
Updated: Nov 4, 2022
In this new series of ‘Behind the lyrics’ I’ll be taking a closer look at what makes certain songs have the ability to take us deeper than just enjoying the bop! I’ll be looking at top 10 hit country artists, but also other artists where I feel the lyrics are something special, or doing something unique and generally making me say “I wish I’d written that!”.
Kelsea Ballerini - The Little Things
I think we could all agree, we love how Kelsea Ballerini writes songs, and it’s fabulous that she has this brand new album out - “Subject to Change”. Faced with a number of stand out songs, I’ve picked “The Little Things” because there is a lot to love about this lyric.
Back in 2019 it was rare to find collaborative work on her albums, but now in 2022 it’s become the norm. It was an album formed during lockdown, and I think that helps us relate to the album title. We have all been subject to change and been forced to reflect on a number of things and personal priorities in our lives.
For me this is also what this particular song embodies; it's not always the big obvious moments in our lives that count the most, but the small everyday actions with our loved ones that make a life worth living. Right from the opening line she’s saying you don’t need to spend your money on flash things to impress me.
Before we hear our first word, it all starts with a guitar riff and a echoed vocal riff “a-ah-a”. I’m not sure I could claim this was an example of a millennial whoop (maybe I’ll find a better example in a future song) but it shows that lyrics can just be sounds too. It’s easy to always want to fill space with lyrics, and that can sometimes work against a song being effective. Songs need light and shade (dynamics) in both lyrical and musical content.
I’m going to describe this as a disguised ‘list song’, which in its rawest form (Billy Joel - We didn’t start the Fire) is almost nothing more than a literal list of situations or events. Kelsea uses this form with a lot more sophistication and in each of the two verses compares a big gesture to an easier everyday gesture of love, by listing examples. Each verse is rounded off with a stereotypical film portrayal which is beautiful for us ordinary folk to imagine, but probably hard for us to live up to on a weekly basis!
Compare and contrast works so well in these verses too; taking opposites and placing them next to each other in the lyric e.g verse2 “pull me closer” vs “give me space”.
The Chorus is sung with a very different vocal delivery and a simplified backing that makes us really pay attention to the lyrics. Interestingly the Chorus continues the list format before then neatly summarising the title in the last two lines with an alliteration of B’s - “Back, to Basics ‘cause they’re Bigger..” which we have already heard with ‘back’ and ‘black’ and even the ‘baby’, and ‘Bronco’ in verse 1. B’s are a really plosive sound (high pressure vocal sound) so it makes it a really punchy delivery reinforcing the central message of the song.
In a recent interview Kelsea talks about ‘word vomiting’ (her choice of phrase!) experiences from your life as part of the writing process for this album. This kind of free writing is a great way to loosen up your emotions and feelings. It’s almost the opposite of lyric writing and while you freely write like that you stop editing yourself which is often the cause of writer's block. As listeners to the final product we are completely unaware of the day to day English sentences that probably began this song. Free writing creates the raw materials, songwriting crafts those raw materials into something more beautiful. She also mentioned writing poetry (she’s got a poetry book published too - who knew?!), but I see that as quite a different form to a song. Poetry often does not lend itself well to being turned into a song.
So in summary, don’t be afraid to seek a collaboration especially when you struggle to create something new or find yourself in familiar ruts. For your next song, take a title, and freely write in plain English sentences a list of things that embody it. Maybe they can become lyrics later.
Hugh has over 20 years experience as a songwriter and creative collaborator. Personally mentored by Kinks front-man Ray Davies, and a year at the London Songwriting Academy. Find out more here.