Tori Kelly is a Jill of all trades. Booting up her musical career through covers on Youtube, Kelly mastered everything from songwriting, producing and recording to engineering and distribution. The 22-year-old songstress broke out her first tune on the video-sharing platform at the age of 14 and even bagged a spot on nationwide singing show American Idol. Despite losing the competition, she grabbed her industry destiny by the horns five years later with her Handmade Songs By Tori EP, which she created within the four walls of her bedroom.
After the six-track offering soared on iTunes’ Top 10 Pop albums chart, Kelly’s touches of soul and soothing melodies have taken the Internet by storm, including a co-sign from the genius behind Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande, Scooter Braun. Her blessings don’t stop there. The “Fill A Heart” songstress has already graced stages at New York’s Gramercy Theater, London’s Bush Hall and a spot on the 2015 BET Awards stage next to Lifetime Achievement honoree, Smokey Robinson.
VIBE sat down with Capitol Records signee during Billboard’s Hot 100 fest to pick her brain on her come-up and the inspiration behind her hand-crafted jams.—Diamond Hillyer
VIBE: Your sound covers a wide variety of genres from hip-hop to pop to soul. Which one would you say you gravitate more towards now that youre career is taking off?
Tori Kelly: That’s an interesting question because I do feel like I’ve been inspired by every genre. To me, it all fits under a pop umbrella because that genre just means whatever is popular at the time. There is no necessary “pop” sound, because I think it can be influenced by so many different things. My challenge is creating this new sound that fuses together everything I grew up listening to. Gospel was the root of everything in my house, so there’s a touch of that in everything that I do. If soul counts as a genre, I would also say that’s the common thread throughout everything I do. There’s rock and soul influence, too. The pop element comes at the very end and making the song catchy so people will remember it. But I don’t feel closer to any genre and I’ve never boxed myself in to just one.
You also blew up on YouTube, which helped your voice be heard. Talk about the time, patience and dedication it took to have your voice recognized.
The main focus was putting out originals on YouTube because I knew there was a scene of people doing a lot of covers. I kind of hopped on that and met many cool people because of it. It’s like a community on YouTube, and I always wanted to make sure that I was putting in my songwriting even if it wouldn’t get as many hits—which it didn’t. My covers always got more, but I knew deep down, I wanted to be known as a songwriter instead of just a singer playing guitar. I began to see the transition of kids clicking on those videos and then coming to my shows. Slowly but surely, the originals started to come up and get even more hits than the covers.
With Handmade Songs By Tori Kelly, you curated that entire album and it eventually reached iTunes Top 10 pop albums. How did that motivate your next move?
Seeing that people were actually into my music was huge encouragement to keep writing and producing. It was also a sort of confirmation. I knew I was capable of doing things myself and I knew that I had a vision and [I was] able to produce on my own. But I think to witness people liking the music and then realize that I was doing all of this on my own is what confirmed that I wanted to be involved with this thing. It would feel weird not to be involved with the creative process at this point, so having those EPs under my belt is that reminder that I can do this. It’s cool to get help but I tell myself, ‘I have a voice in this.’ It sounds funny but it’s easy to forget that you can steer your own ship.
Many people don’t know this but your dad is of Jamaican and Puerto Rican descent. So as a nod to your Handmade EP, what’s the last ethnic dish you made from scratch?
I haven’t made these myself, but my favorite thing that my grandmother from Puerto Rico makes the best platanos [plaintains]. Then chicken and rice dishes, too. You’re making me want to go there right now [Laughs.] I really do need to learn how to make more ethnic foods, though. It’s hard when you’re on the road.
Do you have any Jamaican or Puerto Rican icons that inspire what you do?
Reggae is definitely a natural influence. Even living in Southern California, near the water, you get that reggae feel. We would just be out on the water on a boat listening to it so I’m all over the place.
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How was performing with the iconic Smokey Robinson at the BET Awards? Were you nervous?
I was actually more than a little nervous. Leading up to the show, I was more nervous because I really wanted to learn the song and get it right. It wasn’t like I was going up there to perform my own song where I can just wing it. I was honoring a legend. In a way, it was like honoring two legends because it was by the Jackson 5, so I really wanted to do a good job and remember the words. Once I got on the stage, though, I felt really at ease. Smokey was sitting right in the front, too, and he’s just the sweetest person with the most kind eyes. I felt really good after that, and getting to sing with him was amazing.
Where did the idea to tap the 90s R&B flow for “Should’ve Been Us” come from?
I’m a ’90s kid so I went into the entire album process wanting to incorporate little touches of that sound from hip-hop and R&B. Just enough to where you hear it subtly and then go, ‘This kind of reminds me of that time.’ We weren’t really inspired by specific artists, but I think once the song came out someone told me it reminded them of a TLC song.
Lastly, any solo tours or collaborations in the works?
As for touring, I want to do as many shows as I can this year. I really want to get out and promote the album. I’m going overseas because the album is dropping there soon. There aren’t any official dates just yet, but I will be doing a lot of shows here in the U.S. For collaborations, I’m really just focused on the album. It would be cool to perform the song I have with Ed Sheeran on the album live, but I’m waiting for the perfect moment to give that one away.