When Tori Kelly first graces your ears, prepare for a willful surrender. Plunging listeners into the the familiarity of throwback R&B, soul and pop, the 22-year-old Temecula, Calif. native’s powerhouse vocals deliver a dose of music’s ‘90s glory days. Her debut album, Unbreakable Smile, is infused with tales of love, admissions of vulnerability and assertions of independence, spilled by the ink of Kelly’s own pen. Carrying the name of its premier track, the 14-track opus signifies the singer/songwriter’s choice to trot down the road of being unapologetically herself.
Kelly garnered popularity the new-age way, through YouTube covers of sung favorites, including Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” and a beatbox-laced version of Frank Ocean’s “Thinking About You,” earning the attention of the man behind Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande: Scooter Braun. But her original music later propelled her further into the spotlight, as her personal musings turned the attention to her own artistry. With viral videos under her belt, Kelly has now hit the stages of the Billboard Music Awards and BET Awards, personifying a breath of fresh air for lovers of sincerity and purebred talent.
Still wondering, “who’s that girl?” Allow Tori Kelly to introduce herself. – Iyana Robertson
VIBE: Give us the backstory. How did you know singing was it for you? When did you realize you would make a way with your voice?
Tori Kelly: I always kind of knew that I wanted to be a singer, even from the age of three. My parents say that I was singing all the time. That’s all I knew as a kid; I just knew music was second nature to me. I think when it really clicked though, was when I was about 15, and I picked up the guitar for the first time. Then I started producing my own stuff and writing my own stuff, kind of making my own little catalog in my bedroom. That’s when it really clicked like, ‘Okay, there’s no other option for me. I have to do this.’
You’ve gotten a lot of comparison to the ‘90s era of R&B and pop. How did that era inspire you?
Nineties hip-hop was a big influence for me, it still is. I love ‘90s everything. And it’s when I was born too. I’m a ‘90s kid for sure. I think that kind of naturally came out when I was making the album, because that’s what I grew up listening to: ‘90s R&B and ‘90s hip-hop. That definitely influenced my sound on this album.
Tell me a little bit about the album’s title, ‘Unbreakable Smile.’
‘Unbreakable Smile’ was based off one of the songs I wrote for the album – it was actually the first song I wrote for the album, without realizing it yet. I think I wanted to name the album that, because it seemed like that was just the theme of that chapter in my life, and just the theme of all the songs put together. When I was writing that song in particular, I was just holding in so many feelings for a while; I wasn’t saying them. I think when I finally did write that song, it just unlocked a whole other layer of me as an artist, and me as a songwriter. I just felt so much more confident about my music. So I just wanted that to be the overall message: that I don’t have a breakable smile. And I wanted people to be able to take away something from that.
The wait is over. Did the album’s release feel like a weight was lifted off your shoulders?
I’m just excited for people to hear it. I’ve been itching to get it out, so all of this build-up is exciting, but I can’t wait to get people’s reactions on it.
You gained a lot of popularity by doing covers of other people’s music. How did you plan to get noticed for your own songs?
I always wanted to make sure people knew me as an artist first. I remember consciously thinking, ‘Okay, I’m gonna post this cover right now, and then immediately after, I’m gonna give people this original that I just wrote.’ I always wanted to keep that balance just to make sure that people knew that I was a songwriter too. Even if the songs that I wrote weren’t getting as popular, I always wanted to put that out there, just for even my own sake. But it was cool to see that at first, the covers were really big, and then to see people latch onto my originals. Eventually, those became even bigger that the covers sometimes. For me, that was the most fulfilling thing.
Tell me a little bit about how you prepare for the stage, and the zone you get into when you’re performing.
Everything before a performance is super chill. I was just talking to the band about this, because we were all looking at each other like, ‘Why are we so tired? We got plenty of sleep. We’ve been sleeping so well, we haven’t really done anything today, why are we so chill right now?’ And we came to the conclusion that our bodies know when we’re about to go crazy on stage, and we’re basically preserving our energy for the show. So it’s been funny, being on tour, just seeing how my body knows what it’s about to do. So before a performance, I’m noticing I’m just really laid back, really relaxed, really at peace. And then when I hit the stage, I do go into this other zone where I’m not really aware of anything outside of the show; I’m so in the moment. I think there’s something really beautiful about performing live, because it’s kind of like the one time nobody can stop you. It’s kind of like a safe place. I think a lot of artists would agree that it’s when we feel the most comfortable: on stage.
Has connecting with your fans on the “Where I Belong” tour been preparing you for even bigger moments? There’s Grammys talk now. Does it ease the nerves?
I don’t think the word “Grammy” will ever be just a casual thing [laughs]. But yeah, being on tour does kind of put everything on the same playing field. I used to think ‘Oh, these award shows, they’re so big. I’m gonna be so nervous when I get on that stage.’ There definitely is a little more pressure when it comes to those TV shows, but I think by being on tour and really connecting with the fans, and understanding that they’re the ones really driving this whole thing, it does make it a little less nerve wracking. It should feel the same, I think. People should see the same Tori on both of those different stages.
Being nominated for ‘Best New Artist’ at the Grammys has to be mind-blowing to even think about. What would that mean to you?
To be honest, I’ve been avoiding thinking about it [laughs]. I would be so overwhelmed if that happened. I think every artist dreams of that happening, and we all imagine it happening, but there’s still no way to take that lightly. That would be a huge honor.
What would be the perfect scene for someone to listen to ‘Unbreakable Smile’ for the first time?
I feel like there’d be a whole day. So I picture somebody – actually I picture myself [laughs] – driving with the top down, by myself. And I’m going somewhere really sunny, like the beach, driving down the coast or something, feeling free. The first half, I’d be driving to the beach, and then the second half I’d be on the beach. Headphones on, just zoned out in my own world. That type of thing.
If you had to sell someone else on Tori Kelly, without singing, what would you say?
I would tell them that besides my hair – which is filled with a lot of secrets and should be intriguing enough – I would say to listen to the message of each song. Listen to the lyrics. Dig deeper, past the voice, and hopefully you can connect with what I’m saying.