Tori Kelly has been writing and performing music her whole life, but it was her February 2015 single “Nobody Love” that landed the 23-year-old a spot on the Billboard Hot 100. “It feels like it’s all led up to this,” Kelly tells EW.
The California native auditioned for American Idol at age 16 and appeared on Star Search and America’s Most Talented Kid, beating out country singer Hunter Hayes. When her YouTube cover of Frank Ocean’s “Thinkin Bout You” went viral in 2012, she ended up under Scooter Braun’s tutelage — the same manager shared by Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, and Carly Rae Jepsen — and eventually linked up with Max Martin to produce her debut album Unbreakable Smile, which dropped in June.
“He’s a genius,” Kelly says of Martin, who’s worked with Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, and Kelly Clarkson. “He taught me how to just really work a song and make sure its perfect before you let it out into the world.”
Coming off a year of touring, releasing her first studio album, and earning her first Grammy nomination, Kelly says fans can expect a headlining tour and some more new music from her in 2016. “There will be a reissue with ‘Hallow’ and another song,” she reveals. “And I know for sure I’m going on tour. I’m honestly most stoked about that.”
As 2015 draws to a close, the singer looks back on her breakout year, making Unbreakable Smile, working with Ed Sheeran, and more.
First of all, congrats on the Grammy nomination! Has it sunk in yet?
I don’t know if it ever will though and I’m not mad at that because I think it should feel surreal. That’s one of the best things that can happen to an artist. All my life I was even just wanted to attend the Grammys, like just be there, so the fact that I’m nominated for Best New Artist, it feels like a dream.
You’re nominated for Best New Artist, but does it feel like you’ve been doing music forever?
It’s a little bit of both because for me I definitely have only been doing music, so it doesn’t feel like there was a time when I was like, “Okay, I’m going to start doing music now.” So it just feels like an ongoing journey, not an overnight thing at all. I do think looking back on this year, it’s been the type of year where I think a lot of people have noticed me now. It’s cool to see people recognize the music and what’s already been there this whole time. I feel like I haven’t changed for anyone, which is cool.
You have that line on “Unbreakable Smile” where you say you want to sing about real things and sell out shows without taking off your clothes, and it seems like you’ve stayed true to that.
I do feel like that’s still true. It feels good because for so long I went back and forth. It’s like, “Do I need to really do these things to conform to what’s going? Do I need to change my sound? Do I need to change my look?” I was tweaking things on my own, bettering myself and getting older, but it feels good to know that I stuck to what I wanted to do.
Why do you think this was the year people really took notice?
I think the album coming out was probably a big one. It feels like it was kind of bubbling up for the last couple years, doing stuff overseas and creating this small buzz, which now looking back is kind of cool. I credit my team a lot with that and, yeah, something about this year felt like everything was just starting to line up. All the connections I had made years prior, it was all making sense. And the award shows, radio was starting to happen. Everything fell into place.
Have you had any crazy encounters as you’ve continued to gain notoriety?
I got to meet two people I really look up to this year, well, more than two. I got to meet Pink recently and she kind of threw a tweet out after the VMAs, just saying the nicest things, gushing a little bit, which to me was huge. She’s a legend to me. And then I met Justin Timberlake who I’ve loved since I was 6 years old. He said the most incredible things — wanting to work with me on the second album, stuff like that. I also met Jill Scott, who’s a singer I looked up to when I was a kid, and Smokey Robinson.
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Any plans to work with Ed Sheeran again, and is there anyone else you’d want to bring on for your next album?
I’d definitely like to get back in the studio with Ed. We just have the one song together [“I Was Made For Loving You”], and after that we became really good friends. But I would love to work with him again. I’d love to work with Pharrell [Williams] again because we never really finished the song we were going to do, so that would be cool. Justin would be amazing, It’d be cool to do something with Coldplay, and Ryan Tedder’s amazing.
How did you connect with Ed? Was it organic or did your teams set you guys up?
It was a little bit of both because he ended up getting pretty close to my manager Scooter, so they started hanging out and it was kind of like, “Oh you should work with my artist.” It’s been three years now since we met and did that song. We did that song the day we met. After that, we got to produce it together.
Did most of your songs come together that quickly, or did some take more time than others?
There were some where it just happened and it was perfect. And then there’s other songs where it’s like, you want it to be good but it’s not fully there, either on a production end or there are just things that need to be tweaked. I got really impatient because I wanted to hear the song how it’s supposed to be, but working with someone like Max Martin, the first song we did together took almost a week to even just get right. That was cool to see that he really puts the time in to make his masterpieces.
Is there any one song in particular that was extremely difficult to write, or almost didn’t make the cut?
“Should’ve Been Us” is a good example of a song that we all knew was eventually going to get there, but for some reason it just took forever to get right. But it’s that thing, once you get it, you’re like “I’m so glad I stuck through it.”
There were other songs that were hard to write just because of what they’re about. With “Funny,” which is the only live song [on the album], it wasn’t necessarily hard to say those things, it was hard because I knew people weren’t necessarily talking about things like that. Stuff like that is interesting because it felt so therapeutic to say but it’s kind of like, this might miss the mark but you have to trust your gut in those situations.
Would you say that “Funny” is the most personal song on the album then?
No, I don’t think personal. It’s almost like I’m pulling myself out of the song. I think more personal would be an “Unbreakable Smile” where I was literally just sitting in my room and that was the first song I wrote for the album. I didn’t know I had that much to say.
You’ve spent so much time touring this year — which song is your favorite to perform live?
It changes. “Funny” is really cool live. You break it down into an acoustic set and sometimes I’ll do that one unplugged and off the mic, depending on the venue. In certain cities it’s the ones like “Anyway,” which is the more underrated fan-favorite on the album. That one’s more fun live I think than to listen to on the record.
What’s it like having your fans sing your own lyrics back to you?
It’s the best. It really is.
In a world of often overproduced music, do you feel pressured to stay pure during live shows?
I actually think that hearing those imperfections, hearing the honesty in a vocal is actually kind of becoming cool again. You hear it with Sam Smith and Adele and it’s almost like, the more raw the better. So that was kind of my drive, like even if it is produced, as long as you can hear what I’m trying to say, then I think that’s what I was going for.
You mentioned Sam Smith and Adele — are there any other music influences you look to, or anyone you had in mind while creating the album?
I loved ’90s hip-hop, that was a big influence. That Lauryn Hill album [The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill] was something I considered. I wanted to blend a lot of things because I love pop, but how the whole album started was very soulful, very R&B. So it was kind of like, how do we make that the heart of it and then kind of sprinkle that pop around it, which is where Max Martin came in.
You got your start on YouTube, is there anyone you’ve been following on there who you think might break big soon?
There’s a group of us [who started on YouTube], we’ve all supported each other from the beginning — people like Alessia Cara, who I didn’t even know was a YouTuber. I know Pentatonix, I knew them before they were even a group. Miranda Sings, people like that we’ve kind of seen everything and we’ve all kind of grown at this crazy pace. Thirdstory, they’re incredible, their covers. Their blend is just incredible. I think they’re going to be really, really good.