At the MTV Video Music Awards earlier this year, singer-songwriter Tori Kelly walked on stage only with her guitar and did the unthinkable. She sidestepped the usual spectacle that now seems required to appear on the show (Miley Cyrus went topless) and won the audience over the old-fashioned way — with her voice.
Among the countless social-media comments and headlines that circulated in the wake of the awards (Kanye for president?), Kelly had many asking, “Who was that?” It was a valid question given that it’s been only a year since Kelly shot from YouTube fame to pop stardom.
The 22-year-old started making waves at the Billboard Music Awards in May, where it was just her and her guitar again, winning over the Las Vegas crowd who came to see Mariah Carey, Van Halen and Taylor Swift. In June she delivered a knockout tribute to Smokey Robinson at the BET Awards, where she electrified an audience who had no idea who she was. Her appearance sparked two rapturous standing ovations and lots of social media enthusiasm — including from Snoop Dogg.
That same month her debut album, “Unbreakable Smile,” surpassed industry projections when it landed at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 — an especially impressive feat considering she didn’t have any massive singles dominating radio.
It may appear Kelly is an overnight sensation, but her current place in the sun has been a decade in the making.
“Honestly, the VMAs were the moment when it felt like ‘Wow.’ That’s when I realized it was going to be the craziest year of my life,” Kelly says of her breakout.
Raised an hour outside of Los Angeles in Wildomar to musically talented parents, “there was no Plan B” when it came to her ambitions, she says.
Before she was old enough to drive, Kelly had already appeared on “Star Search” (she lost), beat future country superstar Hunter Hayes on “America’s Most Talented Kid,” scored a short-lived record deal with Geffen and went through the “American Idol” wringer — footage of judge Simon Cowell telling the then-16-year-old that her voice was “almost annoying” is still getting views online.
Having built a substantial following with a popular YouTube channel — she has more than 1.2 million subscribers — her cover of Frank Ocean’s “Thinkin Bout You” went viral, and she self-released an EP, 2012’s “Handmade Songs by Tori Kelly,” crafted in her bedroom. Kelly’s DIY success caught the attention of über-manager Scooter Braun (Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande) and led to a deal with Capitol Records.
In a few weeks Kelly will fly to Europe to promote the U.K. release of her debut album, but the singer-songwriter took time during a recent break in Hollywood to discuss her whirlwind year — and her forthcoming headliner tour.
Question: You had an arduous journey through showbiz. Making this album, did you feel more pressure since you finally had a serious shot?
Tori Kelly: I felt it from the outside, but it was mostly me. … Going into the album, I felt that if I changed the sound too much, the hardcore fans would be mad. We spent about two years making sure it was right.
You write and produce your own music, but you also worked with hitmakers like Max Martin. How’d you balance those two approaches?
My roots are always going to be soul, R&B and urban. But I also love pop music and stripped-down singer-songwriters. Wanting to show it all could drive you crazy. It took awhile to get there, but we did. There definitely was a moment where I had to step away and say, “OK, it’s done.” Or else you’d keep going because you want it to be perfect.
The title track was inspired by some harsh criticism. What happened?
I had a meeting with management, and they were telling me the different things they had heard within the industry. People said I was too boring, too plain, too simple. When I heard those words, it reminded me of being signed when I was 12. It took me back to the looks I got from people back then and the things that were said, and it was kind of the same thing. “You’re so reserved. Can you be more bubbly? You’re only 12 and you act so serious,” I remember being told. The song is really about forgiving all of those people. What’s funny is some of the heartbreak songs on this album are actually about my relationship with the industry. I really felt heartbroken from some of what happened.
How’d you move past those negative industry experiences?
As I’ve gotten older I realized it’s not a bad thing to be reserved. There is some grit [in] me. I was just scared to show it. I’m happy it didn’t happen for me as a kid because I really got to figure out who I am. But it’s an ongoing thing, though. Even if you start to do well, there’s still that argument of doubt.
But then success doesn’t hurt either.
You know, I put so much into this album that I forgot it could actually do well. It’s just crazy to think about how far I’ve come from the EPs to putting out an album.