Californian pop-soul star Tori Kelly is one of 2015’s breakout artists, with her debut full-length album Unbreakable Smile charting at number two in the US.
Sam Smith has described her as “one of the best singers in the world”, and she has found high profile fans in Ed Sheeran, Pharrell, and Ariana Grande.
But while Kelly may seem like the new kid on the block, she’s actually an industry veteran. She won America’s Most Talented Kids age 11, recorded an album at 13 and reached the latter rounds of American Idol a few years later.
With over a million subscribers, it was Kelly’s YouTube channel that caught the attention of mega-manager Scooter Braun (of Justin Bieber fame), allowing Kelly to finally realise the album she had been wanting to make since her early teens.
How instrumental has YouTube been to your career?
Oh, very instrumental. YouTube was a huge launching pad. It put me so close together with my fans. There wasn’t any middle man. I’d get instant feedback and they’d get content right away.
Having that as my foundation was so beneficial to me in the long run because now I still have that connection with my fans. It feels very real and very genuine.
How was the transition from posting covers to honing your own sound?
I posted popular covers but in between I always made sure that I would post an original song as well. I never really expected those to get a lot of views, but slowly over time it was so fulfilling to see my original songs get even more buzz than the covers.
For me, that transition was really cool because I had always wanted to be known as a songwriter first.
What are your key influences?
I grew up listening to a lot of gospel. That was the first music I was introduced to as a kid. You can hear the passion behind it and the soulfulness in my songs.
I also grew up listening to a lot of R&B. Maxwell was a big influence, along with Jill Scott and India Arie. When I picked up the guitar I really got into singer-songwriters like Jeff Buckley and John Mayer. I was always really interested in what made a good hook and chorus for a pop song.
So if you mush all of that together, the challenge with my first album was, how do we get all of these things into one song or one sound?
Tell me about the themes of the album.
The album is called Unbreakable Smile, but it’s not just a happy, go for your dreams type of album concept.
There’s definitely positivity in it and the outcome is positive, but I think the whole point of the title is to highlight that all of the doubts that I had in my journey I took to be something for good. I made it into something positive.
At that time did you think, why is this not happening for me right now?
Oh for sure, yeah. I would get so frustrated. Almost every night I would get so confused as why I was getting so close.
I had a whole album recorded when I was 13 and then doing all the TV shows and trying to get discovered on YouTube, I’m just so happy now that none of those things panned out because I wouldn’t be able to talk about the things I’m saying on my album.
The title track reveals many pressures you face as a young female artist. Especially the lyric “Who knows, maybe I can sell out shows without taking off my clothes.”
That line is jam-packed with a lot of things. I always think of myself as a young girl being in these different label meetings where there were music videos on the screen of different female artists who were wearing… a little bit less clothing than usual.
As a 13-year-old I was confused. Do they want me to be like this? Is this the way you’re supposed to be if you want to make it?
I remember walking out of the meeting with my parents and we all kind of looked at each other and just knew that that wasn’t the right place for me to be. That’s really where that line stems from because now I am able to do these shows, and I have an album – I’m doing pretty well – and I get to prove the point that I don’t have to compromise myself to do what I love to do.
I’ve been able to learn so much and really even put my foot down on a lot of things. Every time I perform that song I believe what I’m saying more and more.
How was it working with Ed Sheeran on the album?
I was super excited. Going into the studio he was super cool, very easy to work with and he makes you forget that he’s playing to these huge stadiums every night because he puts everybody on the same level playing field. I really respect him for that.
How did it feel to see your album charting at number two?
When they told me at first I didn’t believe them. I felt so overwhelmed that it was even out. You could have told me that it was number 100 on the charts and I’d still have been freaking out.
Unbreakable Smile is released in the UK on 16 October.