Before she finally broke through last year, singer-songwriter Tori Kelly had tried everything. When she was in grade school, she appeared on televised talent competitions like Star Search and America’s Most Talented Kid.
As a teenager, she wiped out on American Idol Season 9 early on, after Simon Cowell told her – crushingly at the time – that her voice was “almost annoying.”
In between, there was a major-label deal that fell apart when Kelly was 12 (she’s now 23). A viral YouTube cover of Frank Ocean’s Thinkin Bout You helped draw the attention of manager Scooter Braun, who had turned fellow YouTube sensation Justin Bieber into a star.
Her next big-label deal stuck and Kelly released her major-label debut, the polished-but-soulful pop album Unbreakable Smile, last summer.
The album entered the charts at No. 2, and earned Kelly a Best New Artiste Grammy nomination (she lost to Meghan Trainor).
In a recent phone interview, Kelly, who was raised in Temecula, California, talked about meeting Prince, facing down Cowell, and coming up the hard way. The following are excerpts from that conversation.
On meeting Prince late last year:
I had played the same venue two years in a row in Minneapolis. (The first year), Prince’s band came, and the next year they wanted to come again, and bring Prince.
By then, I’d gotten pretty close to his band, (but) I didn’t believe it. Everyone was like, “We put Prince on guests lists all the time, and he never shows up. Don’t get your hopes up.”
We decided to do a Prince cover, and he literally walked in right when we started playing Kiss. He stayed for a couple of songs, then he left.
To make it even more surreal, we all (went to) Paisley Park after, and we kind of hung out all night, and I got to talk to him for a minute and a half.
He was so sweet, and so welcoming into his space. It was something I’ll never forget.
On whether losing those childhood singing competitions sapped her love of music:
I did TV shows because I loved to sing. I didn’t care about the business at all. I went into the industry when I was 12 years old. I had my first record deal, and whether I liked it or not, I had to learn about the business side of things.
I’m actually really grateful that deal didn’t work out, and that I got to step away from the industry and be an independent artist around 15 or 16. There was a point that I lost the fun of it all. You’ve gotta be a businesswoman sometimes, but at the end of the day, if you’re not loving it, I question why you’re still doing it.
On her televised run-in with Simon Cowell:
That definitely helped (me develop) a thick skin, for sure, once you hear something like that. It’s the ones that weren’t on TV, the small meetings where it really hurt as a kid, and people weren’t understanding what I had to offer. Those were the ones that shaped me the most as a performer, and gave me more layers to my songwriting, to everything.
On the life-changing meeting where Braun told her everything that was wrong with her:
When you put it that way, it sounds pretty mean. But it was me and my manager, one on one.
We have these talks where we go into what people are saying, and he told me he was hearing things within the industry.
His peers were questioning me: “She’s kind of plain.” “She’s vanilla.” “What are you going to do with her?”
It took me back to that little girl who was so insecure. It put a fire under me, for sure. I felt like I had something to prove. At the same time, I felt, why should I have to prove anything?
On whether she worried Braun would neglect her in favour of the higher-maintenance Bieber:
I think in the very, very beginning it crossed my mind, one of the many things I wanted to be cautious about. You want to make sure you’re looking at it from every angle.
I thought, “You don’t have time for me, you have all these mega superstars.” The only way for me to get over that was to trust him.
In our very first meeting, he said, “I don’t want to change you, I want to get behind what you’re already doing. Your style is already there.”
On whether she’s felt pressure to change her appearance:
Not at all. I’m a little surprised, too. I’ve never had anyone ask me to change my style. This last year, I hit a place where I felt like I was coming into my own.
I had more confidence. I wasn’t this little girl walking into these labels, not knowing who she was. – Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service