Thanks to live performances, newbie Tori Kelly creates buzz

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

NEW YORK (AP) — While music awards shows have dwindled in ratings throughout the years, for Tori Kelly, they have been a goldmine.

Thanks to her huge voice, the singer with diva hair marked a breakthrough following captivating performances at this year's Billboard Music Awards and last month's BET Awards. Kelly's acoustic performance at the Billboard Awards in May even caught the attention of BET executive Stephen Hill, who was sitting next to Kelly's manager, Scooter Braun.

Hill requested Kelly be a part of the Smokey Robinson tribute for the BET Awards, where she sang a rousing version of "Who's Lovin' You" and gained new fans.

"This is the debut I was hoping for," said Braun, who also manages Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande. "They are hearing her sing once and they are buying the entire album because they want a lot of her."

Kelly's debut album, "Unbreakable Smile," landed at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 albums chart last month.

"I am just throwing myself out there and people are just into it. It's really cool to be able to do what I love," she said.

Listing Jill Scott, Lauryn Hill and gospel singer Crystal Lewis as inspirations, the 22-year-old spent years getting to this moment: She won "America's Most Talented Kids" at 11, performed on "Star Search" and auditioned for "American Idol."

Kelly said since she was successful on YouTube, put out her own EP, and was organizing her own tour, she was not looking for help. But she says she took a chance with Braun because he was not interested in tainting her artistry.

"(He said), 'I just want to take what you are doing and make it grow and expand it,'" Kelly recalled.

"Unbreakable Smile" is executive produced by Max Martin, the hitmaker who has crafted pop anthems for Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys. Kelly said she was initially reluctant to work with Martin because she feared her creative input would not be appreciated.

She admits she was wrong.

"He is very one with the artist and right away he sat me down and he was like, 'I just want to make the songs that you want to make,'" she said.

Kelly said a lot of her music comes from her own experiences. Braun said she wrote the album's title track, about not succumbing to the pressures of the industry, after he used tough love to compel her to create the gritty song.

"You are boring. People think you are boring," Braun said, recounting his talk with Kelly. "I don't understand why you are not showing who you really are ... you are so guarded in your music."

Kelly said she hopes her raw lyrics and passion connects with fans, and that her friends, family and faith will shield her from losing herself to fame.

"There are not a lot of 'yes' people around me, which I really like," she said. "I want people to just be honest around me and just treat me like regular Tori."

Steve Barnett, the chairman and CEO of Capitol Music Group, said Kelly's commitment to her craft and her values made the decision to sign her easy.

"She is completely authentic and from the outset she had a very clear vision of what she wanted to be, and what she wanted to stand for, and the kind of music that she wanted to make," Barnett said.




Follow Luqman Adeniyi at