Billboard Women in Music 'Breakthrough Artist' Honoree Tori Kelly: 'I'm Still Up-and-Coming'

Tori Kelly won America's Most Talented Kids when she was 11, advanced to Hollywood Week on American Idol in 2010 and became a YouTube sensation after her cover of Frank Ocean's "Thinkin Bout You" went viral in 2012. But even though she has spent half her life in show business, the 22-year-old singer-songwriter from Windomar, Calif., emerged this year in an ­unexpectedly huge way -- first with a standout performance at the Billboard Music Awards, then with the No. 2 Billboard 200 debut of her first LP, Unbreakable Smile. "I'm definitely looked at as a new artist," says Kelly. "But ­everything has just been a gradual growth throughout the last 10 years."

Women In Music 2015: The Billboard Shoot

That decade of preparation has allowed Kelly to slip easily from a quiet, no-frills crooner into a stage-commanding pop star -- as she did at the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards, slaying her bluesy torch song "Should've Been Us" so ­masterfully that Pink pledged ­lifelong fandom on Twitter. "As a kid, I would always dream about this happening, and having it happen doesn't make it any less awesome."

"I did the BET Awards with Smokey Robinson, which was incredible. I also met Justin Timberlake, and was fan-girling so hard. We talked about possibly working together. And I put Prince on the guest list when I was in Minneapolis. He walked in right when we started a cover of 'Kiss' and invited us to his place afterward."

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"Even if you're not told this directly, the message for women in the industry can be, 'Oh, you shouldn't produce.' Or, 'You should just be the singer.' So I get excited when other women take on the whole project -- write it, produce it, sing it. That's how I started out."

Women She'd Love To Work With
"Jill Scott is definitely on the list. Gladys Knight has talked about me in interviews and I keep geeking out about that -- I would love to do ­something with her. Also, Pink."

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Tour-Bus Wind Down
"I got hooked on The Walking Dead. After shows, I would run to the back of the bus and watch a new episode."

2015 Highlights
Scored two Hot 100 hits with "Should've Been Us" and "Nobody Love"
Nominated for favorite breakout artist at the 2016 People's Choice Awards
Cast alongside Scarlett Johansson in Universal Studios' animated musical film Sing

2015 Billboard Women in Music

This story originally appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of Billboard.


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