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Tori Kelly Reflects on Her Breakthrough 2015, Shares Plans for Next Year

tori kelly bb20 2015
Meredith Jenks

Tori Kelly photographed at Lefferts Historic House in Brooklyn, New York on June 17. 2015.

This year has been kind to Tori Kelly, to say the least. As 2015 opened, the California-born, YouTube-bred singer-songwriter was one of many pop-star hopefuls prepping to release their full-length debut album. She had buzz, an A-list manager (Scooter Braun) and a high-profile appearance on Pentatonix's blockbuster holiday album That's Christmas to Me to her credit, but in the pop world, nothing is guaranteed. No amount of marketing dollars and big-name collaborations can make a singer "happen" if the public doesn't connect.

"I think at the top of the year, I didn’t know what to expect at all," Kelly tells Billboard, looking back on her 2015. "I was about to release all this new music and I thought, 'It could totally flop.' And then I'd have to go back to the drawing board."

Fortunately for Kelly, she landed with a splash, and her career has been on the upswing since, culminating in a recent nomination for the best new artist Grammy. But even back in June, when her studio debut dropped, she was quietly defying expectations. Unbreakable Smile debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, breezing past its predicted 65,000-70,000 album equivalent sales to net 75,000 album equivalent units.

"I'm glad that [my success] wasn't an overnight huge thing. I'm glad it was a gradual thing, and it still is. It's not like anything is jumping at me. I'm continuing a growth with fans," she says. 

Billboard Women In Music: Tori Kelly Says She's 'Still Up-and-Coming'

That growth owes a lot to her visibility at awards shows this year. No small thanks to her superb live vocal chops (a rarity among pop stars), her performance of "Should've Been Us" was the breakout moment of the 2015 VMAs, becoming the night's most Shazamed moment -- and a turning point in her career. Hell, even CNN -- an outlet not exactly prone to post-awards show fluff pieces -- wrote a "Who Is VMAs star Tori Kelly?" article after the evening.

"I felt a lot of pressure, in a good way," Kelly recalls of her VMAs moment. "It was good, healthy pressure during the VMAs. I knew walking in, 'This is a chance I have to really make a mark.' Or it could have been a whatever performance that people overlooked. But after that, things started to move a little quicker for me. The VMAs were definitely a highlight for me. It was surreal."

In addition to the VMAs, Tori Kelly stunned at the 2015 Billboard Music Awards, BET Awards, MTV EMAs, the iHeartRadio Festival and, most recently, Billboard's Women in Music event (which will be broadcast on Lifetime this Friday). Undoubtedly, part of her vocal ability in the live setting can be attributed to her self-control -- again, a rarity among pop stars.

"It's so important to me to take care of my voice. I do a lot of vocal warms-ups right before I go on," she tells Billboard of her awards show routine. "I've had the same vocal coach since I was 8 years old, and he'll Skype in and we'll work on cleaning up my voice [before each show]." When I pointed out the Led Zeppelin shirt she was wearing that day and asked if she ever lets loose and parties that hard, she laughed. "No, I don’t. I definitely gotta do the drinks in moderation. It's important to listen to your body and keep that stuff to a minimum."

As for 2016, Kelly isn't eyeing a follow-up LP just yet. "As far as new music, I don’t want to force anything. I'm involved in the whole writing process and I have to feel it. So I don’t want to rush anything," Kelly says. "I think in 2016 I'm going to focus on performing a lot more and doing as many shows as I can. There's plans to tour more, and that's where my heart is -- doing the live shows."