Tori Kelly’s debut studio album, Unbreakable Smile, helped establish the singer-songwriter as a rising talent, but it was the 22-year-old’s memorable awards-show performances that catapulted her from YouTube curio to best new artist Grammy nominee this year.
Her first national TV breakthrough was the May 17 Billboard Music Awards: When the talent-show alumna played a soulful acoustic version of “Nobody Love,” the track surged to No. 1 on the real-time Billboard + Twitter Trending 140 chart twice the following day. At the MTV Video Music Awards in August, when Kelly burned through her breakup anthem “Should’ve Been Us” — a song that already had hit No. 1 on the Trending 140 on six different days — the tune resurfaced at No. 4 on the chart. By the time Kelly arrived at the MTV European Music Awards in October to deliver an exuberant medley of “Should’ve Been Us” with TLC’s “No Scrubs” and The Fugees’ “Ready or Not,” she had not only accumulated three No. 1 hits on the Trending 140 but earned the respect of her Grammy-voting peers. Recalls her manager Scooter Braun, “All the established artists came out from the back of the room to watch Tori perform — and they gave her a standing ovation.”
KELLY: The Billboard Music Awards started this domino effect for the other award shows. Last minute, Scooter and I were like, “This has to be a special moment.” It had to be just me and a guitar because that’s how it all started. It was a cool tie-in to the YouTube days.
BRAUN: I looked at Tori and said, “Just do what you do.” I told the production team, “Put one single spotlight on her and let’s see what happens.” Right after the rehearsal, everyone looked at each other and said, “Holy shit.” And that was that. It was huge.
KELLY: I remember Ludacris coming up to me backstage. John Legend came up to me, which was awesome.
BRAUN: I’ve had some of the biggest musicians in the world hang out around a fire in my backyard and jam. When Tori would pick up the guitar, it didn’t matter who was there – everyone got quiet. If that’s the case in my backyard, why wouldn’t it be the case on national television?