Tori Kelly’s second EP, “Foreword” (Capitol), debuts at No. 16 on the Billboard 200 with sales of 16,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Those numbers are a far cry from January 2012, when Kelly was performing at Los Angeles’ Room 5. “It has kind of a cafe vibe,” the 20-year-old recalls. “It holds, like, 75-100 people.”
It was her first show, one that featured a rendition of Frank Ocean’s “Thinkin Bout You,” the inspirational original “Worth It” and one especially interested audience member: Scooter Braun, who manages Carly Rae Jepsen, the Wanted, Ariana Grande and, of course, Justin Bieber, whom he stumbled upon the same way he did Kelly-through homemade cover songs posted on YouTube. At Room 5, he applauded Kelly’s lithe, honeyed vocals, but left without introducing himself. “I was just blown away,” he says, “but someone told me she had a manager, and I have never poached an act in my entire career.”
What he didn’t know was that Kelly–who had appeared as a contestant on “American Idol” in 2010 but failed to crack the top 24–was in the process of splitting with her then management. When Kelly’s mother found out Braun was at the show, she reached out. Braun’s pitch to Kelly, already weary of the industry after a failed deal with Geffen when she was a preteen, was simple: “I don’t want to change who you are,” he remembers saying, “I just want to be a part of your journey.”
Just before inking with Braun, Kelly released her self-penned and -produced debut EP, “Handmade Songs,” in May 2012. It’s a soulful, no-frills collection of songs set to her guitar plucks, but it reached No. 9 on Billboard’s Heatseekers Albums chart and has sold 14,000 copies. With Braun onboard, Kelly pushed the EP with a tour in early 2013, filling venues like New York’s 500-capacity Gramercy Theater.
“I feel really good about the way my story is unfolding,” Kelly says, reflecting on the defunct Geffen deal and Simon Cowell calling her voice “almost annoying” on “Idol.” “I learned how to be an independent artist, which is a completely different ball game. Now I have so many layers.”
However, Capitol Records convinced the reluctant songstress to go major on Sept. 6, after Braun introduced her to president Dan McCarroll and CEO Steve Barnett. “I was very skeptical walking into a label,” Kelly says. “I’d been burned before. But when I met those guys, I had never felt that way: They were fans and really got me.”
“Hearing her sing sealed the deal for me,” Barnett says.
Days after the signing, on Sept. 17, WHTZ New York DJ Elvis Duran introduced Kelly on NBC’s “Today” as Artist of the Month, lauding her ability to “convince you that she really means every word that she’s singing.” Kelly announced the release of “Foreword” on the air, and performed heartfelt lead single “Dear No One.” Five days before the EP’s Oct. 22 release, she played the song on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” “That was a cool moment for me,” Kelly says, noting that DeGeneres was a judge on “Idol” the same season she appeared on it.
The TV exposure helped “Foreword” post promising sales-especially considering it’s a rising artist’s EP with just six weeks of label planning behind it. Capitol shrewdly priced the five-song set at $3.96, Barnett says, so that the cost “wouldn’t be an obstacle for fans to make the purchase.” “Dear No One” was also offered as iTunes’ Free Single of the Week.
In between shows-now at 1,000-seaters like Chicago’s House of Blues-Kelly’s been working on her full-length debut, with an early 2014 release planned. “My whole winter is going to be blocked off for that,” she says. She’s been in the studio with Pharrell Williams, both for her album and his own forthcoming solo effort for Columbia. “He was fun to work with and I learned a lot,” she says.
On Nov. 1, she’ll perform for her biggest crowd yet, as opening act for Ed Sheeran at New York’s Madison Square Garden. She’s nervous, but it’s “excited nervous,” Kelly says. She’s enjoying the moment she’s in–weeks away from her 21st birthday, steps away from stardom–but can’t help but daydream about her own headlining gig at the city’s most storied venue. “That would be incredible,” Kelly says. “Maybe this is the warm-up.”
This story originally appeared in Billboard, released November 1, 2013.