Two nights after performing in Minneapolis, the 10th stop of an 18-city North American headlining tour, Tori Kelly sits in a room at downtown Atlanta’s Omni Hotel, still buzzing from a chance encounter with the Twin Cities’ most famous resident: Prince. “It’s a story I’ll be telling for the rest of my life,” she says, recounting how the legend seemed to appear out of nowhere at Minneapolis’ Varsity Theater just as she began a cover of “Kiss.” After the show, a member of his 3rdEyeGirl backing band invited Kelly to his home, where she played pingpong and was eventually summoned to meet the musician himself. “I don’t think I said that much,” she says. “I was just smiling the whole time, and he was there, wearing a turban. Then he disappeared into thin air. I didn’t see him again after we spoke.”
The experience is just one of many music milestones already notched by the 22-year-old known for her R&B-pop fusion sound and impressive vocal range. Born an hour outside of Los Angeles in Wildomar, Kelly credits her love of music to her parents — a nurse and a construction worker — who are both proficient instrumentalists who often played gospel music at home. “My mom and dad say that before I could even talk, I was humming melodies and reacting to songs,” says Kelly, who is of Puerto Rican, Jamaican, Irish, German and English descent.
Kelly’s success story has been nearly a decade in the making, thanks in large part to digital platforms like YouTube and reality TV. At 11, she won America’s Most Talented Kids, which led to a deal with Geffen Records that she says was “huge but also a blur. I was in all of these studio sessions, writing with all of these people, but I didn’t even know who I was.” At 16, she made it through to Hollywood Week on American Idol, then went viral on YouTube two years later with a cover of Frank Ocean‘s “Thinkin Bout You” (she currently boasts more than 1.1 million subscribers). At 20, she signed to Capitol Records and in 2014 spent time opening for Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith, who has said her voice “is like candy covered in honey.”
In May, much like Ariana Grande‘s breakout moment a year prior, Kelly’s acoustic performance of “Nobody Love” at the Billboard Music Awards sparked early Grammy buzz. “One of the reasons you’ll see her doing more stripped-down sets on TV is that there’s nothing we need to conceal,” explains Capitol Music Group chairman/CEO Steve Barnett of her appeal. “We’re in an era where real artistry often competes with prepackaged ‘acts,’ and there’s no studio trickery involved with Tori.”
Though Kelly’s name has floated around the industry for years, her exposure has yet to yield a high level of commercial success — which manager Scooter Braun (Grande, Justin Bieber, Carly Rae Jepsen) aims to change. “I remember telling her, ‘You’re the most talented person I know, but you’re boring. People think you’re boring. They think you’re vanilla,’ ” says Braun. “But Tori is resilient. The next day she came to my house and said, ‘I wrote a song about what you said, and it’s called ‘Unbreakable Smile.’ “
For Kelly, who says she has “had to learn the dark sides of the industry — who to trust and who not to trust,” that track fittingly became the title of her debut full-length album, Unbreakable Smile. The record, which is packed with catchy, pop-laced tracks like “Should’ve Been Us” (which rises to No. 32 on the July 4 Mainstream Top 40 chart), illustrates the influence of mega-producer Max Martin, who has worked with superstars Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus. But despite the pop bona fides, Kelly, who often begins the writing process by recording a melody or lyric on her iPhone, says she won’t drift far from her roots. “Soul is at the base of the album; soul is what makes me me. The pop came after, and it’s like the sprinkles on top.”–
This story originally appeared in the July 4 issue of Billboard.