Tony Cummings reports on TORI KELLY and how a pop princess has transformed herself into a record-breaking gospel star
The worlds of pop, R&B and gospel music have great similarities and great differences, and very few artists can truly say they've risen to the top in both. But this has happened to Victoria Loren Kelly, known to both pop and gospel followers as Tori Kelly, singer extraordinaire. Kelly was born in Wildomar, California, to a father, Allwyn, of Afro Jamaican, Trinidadian and Puerto Rican ancestry, and a mother, Laura, of Irish and German descent. Growing up, she was exposed to a wide variety of music.
In 2004 she participated on America's Most Talented Kids, singing Christina Aguilera's "Keep On Singin' My Song", and by age 12 she was being offered a record deal with Geffen Records. As it turned out, the deal was an unhappy one, with the record company wanting the young singer to go one way but Tori keen to take it somewhere else. Years later, after the release of her debut album 'Unbreakable Smile', in June 2015, which was eventually to go Platinum, she was asked about one or two of the lyrics on her album which seemed to express her disappointment with Geffen and the whole corporate world of many record companies.
She told London's Evening Standard, "I was signed when I was 12 years old, which is where a lot of these lyrics come from, because I learned a lot. As a kid, I didn't know it would be so political. It was such a blessing in disguise that nothing happened then because I got to really grow up. The things they were expecting me to do and wear and stuff like that - that's where I pulled inspiration from for 'Unbreakable Smile'. That's when I took the independent route. I'm thankful that happened because now I can look at the industry without bitterness, but say: 'This is how we can work together. . . I'm not going to let you guys walk all over me but at the same time, I'm not going to be stubborn and think that I know everything either.'"
Tori was particularly indignant about how she acquiesced to the label's demands to dress in a typically provocative way. She said in the same interview, "I would like to be somebody young people, young girls, can look up to. I just want to give them a new way of looking at things because I remember how young I was when I would watch these shows. I would be so sad if a six-year-old was watching TV and was like 'Oh, I must have to be like that to be successful'. And that's what these kids are thinking. We're the ones, whether we admit it or not, that have a really big impact on these kids. Not that I've ever necessarily aimed for that, but I guess recently I feel more of a responsibility."
By 2007 Kelly, age 14, began posting videos on YouTube and despite failing to reach the top 24 on American Idol, she took a new tack in her music, learning how to play guitar, composing original song pieces and recording them herself on her computer. Tori began posting her performances on YouTube and, amazingly, was soon reaching over 1 million subscribers. In May 2012, she released her independent EP, 'Handmade Songs By Tori Kelly', written, produced and engineered by Tori in her bedroom. Shortly after its release, the EP had secured a Top 10 spot on iTunes Pop Albums list.
In 2013 Kelly's newly appointed manager, Scooter Braun, introduced her to the heads of Capitol Records. She was "very sceptical" about signing with a major label after her Geffen Records experience, but there were no problems with her new label. After a performance on America's The Today Show her second EP 'Forward' sold more than 16,000 copies and debuted at number 16 on the Billboard 200.
By 2015 her album 'Unbreakable Smile' was hurtling up the US Charts and she was performing with such acts as Ed Sheeran and Justin Timberlake and received a nomination for Best New Artist at the 58th Grammy Awards. Then in 2016, she surprised Christian music fans by recording an updated version of "Baby, Baby" with the song's originator, Amy Grant. A year later, she was recording another single, "I'll Find You" with Christian rapper Lecrae. The track peaked at number 11 on Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop Chart and number one on the Hot Christian Songs Chart.
But Tori's involvement with Christian music wasn't stopping there. When it was announced that Tori was recording an album with gospel's biggest star, songwriter and producer Kirk Franklin, both the pop and gospel world were taken by surprise. She told Idolator website about her decision, "I didn't really plan to put out a gospel album. To be honest, it felt like it just happened. I've been writing for the last two years, pretty much since I got off the Unbreakable Smile Tour. I went straight into writing and throughout that process I basically felt that maybe I should throw a gospel song, just a song on the album. And the reason for that is because I grew up on gospel music, I grew up singing it and a lot of what makes up gospel music is a huge influence in my own music.
"Growing up, I thought maybe one day I'll do a gospel project. So, I threw the idea out to my team and they were super into it. My manager, Scooter Braun, he loved the idea. He said, 'Let's hit up Kirk Franklin,' who is a gospel living legend and I'm such a fan of his. I grew up listening to him and I was really excited that he was down. We were like, 'Let's just see what happens' and basically one song turned into a whole album of songs. We kept rolling them out. It was just such a fun experience."
The sessions that produced Tori's smash gospel hit, "Hiding Place", featured guests Lecrae, Jonathan McReynolds and The Hamiltones. They were also a wake-up call for the singer/songwriter. She told Idolator, "I didn't realise that Kirk had never co-written with anybody, but I'm really not that surprised because he's so talented. He just hears every part of the song and he plays piano really beautifully. He can hear all the different harmonies in all the instruments. When I showed up to Dallas, which is where we did most of the album, he had already written four songs and presented them to me. I was like, 'Wow, these are amazing,' which is actually really rare for me because I love to write songs too. So for me to say, 'Oh my gosh, I have to sing this, these are so beautiful,' was really big. And that's when I was like hey, what if we wrote together and he was into it. I'm his first co-write ever, which is a huge honour."
Tori continued, "I was just honoured to be working with him. What's funny is, and he'll say this too, is that he was actually nervous. I thought that was really weird because he's been in the game for so long and he's so talented. And I was like, 'Why are you nervous?' I think what was happening was, we were both crossing over into different genres. I was naive and came in not knowing what it takes to make a gospel song. I know a little bit and I love to sing, that's what I know, but I'm basically coming in and trusting him and putting myself into his hands. And he told me that it felt like he was crossing over, because he had never worked with a pop singer or done a whole project with a pop artist. It was just a learning experience for both of us, but I think we joined forces really well. Because I brought things to the table that I had learned from my writing experiences and he did the same. So it worked out really well.
"All the tracks are pretty personal, but I think there's something about the last song on the album, 'Soul's Anthem'. I think it's a combination of the fact that it is one of my favourite hymns and just so classic and beautifully written, along with it being the last song that we wrote for the album. It felt like closing a chapter in a way. It's also the way we recorded the song. Kirk and I had a vision and I think no one else really understood what we were trying to do. We could hear it so clearly, that it was going to be all vocals, no instruments."
No-one could have foreseen just how successful 'Hiding Place' has already been. The project has had the most first-week streams ever for a gospel album, and the reviews have been hugely enthusiastic. Idolator wrote, "There was always the sneaking suspicion that the 25-year-old's voice could soar even higher, that she could open her heart even wider. That promise finally comes to fruition on 'Hiding Place'."; while People magazine enthused, "Tori Kelly wants her new album 'Hiding Place' to be a light in the dark for fans." It clearly is.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.