When singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Tori Kelly first played her new single “Nobody Love” for her friends, their initial reaction to the rhythmic, big-sounding pop track was, “Oh, this is really different for you.” “That was interesting to me because in my head, this is the style of music I always envisioned myself doing: urban pop with a hip-hop type of Lauryn Hill twist on it,” says Kelly, who first rose to attention with her intimate, acoustic guitar-driven EPs Handmade Songs and Forward. “I was always a singer first, then the guitar made its way in on its own. A song like ‘Nobody Love’ was always the vision. This is where I knew I would end up.”
Kelly co-wrote “Nobody Love” alongside Rickard Goransson and Max Martin, the Swedish songwriter and producer who has ruled the Billboard Hot 100 for over a decade with a string of No. 1 singles for Britney Spears, Katy Perry, P!nk, and Taylor Swift, to name a few. “When I went in to work with Max, the first thing he said was, ‘I want to make the song that you want.’ He wasn’t trying to force-feed me anything. It was very collaborative. He asked me what I thought about every single decision. That’s why so many artists like working with him, because he really pulls out your style and polishes it up and makes it easy for people to digest.”
Martin serves as executive producer on Kelly’s upcoming full-length debut album, which Capitol Records will release this spring. She also co-wrote with such vets as Savan Kotecha, Toby Gad, Claude Kelly, Chuck Harmony, Wolf Cousins, and Ed Sheeran, whose show at Madison Square Garden Kelly opened in November 2013. The album, she says, does not depart from her soulful roots. “And I’m not moving into just pop songs. It’s like a marriage between that soulful urban thing and a mainstream pop vibe. It was hard to get to that place, but once we had ‘Nobody Love,’ I knew we’d cracked the code. It felt seamless.
Working with one of the most successful hitmakers in the industry is a long way from Kelly’s early years making songs in her bedroom and posting them online. Born and raised in Temecula, California, Kelly is the daughter of musicians, her dad is a singer and bassist and her mom plays piano and saxophone. “Music was really big in my house,” she says, adding that one of her earliest influences was gospel singer Crystal Lewis. “My dad always played her records, along with Jill Scott, Jeff Buckley, and Maxwell. Hearing me hum around the house as a kid, I think he knew that he should fill my brain with really good technical singers.”
Kelly began singing at age three, at age 10 appeared on the TV talent competition Star Search, made it to the championship tournament on America’s Most Talented Kids in 2004, took up drums at 12, and asked for the music production software Logic for her fifteenth birthday. From there, her path led to auditioning for American Idol, but failing to make the final 24, Kelly embraced a new approach; she started working on original songs and recording them on her personal computer. In 2009, she borrowed a guitar and posted her first cover, Paramore’s “The Only Exception.” “I realized that there was this whole community of aspiring artists looking into a camera with a guitar and singing covers,” she says. “I thought it was really intriguing, so I decided to give it a shot.”
In 2012, Kelly got a major break when her cover of Frank Ocean’s “Thinkin Bout You,” went viral, racking up 22 million views. “That was a crazy moment for me,” Kelly recalls. “I never expected it to get that kind of buzz. When that happened, I realized I needed to get more of my own music out into the world.” Bolstered by her easy magnetism, Kelly’s 2012 self-penned, produced, mixed, and released EP Handmade Songs By Tori Kelly debuted at No. 6 on Soundscan’s New Artist chart and at No. 9 on Billboard’s Heatseekers chart. It also went Top 10 on the iTunes Pop chart.
Kelly began playing shows at local cafes to build more support for her music. Her first show in LA, at Room 5, was attended by music manager Scooter Braun (Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber).Impressed by her sweetly soaring vocals, graceful guitar-playing, and knack for blending breezy melodies with boldly heart-on-sleeve lyrics, Braun signed on to represent her and secured her a deal with Capitol Records. At the end of 2013, Kelly released Foreword, which debuted at No. 16 on the Billboard Top 200, propelled by the single “Dear No One” — a love song for the guy of her dreams she has yet to meet. All-Music wrote that Foreword added a “new sophistication to her sound without interfering with her subtle, emotionally expressive power as a vocalist and songwriter.”
Over the past year and a half, Kelly has sold out shows in several major cities (including The Troubadour and The Roxy in Los Angeles, the Bowery Ballroom and Gramercy Theatre in New York City, and Bush Hall in London), headlined a nine-city sold-out U.S. tour, and supported Jewel, Ed Sheeran, and Sam Smith on tour. She began working on the songs for her new album after wrapping up her performance schedule and is excited for fans to hear “Nobody Love,” which she describes as a “breath of fresh air to sing.” “The song is about how everyone is always on the run, looking for that next thing,” she says. “We’re always trying to find something better. For me, the song is saying to someone that we have something that’s not going anywhere and it’s nice not to have to go running around looking for that love. Some people might not pick up on that, but when I perform the song, I channel those types of feelings.”
“I’m excited to perform again,” she adds. “I really miss it. I’ve been in a cave writing, and sometimes I forget how to interact with people because I’ve been in studio-land. I’m excited to get out and play for people. That’s always the dream.”