Tori Kelly Previews GRAMMY Performance with James Bay

By Brian Ives

It’s an exciting time for Tori Kelly: after years of working to establish herself in the music industry, she’s nominated for Best New Artist at the GRAMMYS, and is about to kick off a headlining tour. With just days to go before Music’s Biggest Night, we spoke to the singer/songwriter about her upcoming GRAMMY performance with James Bay, her prescient lyrics to “Where I Belong” and “Unbreakable Smile” and why she picked up the guitar in the first place.

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Congratulations on your nomination for Best New Artist; given the long path you’ve been on to get here, how does it feel? 
Oh my gosh, I have trouble putting it into words, it’s very surreal. I’m very grateful, and grateful to be considered.

You’re going to perform a duet with James Bay at the ceremony.
I’ve been a fan of his for a while, I’ve been wanting to collaborate with him. We’re doing a kind of mashup of both of our songs. We’ve met a few times over the past year at different events, we’ve gotten pretty close, and we wanted to collaborate. The GRAMMYs approached us, and we sat in a room and decided what we wanted to do, and presented it to the grammys, rather than the other way around.

Obviously, the two of you can just play guitars and sing, but will you have a backing band?
No, I think we’re going to do this in a pretty stripped down style. It’s how I always envisioned performing on the GRAMMYS. For both of us, we both enjoy just being with our guitars and stripping it down.

On “Where I Belong,” you say, “I’m just a girl and her guitar trying to give you my whole heart/If there’s anybody out there listening to me/All I have is a story and a dream.” A lot has changed since you wrote those lyrics.

It’s funny because that song in particular, whenever I sing it – it opens the show – it sets the tone. I still can relate to those lyrics. My life has gotten a lot crazier since I wrote thos lyrics. But there’s just something so powerful about just getting up and singing those simple lyrics. I don’t have anything other than this music that I’m going to share with you. It brings me back to the simplicity of why I love what I do. I’m thankful for songs like that, it will always hit home for me.

Let’s talk about the song “Unbreakable Smile.” How do you feel today about the lyric, “Somebody told me fame is a disease/You start singing the blues when you start seeing the green.”
Ha! I still stand by everything in that song. I still kind of feel like I’m on some sort of mission to prove people wrong, who think that fame is this horrible thing. I’m kind of determined to make something good out of it for me. That song reminds me to stay focused on the bigger picture.

You also say, “the way you live your life depends on you.”
For sure.

Later in the song, you say “Call me boring, call me cookie cutter.” It sounds like you were bracing for criticism.
It’s funny that you bring that line up: that was exactly what it was. I put out certain songs knowing that it’s not the typical lyrical content. But I did expect the criticism, and I have gotten it over the last ten years that I’ve been singing songs. I think you need criticism though. That line is kind of exciting to me.

Playing acoustic guitar and piano for a pop singer these days isn’t really “cookie cutter.”
Now when I think about that line, it comes from the way my personality is. Starting out in the industry, almost every meeting I’d go to, to try and play my music, it would always come down to, “You’re so reserved.” They’d try to put it in a nice way, but I’d find out later that they thought I was boring, or vanilla, or just too plain. So that’s where that line comes from [laughs]. But this is who I am, you can think that it’s boring, but I’m still gonna do my thing.

It must feel good to sing those lines now. You’re headlining some pretty big places on your upcoming tour.
Yeah, every time I get the numbers back for ticket sales, it’s mind-blowing to me.

Have you bumped into any of those people who you took meetings with back then?
No, but there’s no hard feelings. For one: it was so long ago. And two: I think everyone just grows and learns from situations like that. I’ll forgive and let go. I feel like I used them for inspiration in my songs, put it that way.

You’ve said that Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston were big influences, but once you started playing guitar, that’s a whole other iconography and it seems to be a big part of your identity now. When did you start playing?
I just got sick of relying on people to play for me, like if I was playing a little show. So I started listening to people who were really great singer-songwriters, and I got really inspired by people like India Arie, John Mayer, Jeff Buckley, people who could stand alone and just sing and play guitar. I didn’t mean for it to become a “thing,” but it ended up being a really big part of my sound and my identity.

I’m sure it helps you to write songs as well.
Right, it’s way nicer to be able to play your idea than having to explain it. I recommend any singer to try to learn an instrument.

So at some point soon, I’m guessing you’ll be looking towards your next album. 
Right now, my focus is the tour. Everything else, we’re playing by ear. I think I’ll most likely be in the studio at the end of this year and start working on album number two.

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