Pop Singer Tori Kelly's 'Unbreakable Smile' Keeps Her Optimistic Kelly entered the music industry through TV singing competitions at age 11. Now 22, she visited NPR's DC studios to perform music from her debut album.

Pop Singer Tori Kelly's 'Unbreakable Smile' Keeps Her Optimistic

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Singer Tori Kelly is an unapologetic optimist about love, about her image and her music.


TORI KELLY: (Singing) I should be more cynical and tell myself it's not OK.

MARTIN: She has a good sense of who she is at the ripe old age of 22 because Tori Kelly has been at the edges of the music business for so long. She started singing when she was just three years old. Growing up, she got all kinds of positive feedback, so an optimistic Tori Kelly started entering big-name competitions. Here she is at age 11 on the TV show "America's Most Talented Kid."


KELLY: (Singing) Oh, oh, oh, yeah. I believe. Yeah.

MARTIN: Tori Kelly won that contest. After a brief stint on "American Idol" in her teens, she created her own fan base on YouTube. Her channel now has more than a million subscribers. Now Tori Kelly is plunging into the big time with her debut album. It's called "Unbreakable Smile." She stopped by our D.C. studios, and we talked about her 11-year-old self, a young girl so confident in the spotlight, I asked her if she ever had to deal with nerves on stage.

KELLY: Yeah, I did. I had a lot of stage fright. My first competition, I guess, singing-wise, I was six years old, and there's a video of it, too. I'm just, like, stick straight. I'm not moving at all, and I'm just singing.


KELLY: And I think as a kid, though, it's interesting 'cause there's no - there's nothing around your life. Like, you can literally just be in this bubble. Like, I love music. I just want to sing. And so as I got older, that's when the fear started to creep in 'cause now you have other people's opinions to worry about. You have this whole world out there where it's like, whoa, I don't know if I'm ready. So I think I've kind of come full circle and tried to channel that little girl again who just wants to sing (laughter).

MARTIN: That performance changed a lot for you.

KELLY: It did.

MARTIN: You won, first of all.

KELLY: (Laughter).

MARTIN: You won the TV show - the contest.

KELLY: Yeah.

MARTIN: And then you got your first record deal from that.

KELLY: Yeah.

MARTIN: That's a fast train for anyone to be on.

KELLY: Definitely.

MARTIN: I imagine it felt really fast at 11. Did you and your parents ever have to slow it down?

KELLY: We did. Yeah. I'm really thankful for my parents being on board through all of it because I was kind of thrown into it not really knowing, you know, what the whole industry was about yet. And, of course, at 12, I didn't know who I was yet, as an artist, let alone as a person.


KELLY: And so I was just in every single studio working with every single person you could imagine and sort of had this sound created for me, rather than, you know, knowing what to say. And I think, looking back, it's - it was the perfect thing for me to step away from all of that and figure out who I was first. So, I mean, all of those meetings where it just - it wasn't working out, and it was frustrating. And, you know, all nos that I got - I think those were all meant to happen in order for me to be who I am now.

MARTIN: With that, let's hear the title track your new album. It's called "Unbreakable Smile," and this is a song that kind of gets at this.

KELLY: Definitely (laughter).

MARTIN: At your relationship with the music industry.

KELLY: Yeah.

MARTIN: Let's take a listen.

KELLY: For sure.


KELLY: (Singing) La, da, da, da, da, dee (ph). You're not breaking me. La, de, da, da, da, da, da, da, da (ph). Yeah. Somebody told me fame is a disease. You start singing the blues when you start seeing the green, but I think it's all about what you choose. The way you live your life depends on you. Because when I realized I want to make a difference, change other people's lives, give hope even for a moment, use my name for good and change the game I could. Because to make it, you think I got to act a certain way, be a little bit insane, live a little. It's OK. I guess we have different definitions of living, but you'll twist my words anyway. You'll say that I'm naive like I don't have a past. You're the one being deceived. I see right behind the mask, trying to stir me up and get me mad. I smile because happiness is all I have. So - la, da, da, da, da, dee (ph). You're not breaking me. La, de, da, da, da, da (ph). Ain't got time for you. Singing - la, da, da, da, da, dee (ph). You won't shatter me. La, de, da, da, da, da (ph). I've got an unbreakable smile. No, no, no, no, no, no. I've got an unbreakable smile.


KELLY: Thank you.

MARTIN: (Laughter) That was lovely.

KELLY: Thanks.

MARTIN: So can you tell me where that song comes from?

KELLY: This was maybe a year ago. I didn't know what I was going to say yet on the album. I was kind of just blank, you know? And my team kind of sat me down, and they started telling me these things that they had heard within the industry - stuff like she's a little too plain, a little too boring.

MARTIN: People - I find it hard to believe people called you boring.

KELLY: (Laughter) Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, and too nice, even.

MARTIN: But somehow you needed to be darker or edgier.

KELLY: Yes, exactly. I was acting like it didn't faze me at all. You know, just kind of - whatever, it's fine. That same night when I got home, all of these lyrics just started flowing out - like, out of nowhere. And I think - I think I was holding in a lot of that for a long time. And once I finished that song, I felt like this huge weight was lifted off of my shoulders. And that was the first song that I wrote for this next album, so it kind of set the tone.

MARTIN: Were there other times when you felt like music executives or producers or whomever in this world were trying to change your image in a way that just didn't feel comfortable?

KELLY: Absolutely. Yeah. I think another thing - this song - I was channeling a lot was when I was in the label scene very young - 12, again. Things weren't really working out with the label, and we were kind of - we were thinking about leaving. And I remember one of the last meetings, I walked in, and - I'll never forget - there were music videos playing on the screens of just different, like, female artists who were a little bit more revealing in their choice of clothing.

And I was so confused as a - you know, a 12, 13-year-old walking in. I was like what? What - is this, like, what he wants me to do? Like, I don't know what this is about, you know? And I remember that being the moment where it was like - OK, this doesn't feel right, you know? And looking back on that, I'm glad that everything worked out to where I can now sing about those things and be like, I don't have to be that person. I can take my time with who I am and keep my clothes on (laughter).


KELLY: And, you know, do what feels comfortable for me, and people will still - will still like it.

MARTIN: Tori Kelly. Her new album is called "Unbreakable Smile." Thanks so much for coming in, Tori.

KELLY: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Is there a song you'd like to play us out on?

KELLY: I would. Yes. This is my latest single. It's called "Should Have Been Us."


KELLY: (Singing) Walking around with my head down, but I can't hide with these high heels on. Downtown in the thick crowd, but it's just you that my mind is on. Dressed up, got my heart messed up. You got yours, and I got mine. Yeah. It's unfair that I still care, but I wonder you are tonight. Thinking it could be different. Maybe we missed it. Yeah. Thinking it could be different. It could. It could. It should've been us, should've been a fire, should've the perfect storm. It should've been us.

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