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Singer Tori Kelly on her debut album, Unbreakable Smile

Three months ago, Rolling Stone named Tori Kelly one of the top “10 New Artists You Need To Know,” but contrary to the title, 22-year-old Kelly has been making music for quite some time. The California native has been posting videos on YouTube since the age of 14 before making her way to American Idol two years later. Although she didn’t make it past the early stages of the competition, she didn’t lose hope. “I had already been posting a little bit on YouTube, but [losing] put much more fire under me,” says Kelly. “That’s when I started writing a lot more originals and posting them along with the covers to make sure people knew what kind of artist I was.”

One million YouTube subscribers and a record deal later, Kelly is certainly well known. You may have heard of “Nobody Love”—Kelly’s hit single from her just-released album, Unbreakable SmileThe song boasts over 4 million views on YouTube to-date, and if that’s any indication of her success to come, the 22-year-old should certainly buckle up. In the making for the past two years, Unbreakable Smile is co-produced with legendary songwriter Max Martin and features collaborations with artists such as Ed Sheeran and LL Cool J. 

Here Kelly gives DuJour an inside look behind the making of the album.   

Scooter Braun has a thing for discovering people on YouTube. Is that how he discovered you after your EP in 2012?

It was around the same time. I had already sort of started building a fan-base on YouTube and I just posted my first viral video with the Frank Ocean cover “Thinking About You.” Once that came out everything started moving so quickly. I just so happened to have a show that same week. So he had that video sent to him and ended up coming to the show. It was just at this small little café called Room 5 in L.A.—maybe like 70 people at the most. So he shows up and from there he was just really passionate about me as an artist. He’s been amazing as a manager. 

What was it like collaborating with Max Martin and Ed Sheeran on the album? 

Max Martin was amazing to work with. He really understands mainstream pop well—he’s a legend. So I was so happy just to work with him. We got along really great and he said to me right away, ‘I want to make the type of songs that fit you as an artist. Make sure you let me know if you’re not comfortable with anything.’ He was very easy to work with, which I think made it so much easier in the end. And Ed was so much fun to work with as well. He’s very laidback and chill. I kept forgetting that he was playing for stadiums every night because he’s just Ed—he’s just a regular dude. So it’s cool to hang with him in the studio too.

What’s the inspiration behind the album?

“Unbreakable Smile” was the first song that I wrote for the album. It all started with a meeting where people were telling me different things they overheard people say in the industry. They were telling me people think you’re too boring and you’re too plain and you’re too nice. I was kind of taking all of it in acting like it didn’t phase me, but that very same night I wrote “Unbreakable Smile.” I had so many feelings I was burying and hiding for so long. Once I finally said what I was thinking, I felt so much better—it helped with everything. Every session after that I just had so much more confidence. Looking back it made sense to call the album that because I think that really is the theme. When people throw negative comments at you, it’s going to take a lot more than that to break me. I want that story to inspire other people as well.

Any favorite songs on the album?

That’s probably the hardest question ever—they’re all my babies. I put so much of myself into every single song, but I think songs like “Unbreakable Smile” and there’s another song called, “Funny,” another song called “City Dove.” I’ve been categorizing things—there are love songs, heartbreak songs, life songs and I’ve been finding that those [songs] live on longer and tend to hit home at the time. Songs like that I think are my favorite.

You enjoyed not becoming a star overnight. Do you think that might change with the release of Unbreakable Smile?

I still feel the same way—I’m glad up until this point that I didn’t have to rush into anything. I had been able to really learn about the business side of things and all that stuff, but once the album comes out it’s hard to say what’s going to happen. I think that’s kind of exciting though—the unknown. Either way, if it were to blow up overnight and my life gets crazy then that’s meant to be. And at the same time if it’s more of a slow build and people slowly discover it then that’s also amazing. I think whatever’s meant to happen is meant to happen and I’m ready for any situation. 

What are you most looking forward to—what’s next?

It’s hard to think of anything else other than [the album] because it’s getting so close. I think once the album is out I’d love to get back on the road and do shows and actually perform the album. That’s where I feel the best—on stage. I’m excited just to be meeting fans and travel the world and learn a lot along the way. It’s going to be a really exciting year.