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Music Interview: Tori Kelly

Grant Walters Grant Walters Music Interview: Tori KellyTori Kelly, photo by Myriam Santos.
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The two-time Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter brings her latest tour, "The Acoustic Sessions," and new music to Columbus Friday night

For Wildomar, California native Tori Kelly, her current headlining tour, The Acoustic Sessions, is a return to a familiar, unostentatious place where her now-flourishing music career began.

“Just me and my guitar is really how it started,” she recalls in our phone conversation a few weeks ago. “Putting out stuff on YouTube, it was just me and a guitar. Putting out my first couple of EPs, I would just go on the road – we had no budget for anything but me and a guitar. [laughs] We’d play small places, coffee shops, things like that, with no green room. And I’m thankful for that now, because I’m just going back to my roots.”

Kelly’s trajectory has taken her miles from the self-made music videos she posted to the internet as a teenager. Last month, her latest album, Hiding Place, earned her two Grammy Awards – one for Best Gospel Album, and the second for Best Gospel Performance/Song for “Never Alone,” which features veteran singer/songwriter/producer Kirk Franklin. She has also been nominated in the same categories for the NAACP Image Awards, which will be announced this Saturday, and has been given three Stellar Award nods, which are annual prizes that specifically recognize achievement in the gospel music industry.

While the accolades continue to proliferate, Kelly is finalizing production on her forthcoming, as-yet-unnamed studio album. Her latest single, “Change Your Mind,” is a pungent pop ballad that was co-written by UK producer and composer Jimmy Napes – renowned for his impassioned arrangements that have generated hits for Sam Smith, Ellie Goulding, Disclosure, Rita Ora, and Alicia Keys. Napes’ strengths are a smart and undeniably good match for Kelly’s big voice and intensive introspection.  

“We came up with all these songs,” she explains. “Some of them no one has heard yet, but I’m going to be playing on tour – ‘Change Your Mind’ was one of them. I’m just so excited, because I think this is the most vulnerable I’ve been with my music. It’s a little scary, because it’s, like, ‘Oh, wow – now we’re talking about some personal stuff!’  

It’s heavy stuff, and I’ll say it’s not the most happy, bubbly, poppy album. I think that’s why it’s so fitting that I’m going on this acoustic tour, because I can really just strip it down and get really raw, and be face-to-face with the people that are coming to the show.”

Friday night, Kelly will pay a visit to Express LIVE! From Columbus, The Acoustic Sessions will cover a good amount of ground in the East before the current leg wraps in New Orleans on April 13.

First, I want to congratulate you on your Grammy Award wins. That’s a really fantastic achievement, and I’m sure you must be so proud of the recognition you’ve received for Hiding Place.

“Thank you! Yeah, it’s exciting. I honestly keep forgetting it happened because it just doesn’t feel real yet. [laughs] So, thank you. It’s awesome.”

A lot of artists talk about the Grammys as a career-defining destination. From an artistic perspective, what does that acknowledgement from the academy mean to you in terms of validating the work you do in the studio and on stage?

“I think you nailed it with that word: validating. I think that’s really…that was really what it felt like. Because, I mean, as an artist – every artist grows up dreaming about being on the Grammys. For me, I kind of idolized the idea of just performing on the Grammys, because that almost had a bigger appeal to me as a kid. And so when I got to do that, that was amazing. But, I think coming back with this gospel album – it was just such a huge passion of mine, and something that was just out of left field for a lot of people. So, the fact that, you know, I didn’t have a lot of expectations for it – it was just, ‘This is what I believe in, and I really want to put this out and I hope it inspires people.’ But not thinking, ‘I’m going to put this out so it can win Grammys.’ [laughs]  

The fact that it did get recognized was almost, like, ‘Oh, wow! What a strange thing, when I do something that I’m passionate about and it gets rewarded with a Grammy?’ It was awesome. I don’t know how else to say it other than it’s wonderful. And, of course, just being nominated and being next to people that I love in the category – that alone was such a huge honor, along with the fact that the gospel community embraced this body of work, and I had Kirk Franklin next to me, taking me under his wing. Because gospel – it’s been around, you know? It has a sound. There was a little bit of hesitation in, ‘Okay, are they even going to accept it?’ The fact that I got to be in that category was so cool, and that Jonathan McReynolds was even on the album.  

Yeah, it was special. I had a lot of emotions that day.”

Your music has always been driven by your faith, and the songs on Hiding Place make specific reference to it in the lyrics. I’m curious how your faith surfaces in other places as you create music – those places that are sort of on the way to actually putting pen to paper about it?

“That’s a good question. My faith is definitely something I was introduced to as a kid, and I grew up believing in God and believing in Jesus, and that being my foundation. As I got older, I really took it on as my own. It wasn’t this thing that was just a routine, but an actual relationship that I had with God. It really just became my whole life. So, going into music, it was – and even still is – the lens I see the world through. It’s just a part of who I am at this point – it’s my identity.  

It was really interesting going in to do a gospel album, because now I was explicitly singing about God. To me, just because I am [doing that], it doesn’t mean that my pop songs are less about God, or that God is less in them. It was a huge thing for me, because I think realizing that it’s just who I am, so whether I’m singing a pop song, or a gospel song, or a country song – whatever the genre is – my faith is always going to be a part of who I am.”

I’ve been listening to “Change Your Mind” this week, which seems to have been a really emotional piece of music for you to create. How did that particular song materialize?

“So, I did that song with Jimmy Napes in London, and he is just incredible. He did all of Sam Smith’s stuff, so working with him, as you can imagine, we got very emotional very quickly. He has no problem going into sad songs and very emotional songs – that’s his specialty, as well. [laughs] So, it was great because I was honestly just in a place in my life where I was going through a lot of family stuff and a lot of crazy times in the past couple of years. But, at the same time, I was falling in love, as well – so, it was just this kind of bittersweet couple of years. He was the perfect person to link up with and just pour all that out to him.”

How has the production of this show been different than your previous tours? What esthetic have you been trying to create as you’ve put this outing together?

I want to create this environment where you feel like you’re seeing your favorite new artist at a coffee shop, or something like that – that excitement where you feel like you’re getting this exclusive look at someone’s new music. So, yeah, to answer your question, it’s kind of been easy to put this show together. And I’m so, so, lucky that I’m playing with this amazing guitar player named Mateus Asato. He has his own following on Instagram now. He’s been on tour with me before, but he’s just blowing up. I mean, John Mayer is a fan of his, and Shawn Mendes is a fan. All these people follow him. And we’re teaming up and it’s just going to be us two on guitars. I’m just so stoked. I get giddy talking about it, even [laughs]. I’m so excited.”

I watched an early interview you did before a show you were doing at the University of Maryland about seven or eight years ago, and you were discussing the importance of “living in the moment.” I’m sure that’s less easy to do now when your career has accelerated to such a point as it has, but how do you find time and space to savor what’s going on around you?

“That is such a good question, and it’s so funny because one of the songs I usually do on tour is one of my earliest songs – I think I wrote it when I was 18, and it’s called “Confetti.” And I just started rehearsing it a bit and I started playing it and was, like, ‘This is so wild that I’m singing this song now!’ Because back when I wrote it, it’s…the song is all about living in the moment, basically. That’s probably what I was talking about in the interview. The song is basically saying, ‘It’s great to dream and definitely reach for [them] and have these big goals, but what’s most important is what’s right in front of you.’ If you just go for those big things, you might just skip out on those things that are right in front of you. It’s so crazy, because I’m singing this song and there’s literally a line: ‘the big fancy outfits and the sparkly awards / my name in lights and the people lined up at my door / but I’ve got to remember to take it one step at a time.’  

It’s funny because now I do have the awards – I have these Grammys – and I’m going on tour with sold out shows and all these things. And it’s still, ‘Okay, what’s really important? What’s right in front of me?’ And I think it comes down to people – who’s in your life and what are the relationships you have that you can really continue growing? I like to keep my circle small, but it’s so easy to just forget about people and focus on yourself and what your goals are. And, so, I think that’s really the key – to focus on people more.  

I think that’s a long-winded way of answering your question – just staying grounded and staying in the moment, like you said, because I heard someone say, too, that ‘The most important person should be the one who’s right in front of you.’ I love that, because whether I’m talking to a camera guy, or having a friend over, I try to focus on people and their stories, because every single one of us has one, and it doesn’t matter who’s in the spotlight or who’s not. That’s something I’ve been focusing on, and something I’ll try to keep with me on this tour.”

With all the fast and big changes you’ve experienced recently, what creative aspect of your work do you hope never does?

“You ask such good questions, I have to say! [laughs] No, really, they’re unique questions and I don’t think I’ve answered them before. I think the thing that always sticks out for me that could easily be swayed is the fact that I need to write and produce. One of my EPs I even mixed myself, even though it wasn’t that good [laughs] But, I mixed it! Just the idea of doing it all myself, because that’s really just how I started. I worked with all these people as a kid, and then finally I just said, ‘You know, I know all these parts and I can do some myself.’ So, I just locked myself in my room – and I didn’t really even know I was producing. I just sang and played whatever I heard. That started to get recognition. Then I put out the second EP, and I produced that one as well.  

After that, I was, like, ‘Okay, cool – now I’m down to work with other people.’ Which was the best thing ever, because I love, love, love co-writing with others. I think it really stretches you as an artist. But, that being said, I think it’s so easy to get comfortable with that and rely on other people – or even just second-guess your own ideas because you think, ‘Oh, well this person has had this success and they must know what they’re talking about.’  

I think that’s the one thing – I would love to…it’s one of my main goals to do an album where the whole thing is written and produced by me. And I don’t know…it’s a timing thing, too, because you have to commit to that and set time aside. But, I think one day that would just be so fulfilling.”

Tori Kelly’s “The Acoustic Sessions” tour stops in Columbus Friday night, March 30, at Express LIVE!, 405 Neil Ave. in the Arena District. Doors open at 7 p.m. General admission, standing-room tickets are $35, plus applicable taxes and fees, and are available via Ticketmaster. Learn more about Tori by visiting her official website, or by following her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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