Tori Kelly | Singer & Songwriter

The drive to Lake Elsinore is typically a nightmare, lucky for us the 133 was empty. If that isn’t a clear sign of a great day to come we don’t know what is. We were testing our luck with traffic in order to meet up with YouTube singer/songwriter Tori Kelly at her lakeside home to the East. Over steaming cups of hot chocolate, Tori spoke with us about her song writing techniques and what a typical day is like for her as an artist on YouTube.

Fun Facts:

  • What takes up most of your time right now? Right now I would say that writing music takes up most of my time. Instead of going out, I find myself writing songs about life and whatever I’m going through. It’s a huge passion of mine. Just music in general, so its not even something that I have to try hard to do, it just kind of flows. When I’m going through something my first instinct is to write about it. I mean sometimes the whole song comes to me at once or sometimes its just a little idea I’ll throw in my phone; like a lyric, an idea or something. I’d definitely say that writing music takes up most of my time. I have the luxury of having a studio in my room so I can just wake up and it’s right there at my fingertips, so it’s been really nice.
  • Guilty pleasures? Some people think it’s weird but I like dipping Cheez-its in mustard. It’s so good. Also, I love Adventure Time. My brother and I are so into that show.
  • Relationship Status? Single, I’m honestly happy with where I’m at right now. I think it’s a good time for me to be single, for me to just focus on my career and just kind of have fun and learn more about myself.
  • Ideal Guy? I don’t think I have a “type.” I mean, if I like you, I like you. As long as he’s fun to be around, outgoing personality, and puts God first.
  • Your weakness? I can’t whistle, and when you’re in a room full of people who can whistle, it’s a major weakness.
  • What are your pet peeves? I don’t have a lot but every once in a while one pops out.  When I’m at a show or a performance and someone is singing a crazy riff or doing all this high stuff and when they hit this certain note and people start cheering really loud, I’m like ‘I want to hear the note! It’s the best part of the song!’ So that’s always a bummer, because I’m like, ‘be quiet be quiet I want to hear. Wait until after the song to clap.’
  • Favorite Song to Sing in the Shower? When I do have voice, it would be “Love On Top” by Beyonce. It is a very challenging song and very fun to sing when I have my voice.
  • Longest time you’ve spent writing a song? I think I’ve started a song before and then six months later I finished it. I started it and then just kind of left it, put it on the shelf. It was a song called The Road, and for some reason I couldn’t finish the song and I was ‘like what is going on?’ It was kind of like a sad song. Then I actually did American Idol, six months later, and then right after I got cut from the show all these lyrics just started pouring out of me. Then I finished the song and was like, ‘that’s how it was supposed to be.’ I think sad songs are always easiest for me, because you’re just sort of in the moment. Sometimes I have to force myself to write happy songs or a love song, which is weird because I think I’m a happy person. It’s just something about the creative process that it’s much easier to just be in the moment, and whatever you’re feeling just sort of comes out.
  • Do you base a lot of the songs you write from experience? Definitely, I think when I was younger I would hear the songs on the radio and be like ‘oh okay, yeah that’s what they’re singing about.’ Now that I have gotten older, and have had more life experiences, I can’t imagine not writing about myself, and what I’ve gone through. It would come off as really fake I think. It is the only way I know how to write now. Sometimes it’s not about me, it will be about different experiences my friends are going through, but about 95 percent of the time its about my own experiences.
  • Longest you’ve gone without sleep? I’ve pulled a few all-nighters in my lifetime, but I hate doing that. Sleep is one of my favorite things. It makes a huge difference in my day when I am well rested.
  • Fun fact? I love Sour Patch Kids.
  • Funner fact? I drum sometimes.

Walk us through a typical day for you?

Tori Kelly: I usually sleep in, so I wake up at around 10 or 11. It’s really not that bad when you go to bed around three or four. Nights are when I’m most creative.

What do you do at night?

If you talk to different producers and songwriters, sessions usually go really late at night for some reason. I don’t even really know why, I always think of ideas really late at night.

I mean I wake up; I usually have coffee, either hot or iced. It’s such a hard decision; I don’t even know how I decide every morning. I might have to switch to tea, since apparently coffee isn’t good for you if you have acid reflux, which apparently I just found that I have.

I usually hang out with my Mom, since she works from home, and then I catch up on my shows. This is making me sound like a really lazy person. These are the days that I’m home, which is a lot since I have the studio. My schedule is usually all over the place. I’ll catch up on my shows, like Jimmy Fallon and Adventure Time. Then I’ll usually just go straight into writing, and I’ll just write all day. It is kind of however I feel though. My life is so random though, I don’t even know what a typical day is. The only thing consistent is the song writing part, even if I don’t write a whole song a day. I’m literally always using the recording app, like if I get a melody, or I’ll be at Wal-Mart and right there I’ll get an idea for lyrics and type them out in my phone. That is pretty much the only consistent thing about my day when it comes to daily routines.

So lets start from the beginning. How and when did you start singing? What motivated you to try televised singing competitions at 16 years old?

I started singing when I…well I remember singing when I was six, but my parents say that I sang before I could talk and there are home videos apparently of me singing as a toddler. I do remember taking it seriously when I was six, or really knowing that’s what I wanted to do when I was in kindergarten, and that’ s actually when I started doing competitions.

I wouldn’t say American Idol was the first time I did a television show actually. When I was 10 I was on Star Search and when I was 11 I was on Americas Most Talented Kids. In both of those shows I met David Archuleta at Star Search, and Jordin Sparks on America’s Most Talented Kids. So, it’s interesting because then I did American Idol and both of them made it really far.

I guess I’ve always known I wanted to be a singer, and I think each competition was just a stepping-stone and made me grow as a performer and kind of made me expand as an artist. Now I’m kind of doing more things on my own, I get a lot of ‘Oh, would you do American Idol again?’ It’s weird because I think that people think when you haven’t been on TV that you’re not doing anything. I think right now I just kind of have to remind people that right now I’m figuring out who I am as an artist, writing and producing my own songs. I think for me to go back on a show like American Idol would be almost backtracking for me, because I’ve grown so much from it, taken so much from it and have met a lot of my really close friends from it. I don’t regret any of that at all.

Where are you now on the journey of turning into a full-fledged recording artist?

I think I’m actually at the point where I have a nice chunk of songs, so I can kind of be like ‘this is who I am’ and  ‘this is how I’m representing myself.’ I like almost every genre so it was hard for me to kind of narrow down what my style is and who I am as an artist. For the last couple of years that’s all I’ve been doing and I think now I’m finally at the point where I can take this chunk of songs and do more live shows and kind of build up more of a touring fan base. My favorite part about being an artist is performing live, that’s always been something that I love. Recoding is fun too, but I think just being able to see people, be face to face and be more tangible with fans, that have always been my favorite thing.

The start of the New Year I want to do more shows, perform like crazy, while still writing too. We’ll kind of just see where things go from there, I am technically an independent artist and I’m not ashamed of that at all. I just kind of want to take it step by step. I’m kind of just taking it one day at the time.

I even wrote a song recently, about not looking too far ahead in the future, like not lusting after things like fame and stuff. As an artist, I think a lot of other people can relate. We tend to dream too big sometimes, which is not bad. But I think sometimes you have to step back and really focus on perfecting your craft and do it more for the passion of the music instead of for the wrong reasons.

Being in the entertainment industry is a hard road to follow, how supportive have your parents been regarding your pursuit as a major recording artist?

My parents have always been supportive from day one. I give my Dad a lot of credit for teaching me how to sing. I remember being probably like three and we were in the car driving and I couldn’t hit this one note and he taught me how to use my diaphragm and I remember being so excited because I hit the note. We’ve always had studio equipment growing up in my old house, so I got to record things at a really young age. He also plays bass and sings and my Mom plays the piano. It has always just been a really musical environment, and I’ve never felt uncomfortable to express music in general.

One thing that has stood out, they have never told me to shut up when I’m singing. I get so annoying. I even annoy myself sometimes. I’ll be so loud and obnoxious, but growing up they always let me be myself. They’re the ones who got me Logic Pro 8 (which is a studio program that a lot of producers use). They got me that for Christmas one year and they also bought me my guitar.

They have always fed into what I do, rather than shunning it. They critique me and I just soak it all in. They are probably my biggest supporters, my parents, my family and my little brother too. It’s awesome, I feel really blessed.

How would you describe your style of music?

I would say it’s a mixture of a bunch of different styles. I’ve always had a hard time putting a label on anything I do, but I think it definitely falls under pop music. Pop to me means popular. I would hope that its pop, I grew up listening to people like Jill Scott and Lauryn Hill, all the way to Lenny Kravitz and Led Zeppelin, and then there is Justin Timberlake. I think it goes a few different places. Also, I think I don’t ever want to limit myself.

Some days I’ll wake up and think, I want to write a country song today. There should be no reason why I can’t do that, if anything else its just expanding myself.

I think I’m still kind of developing my style; eventually I’ll be able to put it into words or have more of a label for it. I think right now I really like to keep it open.

Any specific influences?

I’ve always looked up to Beyonce as a performer, John Mayer I’ve always loved. People like Maxwell, even Earth, Wind, and Fire. Jeff Buckley, is actually more of a recent one. As a kid I was like ‘Oh Jeff Buckley the Hallelujah song.’ My dad and me have been obsessed with his albums lately.

Top 5 songs on your iPod?

Pretty Baby-Eric Benet, Pretty Young Thing-Michael Jackson, Neon- John Mayer, X factor- Lauryn Hill, Like I love you-Justin Timberlake.

Name the biggest celebrity you’ve met that you were most star-struck by.

I would say Justin Timberlake for sure, because I have had a crush on him since I was six years old from his N’sync days. I got to meet him when I was about 13, it was really quick because he was in the studio recording whatever his latest album was. I got really star struck, I just remember I walked in and whoever introduced me said I was 12 and I was like ‘Umm, actually I’m 13.’

You’ve competed in both America’s Most Talented and American Idol, how was this experience and what is the most important thing you’ve learned? Also, how has this aided in your development as an artist?

Doing those shows helped a lot, even with interviewing. I don’t think I’m that great of a talker, I’d rather sing about stuff. I mean, on American Idol they have a camera in your face 24/7 so interviewing aside, it helped with just being comfortable in front of a camera. Even if you’re not doing film stuff, it helps with your confidence. They are trying to find any sort of drama, it was definitely fun, and I think I learned the most from American Idol.

On the other two shows I was really young and it happened really fast and it was more of a one-day thing. But with American Idol it was a long process. I definitely learned a lot from American Idol, even about how I carry myself now. It’s only been 2 years since the very first audition, even throughout that time I think I’ve changed so much, and I credit a lot to that show.

We heard from your blog you mentioned that you’re currently dealing with acid reflux.  Like with any sport you need to maintain and condition your muscles in order to be successful, how do you compare training your vocal chords to the way athlete’s condition before their season?

With vocals it is interesting because I have grown up taking lessons, and my vocal coach has always taught me to take lessons and warm up and stuff, like ‘ooohs’ and ‘aaahs’ (makes vocal exercise noises)

As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized how important it is to do those warm ups, even if its not before a show, I think you should do it everyday. I think singers should warm up, even though I’m not really good at following through with that I think it really does make a difference.

With this whole acid reflux thing I’m kind of nervous, I have show on December 27th, I am bummed because I probably have to cancel. Just because I don’t even know too much about it, I think its considered a disease, but I have heard its pretty common for singers. It’s just that you have acid coming up that makes your throat all swollen and even in my speaking voice now, much more low and raspy than usual.

I’m glad I have an answer, because at first I thought I was just losing my voice and was like, ‘great so I guess I’m not supposed to be a singer because I can’t sing anymore.’

So it’s just nice to know that its temporary and that it will heal with the medication that I’m on, but I mean it’s still a bummer and I’m bummed about having to cancel. I don’t think it will be a 100 percent better by then, and it will end up being my first real show. I want to make sure it’s a 100 percent and I don’t want to have feel strained or anything.

You’re one of the few people in this day and age that have build a good following for themselves in New Media, what do you think of the current New Media movement?

I think it’s awesome that we have YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and social media now. I think I’ve gotten a taste of both worlds since I was signed at a really young age (I was signed when I was 12) so I got to experience the industry side of it; being in a studio with producers and photo shoots and stuff. Even as I’ve grown up and kind of merged into the independent world where you have more control, it’s weird because I still feel like I have a foot in each side, I think it has a lot to do with me having a studio and putting out actual recordings. I think it’s been awesome to have this actual outlet where you can kind of just…I mean I can film a video of whatever I want and just throw it up and get people’s feedback on it.

Even with Twitter people just feel so connected. It is cool to have an instant connection with the people that are interested in your career and they get to see you grow as an artist. I remember the first video I put up on YouTube, oh gosh, it was a Paramore cover. I mean even just watching old videos they get to see all of that and all the growth even. I think that’s awesome, I think that’s cool.

I think more celebrities should take advantage of that, because it makes you more interested in what the person is doing, I know it makes me more of a fan when I can tweet someone, you feel more connected instantly, it’s been awesome.

What has been your most memorable performance as a singer/songwriter?

I just had a show last week (Jan. 31st) at a venue called Room 5. It was cool because it was really intimate and the vibe was very chill. It was the first time I had ever played a 45-minute set and I got to play a lot of new originals. I feel like that performance marked the start something new for me. Definitely a night I’ll never forget.

If hypothetically speaking, singing never worked out, what do you think you would be right now?

I think about this every day, it’s not even funny, Oh my gosh, I don’t’ even know, I ask myself this all the time, I would probably be going to school for something. All my friends who were in the same class are now in their freshman year of college and they are figuring out what they are going to do. I would probably be in that boat. It would still have to do with music, even if I went to Berkeley or Boston school of music, I can’t imagine something without music, and it would have to involve that for sure.

What are some exciting projects/events that you have coming up that you can tell us about?

For the New Year I will definitely be putting together a band or doing more live shows. I really want to start growing a touring fan base, because it is so separate. I’ve heard about people on the radio who have number one hits but can’t sell out a show, I think to somehow merge that together would be awesome. For me performing live is what it’s all about. It’s been hard to schedule stuff with this bump in the road with my voice and everything, I mean, I’m still excited though. Other than that, there is none that I can talk about.

Here is a scenario, your daughter just turned 16 and tells you she wants to skip college and pursue music the rest of her life. What do you tell her?

Well, first I would tell her to finish high school and THEN we can talk. I think if music was a huge passion of hers, like it is for me, then I would definitely be able to relate to her. I would be supportive, just like my parents have been of my career, and give her all the tools she would need in order to grow as an artist. I would definitely have many stories to tell – which would hopefully inspire her to be just like her mama…but better.

How can we stalk you?

Twitter: @ToriKelly

Photography By: Melly Lee

Header By: Matt Manarino

Interview By: Benny Luo

Make sure to check out Tori Kelly’s concert at ROOM 5 at 7pm if you’re in Los Angeles tomorrow. Get your tickets HERE!

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