Momentous Mondays: Influential artists of the next 5-10 years – Week 3: Tori Kelly

Can I ask you guys a question? Not really a question that you are forced to answer right away, but a question, nonetheless, that you can sit on and dwell for a while. When you wake up in the morning, maybe around 6am when the sun rises, or perhaps at 10am after a good sleep in; how do you feel each day on average? Are you happy, or are you sad? Is your attitude ‘oh, it’s just another day, let me roll over, and sleep some more; and hopefully it’s over by the time I wake up again!’; or is it ‘Yay, thank God I’m alive, let’s get up and do all the things I want to do today!’? Are you a glass half full or half empty? I know for my life that there are times when I feel uninspired to do anything productive and worthwhile some days- and it’s true that some days you do need those lazy ones where you just sit back and relax, watching the world go by! However if by some chance you feel scared about what each day brings; and if you feel scared by what the future holds (scared you might fail or scared you might even succeed!); let me tell you that you don’t need to be.

It’s natural to fear the future, to not know what comes next. It’s natural to have doubts, and let me tell you that at least one of us in the world have been through what you are going through right now. If you think you’re alone, then you couldn’t be more farther than the truth. So…I could go on and on, and talk about Jesus that that he’s for you every step of the way, and that He knows everything you’re going through, therefore He can take your burdens and your pain, turning it into something beautiful. But I won’t. I’ll leave that for another post. What I will share with you guys instead is a story- a true story and an ongoing story- about the testimony and the sheer determination of a young ‘up and coming’ artist (I say ‘up and coming’ in inverted commas because…well by definition that phrase is relative, right?), and how she’s been able to overcome setbacks and forge a music career that highlights and brings forth hope even in the darkest places. I believe she’s one of the most influential artists currently- and an artist who’s not afraid to speak the name of Jesus in the marketplace and in the spotlight. You may know this artist- with songs like “Should’ve Been Us”, “Hollow”, “Help Us To Love”, “Never Alone”, “Unbreakable Smile” and “Something Beautiful”…yes, I am indeed peeling back the layers (or as much as I can) of Tori Kelly, also probably the most bubbly and joyous person on the planet at the moment (judging from interviews and the like!).

For us to gain the appreciation of what Tori has gone through, we need to go back and look at her childhood. For me personally, I was only introduced to Tori’s music later on in life. Throughout 2017, Tori’s worshipful smash hit “Hollow” (from her deluxe edition of the debut album Unbreakable Smile) was heavily present on Pandora playlists (yep, this was when Pandora radio was still available in Australia!), and it was via that way that I was introduced to Tori’s music (keep in mind that I have only branched out and really explored ‘mainstream’ music the past couple of years!). Yet if we move the lens and our invisible binoculars and/or microscopes from now, back to the past when Tori was a kid, we’d understand the path that God has since led her onto. Ever since she was a child, Tori’s parents have introduced her to a wide variety of music genres, leading to her love of performing, and her eagerness to try out for American Idol in 2010. Back in 2003 and 2004 though, Tori tried out for Star Search and for America’s Most Talented Kid– losing out both times before subjecting herself to the reality show of American Idol- knowing that she was going to be in the public eye and possibly scrutinised in ever facet. Yet Tori never made to past the ‘top 24’ artist stage.

I know it’s crazy to think that an artist of Tori’s calibre hadn’t made it any further than what she did on a talent show that is meant and supposed to showcase the best of the best vocally and as a musician and as a singer; but sometimes these things happen right? And I guess when you’re at the end of a particular road, especially a road you haven’t been on for very long in the case of American Idol, you have the choice to undertake a couple of things. You can quit, and play it safe and undertake a role that you can grow into and love in the long term. Or you can take a leap of faith, and a risk, and trust in your abilities, and in the people around you that have led you to this very moment. And guess what? Tori chose the latter decision- and the world is better because of it. Getting knocked back is tough and demoralising- and I can speak with confidence in that fact, as I have experienced plenty of no’s from prospective employers from many different fields prior to me owning my own café with my brother Jon and my parents. It’s sometimes the straw the breaks the camels back, so to speak- and though one may put on a smile and a happy face, they’re really hurting inside when they are rejected.

It’s as if the person says that they love one part about you, but not another part. It may be a valid reason why you’re rejected, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less. Sticks and stones do break our bones, but so do words. Yet Tori showed us in the moment one of the reasons why I reckon she is influential amongst young artists today- she showed resilience and determination beyond words, and made lemonade from lemons. Get this- Tori learned how to play guitar, she composed original songs, and then recorded them herself onto the computer. Then she posted her videos on Youtube, and the rest is history. Signing to Capitol Records in 2014, 2 full albums eventuated- the start of an incredible journey thus far, and an encouragement to all of us out there to never stop trying. As Thomas Edison said- I did not fail. I just found out 10 000 ways to not succeed. And boy has Tori succeeded. In addition to signing to a label and proving to American Idol that she can make something of herself, she was a mentor on the Voice in 2015 to Adam Lambert’s team- a beautiful full circle moment showing us that a person that we thought may have not had in in her to succeed, actually has and is showing others the way to do it. Unlike what could have happened, Tori (with the help of Jesus!) didn’t let the disappointment of being rejected by Idol bring her down- and she indeed is an example to the world of what to means to be dedicated, to know what you want, and to that that you’re going to get there no matter what. Influential in the sense that she encourages us to chase after our dreams no matter how big or scary they are; this assertion isn’t even considering the uplifting music she has imparted to us over the years!

Music wise, I’ve found Tori’s music to be more on the acoustic guitar driven side rather than the pop side (of which she has a few songs in that genre present on her debut album!), but if you have listened to as much Tori Kelly as I have, you will undoubtedly find that Tori’s has dabbled in genres such as pop, acoustic guitar led and piano led ballads- and not to mention gospel in her second album- each one of these genres to great success in terms of critics and listeners all having something worthwhile to comment on. Lyrically as well, Tori seems to be on top of her game, with almost no song she’s recorded thus far in her career being filler. Which is pretty remarkable, as these days pop music can be about having a good time and…having more of a good time I suppose. Tori unlike many of her contemporaries, has decided to write about subjects more relevant to society- and that’s not me knocking any of the other artists, but more like complementing Tori and letting her know that she needs to be proud of herself.

Unbreakable Smile on the surface sounds very poppy and like other mainstream albums that speak about nothing much, but herein lies the beauty and prowess of Tori as a singer and as a songwriter- her songs are so infectious and catchy; her joy so contagious that even though some of these songs are cliché, you can’t help but sing along and champion for her success, cheering her on along the sidelines. Debuting at number 2 on the U.S. charts, Unbreakable Smile was certified platinum and a quick analysis of the songs reveal why listeners, including myself, resonate with the project so much! “Nobody Love”, the first single, is a catchy pop tune that could double up as a worship song to God (that calls out the culture of people always trying to find meaning in their lives in all the wrong places!); while “Should’ve Been Us”, though pop in nature, laments a failed relationship as Tori relays to us all of the reasons why she and her ex should be together. It isn’t a healthy song by any means, but it’s real, honest, and reminds us that as humans we feel emotions that do not disappear and change overnight. Reminding us and encouraging us to look in the mirror and to see whether the relationships we form are healthy or not (or are we still obsessing over a lost love?), “Should’ve Been Us” is needed in a society where people date, then split up, and then date other people…again and again and again.

“Hollow”, an out-and-out worship song, is one of my favourite songs from Tori ever, and is another reason why she is influential- Tori is actively trying to change the preconceptions of Christianity and Christian music in the mainstream media. And…it seems to be working. Tori time and time again has publicly shared her faith, has received no grief and criticism for being open about her beliefs. An example of how listeners and critics are starting to embrace an active Christian musician in the mainstream industry- shows us that Jesus can be sung about in the marketplace, and others won’t be as offended as we think they may be. The gap between Christian music and mainstream music is shifting closer and closer together, and I for one applauds what Tori is trying to undertake. The moment when there isn’t a classification between Christian music and mainstream music, and the moment when a mainstream artist isn’t afraid to sing about their faith in Jesus- will certainly be a good day. I think that day will come, it’s just a matter of time. And when it does, we’ll partly have Tori to thank! “Something Beautiful” and “Unbreakable Smile” round out my personal favourites on the debut project, with the former being another deluxe edition only track, and an uplifter about self worth and knowing out identity; and the latter that is the title track being a song that delves into the notion that we have a firm foundation in what we believe to be important in our lives, hence our ‘unbreakable’ smile. It’s songs like these that last more than a generation, and to think that Tori has accomplished this with only her debut album- is insane and unfathomable all the same.

“…First of all, I’m aware that the whole time I was like, “Obviously everyone’s not going to believe in the same things,” the things I’m singing about, so I was definitely aware of that. I think the overall message through in these songs is something that everyone can relate to, which is hope. And in the songs—Kirk and I talked about this too—we’re really talking about things that everyone can relate to in some way. I think my hope for the album was that, yeah, maybe people wouldn’t necessarily believe in it, but would still feel a sense of encouragement and hope and be able to get something out of the songs. It got to the point for me where I didn’t want to let that get in the way of me putting out something that was really close to my heart, and that’s what I did. And I hope people aren’t scared or run away from it, that they can get something out of it, you know?…with the gospel stuff, that didn’t bother me at all, and I really was expecting nothing. I had my expectations very low if we’re talking about charting and things like that, because the whole time I really was just excited to put these songs out, and then perform them live, because that’s really my favorite part about being an artist is getting to sing live and pour my heart out on stage. All the numbers and the charting, that’s all a bonus. It’s not my main focus, but it’s definitely something that’s exciting and awesome when it happens…”

Then came the real leap of faith for Tori. The album that has propelled Tori into the spotlight more than I guess any album of the past year. And it’s the reason why I’m such an avid Tori Kelly fan. Though you can read about my review of Hiding Place, let me just sum it up for you in a few sentences for those who are just plain lazy to click onto another link. Tori’s first album in the gospel market is a throwback to her roots, and features her collaborating with Kirk Franklin. 8 songs of worship to our Creator and our Father and our Friend. 8 songs of pure genius, with plenty of collaborations. And 8 songs sure to bring you closer to the presence of God and the Holy Spirit. You may not be religious or spiritual- but please, listen to Hiding Place just once. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to listen to it ever again. But I suspect that God will be moving in your hearts even if you don’t want Him to. That’s the power of God in music- He comes in and invades our hearts, shapes it despite our resisting- and in the end we are better people because of these songs. While this may sound like a pitch for the album, I will leave you to make up your own mind- yet Tori’s passion for Jesus is undeniable and her love uncontainable. You may not agree with her beliefs, but you can’t deny that her convictions and her steadfast faith is admirable- unwavering in the shakiest of conditions.

Apart from Tori’s albums which I reckon will stand the test of time, Tori has sung in many other singles which aren’t part of any album. “Fill A Heart” is one of the most inspirational and emotional singles I’ve heard- recorded in 2013 and delving into the notion of starving children and orphans all around the world. “I’ll Find You” (Lecrae), “Baby Baby (2016 version)” (Amy Grant), “Take Back Home Girl” (Chris Lane), and “Where Is the Love (2016 Version)” (Black Eyed Peas) are all songs where Tori has graciously lent her vocals (and has improved each track greatly, while Tori has also seamlessly transitioned into film with her voice a part of the animated film Sing as Meena (of which Tori also sung “Don’t You Worry Bout A Thing” and “Hallelujah” for the motion picture soundtrack!)- just another medium of entertainment that Tori shows us that she can excel at. Not to mention Tori’s offering of “Colors Of The Wind” for the album We Love Disney– and you come across an artist so sure of herself and so secure in her identity in Christ. Destined to be one of the all time great musicians and singers in my opinion; Tori’s whirlwind ride isn’t finishing any time soon, and for that I am happy and eagerly anticipating what comes next.

“Change Your Mind” is Tori’s latest single off her unnamed 3rd studio album, and while the groovy 3 minute pop/jazz tune is seemingly about the persona and her boyfriend running away together after her father makes his disapproval felt; it isn’t known whether Tori is singing about herself and her marriage to basketball player Andre Murillo. However I guess more information on that will be given as details come in over the coming months pertaining the third album and when it releases. Until then, there’s a stack of Tori songs to listen to (including another listen to Hiding Place hopefully!), and with Tori already winning so many awards, and being nominated for several others (won billboard women in music award for breakthrough artist in 2015, won radio Disney music award for breakthrough artist in 2016; won youtube music awards in 2015 for 50 artists to watch, nominated at grammys in 2016 as best new artist; won grammys in 2019 for best gospel album and best gospel song!), sky seems to be the limit for Tori. So let us sit back and marvel at a superstar in the making. Jesus surely has Tori right where He wants her. It’s a mystery about the content and the musical direction for album number 3 (and let us all hope that Tori embarks on a world tour very soon!); but we’re all excited, aren’t we?

If you know me at all, you know that I love to perform and I can’t help but go out on the road and share the songs, so that is definitely happening. And I wanted this tour and this whole experience to be, yes I’m going to be singing the gospel songs and maybe sprinkle in some other things. But I wanted to feel like you’re going to a Tori Kelly concert, so that won’t be changing. I can’t wait to get creative. I love working on the transitions and playing around with the band. I love getting to play with real musicians and real singers. I’m really looking forward to it.

Does Tori Kelly make the list for you all when you write your own ‘Influential Artists of the next 5-10 years’ list? Is there any song (other than “Should’ve Been Us”, “Unbreakable Smile”, “Hollow”, “Never Alone” and “Help Us To Love”) that has impacted you on your journey through life thus far? Let us know in the comments. Till next time!

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