Before she finally broke through last year, singer-songwriter Tori Kelly had tried everything. When she was in grade school, she appeared on televised talent competitions like Star Search and America’s Most Talented Kid.
As a teenager, she wiped out on American Idol Season 9 early on, after Simon Cowell told her – crushingly at the time – that her voice was “almost annoying.”
In between, there was a major-label deal that fell apart when Kelly was 12 (she’s now 23). A viral YouTube cover of Frank Ocean’s Thinkin Bout You helped draw the attention of manager Scooter Braun, who had turned fellow YouTube sensation Justin Bieber into a star.
Her next big-label deal stuck and Kelly released her major-label debut, the polished-but-soulful pop album Unbreakable Smile, last summer.
The album entered the charts at No. 2, and earned Kelly a Best New Artiste Grammy nomination (she lost to Meghan Trainor).
In a recent phone interview, Kelly, who was raised in Temecula, California, talked about meeting Prince, facing down Cowell, and coming up the hard way. The following are excerpts from that conversation.
On meeting Prince late last year:
I had played the same venue two years in a row in Minneapolis. (The first year), Prince’s band came, and the next year they wanted to come again, and bring Prince.
By then, I’d gotten pretty close to his band, (but) I didn’t believe it. Everyone was like, “We put Prince on guests lists all the time, and he never shows up. Don’t get your hopes up.”
We decided to do a Prince cover, and he literally walked in right when we started playing Kiss. He stayed for a couple of songs, then he left.
To make it even more surreal, we all (went to) Paisley Park after, and we kind of hung out all night, and I got to talk to him for a minute and a half.
He was so sweet, and so welcoming into his space. It was something I’ll never forget.