The hustle is paying off for Tori Kelly. We met the artist last week, when she arrived at InStyle's offices fresh-faced and full of energy on a Monday morning, after having taken the red-eye from Los Angeles where she attended the BET Awards the previous night. It would be enough for any woman to roll in bleary-eyed and exhausted, but Kelly was rearing to go. Her debut album, Unbreakable Smile, went #1 on its release date, she just finished her nearly sold out Where I Belong Tour, and we can’t even count the number of times she’s wowed us on TV. (Her bold, acoustic performance at the Billboard Music Awards still gives us chills.) And while she looked calm, collected, and oh-so-cool, her arrival at our offices was years in the making.
Since signing at age 12, she revealed she's been hard at work trying to figure out her sound and where it fits into the musical landscape. "I've been in and out of the industry, and now I learned who to trust, and I finally feel like I’ve ended up with this amazing team," she told us. "I’m really thankful I have good people around me now." Before her big studio moment, Kelly started out producing a personal EP right in her bedroom, pajamas and all. Along with low-quality video covers on a growing YouTube channel, this is how she hustled to get her name out. (Remember the Frank Ocean "Thinkin’ ‘Bout You" cover that went viral? That was her.)
Her 1 million+ subscribers now aren’t the only ones watching—her talent has earned her a bevy of celebrity fans. At the BET awards, Pharrell Williams said she was special. “He walked right up to me in the midst of all this chaos backstage," she said. "He’s just so kind and warm so I fan girl over him no matter how many times I meet him." Of course, she humbly passes along the favor. She doesn’t just go crazy over big names, she notices good people with talent and sometimes invites them to perform with her. On the same day as her album release, at her sold out New York show, she spontaneously called up start up sibling trio Infinity's Song on stage with her. “That was even last minute for me, right before the show,” she mentioned. After that night, the group received 2,000 new Instagram followers, proving you can never underestimate the power of a loyal fan base.
Now her album hit #1 on ITunes, an accomplishment that hit her every emotion. “I’m sure you saw the video of me crying my eyes out on YouTube," she said. "That wasn’t until the next day. It's still slowly sinking in." Even with the mainstream praise, she’s still the same easy-going, California girl the Internet first fell in love with. The way she’s inspired so many and shared her personal experiences almost makes you feel like you're watching your own friend making it. So what’s next? For those who followed her since day one, she assured us that she would make time for her YouTube channel. "My fans were the ones who discovered me on YouTube," she said. "I don’t ever want to forget that."