Tori Kelly could easily hog all the credit for the most exhilarating moment on her hit single Should've Been Us.
It comes in the chorus, in the line, "We were crazy / but amazing / baby we both know..." That's when Kelly's mighty pipes crescendo to some crazy-high yelp — she can't even tell you the note — and you realize, oh, yeah, this is why she was nominated for Best New Artist at this year's Grammys. This is why global corporations like Pepsi and American Express are betting big bucks on the 23-year-old to become a major pop superstar by signing her up for endorsement deals.
So that note, I ask Kelly, who's performing at Tampa's Ritz Ybor on April 19. That's all you. Right?
"I would give a lot of credit to Max Martin," she said, name-checking the Swedish pop Goliath who produced Kelly's debut album Unbreakable Smile. "He definitely knows how to push a singer. And for him, too, it's more like he'll let the melody (lead), whether I can sing it or not — which, thankfully, I can. If he hears that melody, he's going to be like, 'Can you sing that?' I took it as a challenge to make sure I could belt those notes. Whereas maybe if I was just writing the song by myself, I wouldn't have thought to even go there."
But she did, in fact, go there. It's a big reason why Kelly has risen from American Idol also-ran to YouTube star to one of the brightest young pop singers around. And in her mind, it wasn't even her toughest vocal on the album.
"The Nobody Love run that I do at the end of the bridge, I think that might be the most difficult," she said, pointing to another standout single. "I remember that being kind of a cool moment in the studio, when I was finally able to hit that one."
Kelly worked with a handful of songwriting savants on Unbreakable Smile, including Savan Kotecha (One Direction's What Makes You Beautiful), Toby Gad (John Legend's All of Me), Ilya Salmanzadeh (Ariana Grande's Problem) and Ed Sheeran (Ed Sheeran's, um, everything).
But Kelly herself is a co-credited writer on every song, including a few she produced herself. (A publishing deal, she said, "is actually in the works right now.") When she dons a guitar, as she did at last year's MTV Video Music Awards, she looks less like a product of pop-by-committee, and more like a real singer-songwriter.
"I've come to a place where it's fun to ride the fence a bit," she said. "The whole 'girl with her guitar' thing, the singer-songwriter thing, actually happened on accident. I always just thought of myself as a singer."
When she started posting videos to YouTube, "people started to label me a singer-songwriter, and I was like all right, that's cool," she said. "But it is fun to keep people guessing and not be categorized anywhere. It's nice to be able to bust out a guitar and carry it on my own, and then other times have a full band. It's fun."
Since Unbreakable Smile's release last summer, Kelly's life has been a whirlwind. Pepsi signed her up to sing their "Joy of Pepsi" jingle in a series of omnipresent ads; she was the first pop singer to do so since Britney Spears. She also signed deals with American Express, Target and Keds, among others.
"That's been a whole new adventure for me," she said. "When you have a dream of being a singer, it kind of feels like one big mush-ball. You're not thinking, as a kid, Oh, I'm going to be in a Pepsi commercial! I'm going to have all these specific branding opportunities! … That's something that's so new and exciting that I never would have thought could happen so quickly. It feels like everything has more layers, instead of just me as a singer."
But it's the singing that keeps her going as she embarks on her spring tour, including her first proper concerts in Florida.
"As long as you're putting content out there that you really love and that you believe in, and you're being true to yourself, people can gravitate towards that," she said.
And there's always that note in Should've Been Us. She'll always have that, too.
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.