When Tori Kelly first began working on the follow-up to her acclaimed debut album, Unbreakable Smile, she had an unexpected idea: She would include a gospel song. For many artists, a sophomore album is even more important than a debut. A debut introduces you to the world, but its follow-up shows if you have what it takes to
stay long term.
There aren’t many artists who have had a first album as big as Kelly’s. Debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard charts, it featured collaborations from hitmakers like songwriter Max Martin (who has 22 No. 1 songs to his name) and pop superstar Ed Sheeran. It even garnered her a Grammy nomination for best new artist. Planning its follow-up meant trying to create an album that would somehow exceed its predecessor’s success and acclaim.
At first, she was nervous to bring the idea to include a gospel tune to her team. “I didn’t know how they would react,” she remembers.
Even though Kelly has always been open about her faith, she’s not what most listeners would consider a “Christian artist.” Fresh off of a tour with another pop superstar Sam Smith, there were expectations that her new project should be another big, radio-friendly blockbuster.
However, when she told her team that it needed to include a gospel song, she says they were automatically on board, and even had a suggestion: She should collaborate with gospel legend Kirk Franklin. After all, not only has Franklin been a gospel music powerhouse for more than two decades, he also has a knack for collaborations (like recently, Kanye West and Chance the Rapper) that bring church to mainstream audiences.
“I grew up listening to him,” she says. “So, hearing that name represents my whole childhood.” For her, the plan started coming together, and Franklin signed on.
But what Kelly planned to be a single song for a new album, Franklin—and maybe even God—had different plans for.
Tori Kelly has always understood what it’s like to change plans. As a 12-year-old, she gained recognition after winning the TV competition show America’s Most Talented Kids. Soon after, she was approached by Geffen Records and signed a recording contract. However, within months, both parties ended the relationship, cit- ing creative differences. It was a difficult time for the young singer.
Kelly, then 14, changed course. Instead of try- ing to impress a label, she decided to make music for herself, posting YouTube videos of covers for the fun of it. The song choices were as diverse as her influences and included everything from the classic spiritual “Go Tell It on the Mountain” to a Frank Ocean single.
Emboldened by the response to the videos, Kelly entered another high-profile singing competition: American Idol, then near the peak of its TV ratings dominance. After beating out tens of thousands of contestants, she made it through to Hollywood week, only to be cut before being named to the top 24.
Plans changed again.
“I heard a quote somewhere that said, ‘Doubt is not the opposite of faith,’” Kelly says. “I just really like that just because you are doubting, you’re still coming to God … You’re still leaning in and wondering what’s going on, and that’s not the opposite of your faith. That’s actually the working out of your faith and learning to trust God.”
Still a teenager, Kelly had already seen a major label deal disappear and had gotten voted off one of the biggest TV shows in the world. But that didn’t cause her to doubt her calling for long.
Kelly began playing small shows with music she’d written, and a young talent manager began show- ing up, having seen her viral You- Tube performances. It was Scooter Braun, who today represents Justin Bieber, Kanye West, Ariana Grande and Carly Rae Jepsen, among others. As his roster shows, he has an eye for finding breakout talent.
It wasn’t long before Braun introduced her to executives at Capitol Records, and, despite her hesitations, she decided to change her plans from being a successful independent artist, to once again signing with a major label.
But no one could have planned for what would hap- pen later in her career.
THE GOSPEL TRUTH
When Kelly entered the studio with Franklin last year, the idea was to record one song for her new album. Franklin had written four songs that he wanted to play for Kelly, presumably so she could choose one for the record. But then, he told her something that changed that plan.
“He said God gave him these songs specifically for me,” Kelly remembers. And when she
heard them, she believed him.
“I love being involved in every detail of a song,
so it’s really rare that someone can play me a song that’s finished and I’ll just be totally fine with it,” she says. “This was one of those times where every single song he played me …” she pauses for a moment. “Those four songs … I was like, ‘This is incredible.’ They feel like I wrote them.”
It’s just been amazing to know that there is a God who knows me and cares about every little thing I’m going through.
It wasn’t long before the songs sparked some ideas from Kelly herself, and she and Franklin realized they weren’t just working on a song, they were working on an album.
Then, they decided that in addition to some of the gospel tracks, they needed something that was worshipful.
“We looked at all the songs we had, we were probably about six songs in at that point, and we realized we didn’t have a song that’s just straight-up worship,” she says. “All the songs were either talking about God or talking to God, but we didn’t have a song that was like straight-out-of-the-Scriptures direct worship—kind of the song that you could teach to a congregation or to a church and they can all sing along with it.”
As Franklin sat at the piano, Kelly picked up a Bible and began flipping through the Psalms, eventually landing on Psalm 42.
“I want to say it started with the chorus—as the deer pants for the water so my soul thirsts for you, God—and that was really the anchor for the whole song,” Kelly remembers.
The result of the collaboration is the eight- song album Hiding Place (including the worshipful track, “Psalm 42”), which has been released to crossover acclaim. It debuted at No. 1 on the gospel charts and in the overall top 35.
The album may be a detour on Kelly’s expected career path, but it’s a chance for her to be honest about the thing most important in her life: faith.
A PROFOUND CHANGE
Kelly grew up going to church, but early on, faith was more of a label and an excuse for her to hang out with friends at church than anything really personal.
“I grew up in a Christian home, and always grew up knowing about this God and learning about this guy named Jesus,” she says. “I just thought it was the best thing ever to go to church and be with all my friends … For me, church was just fun.”
But as she grew older, she started to feel the need to dig deeper, and an experience at church camp would soon change her life forever.
“It wasn’t until around high school that I realized this is something that needs to be my own; I can’t just be going through the motions and do- ing what my parents do—this is a real relation- ship one-on-one with Jesus,” she reflects. “I went to this camp through my church, and really had an encounter with God. He kind of just met me right there and just revealed Himself in a powerful way.”
The experience profoundly changed her. But just because she had an authentic experience with God, it doesn’t mean things went as she planned.
“Since then, it hasn’t been necessarily easy,”
she says. “Just because you believe in God doesn’t mean your life is all rainbows. But it’s just been amazing to know that there is a God who knows me and cares about every little thing I’m going through.
“It’s something that I grew up with, but also as I’ve gotten older, I’ve made it more my own.”
In Hiding Place, this idea—that faith isn’t al- ways easy—continually comes through in the music. It isn’t a collection of platitudes or corny hooks. The album is about asking tough questions.
“We tend to kind of be afraid to ask questions or afraid to even doubt God,” she says. “I’ve definitely been there, but the more I read the Psalms, there’s so much doubt. You know David’s crying out and being like, ‘Where are
you God? Why is this happening? When are you going to come and help, and what is your plan here?!’ I love that because it’s just so real. I think we can all say that we’ve gone through that, and there are so many things in life that I wish I had answers to, but I just don’t. That just makes me lean into God more, saying, ‘I have no idea what’s going on, so I have to trust You.’”
Kelly is still making plans, but now she’s learned it’s OK to not know what’s coming next. She’s still at a pivotal moment in her career, where she—and her fans—are trying to deter- mine what kind of artist she is.
But she does know one thing her fans can expect: conviction.
“No matter what the genre is, it’s still going to
be me,” she says. “The lyrics are kind of some- thing that pulls everything together. You know, that’s really the constant thread throughout everything. I’m always going to sing about stuff I believe in.”
Now, more than ever, that conviction grounds her. As her fame grows, she says it’s more import- ant than ever to live the faith she sings about.
“[Jesus] loved people perfectly, and He served other people, and I think that’s what it’s re- ally about, trying to put other people first, especially in an industry that puts you first as the person who is kind of front and center on stage,” she says. “It’s easy for every- one else to come around that and put you on this pedestal. But for me, my challenge is to constantly try and not be on that pedestal, and instead say, ‘No, it’s not about me; it’s not about me,’ and try to focus as much as I can on other people.
That just makes me lean into God more, saying, ‘I have no idea what’s going on, so I have to trust You.’
“It is hard. It’s a daily challenge, and it’s a daily prayer too, to wake up and just be like, ‘God, I need your help today. Help me to not think about myself today, but to just think about You and other people.’ I think that’s really all I can do.”
She learned that relying on Him is better than making plans on her own. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t working on what comes next. When asked about what comes next, she gets excited at first.
“I’ve been writing a ton the last couple years, and honestly I was already kind of writing for the next album and then this gospel album sort of just made its way in,” she says. “There is a lot of music that is waiting to be heard.”
She pauses, thinking about revealing more of the plan, hinting at what’s coming next—but stops herself. “That’s all I’ll say for now.”
She’s learned that at this point, sometimes, it’s better not to make too many plans.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.