Don’t Mistake Kindness For Weakness: Tori Kelly’s “Unbreakable Smile”

I’m just a girl and her guitar
Trying to give you my whole heart
If there’s anybody out there listening to me
All I have is a story and a dream
Here I am, and that’s all I can be…

It took me a long time to search out Tori Kelly’s Unbreakable Smile. I think this is because after I moved, I stopped having a reason to listen to Top 40 radio anymore. I can cater to my ingrained interests (One Direction, Justin Bieber’s Journals, and Taylor Swift’s Speak Now World Tour Live). I listen to Spotify for free at work and pay for Apple Music in the evenings. I listen to Zane Lowe, Greg James, and Annie Mac for outside perspective. “Haim Time” on Beats 1 when I happen to be home on a Thursday evening. Nick Grimshaw if I can’t sleep and I manage to catch him live. Gilmore Guys podcast if I’m having a particularly slow day at work, and Marc Maron when he’s got an interesting guest that piques my interest.

The first time I heard of Tori Kelly was back in November. I’d won tickets to VH1’s Big Music in 2015: You Oughta Know taping. I wanted to see James Bay, Ella Henderson, and Hozier perform their hits for an intimate audience and the larger American viewing audience. I’d already paid earlier in the year to see entire sets of Hozier and James Bay in Royal Oak and Chicago respectively. The entire audience erupted into claps when Tori Kelly came on stage. I didn’t recognize her. Cascading curls and long legs, Tori fiercely yielded a guitar with a smile. I didn’t know anything about her and her “authenticity,” but I was charmed by her polish and talent. She repeatedly came out to dazzle us all with her openness. I made a mental note to listen to “Should’ve Been Us” when I got home. As Gretchen and I left early, we could hear Hozier and Tori starting to play the sound checked “Blackbird” cover.

Tori Kelly/James Bay Grammy performance mash-up audio of “Hollow”/”Let It Go”

Tori Kelly’s performance with James Bay at the Grammy’s is worth checking out. Their mash-up of “Hollow/Let It Go” was beautiful, haunting. I read some pieces in February that said they slowed down the already stalled award show, but I’ve never met a ballad I didn’t want to hear on repeat. The decision to have James and Tori collaborate was smart, a decision that understood their overlapping core identities as singer-songwriters who put on great live performances with grit and wit. While I loved seeing James back Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself” on guitar at the Brit Awards, I think this Grammy’s performance allowed both performers to shine. I’d buy an entire album of their joint sultry rock ‘n’ roll. The mash-up breathed new life for me into Tori’s “Hollow.”

Tell me, darling, will you understand me?
And not show me your cards?…

“Hollow” is the emotional center of Unbreakable Smile. There’s never been a song with claps that I don’t enjoy (ok, maybe that’s not entirely true). Tori Kelly’s “Hollow” was made for afternoons after school where you need to hear So hold me / wrap me in love. To think there’s someone who would do that, even on the bad days. It’s for evenings where you’re laying down, face planted in a pillow crying over an error at work. Tori’s voice is meant to rouse you, embolden you. She does this expertly.  By the final notes of “Hollow,” I don’t know why I was sad in the first place. Why I didn’t see that I don’t have to be empty.

The only song I’d heard off Unbreakable Smile was “I Was Made For Loving You,” which I first heard long before I knew who Tori Kelly was. I’d fallen down a rabbit hole of Ed Sheeran tracks on YouTube and clicked on this duet that I’d never heard with an artist that wasn’t Taylor Swift (I didn’t know Ed could duet with female’s not named Taylor). Tori’s voice lends itself well to emotional yearning, longing. Ed’s verse matches her heart and soul:

Hold me close through the night
Don’t let me go, we’ll be alright
Touch my soul and hold it tight…

I hope there’s never a point in my life where I tire of Ed Sheeran’s vulnerability. Tori Kelly holds her own against Ed’s recognizable vocal flourishes. This is a collaboration that makes sense. While it established and introduced her to a new market, their joint effort lyrically matures her voice. Ed knows how to write a love song, and Tori’s big heart grounds the song. There’s an earnestness, genuineness in both of their vocal performances. All I know is, darling, I was made for loving you.

Tori Kelly shines on “Unbreakable Smile” and “Nobody Love.” The former finds her responding to critics (already?) who want to categorize her. So call me boring, call me cookie cutter / Call me what you want… Pop music in the 2010s is all about empowerment and authenticity, and it’s nice to hear Tori celebrating her truth. As she brushes off detractors, she emboldens herself and all of us to “keep on singing.” Tori Kelly collaborated with Max Martin, the Swedish producer behind most of the smash hit pop records of the last twenty years, on “Nobody Love.” As with every other Max Martin produced track, the song is an earworm. I challenge you to not blare the chorus while singing along, Ain’t nobody, nobody, nobody love / Ain’t nobody love, ain’t nobody love like you do…

I’m excited to see Tori Kelly grow as an artist. I look forward to a future album from Tori where I listen from start to finish without skipping around.  For her duets to be with men her age (looking at you LL Cool J). Fingers crossed that her and James Bay put their songwriting chemistry on a follow-up record. While Tori might not have been Best New Artist at the Grammys, I’m thrilled at the prospect of her songwriting longevity. I want to continue to get to know the girl who told us, When I know the truth is never wrong / I’m alright, this is right where I belong…

About Ashley

Ashley Hull wishes she was a mermaid, but she’s happier she’s managed to find her voice. She currently resides in Brooklyn. If you’re looking for her, she’s likely in front of a mirror applying lip stain while singing Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well” under her breath.

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