Tori Kelly on How Her Love of Destiny’s Child and Timbaland Inspired Her Y2K-Inspired, Self-Titled New Album

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Last July, Tori Kelly was out to dinner with some friends when she fainted. It was five days before the release of her eponymous EP, a moment meant to signal a rebirth for the singer with a hard pivot into bright, Y2K-indebted pop and R&B. Doctors discovered blood clots around her lungs and legs, sending ripples through her world and throwing the EP’s rollout off course.

“It just shook me up,” explains the 31-year-old, who quickly recovered. “I decided to still put out the music. I [wasn’t] able to promote it the way that I want to, but I was able to go on tour, which I think helped me mentally a lot. I was like I have this new fire in me. It felt like I just didn’t want to take anything for granted… I have this new gratefulness just to be doing what I’m doing.”

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Kelly is in a far better space — physically and mentally — in the lead-up to her fifth studio album “Tori.,” releasing on April 5. The project extends the EP’s turn-of-the-millennium aesthetic across 15 tracks that recall the plucky Destiny’s Child-era sound of producers like Timbaland and Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, both of whom are credited on the record. From the samples to interpolations of classics like Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” and Craig David’s “Fill Me In,” “Tori.” is an exercise in recontextualizing nostalgic signifiers in a contemporary setting, yielding singles like the UK garage-kissed “Missin U” and ballad “High Water,” inspired by her health scare.

“Tori.” is a professional sea change for Kelly, who has released all of her full-length projects, starting with her 2015 debut “Unbreakable Smile,” on Capitol Records. But last March, she signed with Epic, intent on getting a fresh start with a fresh sound. She had already been working with songwriter and producer Jon Bellion (Jonas Brothers, Justin Bieber) on her EP and full-length, and with music in hand, she discovered a new freedom to shop around the music to interested parties willing to release it as is.

“I feel like I had full control,” she says. “The music’s done, no one gets to say anything. You either take it or leave it. And I’m proud of this. So who’s the most excited to work with me basically? Epic, just everything the way that they responded and everything they were saying about what we could do together just felt right.”

The seeds for the album were first planted when she brought the idea for her next chapter to her manager Scooter Braun and his SB Projects team. Braun, who had a string of high-profile clients including Ariana Grande and Demi Lovato leave over the past year, has long been a champion of Kelly and her music as far back as her early days as a singer-songwriter. She explained that she was in a “happy place” and wanted a “big mainstream pop-R&B album” to reflect that. He suggested she work with Bellion, and they instantly clicked, setting the wheels of the record into motion.

Alongside Bellion in his Long Island studio, Kelly was clear on which sounds she wanted to help lay the foundation for “Tori.,” citing Missy Elliott, Aaliyah and Destiny’s Child. The influences are scattered all over the album, from the neck-snapping hip-hop drums of opener “Thing U Do” to the airy pop of “Spruce” featuring Kim Chaewon of Le Sserafim. At one point, she felt like she was borrowing so directly from that era that for “Cut,” she reached out to Jerkins and Timbaland for their clearance. Jerkins gave his blessing, while Timbaland was so drawn to the track that he ended up asking to provide background vocals.

“It was such a cool stamp of approval having both of them give that nod because it’s producers and artists like that who we’re so inspired by. [With] Craig David,” who she melodically cites on “Missin U,” “we were like if we’re going to go there, we might as well go there, so we just threw a direct line from one of his songs and sent it to him, and he loved it as well. It was just cool to give those direct nods to that era, because it has some of the best music ever.”

“Tori.” comes in the wake of not just a health scare, but a false start to her last album “Inspired by True Events” in 2019 (not counting her 2021 Christmas record, of course). Kelly released the blues-spangled “Inspired” just months before the pandemic began, and was four shows into her global tour when the world went into quarantine. The abrupt halt brought her back Stateside, where she staged “Quarantea with Tori” sessions on Instagram to perform for fans who would have otherwise been at her performances.

But with “Tori.,” she’s in a new space. For the first time in a long time, Kelly feels liberated, fully in control of her career and the direction it’s heading. She’s got an upcoming tour on tap — the “Purple Skies” tour, kicking off in Ventura, CA on April 12 —  and a body of work that reflects the creative intent she’s meticulously defined over the past decade.

“I’m getting to build and just create more of this world that I get to play in,” she says. “I think having more fun is really the main thing I’ve noticed about my process, while still being a perfectionist, because people who know me, I want things to be great. Sometimes to a fault, because at the end of the day, what I get to do is such a privilege because I get to be a part of people’s lives when they listen to a song and it maybe helps them through something or puts them in a certain mood. That’s such an honor, that’s such a cool thing. That’s something I don’t take for granted or take lightly.”

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