Tori Kelly Talks ‘Hiding Place,’ Gospel Music & Kirk Franklin: Interview
Tori Kelly’s Unbreakable Smile is that rare kind of debut album that stands out as an impressive achievement in its own right, but also hints at something greater. It had radio hits, quieter moments and soulful grooves, but there was always the sneaking suspicion that the 25-year-old’s voice could soar even higher, that she could open her heart even wider. That promise finally comes to fruition on Hiding Place, a collection of eight gospel songs written by (or with) the legendary Kirk Franklin.
I recently spoke with Tori about the passion project in the famous Capital Records Tower in Los Angeles. The “Nobody Love” singer explained how the album came about — she was originally focussed on recording a pop/R&B sophomore LP — and opened up about working with Kirk, Lecrae and Jonathon McReynolds. She also promised that fans won’t have to wait too long for new (secular) music and talked about her upcoming tour. Find out more about the making of Hiding Place, which arrives on September 14, in our Q&A below. You can pre-order it here.
When did the idea of recording a gospel album crystallize?
So I didn’t really plan to put out a gospel album. To be honest, it felt like it just happened. I’ve been writing for the last two years, pretty much since I got off the Unbreakable Smile Tour. I went straight into writing and throughout that process I basically felt that maybe I should throw a gospel song, just a song on the album. And the reason for that is because I grew up on gospel music, I grew up singing it and a lot of what makes up gospel music is a huge influence in my own music.
Growing up, I thought maybe one day I’ll do a gospel project. So, I threw the idea out to my team and they were supper into it. My manager, Scooter Braun, he loved the idea. He said, “Let’s hit up Kirk Franklin,” who is a gospel living legend and I’m such a fan of his. I grew up listening to him and I was really excited that he was down. We were like, “Let’s just see what happens and basically one song turned into a whole album of songs. We kept rolling them out. It was just such a fun experience.
I heard that you got to write with Kirk, which is exciting because that’s not the normal way he works.
Yes, I learned that as well. I didn’t realize that he had never co-written with anybody, but I’m really not that surprised because he’s so talented. He just hears every part of the song and he plays piano really beautifully. He can hear all the different harmonies in all the instruments. When I showed up to Dallas, which is where we did most of the album, he had already written four songs and presented them to me. I was like, “Wow, this are amazing,” which is actually really rare for me because I love to write songs too.
So for me to say, “Oh my gosh, I have to sing this, these are so beautiful,” was really big. And that’s when I was like hey, what if we wrote together and he was into it. I’m his first co-write ever, which is a huge honor.
Was it nerve-wracking when you found out that you were the first artist to write with him?
Yes, I was just honored to be working with him. What’s funny is, and he’ll say this too, is that he was actually nervous. I thought was really weird because he’s been in the game for so long and he’s so talented. And I was like, “Why are you nervous?” I think what was happening was, we were both crossing over into different genres. I was naive and came in not knowing what it takes to make a gospel song. I know a little bit and I love to sing, that’s what I know, but I’m basically coming in and trusting him and putting myself into his hands.
And he told me that it felt like he was crossing over, because he had never worked with a pop singer or done a whole project with a pop artist. It was just a learning experience for both of us, but I think we joined forces really well. Because I brought things to the table that I had learned from my writing experiences and he did the same. So it worked out really well.
Is the process any different when you sit down to write a gospel song as opposed to a pop song?
Yes, it’s pretty different. I have never really sat down and explicitly wrote a gospel song, and really talked about my faith in a song. It’s always been there, but I have never really put pen to paper and done it. That’s why, again, I’m grateful for Kirk. He really took me under his wing and showed me how it works. And so much of it is really just expression and not holding back, you can’t hold anything back in gospel music, you have to just let it all out. And that was a lot of fun — not having to hold back and really just singing. Letting your voice go whatever it wants, letting the instruments go wherever they want.
The last few years have been quite dark for some people, is releasing a gospel album an act of healing?
I hope it does that exact thing. I always want to put out positive music and give people something to hold on to, but with this gospel project that wasn’t necessarily the first goal. But after the fact, when it was all done and Kirk and I had talked about this too, we looked at all the songs and we were like, “Wow, this feels really timely.” With all the things that are going on in the world, people are confused and all of us are looking for answers. That’s exactly what these songs do. They’re honest and they’re asking questions. There is literally a song in the album called “Questions” and a song called “Help Us To Love.”
I love that song.
Thank you. I love just how honest and raw the songs are, and yes I do hope that it provides hope for people and can help them through a dark time.
Out of curiosity what is going to happen to all the pop songs you have in the can? Will you revisit them or are they gone forever?
[Laughs]. Nothing is gone forever! Yes I have been writing before the gospel stuff and after the gospel stuff. I’ve just been writing a ton. And my fans know that. There is definitely more music coming and this gospel album was just a really special passion project that I wanted to get out there. Yes, there’s definitely more music coming for sure.
Will there be a big gap between projects or will your next album arrive shortly after Hiding Place?
I can’t say just yet. But I’m really excited for people to hear the rest of the stuff, it shouldn’t be too long.
That’s great! Can you tell me more about “Masterpiece”? I love Lecrae.
So, I got to do “I’ll Find You” on Lecrae’s album and that was our first official collaboration, but we had known each other a while before that. I really look up to him. He has been a good friend and a mentor. He’s like a big brother to me. After that collaboration, I was like, “Oh, it would be cool if he did something on one of my songs.” And then, working with Kirk, it was the perfect opportunity to reach out to Lecrae because they know each other as well. It was really easy. I literally just texted him and said, “Do you want to be on this song?” He did it in a heartbeat.
How did your collaboration with Jonathon McReynolds come about?
I’m a huge fan of Jonathan. He’s definitely one of my favorite vocalists. We were in the studio, Kirk and I, and Kirk played me a song called “Just As Sure,” and we both thought it would be a cool opportunity for a duet. We were trying to think of different singers and I asked if he knew Jonathan. Before I knew it, he was dialing Jonathan’s number. He was like, “Hey, this is Kirk. Do you want to be on this Tori Kelly song? Would you fly out?” And, I kid you not, he was literally there the next day.
It was just so quick. One of the other special things about that song is that we got to sing it together in the same room, which doesn’t really happen nowadays. So, a lot of what you hear, we’re singing that at the same time. We had been trying to do a collaboration for a while, so I’m really excited that it finally worked out.
Does it add another layer to a song when you sing it in the same room?
Oh yes. Totally, because you really get to know the person more as a person and not just as a singer or vocalist that you are a fan of. You get to really see them in their element, especially with Kirk Franklin. Kirk is the type of guy, he’ll just invite people to the studio. So he had, I don’t know if you’ve heard of Mary Mary?
Yes. “Praise You” is a classic.
Yes! So, he would just ask me, “Do you mind if Erica Campbell comes by and I was like, “Of course.” I grew up listening to them as well, I was a fan. But she’s just there and everyone is about the music, but at the same time, we would have great conversations on the side. We almost had to be reminded that we had a song to finish because we would just go so deep into different issues. I would mostly listen and soak up the wisdom. That was really special.
How was the news that you were making this album received by gospel fans?
That’s an interesting question. I was very happy that it was received really well. I wasn’t sure how it would go. I think Kirk had a lot to do with that. He really put his stamp on it.
I guess he co-signed the project.
Yes, he co-signed it. I also got to sing at The Stellar Awards, which I think was a big moment as well. So, yes. It has been awesome. The feedback so far has been amazing and I feel really thankful and blessed that I get to even do a project like this and put it out and people are listening to it, which is amazing.
Is there a song in the album that particularly speaks to you?
Yes, they are all pretty personal, but I think there’s something about the last song on the album, “Soul’s Anthem.” I think it’s a combination of the fact that it is one of my favorite hymns and just so classic and beautifully written, along with it being the last song that we wrote for the album. It felt like closing a chapter in a way. It’s also the way we recorded the song. Kirk and I had a vision and I think no one else really understood what we were trying to do. We could hear it so clearly, that it was going to be all vocals, no instruments. We recorded it here at Capital Records.
In this building?
Yes, it was here and it was the first time I used the studios down there, which was supper special and I walked in and I was already feeling emotional that day. There was a heaviness, I was kind of overwhelmed. Just like, “Wow, I’m doing this gospel project. This is crazy!” It was just really emotional. I walked in and there is Crystal Lewis, who was the first singer that I ever listened to growing up. She was in the choir and I was like, “What is going on?” So that made it even more emotional.
The song is just so powerful. I cry every time I hear it and I don’t have other songs that do that. It is the only song where I cry every time. I don’t know how I’m going to sing it live. I cried on the recording too, you can’t hear it, but at the very end when I stop singing it’s because I’m crying.
That’s beautiful. I just have one last question. Can you tell me about the tour?
If you know me at all, you know that I love to perform and I can’t help but go out on the road and share the songs, so that is definitely happening. And I wanted this tour and this whole experience to be, yes I’m going to be singing the gospel songs and maybe sprinkle in some other things. But I wanted to feel like you’re going to a Tori Kelly concert, so that won’t be changing. I can’t wait to get creative. I love working on the transitions and playing around with the band. I love getting to play with real musicians and real singers. I’m really looking forward to it.
Thank you so much for your time.