Song Stories: Tori Kelly’s “Unbreakable Smile”

With a Grammy nomination, a signature Taylor guitar, and a debut album that opened at number two on the Billboard 200 all by the age of 23, you might think that professional musicianship fell into Tori Kelly’s lap. But it actually took almost a decade of YouTube videos, American Idol auditions, and self-produced EPs for Kelly’s first record, Unbreakable Smile, to be released. And the titular single off of that album delves deep into that years-long process, exploring themes like family, fame, shows, and staying strong in the face of torrential downpours of criticism.

A long road led to the penning of “Unbreakable Smile,” which included a stint on the drums, a Seagull guitar, and an unsatisfactory meeting with her manager. Kelly’s actually played drums before picking up the guitar. As a young girl, she was wont to sneak into her older brother’s room and bang around on the neglected drum kit he had received for Christmas. However, when Kelly realized that songwriting was a little more difficult via percussion, she picked up a guitar, the first of which was a Seagull.

Thus began Kelly’s foray into songwriting, an undertaking that only accelerated when she was able to upgrade to a Taylor. But “Unbreakable Smile” was actually born from a bad business meeting. The night before she wrote the song, she met up with a manager who told her that the general consensus in the music industry was that she was playing it safe, producing boring and vanilla music. While she tried to act like it didn’t phase her, she felt transported back to the time when she was younger, insecure and just starting out.

After returning home, she picked up her Taylor and the song just flowed out of her, seemingly in one breath, immediately setting the tone for the entirety of her first album. Spouting lyrics like “I’d rather make ‘em yawn than be a pawn on your chessboard” and “I might be smiling, yes, but don’t mistake kindness for weakness,” it’s obvious the impact that that meeting — and the industry at large — was having on her. But once she learned to stop comparing herself to other artists, she says, is when things really start to fall into place.

Watch the video above to hear Tori Kelly talk more about her gear, her advice for aspiring musicians, and to hear her perform “Unbreakable Smile” live.

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