Tori Kelly talks Kentucky Derby performance, Justin Bieber collabs
Tori Kelly speaks exclusively with USA TODAY’s Ralphie Aversa about her preparations to perform the national anthem at this year’s Kentucky Derby.
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Coming off her first holiday album and recent collaborations with Justin Bieber, USA TODAY can exclusively reveal singer Tori Kelly will perform the national anthem at the 147th Kentucky Derby on Saturday.
The two-time Grammy winner is already familiarizing herself with the derby, which is a unique slice of Americana, from its prestigious significance in horse racing as the first leg of the Triple Crown to the memorable fashion associated with the event.
“I’m stoked because I’ve always wanted to go to the Kentucky Derby,” Kelly told USA TODAY. “It’s such an iconic event and historic event. It’s all really exciting.”
Kelly said it’d be “crazy for me not to fully embrace everything that comes with it.” The artist revealed that she’s already had a fitting with her stylist and will have a custom hat for the event. The hats worn to the racetrack are a part of a long-established Southern tradition, but according to the Derby’s website, didn’t gain prominence as a fashion statement until the 1960s.
Another Derby tradition: Bourbon, syrup and mint leaves. It’s a cocktail better known as the Mint Julep. Kelly hasn’t tried one but has added it to her to-do list.
As for singing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Kelly’s no stranger to performing it at national sporting events. She has sung the anthem at a number of NFL games, including the 2020 Pro Bowl.
“Keeping it simple and not doing too much is the key,” Kelly said of how she approaches a successful rendition. “I love singing the national anthem.”
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Kelly’s also familiar with television performances under COVID-19 protocols. She appeared at both the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the tree lighting ceremony at Rockefeller Center last year. Like those events, the Kentucky Derby will air on NBC (5 p.m. EDT).
“I’m so grateful to even be getting asked to do these things through COVID,” she said. Kelly didn’t mention any of the specific protocols but acknowledged that she had no problem agreeing to them. “It doesn’t throw me off too much as far as mental preparation and getting ready for the performance because I’m just so happy to be there.”
Last November, the singer told USA TODAY that the pause on touring and traveling afforded her the time in her home studio to create “A Tori Kelly Christmas.” In addition to working on something “fresh and different” for the follow-up to 2019’s “Inspired by True Events,” Kelly hopped on two Bieber songs: “Name” for the deluxe version of his album “Justice,” and “Where Do I Fit In” for his surprise EP “Freedom.”
“Bieber hit me up and was like, ‘Hey, would you want to be on my deluxe album?’” Kelly recollected. Then he sent over “Name.” “Once I heard the song I was like, ‘Oh, this is gorgeous.’”
It marked Kelly’s first time singing on a track with Bieber, but clearly not the last as he then invited her to jump on his secret project pegged for Easter Sunday. Both Bieber and Kelly are managed by Scooter Braun, whose Ithaca Holdings was recently purchased by HYBE, the South Korean entertainment company known as the home to K-pop supergroup BTS. Kelly met BTS in 2019 backstage at the Billboard Music Awards.
“I remember fangirling pretty hard when I met them but I also remember thinking it was so crazy that they knew who I was,” she recalled. “They were so sweet and… I would love to collaborate with them. I think they’re super talented.”