Nelly Furtado keeps pushing boundaries
File photo of Nelly Furtado (Rex Features)
If she wasn’t so down-to-earth and gosh-darn pleasant, Nelly Furtado would be an easy person to hate. Talented, successful, altruistic, ambitious and foxy, the 33-year-old B.C.-reared singer/songwriter (she turns 34 December 2) presents as the total package, someone who can slither around sexily in videos but to songs she wrote and/or produced herself, often in cahoots with some of the planet’s hottest talents – see collaborations with Timbaland, Tiësto and Rodney Jerkins to name three.
What’s more, Furtado has nimbly pushed boundaries like few others, cross-breeding sparkly pop with hip-hop, soul, R&B and even so-called world music. She also routinely performs in three languages.
A Spanish album, 2009’s Mi Plan built on the wild success of a trio of English-language discs - 2006’s Loose, Folklore from 2003, and her debut Whoa Nelly! from 2000 - while Furtado’s Portuguese heritage and fluency with that language has opened doors in Europe and Brazil rarely accessible to Western artists.
The arrival of her latest disc, The Spirit Indestructible, upholds that maverick tradition, adding a nod to reggae and incorporating vocals from the Kenyan Boys Choir in both English and Swahili. (Really, how cool is that?). On the cusp of a cross-Canada tour kicking off in the New Year, Furtado sat down with MSN in Toronto to discuss songwriting, philanthropy and why traditional Portuguese Fado music may be in the cards.
You have a Canadian tour pending in the New Year; any unique bells and whistles?
It’s a theatre tour, and I’ll be touring with (Toronto native) Dylan Murray and Jessica Tyler of Degrassi: the Next Generation who is also a singer/songwriter as well so it’s very much a homegrown thing with lots of young, new talent. And with my show… when you are five albums in your really have to play the hits. That’s what people want to hear. Obviously I’ll focus a bit on The Spirit Indestructible but it’s a well-rounded show. I feel like I walk the line between a rock show and a pop show.
What were some challenges with the new album?
I was coming off a Spanish album (2009’s Mi Plan) and that was really fun but a whole other world… a rabbit hole with other fans who wanted to hear me sing in Spanish. So it was kind of hard for me to get back into an English pop state of mind. So I dabbled a lot, experimented and took my sweet time. Finally everything connected when I met (producer/musician) Rodney Jerkins and we worked a lot in Los Angeles. I wanted to challenge myself, and squeeze out a lot of different emotions. This album has a lot of adrenalin. So the biggest challenge was feeling passionate about writing in English, which happened. It just took some time.
What’s the writing process normally like for you?
Usually the lyric and melody come together in my head as a package; it’s pretty instantaneous and it’s either there or it’s not. But I find if I don’t finish the lyrics in the first couple of hours, it’s really hard to finish them later on because the initial inspiration is really important to the completed vision.
And what’s your litmus test for completion… maybe testing out songs while driving around in your car?
For sure that – that’s where the critique comes in. We also bought the cheapest set of headphones we could find and listened to the music with those. Then we’d listen on the computer to see how that would sound, then we’d listen on the big speakers and finally on the car. So four different mediums… almost like quality assurance.
What’s a song you’d kill to have written?
Mmm… a lot of U2 songs. ‘With or Without You’ or ‘One’ or maybe Prince’s ‘When Doves Cry.’ You just hear those and go, ‘How did they even write that?’ More recently I kind of wish I’d wrote Maroon 5’s ‘Payphone’ (laughs). That’s a good song.
On the flipside, anyone covered you with flare?
Anytime I see someone on YouTube playing one of my songs on their guitar in their bedroom, I am touched, especially when it’s a brand new song. (Brazilian superstar) Caetano Veloso, who is my favorite artist in the world, recently told me he loves watching my cover of ‘Crazy’ by Gnarls Barkley. And he’s someone who inspired me so much.
You’re heavily involved in charity work with Free the Children?
Yes we’re actually building a school called Oleleshwa in rural Kenya. It’s coming along really nicely because Free the Children is really good at mobilizing youth to fundraise. About 75 percent of their funds come from student fundraising: kids from as young as six or seven up to age 18 raising money through various endeavours. And then some of them actually come over on trips to actually help build the schools and learn about Africa. It’s a real education. I always try to help out and participate; it was nice to fund an agency I could partner with and be creative with.
Your background is Portuguese-Canadian. What’s it like for you visiting Brazil and Portugal – are you treated like royalty?
I wouldn’t say that. In Brazil, they like that I speak Portuguese but with an Azorean accent… they think it’s charming and cute. I feel quite a profound connection with people there. In Portugal, it’s even deeper. So yeah, I am considered one of their own. And whenever I do concerts there I try and collaborate with a local artist. People like that – it feels like maintaining a connection beyond just the lineage. And I’d like to do a real Portuguese album at some point. Maybe even Fado… when I feel ready to take that risk.