An Artist With
Substance & Spunk
They say good things come in threes. If Whoa Nelly! (2000), Folklore (2003) and Loose (2006) are anything to go by, they would be right. These distinctly different albums read like a diary, which depicts the multifaceted journey of singer-songwriter, producer and instrumentalist Nelly Furtado. Born December 2nd, 1978, Nelly rose from chambermaid to Grammy Award-winning global superstar in 2002. She says that her ongoing love affair with music “is like a metaphor for life. I feel like if you can get down with any style of music, you can get down with any style of person”. (Rolling Stone, June 29th, 2006). Having collaborated with some of music’s biggest names including Missy Elliot, Michael Buble, Justin Timberlake and Timbaland, this wide-eyed, second-generation Portuguese beauty has etched a mark in musical history as one of the most prolific and versatile artists of our times. In conversation, she talks to me about her chrysalis from moving ‘like a bird’ to ‘promiscuous’. She reveals the essence of the woman she has become and her visceral bond with the South Asian community.
There was a three year hiatus between your last album Folklore (2003) and the current one, Loose. The song ‘Te Busque’ talks about a need to take time off to reflect, regroup and re-emerge. I sense a profound personal journey took place within you during the past three years. Can you shed light on this?
It was a little bit of everything. I think I’m the kind of artist that always takes time off between albums because I like to just reflect. The fast pace of the business kinda wears me out sometimes. When all is said and done, I like to relax and think and artistically decide where I’m gonna go next. Usually I just wait for lightning to strike. I just wait for that internal buzz or fire that tells me that I’m on the right track. After Folklore, I toured with the album for about nine months, and then I went home with my daughter and enjoyed staying home with her. She had just turned a year old. Eventually, I started a new hobby in Toronto — where I live — acting classes. I did that, and then eventually started recording songs. I started by myself in the studio. I recorded some tracks by myself just to explore my voice. I tried to rap in the studio to see where I could go in terms of the hip hop direction. And eventually it turned into just working with different producers. It started with track and field. Traveling around the world from London to Miami to L.A. and Toronto — just working, working, but it wasn’t until I met Timbaland in Miami again for the first time in five years where I really, really felt the creative pull and the fire. Lightning struck and I knew instantly what my album would be possessed of, you know?
During this time off, as you said, there have been a whole slew of thing happening for you on a personal level as well as a professional level, in terms of becoming a mother and the acting scenario. How do you feel that these things have helped shape the Nelly Furtado of today on a personal level?
I don’t know. I think I’ve maybe learned to let go of my ego a little bit and learned to not be afraid of making mistakes. I learned to embrace my role as performer, and I enjoy entertaining and relishing my time on stage.
Did you feel that you hadn’t accomplished that before? Because if your past performances are anything to go by, I beg to differ as I’m sure many people would. To clarify, watching you perform on stage with your first two albums versus the current one, the same element of passion is there. I remember you performing on stage at the MTV Music Awards with Missy Elliot when you guys did the ‘Get Ur Freak On’ collaboration — you were rockin’ girl! It’s clear that you have a long-term love affair with music and performing, so why do you feel that it’s only recently that you have embraced the performer in you?
The biggest difference from then and now is that previously, I had not embraced my sensual side completely. You’d only see glimpses of it on stage in particular songs. I was always intrigued by it, but I guess I’m a late bloomer, and I guess it’s a coming of age thing. When you’re in the entertainment business, you grow up in the spotlight. Everybody sees you bloom, sees you grow up.
How do you view your albums?
I think my albums are kinda selfish, where I’m usually getting the most out of them than anybody, including the fans.
Yeah, in this album I’m really getting the chance to engage in the sensual side of me on stage. It’s really fun and really liberating. It’s important from a personal and artistic growth standpoint. I mean, maybe the whole point of being an artist is that you’re in a cocoon and you’re slowly revealing layers upon layers of the cocoon, you know?
Yes, I see.
But then you can also choose to put the layers back on when you want. I guess it’s like a study of becoming less and becoming more. I’ve been exploring my personality more. The next album, in light of this, will be completely different again depending on where I’m at, at that time.
Of course it is, that’s the dynamic nature of life, isn’t it?
Exactly. It’s kinda like a charade, you know, but a good one. It’s fun for me to push people’s buttons, and it’s fun for me to prove that anybody can be anything.
Personal changes oftentimes crossover to the professional arena. This is clear if you look at the distinct difference between the first two albums, which had a more world music sound to them, and the current one which is as commercial sounding as you’ve gone to date. In essence, you’ve gone from being ‘Like a Bird’ to being ‘Promiscuous’. What, in your opinion, is the paramount difference between these two versions of you?
Both are like characters I play that are both a part of me. “Promiscuous” is dedicated to my love of old r&b and hip hop like Salt n’ Peppa and TLC they had a sexual assertiveness. And also, I consider myself a musically promiscuous girl.
How do you mean?
I don’t adhere to one style. I’m always switching things up. I’ve proven with this album that I can rap, and I too can let loose. I’ve always wanted to have some songs where I can dance on stage, and on this album, I have a couple of them. It’s very liberating.
“Promiscuous” was a great choice for a first single because apart from being the most commercial track on the album, it is lyrical and rhythmically real tight and infectious — a superb collaborative pop song with Timbaland who also executive produced Loose. How did this merger of two very different styles come about?
For me, it’s always instinctual. The first day in the studio we were jamming, and the volume was so loud that the speaker caught fire.
Yeah, it was magical. Timbaland writes and produces his music from a real primitive place. A real primal, tribal place. When I’m around him, I feel like I’m being transported to another galaxy.
And that’s the magic?
Yeah. It’s exciting every time; it’s different every time; it’s spontaneous every time. I love feeling the musical pressure. I work well under pressure.
Most creative people I’ve spoken to work really well under pressure because it allows for being fully spontaneous and going with the feel, mood and vibe of the moment. It’s usually under these circumstances that a person’s creativity extends itself and one discovers things that in a cool, calm environment may never be realized – things about yourself that you may never discover otherwise.
Yeah, I agree.
Maybe that’s what that spark was that you were talking about earlier that took place between you and Timbaland. That spark that turns the ignition on and you know what the possibilities are — either you drive within the lines or off the road.
I think we’ve always had it. You either have it or you don’t. You can’t really explain it, it’s too hard. I think we were destined to work together. We both feel that way. (Pause) I sometimes feel like your whole life is kinda pre-determined. I think that he was always meant to be in my path.
Other than Timbaland, you have collaborated with numerous artists, most recently with Michael Buble and Justin Timberlake. How do you decide who you’re going to duet with, because musical style consistency doesn’t seem to be a pre-requisite? How do you know who you’re gonna feel it with?
Again, it’s instinctual: If it feels right and if I like the artist; If I feel like it’s going to be challenging for me; If it feels like it’s going to open up a new audience for me; If it seems like it’s going to broaden my horizons. These are the determining factors. Other times, it’s just friends that I meet on my journeys, or someone I just want to jam with.
The big power of you as an artist, from my perspective, has always been your vocal abilities to make the lyrics mean something and direct what you want a listener to feel. In addition to this, you have quite a chameleon capability with your voice in that you are able to transform it to fit many genres of musical styles. How do you decide how you’re going to sing? Is it a mood thing, or is it the style of music that helps you make this decision?
I’ve been studying music since I was four years old. I used to go to music classes six days a week from the time I was a child to the time I was 18, 19 years old. You know, I’ve played instruments in jazz bands, concert bands marching bands, and when you open your mind to music, you learn to never limit yourself.
That’s obvious with your current mosaic of musical styles on Loose, which incorporate many different musical styles: r&b/rap [“Promiscuous”], reggaeton [“No Hay Igual”], ballads [“Te Busque”, “Say It Right”, “In God’s Hands”, “All Good Things”]; western and eastern rhythms; English and Spanish languages.
I like to challenge myself, which is why when I was approached to do the duet with Michael Buble, I felt it would be a challenge. I knew I had to come to bat. The last time I felt this way was when I recorded the duet with Missy Elliot for “Get Ur Freak On”. I knew that I would have to impress her, and I tried my best.
And you did a damn good job of it too, as the song ran forever in the clubs and was loved by many types of people. That’s when you know that you’ve nailed a song — when it has a universal appeal.
Laying down the tracks for Loose seems like it was a very organic experience with the numerous conversational intros that lend to the album’s energy. How did it all piece together?
We wanted it to sound like reality TV and to accomplish this, we wanted to take down the veil that separates the listener from the musician, so that the listener would feel that they were invited to our party in Miami. We wanted the whole thing to be unpretentious. We kept the board mixes and we mixed it while we recorded it. There’s no top coat on the album.
I guess that’s how you were able to accomplish that sense of there being no preservatives.
I think so. There’s something to be said for doing things in real time. We jammed in real time and we recorded in real time.
Kind of like they used to do in the 60s and 70s where they gave tracks more of a live feel.
Exactly. Not a lot of over-thinking but a lot of feeling the music.
I read an article in the British magazine ARENA a short while back where you said and I quote: “This album is really sexually assertive in the way TLC used to be. I’m admitting to all my fans that I am a woman, and I love sex.”
I didn’t really say that you know.
Yeah. I might have said I like it, but I probably wouldn’t have said I looove it, like that. But I don’t mind.
So how about the comparison with TLC? I know that TLC is your fave girl band.
Yes, and the girls never compromised themselves by being less sexually assertive than they were.
There is a far cry from the girl you were when you first came on the scene to the woman you are today who seems to know herself. What would you say is the biggest reason for this chrysalis process?
Probably motherhood. I realized that it’s not all about me. It gives you a real sense of release and a real freedom.
Do you like the woman you have become?
I love her! (Laughs)
How we perceive sex, in my opinion, has a lot to do with self-image. Clearly, you love being the woman you’ve become — more provocative, sensual and alluring. Am I right in assuming that this has translated, in part, to the emancipation of your sexuality or the comfort zone you have with your sexuality?
It’s just a self awareness thing, I think, and confidence. Since I had my baby, I became more confident because I became more curvaceous, and I think I’m just kinda proud of it.
You’re a real yummy mummy!
It’s great that you can talk so freely and comfortably about sex in print.
I think it’s important to, and I grew up with the influence of strong girl bands like Salt n’ Peppa, TLC, YoYo and Queen Latifah. These are women who are not afraid to talk about sex in a healthy way. It’s reality you know? To go around and pretend that human beings don’t have sex is a little bit false and fake. In everything I do, I’m real, so I’m going to be honest, I’m gonna be real about it.
It’s such a breath of fresh air to hear a woman from a strong ethnic/religious background admit in print that she even has sex, let alone enjoys it! Being from a strong, traditional background myself, I constantly come across people who are amazed that ANOKHI discusses the topic of sex and other topics traditionally considered taboo in the frank manner that we do. Have you had any similar negative feedback from your fans since you became openly emancipated sexually?
Not directly—no. My fans are really cool. They buy all my albums.
Being a mom today is very different from being one in the past. Marriage was always a pre-requisite, as it is for the most part in today’s society, albeit less so. Contrary to this “norm”, many celebrities like Angelina Jolie and yourself have opted for single motherhood. Why?
By definition I’m not really a single mom, I’m a co-parent with her father.
You’re right. As a co-parent myself, I sometimes find it challenging to balance being a career woman and a mom on a consistent basis. I feel I’m getting real good at it, now that I have figured out how to give of myself as equally as I can to all my roles. Do you have similar challenges?
I have a lot of family and friends around me that help.
What do you do to make it all work?
Basically, I throw all the balls in the air and hope I can juggle them in the chaos of it all and make the best of it. I have fun.
There are a lot of demands on your time, especially since the release of Loose, like promoting and touring and extensive travel. How do you still fulfill your needs as a mom so that you feel content and satisfied that your little one doesn’t feel that you are an absentee parent?
My life’s not a typical life but it’s my life. I’m the captain of my ship, so I have to man that ship with confidence.
There’s a lot of seesawing happening with artists who jump back and forth between a musical and an acting career. I know you’ve dabbled a bit in a couple of serials, but do you have any plans to take this on more?
I started going to acting classes three days a week to expand my horizons and grow as a person. I feel this was very pivotal for me as it was my first new hobby in five years. I think when you learn a new hobby, it always stimulates your brain in a different way.
You have quite a South Asian connection. Visually, you could easily pass as a South Asian woman, with the way you style your makeup with heavy eyeliner and the ethnic jewelry you like to wear. I heard that you did a movie once where you spoke in Hindi, and that you listen to Indian songs, have sung in Hindi in the past and are an ardent fan of musical genius Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Tell me what it is about the South Asian culture that excites and intrigues you and why you have such a connection with it?
From a young age, I always watched the Indian network. I liked the songs; I liked the dancing; I liked the energy; I liked the costumes. Then as I grew up, I met many friends who were of South Asian descent. Some of them included me in their festivities and parties and taught me how to sing in Hindi. My daughter is also quarter East Indian. I was supposed to be in an Indian movie when it had an English version, but then the producer decided to only do it in Hindi. I’ve always been able to connect to the East Indian culture. Maybe it’s because Portuguese people have East Indian in their roots.
The song “Powerless” from your second album was remixed by the South Asian Canadian group Josh. How did that come about?
These guys have a lot of integrity and put their own flavour into what they do. They have fun with it and have a good sense of humour, and that’s what it’s all about.
What advice would you give to a South Asian musician who’s trying to make it big in the mainstream? I’m asking you this because you’ve made it in this arena and you understand the culture more than most other mainstream, non-South Asian artists.
Well, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Corner Shop, which was an influential Indo dance group. The group fused its music with mainstream music and taught me how to do the same with Portuguese music.
What is the single most important piece of advice you could give to South Asian artists who aspire a career in mainstream music but want to do so without giving up their ‘South Asianness’, because this is exactly what they want to bring to the mainstream world?
What you’ve got to do is not compromise your artistic instincts because if you’re not unique, you won’t turn anyone on.
First published in the Fall 2006 Issue. www.AnokhiMagazine.com.
Photo Credit: Anthony Mandler
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