Hable Con Ella
Written by Michael-Oliver Harding
Photos by Richard Bernardin
Fresh off a brief sabbatical, Nelly Furtado unveils a new album, record label and a penchant for belting ’em out en español
As stylists, make-up artists, managers, label reps, publicists and latte-wielding assistants mill around a cramped hotel suite, I can’t help but think the obvious: all these people are gathered here to realize one woman’s vision. And we’re reminded that she’ll be arriving any minute. Given that we’re talking about Nelly Furtado here, one can safely assume she isn’t holding us up because of any celebrity-induced affectation or to squeeze in an extra half-hour of full-body Shiatsu. The Canadian musician of Portuguese descent didn’t exactly build her eclectic, thriving career by indulging a larger-than-life persona.
Often described as “genuine,” Furtado first burst onto the scene at the turn of the century with the refreshingly folksy mish-mash of sounds that was Whoa, Nelly!, a timely counterpoint to the derivative diva ditties, nu-metal and pop-punk that had hijacked the airwaves. Nine years after “I’m Like a Bird,” that initial Grammy and her first tour (opening for U2, no less), she could have long since faded into obscurity, as happens to many young contenders thrust into the limelight. (O-Town, Good Charlotte, Michelle Branch and fellow namesake Nelly, anyone?) But those kids had evanescent appeal, whereas Furtado has continually reinvented herself. And that cautionary tale of precocious stardom couldn’t be further from Furtado’s reality, as she’s just coming off her most colossal triumph yet, the seductive and groovyLoose– one of 2007’s top-selling albums, certified platinum in 18 countries.
Yet her success hasn’t chipped away at her invariably genial disposition. Upon walking into the bustling room, she greets everyone with a beaming smile and warm handshakes. She exudes that girl-next-door, naturally gorgeous glow, made all the more radiant by her infectious giggle and eyes that could charm their way through a hostage situation. So when the well-mannered Furtado politely asks for a few minutes to attack her shrimp salad before we begin, how could I say no?
Say It Right
A few minutes to scarf down your greens is all you get when you’re set to release your first Spanish-language album concurrently in all of Universal Music’s 77 territories worldwide – a move being touted as the most ambitious Spanish-language release ever for a mainstream star – and your own label (Nelstar Music) is responsible for delivering all creative components, from album and videos to artwork. That creative control comes at a price, but it’s also non-negotiable for Furtado who has spent her career overseeing decisions about her image. “I think whatever is totally homemade, you’re always more proud of,” she says with unabashed enthusiasm, in reference to her new album Mi Plan. “Aren’t you more proud of the homemade chocolate-chip cookies than the ones you bought at the store for the party? You can offer them up with so much pride!”
The idea for a full-length in Spanish – her third language, which she learned in high school and now speaks with her Cuban-American husband – came about very naturally when Furtado hit a writer’s block in the studio. Her friend, Cuban-Canadian singer-songwriter Alex Cuba suggested shifting linguistic gears.
“Every time I’d travel around and see fans in the audience who perhaps don’t even speak English singing along to all my songs with partially incorrect lyrics, I’d realize that they’re there for the feeling,” Furtado explains. “It’s not so much about the lyrics or the language, it’s about the emotion, the whole package.” And before she could shout ¡ándale!, she had assembled a who’s who of top-notch Latin musicians to contribute to the project, from Mexican crooner Alejandro Fernández to bachata legend Juan Luis Guerra, and even Josh Groban to boot. A gutsy move – especially considering she evaluates her Spanish fluency at 50-60% – but one that befits Furtado’s relentless craving for new challenges.
“I think that any career that someone pursues, there’s always a desire to get better, to learn,” she says. “Everybody wants that extra credential on their business card, they want to go to that seminar, they want to challenge themselves. And I’m no different, I take my job seriously and I love it! I love being a musician. Music brings me so much joy that I think I just have a desire to share that joy with people.”
Remember the Days
The result is a more personal, funky and acoustic sound that hearkens back to her debut. Gone are the theatrics of Loose and the femme fatale character that Furtado embodied so convincingly that some criticized what they saw as an attempt to sex up her image. But Furtado is clearly not in the business of making such calculated career moves, viewing her artistic evolution as a very organic process, determined by her emotional state at the time of recording.
“I remember riding in the back seat of my mom’s car when I was about four years old, staring out the window, and I had symphonies in my head. Like, complete orchestral symphonies! And it would never end! I never really understood where they came from, but before you knew it, I was filling notebooks and journals with songs because I just had to get it out. So I think that because music is my language, it’s always very natural for me to morph and change. Whatever I’m going through in life always gets reflected in the music, so stylistically I’ve never had any boundaries, I’ve always seen music as very universal.”
As much as Furtado is wholly driven by her craft, her appreciation for some well-earned time off confirms my suspicions that deep down she’s just like us mere mortals. Respite came in the form of an entire year off, after what she describes as the “glammed-out Loosetour, which was fun, but high heels, you know?”
“We had been celebrating the success of the album, every awards show, every number one. We’d toast [with] a lot of champagne.” If there’s an ounce of truth to that, chances are Furtado & Co. boozed their way through the year, with chart-topping hits to check off in too many countries to list here.
“I took a one-year sabbatical where I did nothing – I went to the park with my daughter [Nevis, now six], we ate chicken noodle soup and I took her to school! So the second year I started writing Mi Plan, and I found that a lot of the topics on the album were taken from simple everyday life. They’re love songs too. But regular ones, like I love you, period, not I love you, but!”
And what rewards a decade’s worth of hard work will reap. The small-town girl from Victoria, who moved to Hogtown to “aprovechar” as she tells me, “to make the most of the scene and get involved artistically,” is now in a position to impart wisdom from lessons learned to those doe-eyed newbies still marvelling at the thought of their names on a marquee somewhere. “I can never be a new artist again but I can hang around new artists and feel the buzz,” she says, giggling.
She’s adamant about supporting the city’s lively cultural scene and didn’t beat around the bush when it came to making Toronto’s glamtronic quartet Fritz Helder & The Phantoms the first act signed to Nelstar Music. “We had a showcase for them in New York, and when they heard about the people who were in the crowd – Marc Jacobs, Madonna’s producer Stuart Price, Ali from A Tribe Called Quest – their faces just lit up! I remembered my first showcases in LA and New York and that excitement, that ‘aha!’ moment, and it’s so fulfilling to be around.”
Moments before taking off for this magazine’s photo shoot, she gives me a quick rundown of what’s in store in the short term – and we’re not even talking about the Spanish release! Chief among those projects is some kind of English release (with producing maven Timbaland, of course) for 2010. And as we compare notes on our darling musicians du jour (she singles out Robyn, I respond with Lykke Li), she has nothing but hopeful words about the direction currently being taken by mainstream music. “I like that a lot of artists right now are multilayered and not so pigeonholed. I like that music right now is very fusion, very eclectic. Because when I started out, everything was based on this old rock model. So it’s really refreshing now that everybody’s iPod is so diverse. The doors are wide open.”