From traditional pop classics, urban dance tracks and steamy Latin love ballads, Nelly Furtado‘s body of work makes a solid argument as one of the most diverse discographies in pop-music history. Which, in part, is why I virtually jumped at the chance to interview the renowned Canadian songstress. That, along with the fact that her music has been there as a spiritual guide throughout the majority of my turbulent 22-year-old life. Since her 2000 “I’m Like a Bird,” debut the singer-songwriter has diversified her channels of creativity by rejecting limitations. Along her never-ending journey to defy the boundaries of genre, she’s written tracks that make you jump to your feet just as often as those meant to pick you up off the ground. In her revealing discussion, Nelly speaks endearingly on re-establishing herself as an artist, defining moments with her peers, and her sixth studio album, ‘The Ride’, set to debut at the end of next month. Following her pattern of not actually following a particular pattern, Furtado plans to show her fans yet another side of her complex artistry. If the album is as honest and pure as her intentions, we may be in for ‘The Ride’ of our lives.
Ashley Vance: It’s been about 4 years since you’ve released a full-length project. Talk to us a bit about the path leading up to The Ride and how the journey has treated you.
Nelly Furtado: Honestly, it’s been a really interesting 4 or 5 years. I really put a lot of me into this album, and it’s kind of interesting because I’ve been writing songs since I was a little girl, so my albums really are a reflection of me entirely because I write my material and I live my material. This album is really raw. Lyrically, I went through a huge life shift, which I like to call a paradigm shift. I had been living on fast forward for a long time and finally decided to take apart the pieces of my life that seemed excessive on different levels and that seemed blurry.
I severed a tie with a business partner and father figure that I’d had for almost two decades. Once that unraveled, I started shifting a lot of things in my life and created a deeper kind of simplicity. I did some fun things; took up play-writing classes, started working at my friend’s vinyl shop for fun, started taking sewing classes and pottery classes. I have a 13-year old daughter, so I’m also a very hands-on mom.
I also, for a while, was very busy. I had my own imprint, I was working on developing other artists, and I realized that I had lost the true essence of my own artistry which was really just a free spirited, Bohemian girl who just liked to sit in a living room, playing a guitar and singing a song, ya know? [laughs]
I kind of unraveled the accouterments of a pop career [laughs]. When you travel, you move with a lot of people and you tour the world. I signed my record deal when I was 20-years-old. I already had a child by the time I was 25. I went through the trials, I guess. Eventually, life catches up with you since you can’t live in fast forward all the time and these songs reflect that. I have a song called “Carnival Games,” which is literally about the fact that when you’re at a carnival with the pretty lights, the fun games, and a ferris wheel in front of you, you’re not really thinking about life outside the carnival. It’s kind of like, that lyric, “If you spend enough cash at the carnival games, you’ll have a prize when you walk away.” But then, you’ll never know what winning is really like at all.
I have another song called “Tap Dancing,” which is literally about how as an entertainer you’ve been praised for entertaining people since you were a baby. It’s almost like my sad clown song because when you walk on stage and take off your makeup and your costume, you may still find yourself still wanting to entertain your family and friends and not really realizing that your life also needs moments of stillness and quiet to really grow as a person.
I have another song called “Live,” which is like, “you know what? I’m tired of being a good girl. I’m tired of doing everything right. I’m tired of proving people.” I don’t want to live getting what I need and never what I want. We live in a world where all the information is there for us to make perfect choices 24 hours a day, but at the end of the day we’re human and we just want to live out our lives and make those mistakes. Because even though we end up with mud on our face, we write a good poem about it and feel the beauty in that moment. So, I don’t know. It’s kind of like coming to age isn’t really the right phrase. I like to call it a moment of distilling. A sobering, you know? [laughs]
[laughs] So kind of like working with a long-term hangover?
Yeah! And it’s kind of rare too, when you’re life and the themes on your album actually reflect what the music sounds like.
John Congleton had a huge hand in production, correct? How did that come about, and what was it like to collaborate with someone with such an esteemed track record?
I chose John Congleton to produce knowing he had never produced a pop album before. He’d only done alternative, punk, and modern. I met him through Annie Clark of St. Vincent, who I’m a huge fan of. I met her in Japan on tour and she introduced me to John because I asked her to. I said, you know, I really love the work on your albums I have to give credit to your producer, and she graciously introduced us. I found myself alone in Dallas, TX at John’s converted funeral home studio in the middle of nowhere.
He’s the type of producer who doesn’t really care about commercial success. He doesn’t care about any of those things. All he cares about is artistry. He was really firm with me in saying, “this album, if we do this right, could really remind people that you’re an artist and have been for a really long time.” And I thought to myself, okay, here’s someone that I feel challenged by and I want to make sure he feels that this is worthwhile, so I’m going to dig a little deeper. The day I brought him the song “Pipe Dreams,” I played the song on my guitar and just kind of sang it. I’d written the song in Kenya. I developed a relationship with a community of girls there and their families and we’d share music together. Anyway, I wrote the song on this water walk where the mothers kind of show everyone where you can get water from before they had a well system, so it was kind of this moment. “Pipe Dreams” is about not wanting fiction anymore or fantasy. Just give me reality. Give me reality in my relationships. Give me reality from myself when I look in the mirror. So, when I sang, John was listening to me play the demo and he kind of out loud just said, “Oh shit.” [laughs] It was kind of like “wow, she wrote something really good here!”
All of your albums throughout your career have had a distinctively different dynamic and sound, specifically Whoa, Nelly!, Folklore, and Loose. Why so? Was this done purposely or was this you experimenting and finding your own sound within the industry?
I think I’m just that quirky person! I’ve always been an eclectic person. I’ve had a very odd upbringing. Here I am, this child of Portuguese immigrant parents, growing up in a British colony called Victoria. It was kind of suburban, but on Sunday at Portuguese school I had this very rich cultural life. I learned to speak the language, I danced in Folklore groups, but then my friends and I loved hip-hop. It was just a really mixed bag of influences. I think my music reflects those influences. I also think that I believe music should be very democratic. I feel like I don’t believe in limitations of genre at all. You make the music connect to the source, it doesn’t matter the genre, and you express yourself. I recently did an installation, sort of performance art. I basically sat in a room and I wrote songs with 100 strangers. Some people, they had never written a song before. Basically what my point was, was that we are all connected physically and that we all have empathy inside of us. It’s the reason why the idea of the collective conscious exists. That’s why we all connect with the same songs sometimes. In that room I was trying to create moments with all of these people that were not branded or recorded or captured on video along with moments that proved the psychic connection between all of us and the way that the unconscious plays into that and into songwriting. It’s something I started when I was going to Kenya and playing songs with the girls. I’d do songwriting workshops and we’d just write a song in the moment, and I realized everyone has a song to sing.
To answer your question, the reason all of my albums sound different is because I have a very low attention span [laughs]. I’m not really a “joiner.”I did a 10k last year, and I knew I wasn’t going to join the cult of running. I just knew I wanted to run. I feel comfortable in different situations so, it’s kind of who I am. I’m a very free spirit.
Loose has to be one of our favorite albums from you. From your vocals, to the songwriting, and all the way to the production. That album actually solidified this musical relationship that you have with Timbaland. The two of you are a mighty duo. What is a studio session like between the two of you? What has been your fondest memory?
It’s fun that you’ve asked me this question because he has a new show called the Pop Game, and he invited me to help him launch the premier episode.
Really? That sounds awesome, are you excited?
Yeah! Him and I are mentoring kids! I’m on the premier episode meeting the kids and the moms and dads as we kind of sit there and reminisce on Loose and performing together. But Timbaland and I go back to the year 2001 when he sampled my voice on this Ms. Jade record called “Ching Ching,” and he invited me to be on the Missy Elliott remix for “Get Ur Freak On.” With Loose, we were able to get together in a really focused way and create something really special. To be honest, it was the party of a lifetime. We’d be in the studio from midnight to 6am in Miami, and I was in a really free spirited mindset at the time. I think it’s because I’d just finished nursing my daughter, so my body felt like it was my own again after two years [laughs]. There was a certain type of freedom in the air. I think we were just in the right place at the right time, and we were really connecting in terms of the music we were listening to. We both had something to prove! I think that makes it even more powerful when you both have something to prove.
Let’s touch on this new project! The word on the street is you won’t have any features on this album. Is this you making a statement of being ballsy and independent, or are you more-so using this as an opportunity to produce an album that’s solely centered on you?
That’s a really good question because my last English album had a lot of collaborations and my Spanish album had like eight collaborations! So yeah, I’ve done the collaboration thing pretty heavy throughout my career. I’m lucky to have very successful with crossover duet songs in collaborations. But, it wasn’t even an option. It felt like this album was so personal that it never entered my mind to have anybody on it. I think I was so full of things to say that I didn’t need anyone to compliment any of the songs. I really thinks it’s a simple as that.
It sounded very singular. We used all the same musicians. Dallas has this amazing tradition of musicians who’ve grown up playing in the church – organ players, clarinet players. So, I’ve got a lot of those instruments on my album because we used the same people and team. Since we had this cohesive little team, it really made sense that the vocals kind of had a similarity about them.
You seem to be moving in a refreshing, new direction as you’ve worked toward the release of this album. Tell me, how did the video concept to “Pipe Dreams: come about?
That’s actually the best story ever. I’d been approaching the aesthetic of the album in this very organic kind of way. Right when I got to Dallas, I called my friend who did the packaging for my Spanish album. he’s like my little brother. I said, “You’ve got to come to Dallas! There’s something happen and I don’t know what it is, but it’s a great vibe!” I just found Dallas to be so welcoming and the artistic community was so welcoming to me. I met visual artists and musicians, and it was just so organic and cool. A lot of people move to Dallas because there’s no state tax and they can live an artist life at cheaper costs. I just fell in love with the city. I featured this artist Samantha McCurdy on my album cover. It’s her 3D stretch canvas artwork, and she did the entire vinyl. We shot that maybe 2 years ago. We kind of featured all these people we met in Dallas in the photo-shoot because we felt like we should have a community essence to the project because it just felt like the city was organic as a community. One of the artists in that is a visual artist who actually created an original lyric zine that I’m selling to my fans right now actually, online. It’s beautiful, original artwork. He also contributed to my album artwork, but in addition to this, I asked him to film a video for me. So I was in Dallas a couple months ago creating a sound design project for an Art Basel installation in collaboration with my friend Sheinina Raj, who did a show called intercultural which featured self portraits of her in several different traditional outfits as a meditation on race and identity. She’s of mixed race, her fathers from India and her mother is British white. We put together this collaborative sound installation with some of the pieces with this technology called Soundwall where the sound comes from the photograph! It’s actually really cool.
I flew to Dallas to work with Adam Pickrell, and since I was going to be there, I said, “Jake, let’s shoot a video for ‘Pipe Dreams’.” And literally, we didn’t even know we were going to shoot it until 24 hours before. Adam and I were driving to his home studio, and I see these pink signs in Lake Highlands area. I said, “Let’s stop here,” so I went inside the house, and I realized that this home had once belonged to a woman named Edna Sue and she hadn’t been seen since like the 1950s. The home was full of these really cool artifacts from her life, like hand carved wooden pens with her name and memorabilia. On a whim, as we were leaving, we bought a few things and I asked the state sales representative if we could shoot a video there the very next day, and she said sure. They only charged us $100. It’s crazy how the most spontaneous things become the most perfect things. You always forget until that happens and it’s like, “Oh yeah! It’s supposed to be like this! It’s supposed to be spontaneous.”
The video was edited by another artist name Pierre Krause, and she’s an amazing Dallas based creative. Dallas has probably some of the most interesting and vibrant artists that I’ve seen in a long time. I just love the aesthetic of it and I think Jake has a great eye.
Tell me a bit about your songwriting process. How do you think working on this album helped you to continue to evolve as a writer?
The main takeaway for me was seeing beauty in everything. When you allow yourself to be raw, to be naked, to write from that “hung-over place” [laughs], I think you automatically start seeing beauty in everything. I’ve got to say, I’ve been writing nonstop for the last four years. It’s like something happened to me. I was putting these really high expectations on myself like, “I’ve got to be the perfect mother, I’ve got to be the perfect business woman,” and then all of a sudden, it was like, “No.” I don’t have to be a perfect anything. I just have to be. What if I just be? When you let yourself be, all of a sudden the writing is so natural and you’re finding beauty in every puddle and every vignette. It’s all beautiful, it’s all worthy of writing about. My process is weird though because my lyric and melody often come at the same time. Melody and lyric often come as a package deal, but not always. I use garage band, I use voice notes on my phone. I do it the old fashioned way by sitting down with paper and pen and a guitar.
I like to collaborate, too. A lot of songs John would just kind of throw out there. I’m very open when it comes to writing, and I’m constantly learning new things. Recently I wrote with this new band called The Skins and another artist named Pangena, along with Zuri Marley and Hodgy from Odd Future. We just got together and jammed for three days straight on a side project, and what I noticed when I was writing with them is that Bailey, one of the singers from The Skins, was writing melodies for me that I’d never write for myself. So I think, even if you like writing, you have to stay open minded and be open to new ideas.
Over the past year or so, you’ve worked closely with Dev Hynes, creating “Hadron Collider” from Freetown Sound. How did your relationship come to fruition?
I’ve got to say, Dev is one of my favorite people. He’s just such a precious soul to me and I think meeting him was a really big part of my journey over the last couple of years. David Byrne invited me to be apart of this project called Contemporary Color and the movie he made is coming out about it. Basically, he brought together 10 artists and 10 color guard groups from across the U.S. and Canada to collaborate on a concert to be featured at the Barclay’s Center for two nights and at the Luminato Festival in Toronto for two nights. It was such a great, great group to be a part of. I was coming from this kind of “pop” career, and everyone else came from alternative or other types of genres. Honestly, I met Dev at rehearsal because David wanted everyone to sing on each others sets. Dev was singing BGs for me and him and I were like magnets. We said, “Hi, how are you? Here’s my number. Studio date tomorrow.” He flew to Toronto and I booked a studio room, just following through with action, and before you know it Dev and I were writing “Hadron Collider” and singing. Those vocals that I did that night ended up on his album and those were pretty much the demo vocals.
We were very inspired. We pulled up Romeo and Juliet, the movie, our favorite scene where the little boy is singing our favorite gospel song right over the edge of the church [laughs]. We wanted to capture the poignancy of that movie and all of the amazing moments on the soundtrack, so that’s kind of what “Hadron Collider” was inspired by. It was also inspired by me telling Dev that me and him should have a band called Hardron Collider to make him laugh! Overall, I would say Dev was definitely like a mentor to me. I was exposed to an artist who was literally living the creative life on his own terms, navigating success on his own terms, and creating a life out of that that would still keep him content and in touch with his soul. I really admired that. I think Dev leads by example and that’s why he attracts some cool artists into his vortex because he lived the real artist life. Nowadays, it’s hard to live that life. I think we live in a very fast paced world, and for me, he just kind of reminds me to slow down, take some photographs, and write the song. That’s the most important thing.
If you had to choose, what period in the history of music has had the biggest influence on your overall artistry?
I have to straight up say ’90s R&B and Hip-Hop. That’s the first thing that comes to mind because my friends and I lived vicariously through all those TLC and Salt N’ Peppa videos. That was our escape as suburban kids with immigrant parents who were banded together through music. We would get together at jams or hook up and write rhymes together. For me, groups and acts like Mary J. Blige, Salt N’ Peppa and TLC were my role models and icons in terms of not really seeing yourself as a woman in this business but seeing yourself as a person. I think that they set the tone for the duality, strength, positivity, and total like, gumption.
In The Ride short film, you remarked that women are so powerful, “we tend to push other people’s buttons just by being ourselves.” As a woman working in a male dominated industry, why do you think that’s true?
I think we’re still in the process. We’re still in the struggle. We’re still fighting our way back to equality. Because I believe that equality existed in history, even it was in civilizations in times we don’t recall anymore. But, I do believe there was a time once upon a time where we were equal. Truly and fully godesses. I think our conceptual memory of this is present, but in the real world, because of all the politics and all the paradigms, it just doesn’t exist. I finally just read the “We Should All Be Feminists” essay. I used to read feminist texts all the time but I hadn’t read a more current one. In a way it just spelled it out. We have such a long way to go. Of course we’re going to push buttons. Of course when we do things out of the box or force people to see us as more than our bodies or our sexuality, we impress our brains, conviction and strength on the world. That’s going to cause havoc. But I think it’s exciting. I have a 13-year-old daughter and I love the perceptive her and her friends have on the world, and I love that they are able to discern fake from real. From what I see with my own eyes in terms of creativity and where people are heading, I really think the future is gender-less. I feel the future is even more body positive and limitless. The boxes are going to become increasingly irrelevant, and it’s wonderful. And I hope to be able to contribute to that energy in whatever way I can.
As you mentioned in your short film, the music does seem to take you to the “right place,” whether it be Pop, Urban, or Alternative. What has it been like to color outside the lines of so many genres throughout the course of your career?
It’s been thrilling. I remember the first time that I wrote a song when I was just a 17-year-old singer in a group in Toronto. I was just this kid from Victoria, but I knew I had this special and unique way of singing. And I remember when I got to work on the Missy Elliott remix for “Get Ur Freak On” and people thinking I was a Jamaican boy because people had never seen the “I’m Like A Bird” video [laughs]. And this is like, pre-social media. I’ve prided myself on innovation from an early age. I think it’s because my grandfather was a music composer. He was obsessed with music to the point where his day was just different spurts of inspiration. As my career went on, I was trying to make choices that were consciously different. I remember when “I’m Like A Bird” was first finished and the drums sounded a lot busier. I remember saying, “It’s not quite right. It’s not simple. We need to take out all these drums and just leave the kick and snare in the verses.” It’s that consciousness of how can I tweak things to make them a little more unique? The same thing happened with Loose. At the time, my label wanted us to use a different mix because they thought the sound was too dirty. But what I fought for was keeping that garage “loose” sound because I knew that would help stand out from other pop records at the time. And sure enough, I was right. If we’d changed the mix, it wouldn’t have been the same album. I’m kind of a music nerd. I’ve always been interested in doing things my own way. I’m experimental by nature. I’m endlessly curious about people and sound. I like puzzles. A challenge is a challenge.
Growth, Reflection and Acceptance are the three pillars you chose to highlight in the short. How do these three periods relate to the overall theme and the artist beneath this album?
To grow, you have to have perspective. To grow, you have to learn from your mistakes. So, I think taking the filter off the lens of my own life helped me to see where I was. It helped me write from a very clear space.
Wait, what’s the second one? [laughs]
Reflection! In this case I had a lot of solitude and aloneness because I kind of stripped away everything in my life. I was alone and able to reflect. How better to hear your own voice than in an empty room with it bouncing off the walls. Some of the reflection came afterwards. The last day in the studio, I listened to the mixdown of “Carnival Games,” and I just totally bawled in John’s studio and locked myself in his little washroom where he keeps his Grammy awards [laughs]. I realized that the studio has become an island for me to put myself back together, you know? I went there to fix myself through testimonials. He was my witness; John was there to testify all of my sins on the album. That sounds so silly, but it’s basically like this redemption, testifying of sins album.
And then, Acceptance! In the theme of acceptance, I went from writing this song called “Phoenix” in rural England the day after I arrived. I also flew there alone. I woke up in a cold sweat the night before, and asked myself what I was doing there, in this little bed & breakfast in rural England. I was taken by fear of the unknown. I kind of pulled myself together, pulled out my laptop and started getting ready for the studio. The next day I wrote “Phoenix.” So, I thought I was writing it about other people, other strong people. Two years later, I finally finished the vocal in the studio with John and my friend Wakeem was there and he goes, “Hey Nel, you wrote that song for yourself didn’t you?” I looked at him and said, “yeah, I think I did.” Two years later I’d accepted the fact that it was my own life raft I’d written myself. It was my own life ring in an ocean to keep myself afloat. I experienced this weird sensation of me soothing myself with the song as a sang it, which was kind of cool. And I really felt and recognized for the first time that we’re never alone in the universe. We’re not alone because we’re all unified in our emotions. I had this moment of acceptance that I was broken, but I put myself together.
Stream “Flatline” below!
Photography: Ben Guzman