“I threw myself into the deep end to see if I could swim,” Nelly Furtado says. “I let go of the voice that says, ‘Oh, no, what if I can’t do this?’ because you never know until you try.”
In preparation for her new album, Loose (due June 20, 2006, on Geffen Records), she tried writing rhymes and rapping, she tried out collaborations with a who’s who of producers, she tried not to get a sunburn in Miami, she tried her hand at Spanish hip hop, and she tried to create a music more of the body than the mind. A prime example of the latter is first single “Promiscuous,” a duet with Loose producer Timbaland, known far and wide for his groundbreaking work with, among others, Missy Elliott, Justin Timberlake and Aaliyah.
It stands to reason that gold and multiplatinum certifications (for 2003’s Folklore and 2000’s Whoa, Nelly!, respectively), a pair of Top 10 singles (“I’m Like a Bird” and “Turn Off the Light”), and a Grammy Award (for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance), to name just a few accomplishments, would afford a certain level of confidence. But nothing has inspired Furtado to throw caution to the wind more than motherhood. “Motherhood makes you fearless,” she says.
“The album is very youthful-sounding,” Furtado continues, “and I think that’s partly due to the presence of this two-year-old in my life. I was with her all day every day and then I’d go to the studio at night, and I think that translated into a playful energy I feel onstage but that hasn’t really been heard on my records.”
“This album shows me letting go in so many ways,” Furtado attests. “For example, with the track ‘Promiscuous,’ I co-wrote the lyrics--something I've never done before--with this rapper from Alabama named Attitude. That was extremely freeing because it allowed me to experiment with interpreting a character, which I then took into the video shoot” [directed by Little X, perhaps best known for his clips for Usher, Nelly, Ludacris and Sean Paul].
Furtado is so animated while talking about this stuff that it’s hard to believe her when she says, “Every time I make an album, I say to myself, ‘This is the last; I’m never going to make another one.’” She does clarify, however: “Then I get the bug and I make music that excites me and I start it all up again.”
She started Loose up by holding what she jokingly calls a “hip-hop workshop” with her emcee friend Jellystone: “We’d write rhymes, dissect them, and try different flows over beats. That’s what planted the seed for this album. I grew up listening to hip-hop and R&B but when it came to my own music, I kind of put that on a shelf. With this record, though, I knew I wanted to have that sound.”
Starting with her longtime production team of Track & Field, she also knew she wanted to check out a variety of producers. “Working with new producers,” she hazards, “is like trying on new clothes – you never know what you look good in until you try it on. And sometimes they will see something in you that neither you nor anyone else could see.” So she traveled with her daughter from Toronto to London to work with Nellee Hooper; to Los Angeles to work with Lester Mendez (who produced, “Te Busque,” her moving duet with Juanes) and Rick Nowels (co-writer and producer of the gorgeous ballad “In God’s Hands”); and to Miami to work with Pharrell Williams and Scott Storch and finally, Timbaland.
“It was like I stopped at these different ports along the coast and at the end of the journey, I came to the grand ocean liner that would take me out to the wide blue sea,” she says. The big boat she’s talking about is Timbaland, of course. Asked about their creative chemistry, which was in ample evidence on the Nelly-enhanced remix of Missy Elliott’s 2001 hit “Get Ur Freak On,” she says: “It’s like love – musically, between us, that’s what it’s like. Everything he plays inspires me; I want to sing to everything he writes. I adore what his stuff sounds like.”
What Nelly calls the “vortex” of their collaboration on Loose got off to a sizzling start. “My first night at the studio in Miami,” Furtado narrates, “we all jammed. [Co-writer] Nate Hill had this ferocious beat up, and there was this crazy, tribal voodoo energy in the room. I’ve never felt anything like it – it was so intense. The volume was turned up to 11, and all of a sudden I started to smell smoke. I looked at the speaker and flames were shooting out of it. We were so scared of the track that we put it away and didn’t touch it for two weeks.”
The crazy, tribal, voodoo track in question is “Maneater,” about which Furtado says, “That one truly has a life of its own; it makes you move.” It’s another Loose standout, one that embodies the eminently danceable hip-hop/new wave hybrid that distinguishes much of the album’s sound.
“We had this Eurythmics thing going on in the studio,” she explains. “I kept calling Tim ‘Dave’ and he’d call me ‘Annie.’ Eurythmics had this spooky, keyboard-driven pop sound. That song ‘Here Comes the Rain Again’ – I’m not 100 percent sure what it’s about, but it always takes me away to another place, and I love it. That’s how I feel about ‘Say It Right’; even though I wrote it, I don’t really know what it’s about, but it captures the feeling I had when I wrote it, and it taps into this other sphere.”
Also citing Blondie, The Police, Talking Heads, Madonna and Prince as influential to the creation of Loose, Furtado notes: “We were picking up on some of the more surreal, theatrical elements of ‘80s music, the stuff that puts you in sort of a dream state. There’s a mysterious, after-midnight vibe to this album that’s extremely visceral. I want people to escape into the music and indulge their most animalistic impulses.”
While recording Loose at Miami’s Hit Factory, Furtado immersed herself in the escapist fantasy that is everyday existence for a superstar producer. Asked if she got caught up in the city’s nightlife, she responds: “There was no need to hit the clubs because the party was in the studio. Timbaland is one of those magnetic, larger-life-personalities. He lives like a rock star. Producers really are the new rock stars. They have the huge mansions; they drive a different fancy car to the studio every day; they’ve got beautiful women around. People show up with briefcases full of cash and say, ‘Gimme a beat.’ It was a really exciting environment to be part of.”
Working with Timbaland also meant having access to other artists who want to work with Timbaland. Lil’ Wayne stopped by to contribute “the most amazing freestyle ever” to a remix of “Maneater.” Attitude was on hand to not only co-write “Promiscuous” but also lend a rap to “Afraid.” And Chris Martin of Coldplay popped in to co-write the lilting “Why Do All Good Things Come to an End?”
Of course, Furtado was thrilled to throw open the door when these collaborative opportunities knocked. She seems to have an insatiable appetite for new and novel creative pursuits. One of these took the form of “No Hay Igual,” one of two Spanish-language tracks on Loose. She relates a particularly productive exchange with Pharrell: “We were hanging out and he said, ‘You should do a reggaeton track,’ and I said, ‘What’s reggaeton?’ He played me some stuff and I was blown away; as far as I’m concerned, it’s the most exciting musical movement going on today. As it was, I was speaking Spanish to everyone down in Miami. So I tried to write something like that, just for fun. It’s not really a reggaeton track, though; it’s more my own personal interpretation of that sound.”
The extremely percussive “No Hay Igual” is another example of the “body music” that defines Loose. My first two albums are very polished and pristine and shimmery,” Furtado points out. “There’s a static quality to the songs, almost like they’re paintings. This one is much more from the gut. The songs are beat-driven, so they get your heart pumping and your blood moving. ‘Maneater,’ for instance, is a song with a pulse. This stuff is going to be amazing live because there will be so much room to explore and play and have fun.”
“It’s true that a lot of this record is about physical attraction, but there’s also a naive, almost childlike quality about it,” she ventures. “Some of the lyrics remind me of when I was 13, sitting in my room [in Victoria, British Columbia] writing R&B ballads all day. I’ve somehow returned to that place where I’m innocent about love.”
She remembers when “Say It Right” was born: “It was 3:00 in the morning and kind of chilly in the studio, so I put my hoodie on, which is a great metaphor for this album: With this record, I have my hoodie back on. It’s like I’m 14 again, sneaking out my bedroom window to go down and hang out with the hip-hop kids.”
This back-to-the-future phenomenon spilled over into the making of the record as well. “One of the reasons we have the little conversations from the studio between the songs – what I’ve been calling ‘reality audio’ – is to take the mystery out of the process. I want the listener to see that we were just jamming and letting loose, like I did on the improvisational tracks I used to make when I was 19. It’s not rocket science. We mixed each song as we went along and just used those board mixes on the record. Rather than end up feeling like the demos were better than the finished tracks, which has always happened to me in the past, we just decided to not fix what wasn’t broken.”
Indeed, the raw, lighting-in-a-bottle spontaneity of the collaborative process is at the heart of Loose. “This record shows who I am in a jam-type environment, where I really feel the excitement of the creativity flowing,” Furtado reveals. “It’s who I am at my most artistic. I live for that, and I’m very grateful to be able to share it.”
# # #
THE ALBUM Folklore
Nelly Furtado recently discussed the songs on her new album, Folklore (DreamWorks Records). Set for release Nov. 25, 2003, the disc was produced by Track & Field Productions and Furtado. The song "The Grass Is Green" was produced by Mike Elizondo and Furtado. "Island Of Wonder" was produced by Lil' Jaz and Furtado, with additional production by Track & Field.
"One-Trick Pony": I'm inspired by words and phrases. The night I wrote this, my head had just hit the pillow, but then I got up and wrote all the lyrics for this song. I'm just saying I'm not a one-trick pony, and that I don't want to be pigeonholed. The music is splendid. The banjo makes an appearance, and it's mixed with this hip-hoppy groove. There's a funkiness to its rhythm that makes it feel very modern. This song reminds me of the America hit "A Horse With No Name." It's abstract in that way, where I'm more painting broad strokes than being exact with the words. The Kronos Quartet plays on this - a whole string arrangement that's so insane. We sent the song to them, then they sent it back to us with the arrangement, and we were blown away.
"Powerless (Say What You Want)": I get to see a lot of DJ-oriented performance stuff, and I'm into the heaviness of breakbeats, how raw and powerful they are. Everything lately has become so synthesized, but just the standard sound of breakbeats is inspiring. "Powerless" uses breakbeats like that; it's a real groove, a real vibe. It just carries you away. There's a banjo mixed with a breakbeat from Malcolm McLaren's "Buffalo Gals." So right away you're bobbing your head. The lyrics are initially in-your-face, like, "Okay, I know I'm going to be stereotyped in my life because that is the world we live in; that's society." But the song tries to find some sense of order in this complicated world.
"Explode": This song came from a poem I wrote called "Teenage Waste." When you're a teenager, you want to try everything; you're like a little firecracker. Your wiser self is there, somewhere deep down, depending on how young or old your soul is. But it doesn't always show itself. "Explode" is visceral; it's guttural. That's why part of the song uses terms from Capoeira, the Brazilian martial arts form. It touches on teenage experimentation and bliss and fun, but also on some violence and aggression.
"Try": This is about the reality of love. My energy used to just go everywhere, but now I'm more grounded because I've found true love. The idea here is that, yeah, sometimes life sucks. But life is only so long, and somebody can come along who makes you want to be a better person. You just have to roll with the punches. So "Try" is not a happy-go-lucky song. It has a strange arrangement because the chorus happens only twice, and the end is improvisational. It's like one of those epic power ballads.
"Fresh Off The Boat": I love the idea of taking back phrases. "Fresh off the boat" is a slang expression describing an immigrant. It gets thrown around a lot and not usually as a compliment. But I wanted to take the negative out of that and turn it into something positive. There's so much beauty in the humility and modesty that derive from being an immigrant family, coming to the New World for the first time. And it never ends because you go back to the Old World at some point and then return to your adopted country. You take something and bring it back, and it becomes a big jumble. I relate to that idea very strongly. It's what this song and the whole album are about.
"Força": When I was touring in Portugal, people would frequently say goodbye to me by saying "Força," which is Portuguese slang. It translates as "Keep going," or "Kick ass." It's also associated with sports, especially football [soccer]. I put a feminine twist on the idea of how you feel when you're watching your favorite team. When you tie that into nationality, it becomes pretty intense. So this is a happy song, a burst of energy. Plus, we have [banjoist] Béla Fleck playing on the song. His contribution here is amazing.
"The Grass Is Green": This plays around with the idea of wanting what you can't have, or wanting what's on the other side, something you dream of. And then you finally touch it, but, oh, no! It's too late; it's changed. There are also themes of deception and mistrust, but I prefer to express that kind of world-weariness with a light touch. The music has an understated hip-hop thing going on; the groove just chugs along, with simple instrumentation.
"Picture Perfect": When you look through old photo albums, the pictures can feel so fresh and new. There seems to be so much hope in there. The experience can call up another time, something magical and mystical. This song is about the idea of idealism. It reflects the immigrant theme that runs throughout the album. The imagery is very vivid, like a poem. The instrumentation is chilled-out and organic. There's a lot of mellow, bluesy, Jimi Hendrix-type guitar, like in "Waterfalls" or "Little Wing." There's a subtle psychedelic vibe to it, and the way it builds is really beautiful.
"Saturdays": This originated from a poem I wrote called "Saturdays." It's really folky, mostly just voice and guitar. It's a little Johnny Cash-esque, but the 24-year-old girl version. The song is about how I used to spend my Saturdays cleaning the rooms at the Robin Hood Motel in Victoria, British Columbia, where I grew up. On the third floor, there was a tar-like flat roof, and when I had a break, I'd grab a Diet Coke and sit there and wait for my mother, who ran the housekeeping services. I'd look over the site, dreaming about my future as a musician. I wrapped up a lot of hours dreaming there.
"Build You Up": [copy to come]
"Island Of Wonder": At one point I'd just come off the road and wasn't feeling very inspired. I was talking to my mom on the phone. She said, "What do you mean you're not inspired?" I said, "I guess I just don't know what to write about anymore." That summer my family and I had taken one of our trips to The Azores [the island chain off the coast of Portugal where Furtado's parents were born]. She said, "Why don't you write a song called 'Island Of Wonder?'" Right then it hit me - it was the most absurd idea, but I knew that song would be on my album. Our DJ, Lil' Jaz, had started producing stuff, and I collaborated with him on this. He worked up this sample from Caetano Veloso, from the song "Tonada De Luna Llena," from his album Fina Estampa. He is my musical idol. And then Caetano ended up singing a new vocal for the song! It's pretty cool that his sample is on it and he's singing as well. I still can't believe it.
"Childhood Dreams": This song is about the renewing quality of true love. It was recorded in a church adjacent to The Pilgrim School, in Los Angeles, which has this massive organ that extends throughout the church, with thousands of pipes and tubes and valves. We went in with a bass player, a guitar player, a vibraphone player and a harp player. You cannot match the reverb you get, this natural, hollow reverb. We took it all the way; we did the full-on spiritualized organ intro. There's a really cool vocal round at the end, playing on the theme of childhood dreams. It's in 6/8 time, very lilting. Also toward the end, we added tabla, which takes the song to a more universal place. It's a super-ballad. Organ bells, church bells, wedding bells, chimes, tablas - the whole thing is magical.
It was summertime and I was in The Azores, hanging around the small village my parents are from. I was looking out on this very rural setting, on a road going up a hill. There was an old man coming down the hill with a pitchfork on his shoulder. He was wearing gum boots, work pants - and a Coca-Cola T-shirt. I saw that and thought, "That's my album!"
- Nelly Furtado
Quaint tales and obscure sayings and antique vases safely encased under museum glass are all nice enough relics of tradition. But the living history and customs of different cultures at different times seem, for singer-songwriter Nelly Furtado, as rocking as a Camaro stereo blaring monster beats.
The timeless and the cutting-edge comprise essential components of the energetic mélange that has made Furtado one of pop music's premier artists. This mix emerges with an explosive new simplicity and breadth on Folklore (set for release Nov. 25, 2003, on DreamWorks Records). The album is Furtado's follow-up to her multiplatinum debut, Whoa, Nelly! It shows just how variously and hard the stuff of folklore - as Nelly Furtado images it - can kick.
"This is the folklore of my mind," Furtado says. "The word often conjures up something old, but I'm kind of flipping its usual understanding. Folklore is something magical and mystical. I like that. But more than that, I think of it as a belief in origin. It's people's stories, basically. Everybody everywhere has his or her own folklore. It can be light; it can be dark. And it doesn't always have to come from the past. The historical part is not the point. Gossip about a celebrity? That's modern folklore. The story of Ozzy Osbourne biting the head off a bat? That's folklore as well."
Furtado showed up on the scene in the fall of 2000, 20 years old, with the release of her acclaimed debut, Whoa, Nelly! Radio tracks such as "I'm Like A Bird" and "Turn Off The Light," both Top 10 hits on the Billboard singles charts, introduced listeners to a young Canadian, British Columbian by birth and Portuguese by heritage, who brought a self-styled vibrancy to the diverse musics she whipped together: hip-hop, Portuguese fado, pop, soul, classical, Brazilian, dance, folk, Latin and anything else that seemed expressive and alive to her.
Working with the production team of Track & Field (Gerald Eaton and Brian West) in Toronto, where she has lived since her late teens, Furtado struck fans and musicians as that extraordinary thing, a genuinely real and talented person. The songs she wrote and sang in her alert voice were about feelings old, new and futuristic; local and international; serious and daft; historic and chic; and the music was as inventively rhythmic as it was melodic. For all of this, Furtado and Whoa, Nelly! were recognized. Among slews of other citations and nominations, the Canadian Juno Awards named Furtado its Best New Solo Artist and Best Songwriter in 2001, and at the 2002 Grammy Awards, "I'm Like A Bird" won Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.
Whoa, Nelly! remained a presence in the marketplace for two years, a lifetime by pop music standards. But as Folklore demonstrates, that was only the beginning. The new album's songs - produced by Track & Field and Furtado - further develop the ideas and emotions that have long compelled Furtado. And with her ever-upbeat sense of fusion and generosity, and without sacrificing zing or immediacy, her music continues to ignore the stylistic restrictions that can leave pop music stale. One need look no further than first radio track "Powerless (Say What You Want)" for evidence of this.
Furtado (signed by DreamWorks A&R exec Beth Halper) began Folklore by making demos of the songs she had written while headlining shows across North America on her 2002 Burn In The Spotlight Tour. At first, she worked on her own. "But then at some point I went, 'Hmm,'" Furtado says, "'I miss working with Track & Field.' Because I find that, when I work with them, my music comes together really quickly, very effortlessly. And it's fun - which, above all, music should be; if you're not having fun there's no point. So, we started working together in Santa Monica [Calif.] last spring."
Furtado realized that her new songs were somewhat different from her earlier material. "I think I've grown a lot," she says. "A lot of the songs on my first album, I was a teenager still; I was just kind of writing, writing away, and hadn't experienced all that stuff. My first album was very aware of how I didn't want to tour with a somber record. Therefore I recorded a happy, energetic record on purpose, because I didn't think I was strong enough to go onstage and stand behind melancholic songs. I just wanted to share goodness and positivity and bright colors with the world. Now, I'm stepping back and understanding that I can do both; I can still be positive and yet really raw and real at the same time. In the past I've hidden behind a lot of metaphors. There's always a veil in front of that. Now, it's more like, whoa, whoa, there's nothing to hide behind. I'm far more comfortable in my skin, I suppose."
Musically, Furtado remains as adventurous as ever, a product of hip-hop freedom who still likes the streamlined U.S. pop and gnarly guitar rock she grew up on. Yet she never allows those passions to close down her thirst for the reality of folk and the flair of international forms. The first song that ever swept her away was a tune by an earlier fusion-minded soul, Prince. The song was "Power Fantastic," which Furtado encountered on a friend's mix tape. "I had never heard anything like it," she remembers. "I think because it was so beautiful vocally; it was so very lush and gorgeous, his voice. But at the same time, the level of emotion was high." Ultimately, Furtado would go on to love the work of artists as different as Smashing Pumpkins and Jeff Buckley, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Caetano Veloso. (Veloso, along with banjoist Béla Fleck and The Kronos Quartet make guest appearances on Folklore.)
As the child of Portuguese parents who immigrated to Canada, Furtado has always heard these many genres through the prism of Portuguese folk and religious musics. "I look at music with a very open mind and really wide lens," she says. "When you don't have any boundaries, you're limitless - you can do anything because you have no bias. There's a difference between having no bias and having no taste. You can navigate your way through all sorts of genres, which is what I like to do." Furtado's career, as well as her music, amply demonstrates this.
In 2001 she sang on a remix of Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott's "Get Ur Freak On," while in 2002 she recorded "Fotografia," a duet with celebrated, Grammy-winning Colombian singer-guitarist Juanes, which hit #1 on the Latin charts.
For all her interests, Furtado remains rooted in her Portuguese ancestry, and her intriguing thoughts and memories about her heritage animate Folklore. The church music she grew up with, for example, can function as a musical agent of transcendence. "I could be at my aunt's barbecue," Furtado explains, "at her house, in her kitchen, making food, cooking chicken, drinking port wine. And someone will pull out a church book, a little songbook, and start singing. And I'll just start singing. It becomes non-church, really, something that connects people to their homelands. I do believe that my melodic sensibility comes from growing up with all this great Portuguese folk church music. It's weird - it's just a melody and a lyric, but you feel as though you're somewhere else when you hear it."
Her desire to fashion what she calls a "post-folk" record informed Furtado's recent recording. "I really wanted to make a record that played on folk themes but was very modern at the same time," she says. "Folk is universal; it exists in every single country, every nation, every language, this idea of somebody picking up a guitar and singing about what's around him or her. It's spontaneous, real, down-to-earth, family-oriented. We're playing with those themes, with taking folk instruments from all these different countries. That's why we've included things like banjo and accordion, trying to mix it up a little bit."
The goals of this collection, Furtado says, crystallized in her mind when she was on vacation last year, spending time in The Azores, the Portuguese island group in the mid-Atlantic where her family originates.
"I was visiting a grandparent of a friend of mine, an elderly woman," she recalls. "I was at her house, and she had all her beautiful old antique photos laid out on her cement terrace on the top of this hill. So, all these old photos were laid out on this cement table; all her things were outside the house. And it started to rain a little bit, and she had all her clothing hanging on the clothesline. And on top of this beautiful hill, I could see the ocean down below, and the hills over there. And in the distance, I heard a young person drive by with their booming system cranking techno music."
For Nelly Furtado, it all makes a happy/sad, folky/hip-hoppy, weird/logical, hopeful kind of sense. "I would love to be described as a girl sitting on a porch," she says, "on a rocking chair, singing to the wind. Kinda like a person on the street, walking around, seeing what I see. I want to capture the wisdom of what I've learned from my ancestors, from my grandparents and all my heritage, going back to the old country. I would love to be seen as a woman, as a girl cackling at the world, but praying for it at the same time."
# # #
NELLY FURTADO: www.nellyfurtado.com
DREAMWORKS RECORDS: www.dreamworksrecords.com
# # #