Nelly Furtado: Love is all she needs

When Nelly Furtado burst on to the global scene in 2000, success became a cage. She tells Alexia Loundras how motherhood and her new music have set her free

Friday 19 December 2003 01:00

"Excuse me!" apologises Nelly Furtado with coy embarrassment. It's only lunchtime in Toronto where the dainty chanteuse is spending the day promoting her adventurous new album, Folklore, yet Furtado's enthusiasm is punctured by lazy, feline yawns. Granted, giving hours' worth of interviews to journalists from across the globe can't be the most exciting way to spend your day, but the pop sensation is not suffering from boredom - or so she claims, anyway. Just lack of sleep. A common enough rock-star affliction, yes, yet in the case of this newly turned 25-year-old, it has more to do with nights spent clutching bottles of formula milk rather than Jack Daniels.

As if the task of writing, recording, promoting and touring a new album was not challenge enough, Furtado decided to throw a child into the equation. Now, three-month-old Nevis, Furtado's daughter with her partner and her band's DJ, Lil' Jaz, is never far from her side. "The three of us are like the travelling Von Trapps - except that we still need a few more kids to make up the numbers," she giggles. Furtado speaks in waves of fast, lilting sentences. She's a fountain of unrestrained positivity and overflows with self-help-like optimism. "It is challenging trying to juggle it all, but I really thrive on challenges and this - motherhood - is the ultimate," she says.

But then Furtado - the first-generation Canadian daughter of working-class Portuguese immigrants from the Azores - has always been an over-achiever. At the age of 20, she wrote her impressive debut, Whoa, Nelly!, released in 2000. Inspired as much by Jeff Buckley, De La Soul and Beck as by her Latino heritage, the record spliced together elements of bossa nova, Portuguese fado and hip-hop, injecting a new exotic energy into mainstream pop. The album shifted more than six million copies worldwide, and her debut single, "I'm Like a Bird", made a ferocious assault on the charts, its sultry mix of funky rhythms and chirpy R&B storming through frontal lobes everywhere. The song earned its creator a Grammy for best vocal performance as well as a slew of accolades in her native Canada. A veteran performer since the age of four when she would duet with her mother in church, Furtado wowed festival crowds around the world, charming them with her bubbly, party-vibed performances. Confident and bright, bolshy yet feminine - not to mention strikingly beautiful - Furtado seemed almost too good to be true.

But while the world was busy loving Nelly, Nelly was suffering pangs of disillusionment. At that point, says Furtado, the likelihood of there ever being a follow-up to Whoa, Nelly! was limited. "I never really wanted the full, fast-paced, glamorous musician's lifestyle," she says. "I love it, but the music industry is shallow. When I finished touring Whoa, Nelly! I found myself in a little jaded zone. Growing up, I wanted to be a famous musician. I wanted to tour and write songs for a living, but I went into this with a naive love of music thinking that it would be all about playing these wonderful festivals and hanging out. But what I aspired to was quite different from what I ended up getting."

Disenchanted by pop interviewers who were more interested in her favourite food than her music, Furtado's childhood dream was disintegrating around her. "It's funny the things you go along with," she says with a wry laugh. "I hated that you had to dumb down your personality for people to under-stand you. My job entailed a lot of that. The whole nature of soundbites and media training really doesn't gel with me. I found it quite annoying and it's a part of the business that made me want to quit."

It didn't help, either, that Furtado's "almost overnight" success overwhelmed her. With the release of "I'm Like a Bird" she went from being a young and rather innocent creative writing student to being the toast of the music scene. In the UK, she became tabloid fodder. Photos of her private birthday party taken by an enterprising, though apparently not very loyal, friend made the showbiz pages, while there was much speculation about her rumoured fling with Chris Martin of Coldplay.

"The fame thing just blew up," says Furtado today. "It's strange having people recognise you and being interested in your private life. I was living on my own and I almost got quite paranoid about it." Furtado is no longer angry about the press intrusion, rationalising it as being part and parcel of being a perfectly packaged pop product. Something for which she is not entirely blameless: "I was willing to be marketed that way," she says. "At the time I wanted to be happy and jumping about on stage. I was only 20 and I didn't want to be touring melancholy songs - I just wanted to have a party. But nothing's perfect and I made sacrifices for that. I liked what I got out of the experience but I was also definitely ready to move on."

Which is exactly what she has done. Having left her ingénue past behind her - along with what she rightly calls the "breathless, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed eagerness" that marked her debut - Furtado's follow-up, Folklore, is an altogether more seasoned affair. "This is a transition album for me," says Furtado brightly. "You have to tell the story of your life before you can move on. And for me, this is my story."

Unlike the carefree Whoa, Nelly!, Folklore is a very personal album, filled with fresh and honest songs of experience. Some tracks, like the sweetly bursting love song "Childhood Dreams" were so close to Furtado's heart she could hardly bring herself to sing them. "That song is like a young girl's diary entry - it's girly and simple and totally laid bare," says Furtado shyly. "In order to sing something like that you've gotta just put your heart on your sleeve and allow yourself to be really vulnerable. And that's not something I've been able to do in the past." So what's changed? "Being in love," explains Furtado. "When you love someone and they love you, you're always striving to be a better person. Whereas I used to take my personal struggles and pains and try to shove them away in a box and put on a happy face, now I'm taking those struggles and celebrating them, making them a part of who I am. This is what love has taught me: to expose myself, to be vulnerable and dare to reveal even ugliness. Once you start to celebrate these things, life just gets more wonderful.

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"For me, Folklore served as a reawakening of my musical senses. It showed me a whole new way of songwriting that I'd only just tapped into... It made me so excited about the future and that's all any writer, any artist or anyone could want. You just want to be inspired!"

Not only did Furtado let go emotionally, she also allowed herself to relinquish control sonically. Folklore is more of a team effort. Gerald Eaton and Brian West of Track & Field didn't just help Furtado produce her album, they also co-wrote many of its songs. "I've got rid of that 'trying-to-be-perfect' thing," says Furtado. "With my first album I wanted to write all my songs, from start to finish. I wanted the credit to be solely mine. But I've now realised that's not what art should be about. The fact that I wrote these songs with other people was a truly freeing experience."

Consequently, Folklore is an aural treat. Although it retains its predecessor's eclectic jumble of sounds, this time around the playful, party-time edge is replaced by a lush blanket of experimentalism. Contributions from the Kronos Quartet flit blissfully around plucked banjos and infectious hip-hop grooves; church organs and dreamy harps, bells and tablas collide softly beneath Furtado's soaring voice. Jagged funky beats weave through cascading Fado rhythms, and scratching turntables and acoustic guitars blend in seamlessly.

Furtado's drift away from candy-coloured pop is no coincidence: "I'm not in that state of mind anymore and I just can't fake it," she says. "It's such a cliché, but I've really come to a point in my life where I believe that if you're being true to yourself, the things that people want of you don't really matter so much because you find strength in your true expression."

Furtado speaks with the assuredness of someone who's finally found her place in the world. "Before, my whole life was just music and I was like a travelling ship, but now my ship has an anchor," she says, her sleepiness long forgotten. "Love is a grounding force that puts everything in perspective. It adds a whole new dimension to your life and all you have to do is let go." Her words are gilded with a glowing smile. "I know it sounds really weird, but people say you're free in love. And it's true."

'Folklore' is out now on Polydor

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