Canada’s newest export on fame, fears and the giddy-up behind Whoa Nelly!
Nelly Furtado is an “everything” artist, as her musically diverse and multi-cultural flavoured debut Whoa Nelly! aptly shows off. It’s anything but a standstill for the vocalist, songwriter and co-producer who has inflected her personal brand of pop with hip-hop and R&B grooves, as it sparkles with humid Brazilian and Portuguese accents indigenous to her background. While she left the ukulele and trombone (“The instruments of my youth,” she says) out of the mix, the fact that she plays these seemingly disparate instruments is further proof of her range and quest for musical exploration.
Furtado laughs easily and often, its sound, coincidentally, reminiscent of a horse’s ebullient whinny — difficult to replicate, but easy to appreciate. And she has much to be happy about. While others tempt fate, Furtado resisted it by dodging the opportunity to record the career-making demo tape that ultimately led to Whoa Nelly! in favour of a prior agenda of wanderlust and academia. But you know what they say about the best-laid plans Calling from Toronto, where fall is in the air, Furtado contemplated the what-ifs and wherefores of music on a large scale, and her place in its complex architecture.
Do you feel like a rock star?
(Laughs) That’s funny you ask that; I was thinking about it lately. (Laughs) No, not really. I remember being around 17, with my first group called Nelstar, and I felt more like a rock star then than I do now. I think the rock star thing has to come with a bit of teen angst of some sort. And I think I’ve matured a little bit, where I’m at ease with everything and I’m not that angry at the world (laughs). The record I made is more positive than that, and it doesn’t really go with the whole rock star moniker in quite the same way. The energy is different.
How would you describe that energy?
I’d say it’s definitely positive, and with a theme of individualism, for sure — and probably a bit empowering. “On the Radio (Remember the Days)” has a refrain of “Myself, myself” at the end of it. There are a lot of declarations of independence on the CD.
And those declarations of independence are coming from a real place for you?
Yeah, for sure. I think my whole life I felt a little bit different from the crowd. Having the opportunity to make the record and stay true to that and not have to fit into any one thing and having people around me who let me make the record I wanted to make is, indeed, empowering and a good thing.
How would your life be different if you would have followed through with your European trip and studies, instead of going to Toronto to record the demo that led to your getting signed?
I did end up going to Europe, but it wasn’t for very long. I think what probably would have happened is I would have hung out with the intellectuals (laughs) at the university and written some more (I was already writing for the paper in college). Maybe I would have done some more journalism or art reviews and writing poems [and led] a studious existence, for the most part, all the while still in this dilemma of, ‘What if I was making music?’ My confusion [regarding] what I wanted to do [centred] on the fact that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to sign a major label deal. You grow up idolising people like Ani DiFranco with their own record labels. And in the back of your mind you’re thinking, ‘I’ll start my own record label,’ because it was something I wanted to do for a long time, and Canada does have different programmes set up if you want to do that. You can get a grant and set up your own thing and do it independently. But I think at some point I realised, ‘You know what? I’m not organised enough to set up my own record label (laughs). I have to sign with a record label so they can do it for me.’ So that’s what happened; it just took somebody making the whole business seem less scary for me to make the decision to go forward with it.
What other tough choices have you had to make pertinent to your career versus your personal life?
Choosing the record label [was tough] because there were a lot of different companies interested in the beginning. I went with DreamWorks because I went with my gut. One thing I always do is go with my gut instinct. I try not to be too mechanical or methodical with my decisions. I can’t really think of any instances right now where career has taken [precedence] over personal, because I think it’s important to balance both — it such a cliché, but it’s so true. I read somewhere that you should put as much energy into your friends and family as you put into your career. I do think that if you try, at least, it keeps you a bit more grounded.
I think the tough choices are to come, especially with the way commerce is changing and the different things artists have to do now that they didn’t have to do before, such as sell their songs to commercials and have their tours sponsored by corporations (laughs). A lot of [them] pose certain moral questions, depending on what the company is and what they’re about. I think that’s going to be more difficult for me, trying to decide what I stand for, and believing in everything I do, and trying to find a compromise. Because I realise [that when] you’re making big pop records, those types of questions come into play at some point.
Your album offers a lot of eclectic music. Tell me about these genre experiments.
A lot of it comes from who I am and how I grew up. I’m Portuguese and first-generation Canadian. My parents are from the Azores Islands in the mid-Atlantic. I was singing in Portuguese before I was singing in English, and I already grew up with this multi-cultural existence. I was listening to pop music and speaking English at home, but at night school learning Portuguese. I already had my eyes and ears open to a new kind of culture and more acceptance.
Having friends who were also first generation, and listening to East Indian or Latin music, I grew up with an appreciation for it. [I also travelled] to Portugal as a child going to visit the family farm. There were also the pop and contemporary American influences that I listened to my whole life. From ages 12 to 17, I was obsessed with urban and hip-hop music, and that’s why you hear such a strong hip-hop element on Whoa Nelly! On “Baby Girl” there’s posturing and lyrical references which are very R&B. And in “Trynna Finda Way,” there’s a definite hip-hop groove, but lyrically it’s not quite hip-hop, because it almost reminds you of beat poets in the things I’m talking about.
A key thing that happened (and that’s what you hear on the record) is I discovered Brazilian music when I was on a backpacking trip to England, because my friend’s father had a Brazilian mix CD. Right away I connected with it ’cause it was sung in Portuguese (which I could understand). It had this rich instrumentation as well, and this melancholy vibe that I tapped into. And from that point on I decided that I wanted to make a pop record that combines all these influences that I’ve learned in my experiences doing trip-hop, drum-’n’-bass, house and all the indie stuff I’ve been doing. But [I wanted it to be] under the pop umbrella, and also combining the music of Portugal and Brazil. I wanted to use all those Brazilian sounds and that’s why you hear a samba-bossa nova rhythm on “Legend” and you hear a berimbau (which is a traditional Brazilian instrument) on “Baby Girl” and “Trynna Finda Way.” [There's] Brazilian-style piano on “I Will Make U Cry” and splashes of Portuguese sung throughout the record … it’s an expression of my culture, and more than that, it’s a tribute to everything I grew up with.
Speaking of Brazilian-influenced music (and I know that they’re very different from you stylistically), but are you familiar with Soulfly?
Oh yeah. Totally. Max Cavalera [Soulfly frontman] uses a berimbau on stage. He’s the only other artist in the pop realm (that’s not a world music artist) that uses a berimbau, because I have one on stage, as well. He actually sings through the gourd and right into the microphone.
In addition to co-producing Whoa Nelly!, what were some of the other aspects of the creative process?
What you hear on the record is a combination of things. Half the songs I wrote myself on guitar. My next instrument is going to be the turntables — I’m going to learn how to mix (laughs).
People ask me sometimes, ‘Are you a singer-songwriter?’ and I’m always in a dilemma because I do write songs on my guitar and we produce them together. But on the other hand, I see myself as more of an MC, because I like comin’ in the studio, working on a track and then appropriating melody and lyrics to the stuff we’ve created. I don’t like limiting myself to any one category, writing-wise. I love collaborating and I love writing on my own. And I love writin’ lyrics and gettin’ in the booth and improvising, like a hip-hop MC would. It’s funny, all the singles I wrote myself.
In reference to “Scared of You,” who are you scared of?
(Laughs) I’m scared that I’m gonna hate fame, but I won’t know ’til I get there. Ask me again in — well, no one’s gonna know if I’m gonna be famous or not — but if I am, ask me in a year (laughs). I’m scared of the weird side of the business. It’s hard to not think about all the weird stuff that goes on with being somebody in the spotlight with a high profile. And I hear that happens a lot with artists, like when they first start out, there’s that initial fear. I read an article on Jennifer Lopez where she said that in the beginning, she was afraid to leave the house and she didn’t know how to deal with it. And so I guess it’s just an issue like that [with me]. I’m afraid of people anyway, so it’s OK (laughs). I was writing a song about that on the way here. I don’t do too well in crowds; I tend to freak out a little bit. I love being on stage — that’s my home, but I don’t do too well by myself in big crowds. It depends on what kind of mood I’m in, but I’m definitely a little bit of an introvert sometimes (laughs).
I never would have figured it.
(Laughs) I’m very alive sometimes, and social and outgoing in one way, but in another way, I do like my quiet time, too, so it throws people off sometimes (laughs). They go, ‘I never thought you’d be so quiet’ Or [when] they first me meet me, for about 10 minutes they get one impression. [For example], the video director who did “I’m Like a Bird,” I had met him previously [when] he showed me the treatment, and the day of the video shoot he said, ‘I can’t believe how quiet you are. From that meeting, I thought you were gonna be all hyper and stuff, and you’re so quiet.’ So I thought that was funny (laughs).
What artists do you identify with and why?
It may sound really strange, but I identify with the Beastie Boys (laughs), for a combination of [reasons]. One, you look at them and they’re unassuming, and it throws you off almost. They just look like some skater kids, but underneath that there’s so much more than meets the eye. They’ve done all these great things, like breaking genres, barriers and lines. They’re a perfect example of the underground and the mainstream meeting, because I think their music is such an expression of what’s going on in the skate parks and [on] graffiti walls, and they still are the voice of youth in a way. Also in their political [activism], they started their career off as kids having fun and they made one kind of music, but as they went on they got more credible and the music got better. Now they’re using their profiles to make the world a better place, with all their humanitarian work. They’re being them and going with their hearts. And all the while they’re staying true to what they grew up with, even though they’re a bunch of white kids making hip-hop music. They have no shame; they’re just being who they are, which I like.
I like Sarah McLachlan a lot, in the same way. She has used her high profile position to empower others, even through Lilith Fair — that alone is such an accomplishment and it means a lot to women. I had participated in Lilith Fair [in 1999], and it was a really positive environment. And it made history, which is exciting. She donated 10 percent of Lilith Fair to women’s shelters and charities. She’s someone who’s made great, credible, artistic music and stayed true to her vision, but yet has achieved mainstream success and gone further to empower other people through it.