So, Nelly, what kind of bird are you?
Caroline Sullivan puts the big questions to the outrageously talented pop prodigy Nelly Furtado
Friday August 31, 2001
To her manager, Nelly Furtado is "the new Madonna", to her record label "the female Beck", while her languid singing style has been likened to to that of fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell, and her Latino looks (inherited from Portuguese parents) to Jennifer Lopez. So much hype, so little time - it has been less than a year since 22-year-old Furtado came out of Toronto with the hippy-dippy hit I'm Like a Bird, quickly attracting praise that would embarrass a less confident soul. Just how confident is she?
When she signed her record deal, aged 20, she mused that she aspired to be Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Mona Lisa "all at the same time, to inspire people, but not in a cheap way".
Even allowing for the fact that Next Big Things often turn out not to be, the music business has reason to welcome Furtado. A year of diminishing returns has seen the industry fall out of love with Britney Spears and her many clones. Furtado (who shares her birthday, December 2, with Spears, though she pretends to be unaware of it) represents a fresh start, a female pop singer who is not just photogenic but who - crucially - writes, performs and produces her own material. This is so unusual in 2001 that it deserves to be repeated: Furtado does it herself. Her Toronto friends Gerald Eaton and Brian West co-produced and co-wrote part of her debut album, Whoa, Nelly! But in American biz-speak, Furtado is the very much the "vision".
Fifteen years ago, it wouldn't have been so remarkable for a chart artist to have artistic control, but the making of pop records has become a division of labour, with the components (the song, producer and "talent") purchased separately and brought together in a studio. To find it all in one package, especially a female one (more kudos for the label in question) is rare enough for veteran executive David Geffen, president of DreamWorks records, to have personally pursued her signature.
"One magazine said he let me stay in his mansion," she says with amusement. "Nooo. I just went over there one day. Well, you want to see what it's like." Evidently, the pad passed muster - she signed with DreamWorks after turning down a £3m offer elsewhere.
Following the lead of her friend Missy Elliott, with whom she rapped on a remix of Elliott's big hit Get Ur Freak On, Furtado has mastered the post-Britney recipe for chart success. What one needs to do, it seems, is to whisk up three-minute tunes from a variety of cross-cultural influences (Furtado uses African, Brazilian and Asian sounds as easily as she does the more familiar ones), then go out and sell them with north American can-do initiative. Given the right breaks, such as MTV and key radio support, can-do becomes has-done.
Relentlessly upbeat, Furtado embodies the maxim that nothing is impossible if you're willing to start work at 7am and shake hands with every assistant cameraman you meet. "She'll work 30 days straight and never complain," says her publicist, observing that few British artists would tolerate such a schedule.
Today, she has already appeared on GMTV, and faces an afternoon of hobnobbing with the suits at her UK company, Polydor, where she must cut an idiosyncratic figure alongside the likes of Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Hear'Say. Our interview cuts into her lunch break, but she behaves as if nothing would give her more pleasure than to spend the next hour sharing her thoughts in a Kensington hotel room.
She begins chirpily and stays that way, answering even facetious questions with a desire to provide whatever's required. "So you're like a bird? What kind?" I inquire. "A seagull," she says seriously. "I was really inspired by a great book called Jonathan Livingston Seagull [the drippy new age classic by Richard Bach]."
When Furtado talks, it's not a case of gradually drawing her out until she hits her stride. She seems to have hit it as a teenage over-achiever in Victoria, British Columbia ("I joined lots of clubs and was always winning leadership awards"), and hasn't looked back. Her positivity is correlated by a sense of entitlement one frequently encounters in north Americans - she expected success, it duly came and she hasn't wasted energy agonising over whether she "deserves" it. Not that she has been indulging herself in the fruits of her labour, though. In the middle of an earnest rap about the need for women to defer gratification until they break through the glass ceiling, she laces her fingers together and says: "I'll quote Einstein here. 'Intelligence is sacrificing immediate pleasure for long-term gain.' That's the story of my life."
She allows herself a brief sigh and unwraps two chocolate-chip cookies that arrived with her herbal tea. She looks at a cookie for a while before deciding to chance the calories and consumes it with mouselike nibbles, but refuses the second: "No, I'm full." She's so thin that an entire pack of biscuits would hardly make a dent, but she won't believe it. "I'm built in a very ethnic, Portuguese way," she insists, which is patently untrue. Her fashionably frayed jeans and hooded sweatshirt can't be larger than size 10, making her more like Victoria Beckham than Jennifer Lopez.
Recovered from her nanosecond of self-doubt, she tells an anecdote about singing with Aretha Franklin and Mary J Blige at a recent VH1 "Divas" special. "Aretha Franklin told me my lyrics were deep," she grins, at ease with the idea of being singled out by the formidable Lady Soul. "And Bono said that when he and Edge first heard Shit on the Radio, which is like my album's theme tune, they were on the floor because they thought it was cool."
She and Bono had this exchange the night before our interview, when she supported U2 at Earl's Court at the Irish group's request. "I asked Edge's advice on whether to sing a particular song at Slane Castle [where she played at the weekend], and he said, 'Yeah, you should!' U2 are amazingly spiritual people." She's less certain about Scottish dad-rockers Travis, whom she met when she presented them an award at the German Grammys. "Fran Healy told me he loved my CD and gave me a copy of theirs. I listened to it afterwards in the middle of beautiful Staffordshire countryside, and..." She hesitates, then adds diplomatically: "There's a place for lovely pure pop."
Furtado - whose immigrant parents named her Nelly Kim because "they didn't want to give me a Portuguese name in case I got made fun of at school" - astutely remarks that it has become commonplace. When America's urban radio stations heard her rapping on Get Ur Freak On (which she will perform with Elliott at a Michael Jackson tribute concert in New York next month), some assumed she was Jamaican. She was delighted.
"I want to empower people who don't know much about their culture. I've grown up not seeing my ethnicity reflected in Hollywood, so I was glad when Jennifer Lopez came out. I'm a flag-waver and I don't care because it's so much of what I am. I went to Portuguese language school from the age of four and I'm passionate about my heritage."
Her parents, Maria and Antonio, emigrated from the Azores, a chain of Portuguese islands that accounts for around 80% of Canada's 400,000-strong Portuguese population. Her closest friends at school were children of African, Indian and Latin American immigrants. She did well academically, receiving straight As and handing in 50-page extra projects for fun. "Over-achiever is the word," she says cheerfully. "I've always been the conscientious one in my family. I was the one who'd remember birthdays and would buy cards. My older sister was a rebel and I'd worry if she went out at night. But I was almost like an only child. I worked with my mom as a housekeeper in the motel where she worked, but I loved being by myself and spent hours alone in the park listening to music."
Her form of rebellion was, briefly, a girl gang called the Portuguese Mafia (which disbanded because Nelly couldn't throw rocks at school buses with enough petulance) and music. Through her parents she had a grounding in Latin sounds, which she adores enough to have plans for an eventual Brazilian CD. Her friends introduced her to Asian and dance music, and her brother to Oasis. She admits sending a fan letter to Liam Gallagher under the misapprehension that it was he rather than Noel who wrote the songs. By 18, she had moved to Toronto, formed a trip-hop band called Nelstar and begun making contacts on the music scene. It all happened quickly after that, just as she undoubtedly expected it to.
Whoa, Nelly! sold 300,000 copies in the UK, and the salsa-tinged Turn Off the Light has just become her second British top five single. She even has a coterie of male devotees, known as "Fur-verts". Things have fallen into place so neatly that her intention of being the Gandhi of the MTV generation must seem to her quite reasonable. "Oh, no, the Gandhi quote! I was 19 when I said that! I was just saying I like aspects of their characters. From individuality come great and wonderful things."
Her ambition for the
immediate future is more modest. Through supporting U2, she has discovered a
taste for playing to big audiences. "I never thought I'd be a stadium act, but I
love it." She sounds purposeful. You can almost hear her lining up a new goal
and taking aim. "I love the sound of my voice in stadiums."
29 November 2003
Folklore, Polydor, £13.99
The first line of Nelly Furtado's second album pretty much spells it out: "I'm not a one-trick pony". Even though, on first listen, Folklore doesn't sound too dissimilar to the five-million selling Whoa, Nelly!, in its refreshingly bouncy and melodic take on hip-hop, the singer subtly reveals herself to be made of far more complex stuff.
Furtado recorded this album while pregnant with her first child, and not only appears on the sleeve wearing a maternal glow and a coyly shrouded bump, but claims that her once squeaky vocals were rendered newly rich and deep by her condition. What's more important is that her songwriting, like Madonna's, seems to have become much more reflective and mature as a result of motherhood: "I have lived so many lives, though I am not old," sings the 24-year-old on Try. Bela Fleck's bluesy banjo playing and backing vocals from Furtado's hero, Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso, complete the enriched, often stunningly original sound of this record. Lynsey Hanley
I'm just this
quirky girl doing my own thing
Portuguese-Canadian pop star Nelly Furtado is a woman of many talents - and she has used them to create an album that marks a shift from her upbeat debut. She talks to Neil McCormick
Nelly Furtado was one of the pop sensations of the year 2000. She was the girl in the bright yellow track suit, bouncing around tweeting "I'm like a bird" with relentless enthusiasm. I'm not sure exactly what bird she had in mind, but there was certainly something of the woodpecker about the way that inescapable hookline rat-a-tat-tatted at your skull.
She made the cover of all the pop magazines, scored three international hits (the others being Turn off the Lights and . . . on the Radio), toured the world and sold 2.4 million copies of her debut album, entitled - in an approximation of her exhaustingly enthusiastic persona - Whoa, Nelly!
After spending an hour in her company, I want to shout "Whoa, Nelly!" myself. Her conversational style is as unrelenting and enthusiastic as her music. Furtado talks in a great torrent of words, sneaking swift breaths in the middle of extended clauses, interjecting lots of percussive sound effects, laughing often and freely, yet somehow remaining clear and coherent in thought.
"I hope you got what you wanted," she says, with apparently genuine concern, as the interview comes to an end. "I tend to blab a lot. I'm always worried journalists don't get to ask all their questions 'cause I just go on and on. So if you need more, we could catch up on the phone."
"No, no," I reassure her. "If I got any more, I'd have to write a book."
Furtado is exhausting, yet strangely impressive. A bit like her new record. Released this week, Furtado's comeback single, Powerless (Say What You Want) is currently all over the radio and, for all its upbeat, in-your-face poppiness, there is something different about her latest offering. Perhaps it is the unusual deployment of banjos and mandolins to drive the hip-hop groove. Or maybe it's the esoteric quality of the breakbeat sampled from Malcom McLaren's classic Brit-hop hit Buffalo Gals. Or it could be the added weight of the lyrics, on which the Canadian of proud Portuguese ancestry rails against racial stereotyping.
While previous releases were essentially pop confection ("Confection! That's good!" she chortles when I make this observation. "Ear candy!"), there appears to be added substance (both musical and lyrical) amid the snap and crackle of her pop.
"When I got a chance to make my first record, I really decided I wanted to show the sunny side of me," she says. "I was 20 years old, I wanted to have fun, so I purposely made the record light and upbeat and colourful, an explosion of sound, like a street pop record. And then it was so successful, you're thrown into that whole glamorous life, people get to know you as the person on the record.
"But nobody could be that one-dimensional! I feel that I'm really just a music nerd thrown into the pop spotlight. I'm rough around the edges, really. No matter what I look like on the outside, on the inside I'm just this quirky girl doing my own thing."
Furtado's inner quirkiness is confirmed in her eclectic and impressive new album, Folklore. Together with production duo Track and Field, she meshes the urban grooves of hip-hop and R&B with folk instrumentation and shiny pop production, drawing in traces of the melancholic melodies and harmonies of Portuguese fado music and the syncopated rhythms and percussion of Latin American dance.
Her unusual collaborators confirm the diversity of her tastes: there are contributions from acclaimed experimental string outfit the Kronos Quartet, Brazilian singer-poet Caetano Veloso and virtuoso banjo player Bela Fleck.
"I do listen to pop music sometimes but I don't think my record collection would have much in common with Britney Spears's," she says.
As if to confirm her creative independence, the album kicks off with the declaration, "I am not a one-trick pony!"
"I have all these different skills I can pull out," she says. "I call them weapons." They include her language skills (she is fluent in Portuguese, which has helped her to a number one throughout Latin America), her instrumental abilities (she plays guitar, trombone and ukulele, the latter two acquired during school years performing with a marching band), impressive vocal range (her mother, a housekeeper for a motel, was also a featured vocalist in an immigrant Portuguese church choir and Nelly first performed with her on stage at the age of four) and her improvisational hip-hop sensibility.
Furtado comes from a musical family. In the Azores islands, her grandfather was noted as a composer of marching band scores and many of her uncles, she says, were considered musical "maestros" in their villages. But it was the sound of American hip-hop that really connected the teenage Furtado to pop culture.
Describing the local scene in her home city of Victoria, British Columbia, she says, "There were MCs, DJs and breakdancers. A couple of people even did graffiti!" She laughs, suddenly aware of how small-town this sounds. "It was sort of like the dawn of suburban hip-hop. We were the first generation to have grown up with it our whole lives. People started having freestyle sessions at the mall.
"It's helped me tremendously in my music 'cause it encourages you to improvise, to write on the spot, to flow over a beat or a song that's already written, just to jump on it and do your thing, be spontaneous, to think fast and in the moment."
A vast country with about half the population of the UK (roughly 30 million), Canada punches above its weight musically. A net exporter of music, alongside the world-beating commercial success of Celine Dion, Shania Twain, Bryan Adams, Alanis Morissette and Avril Lavigne, it has produced such greats as Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Robbie Robertson and the Band.
"Music is almost like a part of the landscape," she says. "There's a lot of open space and room for reflection. I think Canadians have a great perspective. We're close to the States and we get all the same things through the media but we don't get sucked into it. We can be connected but still have a fresh take."
The composer of I'm Like a Bird essays a not entirely convincing theory that music is in the ether and people are mere conduits for it, before admitting: "I don't really know where it comes from. But there's one thing I know about myself, and that's that, no matter how much musical education I've had, back when I was four years old, in the purest sense, I always had this ability to be emotional when I sing.
"I used to come up with songs off the top of my head and I would well up with tears. It would just come out of thin air. I would get overcome. I used to just sing: sing to the wind, sing out in the pasture, sing whatever came into my mind. That's what I'm still doing really. I'm just winging it."
PÚBLICO Sexta-feira, 26 de Outubro de 2001
Onde estás, de onde vens, para onde vais
Elton John ou Moby, entre outros, já se pronunciaram a seu favor. É a loucura nellyana, que nos concertos de Lisboa, na próxima semana, não dispensará a interpretação do tema "Onde Estás?". Pergunta-se também: de onde vens e para onde vais? Documentário no Sol Música. Miguel Francisco Cadete
A transmissão, amanhã e domingo, de um especial sobre a luso-canadiana Nelly Furtado no canal Sol Música poderá (ou não) servir para fazer mais luz sobre a meteórica ascensão de uma cantora (e compositora) que em poucos meses se transformou numa das coqueluches da música norte-americana. Tudo isto surpreende muito mais quando se sabe que os seus pais eram açorianos, ela nasceu no Canadá e o seu único álbum editado até à data é uma mistura de hip-hop, soul, r&b, samba e até fado.
Nelly Furtado ficou mundialmente conhecida devido ao single "I'm like a bird", uma canção feita de um hip-hop tão volatilizado que se transmutou num standard da pop mais comercial. Até aqui tudo bem. Mas o que tem isso a ver com alguém que aos 20 anos cita António Carlos Jobim, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan e Jeff Buckley como alguns dos seus gurus? Será que a dieta musical de Abba, TLC, Lionel Ritchie e Madonna, que ela própria assume, pode levar a uma adoração dos Radiohead, Portishead, U2 e Pulp? Ou mesmo, depois de se ter confrontado com a música portuguesa, a afinidades com Madredeus, Pedro Abrunhosa e Amália Rodrigues?
Mistérios que ficarão por resolver, tal como Nelly Furtado, a própria, canta, num português algo repreensível, no tema "Onde Estás", incluído no seu álbum de estreia "Whoa, Nelly!"
Whoa, Nelly! Esta Nelly Furtado, como o apelido deixa perceber, nasceu de pais portugueses, que nos anos 60 emigraram da Ilha de São Miguel, nos Açores, para a cidade de Virgínia, na Columbia Britânica, no Canadá. O pai era pedreiro e a mãe doméstica, mas isso não impediu que Nelly, aos 4 anos, já cantasse - em português e inglês -, e que aos 9 tocasse trombone e ukulele, o mesmo é dizer o instrumento norte-americano descendente do mui português cavaquinho.
Apesar de oriunda das classes operárias, os vínculos com a música estão bem presentes na genealogia Furtado: o avô tocava um ror de instrumento, e o tio-avô foi um dos mais conceituados compositores de marchas nascido em São Miguel. A mãe, já no Canadá, continuava a cantar no coro da igreja.
O talento de Nelly Furtado terá sido descoberto em Toronto, no Canadá, quando o manager dos Philosopher Kings, uma banda de pop funky canadiana, achou que havia algo por descobrir quando a ouviu cantar pela primeira vez. Seriam aliás dois dos membros dos Philosopher Kings, Gerald Eaton e Brian West, que produziriam as primeiras maquetas de Furtado e, mais tarde, o seu álbum de estreia.
Ao chegarem aos ouvidos de Beth Halper, A&R da DreamWorks Records, as maquetas agradaram sobremaneira e, então com 20 anos, ela assinou o seu primeiro contrato discográfico. "Whoa, Nelly!" seria editado ano e meio mais tarde, em Setembro do ano passado.
As sessões de estúdio, que tiveram lugar em Toronto na sua quase totalidade, prolongaram-se durante 18 meses, em que Nelly aprendeu a tocar guitarra. Nada que fosse fundamental para o resultado final em que o hip-hop, r&b e soul se misturava insidiosamente com música brasileira, fado e música de inspiração jamaicana. Os trabalhos finalizaram-se nos estúdios Can-Am, na Califórnia, outrora ocupados pela Death Row Records, a editora de hip-hop que deu nome ao gangsta rap. Ao todo foram utilizados 25 músicos, alguns dos quais já famosos, como o percussionista Joaquin Cooder, filho de Ry Cooder e omnipresente em Buena Vista Social Club. No disco, Nelly cantava em inglês, português e hindi e tocava guitarra, trombone e ukulele. "Onde Estás", título de uma das canções, era o tema que fazia a ponte para a ancestralidade portuguesa.
Não se pode dizer que Nelly tenha percorrido os vários degraus da escada da fama. Ainda antes de ter editado o álbum, ela já estava a cantar no festival itinerante Lilith Fair, só com artistas femininas em cartaz, ao lado de nomes como Chrissie Hynde, Sarah McLachland e Beth Orton. E quando o disco saiu, deu origem a um ror de convites e elogios concedidos pelas mais altas patentes do mundo do espectáculo. Elton John pronunciou-se a favor. Missy Elliott convidou-a para um dueto editado ainda há pouco tempo. Moby incluiu-a no cartaz da sua digressão "Area: One", onde ela se juntava em palco a um dos mais respeitados grupos de hip-hop, os The Roots. Uma homenagem a Aretha Franklin não prescindiu dos seus dotes, tendo sido convidada a prestar respeito à diva da soul ao lado de Mary J. Blige e Jill Scott.
Revistas como a "Glamour" e a "Vanity Fair" dedicam algumas páginas dos seus últimos números à luso-canadiana mais conhecida do mundo enquanto, em Portugal, Nelly Furtado ocupou largo espaço da programação musical dos vários canais. O seu primeiro concerto em Lisboa, na sala do Paradise Garage há cerca de um ano, aconteceu perante uma multidão de adolescentes inconscientes e à beira da histeria. Regressa a 4 de Novembro, para mais um espectáculo em Lisboa, integrado numa digressão de que também fazem parte Milão, Madrid, Frankfurt (Prémios MTV), Hamburgo e Londres, partindo depois para a Austrália para vários concertos, alguns dos quais em estádios.
É a loucura nellyana, que em Lisboa não dispensará certamente a interpretação do tema "Onde Estás?". Pergunta-se também: de onde vens e para onde vais?
Concerto: Nelly Furtado: entre o fado e a pop