No stopping Nelly
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 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 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 Â£3-million 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.
On the day of the interview she appeared on GMTV and faced an afternoon of hobnobbing with the suits at her United Kingdom company, Polydor, where she 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 overachiever 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 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 the United States’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 400Â 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 300Â 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 comes 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.”