Nelly Furtado: 'I'm not Mother Teresa'
The singer explains her transformation from Portuguese songbird to 'Promiscuous' girl
JOHN INTINI | Aug 25, 2006
Her flight home to Toronto delayed by half an hour, Nelly Furtado kills the time flipping through trashy tabloids at a newsstand in Boston's Logan International Airport. She giggles at photos of A-list fashion disasters and devours every detail of the Pamela Anderson-Kid Rock wedding story. Nobody in the busy terminal -- except the security guard who searched her carry-on bags -- seems to notice that one of the world's hottest pop stars is standing among them(her new album, Loose, has topped the charts this summer in Canada and the U.S.). Not a single commuter pulls a pen or a camera phone on her.
Furtado isn't showing much skin, which may help to explain why she's invisible to this crowd. Although her face is caked in camera-ready makeup(she taped a TV interview earlier in the day), her tight black jeans, tapered at the ankle, and silver blazer make her look almost grandmotherly compared to the midriff-baring pop tart fans are used to seeing dance around in the video for Promiscuous, her first single from Loose.
Some argue that Furtado's transformation from Portuguese songbird to Promiscuous girl is a natural pop star progression. Others think the 27-year-old has sold out -- that she is trying to reclaim the glory days when her 2000 debut, Whoa, Nelly!, sold five million copies and earned her a Grammy award. Folklore, her "very personal" sophomore effort in 2003, tanked by comparison.
The art of reinvention -- of which Madonna is queen -- has saved many musical careers. But unlike the former Material Girl, and to a lesser extent Gwen Stefani(both singers are major influences on Loose), Furtado's musical makeover seems a bit forced. Madonna and Metric's Emily Haines(another of Furtado's influences)seem to be completely in control, even somewhat intimidating in their sexuality: they've made a calculated decision for commercial and feminist reasons. In contrast, Furtado's new, overt sexuality comes off as unoriginal -- overdone by thousands of pouty pop stars with a quarter of Furtado's natural talent. She says she's in charge of her image -- and she may well be -- but the revamping feels as if it's been imposed rather than chosen by the unique, articulate singer we've seen in the past. But Furtado doesn't care what the critics say. "I'm used to not being understood," she says. "I never figured out where I fit in." So as Christina Aguilera goes from dirty girl to glam, Furtado -- on the surface, at least -- seems headed in the other direction.
Still, Furtado has the vocal chops to compete with any of the former Mouseketeers. Listen to Loose, and it's hard to substantiate the sex-over-substance argument. This is Furtado's boldest, catchiest and strongest release to date. She enlisted legendary hip-hop producer Timbaland(who just finished working on Justin Timberlake's new CD)for a more urban edge. "I kind of wanted to piss people off," says Furtado, unleashing her trademark laugh. "I like making people scratch their heads and say 'what the f?' Maybe I'm immature, but who doesn't get great pleasure out of pushing people's buttons? And what I'm doing is almost prudish compared to some of the pole-dancing that goes on in other pop stars' videos. I'm still playing the drums in Promiscuous."
Promiscuous is the biggest single of 2006 -- six weeks atop Billboard's Hot 100 chart makes it the longest-running No. 1 since Kanye West's Gold Digger last fall -- but Furtado admits to being initially hesitant about it. "The beat is so club," she says. "And I'm a mother who spends one per cent of my life in clubs." She got over it. "I figured that since my track record was pretty good, I was allowed to shake my booty a little on one song," she says. "I wanted to show my fans that hey, I'm human, too. I'm not Mother Teresa."
Furtado maintains that the new Nelly is partly a product of being a mom -- she tells anyone who will listen that since giving birth to her daughter, Nevis, almost three years ago, she feels sexier and more in touch with her femininity than ever. And Loose is just part of her ongoing love affair with hip hop -- she wrote rhymes at 14 and formed Nelstar, a trip-hop band, after moving from Victoria to Toronto when she was 17. "Hip hop was the first music that was mine," says Furtado, whose career includes collaborations with Missy Elliott, the Roots and k-os. "Not something from my parents' record collection."
By hip-hop standards, Furtado travels with a very modest entourage. It includes her road manager, Andres, who hails from Colombia and now lives with his wife of seven months in Miami; Karl, a burly 250-pounder from Brampton, Ont., who provides the muscle; and Louisa, Furtado's long-time friend and hair and makeup artist, who could easily pass as the pop star if Furtado ever needed a decoy.
On occasion, Nevis joins mom on the road. Furtado and Jasper Gahunia -- Nevis's dad and Furtado's former DJ -- broke up about a year and a half ago. They "grew apart," she says, after four years together. "We're active co-parents," says Furtado. "We'll be in each other's lives forever." And in her music. Their split inspired a couple of especially personal tracks on Loose. On one, In God's Hands, she sings, We forgot about love / We forgot about faith / We forgot about trust / We forgot about us. And yet, she's fiercely private when asked about Gahunia -- not every aspect of her personal life is for public consumption. "Alanis Morissette can write songs about all her ex-lovers," says Furtado. "But I've left things out of albums because they're too personal, too scathing, too much. It's great that she can do it. I wish I had the balls."
Morning radio rules south of the border, so during a 10-day, 14-city promotional tour, most days begin with hair and makeup at 4:30 a.m. Once Louisa applies Furtado with her game face, the pop star is all business.
Furtado starts the last day of the tour in Philadelphia with two radio station visits, before catching a plane to Boston for a couple more in the afternoon. It's tedious, but she's a pro. During an early morning meet-and-greet with contest winners at the first stop, Wired 96.5, Furtado is chatty while signing autographs, pastes on a big smile for every photo, and is quick to offer her hand to shake or a big hug(including one to a middle-aged fan, who seems strangely out of place among the dozen or so teenyboppers). A slave to her BlackBerry, she pounds out emails on the tiny keys whenever there is a break in the action. When she heads into the studio, a group of interns gathers in a nearby edit suite to listen to the on-air interview. About halfway through, a curly-haired, heavy-set kid -- who doesn't look a day older than 18 -- proclaims: "She is the perfect woman for any man." Nobody in the room argues with him.
Nothing -- not even the blistering 36 degree heat in Philadelphia and Boston -- seems to faze Furtado. At the second stop, still in the city that Rocky built, Furtado deals gracefully with a host on Q102 who talks more about himself during their eight minutes on the air than his guest. Afterwards, asked how she handles on-air jerks, Furtado smirks. "If I'm bored in a situation," she says, "I can just play a character."
That's one of the lessons she learned a couple of years ago in acting class. "That changed everything for me -- it taught me how to really let go and embrace the role of entertainer," says Furtado. "It has helped me in photo shoots, video shoots, interviews and in the recording studio. It's saved me many brain cells." Back then, Furtado was prepping for Paint it Yellow, in which she was to play a student of Indian descent. But she was dropped from the project before shooting started when the Bollywood director decided that an English version of the film wasn't true to his vision. "When I first broke in, I was offered about 15 Hollywood scripts," says Furtado. "But I didn't want to act then -- it seemed too cliché."
She's open to big-screen possibilities, but for now music is the focus. Furtado will spend the second half of 2006 touring, and plans to release an album of B-sides by Valentine's Day. She then hopes to spend two weeks in the studio with Timbaland and the rest of the team who put together Loose. "The idea is to be a band -- like the Gorillaz or Gnarls Barkley," says Furtado. "It would be a collaborative effort so there wouldn't be any pressure of being a solo artist." After that, she says, the time has come for a Latin album(Furtado has already secured a producer). "With Loose, I've taken the pop thing to the limit," she says. "I'm lucky that sexiness is in style and hip hop is in style." Six years ago, when hawking Whoa, Nelly!, Furtado told Maclean's, "Why would you want everyone buying your record because it is the cool thing to do?" Hey, things change.
On the night before her last day of the U.S. promo tour, she settles into a lounge on the 31st floor of Philadelphia's trendy Loews Hotel and orders a late-night snack -- chicken noodle soup and a chicken salad. She's washed away most of her TV makeup, which leaves her more stunning than sexy. She kicks off her gold-sequined sandals, climbs into an armchair, and curls her right leg under her tiny body. "When I was 21, I wanted to get onstage and save the world and would sometimes take my angst out on the audience," says Furtado. "I wouldn't smash guitars, but it would hold me back a bit. My music was a little cerebral at times. I was trying a lot of things with different musical styles and I didn't think that anybody was really getting it."
She admits there isn't as much to get with her recent effort. "Loose isn't so much about the lyrics," says Furtado, who decided for the first time not to include the words in the liner notes. "It's about indulging in pleasures -- whether it's dancing or lovemaking."(The second single from Loose is Maneater.)"I used music as a bit of a shield for a long time," she says. "For a long time I didn't want to be beautiful or sexy. People wanted to throw sexy clothes on me when I started, but I wasn't ready. I didn't like walking in heels." She does now. And she's annoyed when the strap on one of her silver Yves Saint Laurent heels(which add about four inches to her five-foot-nothing frame)breaks after removing the shoes for a routine security check at Philadelphia's International Airport.
Furtado, who is very candid about most things, puts her guard up when asked if she has a boyfriend. "My main relationships," she says, "are with my daughter and my music." When pushed, she admits she's seeing someone, but won't reveal his name. She wants to have one or two more children("hopefully in the next three years I'll have another"), but isn't so sure about marriage.
Considering the level of international fame that she's achieved, Furtado, who owns homes in Toronto and Portugal, has done well to stay out of the tabloids. After she wrote Phoenix Suns star Steve Nash into the lyrics of Promiscuous, a ridiculous rumour hit the gossip columns that she and the Canadian-born basketball player -- who is married with two children -- were an item. "My publicist must have started that," laughs Furtado, "because I'm so boring."
In her personal life, maybe. But her body -- which has left a trail of male journalists tripping over their words -- is getting nearly as much buzz as the new album. So where did the cute tomboyish hippie from Victoria go? "South Beach," says Furtado, who lived there for three months while recording Loose. "I felt validated in Miami as a Portuguese woman. After having Nevis, I had more curves and was surrounded by women with similar bodies." Unlike those other celebrity moms, "I didn't pull one of those 'I'm going to get fit in a month after having a baby,' because it's not a reality," says Furtado. "I breastfed Nevis exclusively for nine months. I wasn't concerned about the extra five or 10 lb." Furtado went to the gym three days a week for a little while. "Now I hit the gym when I can," she says. "I go for a walk one day, push the stroller up a hill the next day and do push-ups and sit-ups in my bedroom on another. And thank God for dancing."
Raised Roman Catholic, Furtado says she's "done all the wrong things" in her life -- moving to Toronto by herself when she was a teenager, dropping out of college, and having a child out of wedlock. She has always been a bit of a rebel. When she was 15, she and a group of friends staged Janet Jackson's sexually charged If at a high school talent show. "There's a part in the routine where she simulates oral sex," says Furtado. "The teachers hadn't previewed it before we performed it for 300 kids. We all had ripped jeans and bustiers. Everyone loved it. But an hour later, we were called to the principal's office. The principal said if we wanted to take the routine to the city finals, we had to edit out the scenes that simulated oral sex. We were like, 'oral sex? We're just dancing.' "
Her introduction to sexuality through music happened one morning, years earlier, over her mother's pancakes. "I was about eight, having breakfast with my mom, my brother and my sister, when Let's Talk About Sex by Salt-N-Pepa came on the radio," says Furtado. "I still remember the look on my mom's face. I don't know if she turned the radio off or just lowered it, but I immediately loved the song. I loved that I loved something my mom didn't like. It was a moment of separation." Even now that she's a mother, Furtado wishes her mom hadn't been so embarrassed by the song's message. "I think an early sex-ed conversation can only help," says Furtado. "I would have loved if my mom had pumped that tune."
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