The Pursuit of Nelly Furtado
Interview by Kevin Brent
The interview took place over the phone with Nelly at her publicists office in Detroit and myself, well, here, in Los Angeles.
At the conclusion of the interview, I realize that California is what we spent a large part of two hours talking about, despite the fact that Nelly was raised in Canada to parents of Portuguese descent.
We spoke of Los Angeles, specifically, which has a habit of luring budding superstars like her into its wake.
This 21-year-old singer has already been featured in TIME, Rolling Stone, Spin and Seventeen Magazine, to name just a few.
Her single, “Like a Bird,” off her album “Whoa, Nelly!” is currently number 3 on the Canadian pop charts, and she is drawing widespread comparisons to such established pop luminaries as Macy Gray, Alanis Morrisette and Janet Jackson.
If that weren’t enough, young Nelly is the focal point for Dreamworks Records, brainchild of Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. “Nelly is unlike anyone I’ve ever heard,” gushes A. & R. executive Beth Halper. “She’s a huge priority for the label.” And to think she almost chose creative writing over music.
So begins the voyage of Nelly Furtado.
NELLY: I grew up in Victoria Island, on the West Coast of Canada. The area has such a rich cultural background, I mean I could be dancing at a Latin dance club one weekend and learning about Chinese culture the next.
INFLUX: That is some serious diversity.
That’s also when I was hanging out with the hip hop kids. I was into trip hop and experimentation, always into sound.
Can you be more specific?
I was raised on pop, not some extreme Indie pop. I was into LL Cool J, Ice T, Criss Cross, and The Jackson 5. I also love progressive Brazilian music. I’ve always had music in my head, you know what I mean? I can remember as a child driving and having soundtracks in my head to the scenery as it flew by.
Were you playing with anyone at that time?
I was writing with a d.j. friend of mine, more techno and ambient stuff along with open mics. I was in a west coast group called ‘Velvet,’ sort of a trip-hop funk kind of band.
Sounds like you just like jamming.
Oh yeah, I mean, I don’t know any cover songs at all (laughs). There is this thing called ‘Stir Fry’ in Victoria, you just kind of get up there and freestyle. Just jamming, making stuff up, like the beat poets. That’s what I like about hip hop - I think it’s really the spirit of “now”.
You’ve got a real connection to the whole underground scene.
My first experiments in music were very street, very underground. At that point, I really did it for my own personal joy.
That’s the way the album comes across. It’s upbeat and hopeful.
I wanted to make a groovy record, not a somber one. All the music I was making in that whole trip hop area was depressing and melancholy. I felt like I wasn’t expressing myself to my fullest.
You felt limited by the scene?
I just discovered that I could use my musical potential to be more positive and inspirational and more fun. I’m 21, I don’t want to go out on the road and be sad every night. So I wrote songs like “Hey Man” and “Turn off the Light.”
Now if you could only re-record the album in Portuguese...
That’s funny, because I really want to do a Portuguese language album in the next, maybe 5 years.
Half English, half Portuguese?
No, an entire album in Portuguese, but very experimental and progressive. I want to tap into the Portuguese culture, involving traditional church songs or secular music or really old folk songs and modernize them. I like the whole cross-cultural idea.
You recorded “Whoa, Nelly!” in L.A. Have you liked what you’ve seen of the city? Could you picture yourself living here?
Actually yeah, I live in Toronto now and I love it musically, but I miss the ocean and I’ve really been thinking about moving to California for a long time. I love the climate, and I’m always happy when I come here. Actually, that’s a lie.
I mean when I was here I was making my album and I was real stressed out.
I was co-producing and writing it all and I couldn’t think of anything else. It was on my shoulders and no one else’s.
But that’s the way you wanted it.
For sure, there was no other way I’d do it. You know where we recorded it? Tarzana.
There’s a lot of local musical history there.
I knew it used to be the old Death Row headquarters. And we saw some interesting people around ...
So you got out a bit?
I might have gone out twice while I was here. I would just come home from recording and watch MTV and do my laundry.
Well, some friends of mine came down from Vancouver and we went shopping on Melrose. I went to Mel’s Diner for greasy food and guilty pleasures. I like Chin Chin’s on Sunset, the Standard, Vita, and The Alley.
Anywhere you didn’t get to hit this time around?
I love Sharkey’s. They don’t have that in Canada or New York, and I love Jamba Juice. Guess who I saw at the Beverly Center - Fred Savage and the drummer from Rage Against the Machine. All within 5 minutes of each other.
At least they weren’t hanging out together.
Good star sightings, though.
That’s why I love L.A. I like seeing famous people walk around. You can be like “woo! woo!” Come to think of it, I think I love L.A.
You seem to have become more so enamored throughout our conversation.
I bet you’re pretty impressed.
Hey, you’ve thrown out places I’ve never even heard of, and I was born here.
But here is my beef -- There is nowhere to order food late at night in L.A. I’m a vegetarian so all we could get was cheese pizza, and even that stopped flowing around midnight.
Outside of California, how’s the tour been going?
We’ve already played over 30 dates here in North America over the last four months.
And how have the crowds been?
Good. We were on tour in August and it was really great.
How would you describe you show to someone seeing you for the first time?
My show is like a pop show combined with a hip hop show combined with a rock show in Rio Di Jinero. You’d enjoy it.
Sounds like you are well on the road to positivity.
(laughs) Hey, I’m all about spreading the love vibe.
NELLY ON ....
Jack Johnson. He’s this independent surf musician who lives in Santa Barbara. He also makes surf movies with his friends.
Someone gave me ‘The Diary of Frida Kahlo’ which is really good. I recommend that. I keep a journal and I love prose writing, especially the beat poets like Jack Kerouac and Jim Carroll.
Andy Warhol. I’m obsessed with artists. I think art is exciting for the artists, not necessarily the art sometimes. They live in the moment, kind of like firecrackers, the ups and downs, turmoil, the highs and lows. I just find it all so passionate.
I want to see Bamboozled, and the last movie I liked was American Beauty. My favorite film ever is Basquiat, but I also love ‘The English Patient.’
I love my family more than anything. I see them two or three times a year and that’s not good. I’m 21 and I need the connection. Besides them, it’s hard to maintain a relationship, but maybe in the future I’ll be able to have something serious. But right now I’m just jazzed about the music, and, right now, its great to be free.
I’m so connected to my style. I can’t walk into a room and hear someone tell me how to do my hair or what to wear. I think an artist has every right to dictate what they look like. It’s all about comfort, and it’s all about what feels right. The more people involved just makes things more complicated.
MY PERFECT NIGHT
Get a bunch of friends, get some good microbrewery beer - Rainforest Pale Ale - and go down to the beach, have a bonfire and chill out under the stars. I would love to do that again - No, I am longing to do that again.
I’m too stressed out. I need to enjoy the moment a little more - maybe a move to L.A. would help. And improve my posture. Maybe I should take yoga. Just work on me, you know what I mean? Work, work, work.
This article was originally published in our print edition.