Sally A. Edwards met Nelly Furtado for our BLAG cover to celebrate her album, 'Loose' back in 2006. Here, for the first time online is the conversation and shoot where Nelly and Sally take you right into the studio and the creative process of making a little bit of history.
'Loose' was produced mostly by Timbaland and went on to sell over 10 million copies worldwide – becoming the fifth best-selling album of the 00s by a female artist and the 22nd best selling album of that decade. Albeit critics found the album somewhat controversial for its exploration of female sexuality, several million may beg to differ. The singles had high production videos and packed dance floors worldwide.
The story first appeared in the print edition of BLAG: Vol.2 Nø 6
Interview and Art Direction by Sally A. Edwards
Photography by Sarah J. Edwards
Styling by Harris Elliott
We all know Nelly Furtado is back and she’s reinvented herself. If you don’t, where’ve you been? Truth of the matter is it’s not just her music and style either, there’s a whole lot more. Nelly has re-approached her performance, attitude and confidence. She says she’s finally catching up. We think she’s miles ahead.
Sitting in the studio post-shoot we start by discussing Nelly’s love of hip hop (what with the new sound and her great bond with Timbaland), only to discover there’s much, much more: from not only being a mother, but a mother instrumentalist, roller-blading to her first acting class, to really testing herself and her new found love of dance. She’s animated and full of energy, she speaks at a rate of knots, laughs about as much as she inhales, and grabs my arm at various intervals to seal each joke.
“It’s like something that started at a pretty young age,” starts Nelly. “I think my first, first memory of going, ‘Wow, hip hop!’ is being like six or seven and seeing the Supersonic video. [Sings] Supersonic. There was a group of three girls called Supersonic and they had this video – it was like a really early hip hop / dance sort of song. Then after that, I got into it through my brother and my older cousins. They had loads of hip hop tapes and CDs. I found it fascinating and intriguing. So, from the age of twelve I basically became immune to any other type or style of music. It was just R&B and hip hop, so my bedroom wall was literally plastered in posters – like every inch was covered, with LL Cool J, Salt-N- Pepa, Mary J. Blige, you know, Del Tha Funky Homosapien, whatever. I just loved it, I read the magazines, I watched this show called Pump It Up, which had DJ Quik on it. I liked everything. My first recording gig was doing back-up vocals for a hip hop group when I was 16 years old. So it was proper R&B back-up vocals. It wasn’t until I was 17 when I finally explored other styles of music.”
What kind of thing were you listening to then?
“Well, what happened was, I was about 17 when I moved to Toronto after high-school. I started a trip hop group too called Nelstar, and then I got into electronic, house and drum ‘n’ bass. You see, I’m long winded because I’ve been into every style, you know what I mean? I bought a guitar when I was 18 and that’s when I started writing coffee shop songs like, ‘I’m Like A Bird’. [laughs]”
Where were you living before Toronto?
“I was born in Victoria, British Columbia, Vancouver Island. I also grew up listening to loads of Portuguese music and pop. I remember when I was really little listening to Blondie and Abba, and Billie Joel and Lionel Richie, YMCA and Led Zeppelin – whatever my Dad had on vinyl, also Portuguese Fado music and folk. I was also surrounded by Portuguese church music; which is really melodic with very interesting arrangement and harmonies. My Mum sang in the church choir, so I would hide behind the couch while she had choir practise at our house in a small choral group. So I was always around music, and the Portuguese Catholic tradition has a lot of rich music heritage, like marching bands. The marching band heritage of having like 10 marching bands in processions all from different villages playing different original music. My Grandfather composed original scores for them and he played 10 instruments. So once I got into instruments...” Nelly pauses to recall. “I
was four when I tried piano, then eight when I tried ukelele, then by the time I was nine I was in music class five days a week studying concert trombone, jazz trombone and marching trombone. Haha! It helped me a lot, because nowadays when I’m singing, I sing rhythmically a lot and the embouchure you have to use to play a horn instrument – especially when you’re playing really high marching band notes with really fast staccato rhythms - has helped me with my vocal percussion. Like when I do something like, badabachingching, badabachingching [As heard on Nelly’s appearance on the Timberland produced track, ‘Ching Ching’ by Ms.Jade.] Like all those things, and all those sort of Brazilian tropical influenced rhythmic vocals. That’s kind of where it comes from. The experimentation, you know?”
That’s great, because that’s what I wanted to talk to you about with regards to your album, ‘Loose’, because you’re mixing so many styles.
“Yeah, you know what it is, it’s more about less formality, because I think with my first two albums, although they were surely... you know I called it ‘World Pop’, eclectic and whatever it was called. It was also very pristine sounding and we really thought of everything. We spent hours on the arrangements, hours doing vocals and days just really perfecting everything. This album was more about catching a vibe in the studio. If we didn’t feel a vibe we would move onto something new. So it was very vibe oriented and I learnt how to really let go and follow my impulses a bit more. That’s why it’s called ‘Loose’. We’ve included laughter and talking from the studio, like we kept the mic on in the studio all the time on purpose. We would obviously forget that it was on and just say things and they would end up on the album. The intro to the first song on the album, I’m coughing to clear my throat before I start singing! Haha! Then there are out of tune notes, or really distorted bass lines. It’s a very loud record, volume wise. It distorts on a lot of stereos, kind of like a garage record, or a punk record would on certain stereos.”
I’ve haven’t listened to it loudly enough then!
Do you consciously go against the grain by mixing so many styles together, or is it just having been involved in music for so long? “I like going against the grain and it’s also because I like to keep myself motivated. So that’s why I kept writing for about a year and a half. I flew around the world working with different producers. What we were writing was cool, but I didn’t feel that internal like, ‘Aaaahhhh, this is it!’ It wasn’t until I got to work with Timbaland in Miami where I was like, ‘Wooow, this is exciting, I want the whole album to sound like this.’ That’s why I kept ten out of twelve tracks. A couple of the other tracks are by Rick Nowels, but the rest of the tracks are just that new Tim sound that he’s doing. It’s really edgy and it’s influenced by electronic and rock and indie rock, and it’s cool.”
I wanted to find out how it was when you very first met Timbaland.
“You know what it was like? It was like, I first heard through the record company that, ‘Oh, Timbaland has sampled your song,’ because when he bought ‘Whoa Nelly!’ he pulled that very part, ‘badabachingching!’”
For ‘Ms. Jade’?
“Yeah, it became the ‘Ms. Jade’ song. So he sampled it and I came in the studio because he wanted me to add additional vocals. I was so excited to meet him, because I was a huge fan of ‘Supa Dupa Fly’ for Missy and he was responsible for that album. [laughs] And I met him, and it was like instant chemistry.
“Within two minutes I was in the vocal booth singing. The thing I do on ‘Ms.Jade’ is like a total freestyle – like the ending, it’s just whatever I was thinking at that moment. That was when the connection was made and he invited me onto the ‘Get Ur Freak On’ remix with Missy Elliott which became like a cult classic in the hip hop world in the US.
“Ever since then people were like, ‘When are you guys going to do an album?’ Finally, the president of my record company was like, ‘OK, you and Tim made this musical promise, you haven’t delivered on it! Where’s your urban side? You haven’t done that yet.’ Then he played me some new stuff of Tim’s and I realised we were on the exact same wavelength. He also was listening to indie rock, and electro and different rock bands, and I could hear it in the music.
“He’d tapped into this new style called ‘Junk Yard Style’ which is just random playing of percussion and just yelling and screaming and just coming up with these really random and not quantised sounds that were off a bit. That’s how we’re alike you know. We’re really interested indifferent, you always want to take it to another level. I think we’re always trying to transport ourselves through music. That’s how we’re most alike. Like, definitely it’s a form of elevation, you know?
“The first day in the studio we did ‘Maneater’. It sounds like a lie, but literally smoke came out of the speaker because the volume was so loud it burnt the rubber, and we were jamming so hard no one realised until we smelt it and we were like, ‘Did you see that?’ It was really weird. We just had weird moments like that. You know there was one night we were watching Pink Floyd, ‘The Wall’, but it was on mute and all night it was like getting into our subconscious and at four in the morning we wrote this song called, ‘Say It Right’ and it just came out of nowhere. So there was just really cool moments where we felt inspired and that’s why we make music. That’s why I’m making my third album and I’m still into it, and I’m excited about it, because when it’s good, it’s good you know, like sex! [laughs]
“Before I wrote ‘Maneater’ I had been to see Death From Above with Controller Controller opening. Those bands are from Toronto and they have that sort of indie rock, Candy Girl thing going on, especially the first band. What I like in the new rock is it’s very sexy, and it’s kind of sexual but in a very cool modern way, and that’s kind of the vibe that we were all in at the time. [laughs]
“The other thing is testosterone. [laughs] I wanted to tell you a sec. It was neat, because I think personally as a woman I tend to over think things – not that men never over think, but I got to the studio and it was like the VIP club of Tim and his people. [It became about] learning to let go and following impulses a bit more, because I think men are a bit more like blue is blue, and red is red. You know, generally. You’re hungry. Eat. You’re tired. You sleep. You know? I got into that mentality and we wouldn’t sit down to eat, we would eat standing up. I got into the creative mind of Tim and just felt that impulsive energy.”
So what was it like it the studio? What was the writing process like?
“It was like totally getting consumed by the creative energy, eating it up like a maneater. Haha! It was me, Timbaland, Danja – he’s a producer and Marcella who’s an engineer and Demo who’s a mixer and engineer. We mixed the album as we went, we didn’t stop and mix it at the end. We would mix after each track. It was really unique, people don’t usually do that. It really captures the essence of the studio jam, which is a whole concept of not fixing what isn’t broken. Like, ‘Well, why do we have to make it sound more polished? Or more pristine? Who says?’ And just kind of leaving it. It was really important to me, because I’ve always secretly loved my demo tapes better than the real thing. So this is like you basically hearing the demo tape, they’re the demo mixes!”
I really like it, I really, really like it. So you’ve got a daughter now, is that correct?
I read that you played with her all day, then you recorded at night. How on earth did you do it?
“Good question, I was totally sleep deprived and just a zombie half the time!”
Were you running on adrenalin?
“Yeah! It was weird, at one point I would go for at least seven days with only sleeping two hours a night and just getting up at 9am. Playing all day in the sun. Getting in at seven, taking a shower, getting to the studio at maybe nine or ten and doing it again until 5am. It was really weird! [laughs]”
How long did you do that for?
“You know, I was in Miami for a total of three months and I would say many of those weeks were like that, just living it. Just kind of drinking a green tea and getting on with it. At times I would be a zombie and Tim would be like, ‘Go home! You’re tired!’ and I’d prove him wrong and write a song! [laughs]”
Very good! So how did you feel about the end result once you’d had time to rest and recoup?
“It’s really nocturnal, like everything. It’s clandestine. It’s after midnight this album. Not a thing was recorded before midnight. It’s all midnight to 6am, which is interesting I think. After it was all said and done, I was extremely nostalgic, I was like, ‘Whew! What just happened? That was amazing.’
“You know I was really living life during that period. Miami really forces you to be in the moment. It’s sunny, people are so happy, everyone is tanned. I speak Spanish, so I fit right in. So I felt right at home with my curves. I was like, ‘Hahaha! OK!’ Just walking round in a bikini. Not at the studio obviously! [laughs.]
“After it was all said and done I just wanted to go and do it all over again. It was really fun, like a rollercoaster. The Hit Factory in Miami is really edgy, hip hop artists will just come by with their managers and a briefcase of cash and be like, ‘We want a beat. For real.’ And Tim would just flip through and give them a beat. It’s crazy, really intense, but it’s just really stimulating as an artist because it’s hip hop culture at the nucleus. Tim will literally come back from Houston and he’ll get the latest street record that nobody has heard in the states, which will in turn become huge worldwide, maybe a year later. So it’s really exciting. It’s like you’re right on the pulse of hip hop.”
Didn’t you write ‘Promiscuous’ with Attitude?
“I did. He’s a rapper from Alabama. He’s just like a regular guy. He’s on Tim’s label. We sat down and did a couple of hours of flirting and writing, and that’s why the song sounds so flirtatious! [Laughs] And fun. I was just concerned with getting Steve Nash on the song, he’s MVP NBA! Hahaha! I give him a shout out in there.”
Do you have any other collaborations lined up, or will you be appearing on anybody else’s work?
“You know I wanted to reach out to Kylie Minogue on this album, I wanted her on this particular track, but I never got a chance because it was right at the end of the session, but maybe in the future. I wish Eminem wasn’t retiring, because he’s like Salvador Dali on the microphone! Haha! He’s so cool and crazy.”
What else are you listening to at the moment?
“I’ve just been listening to loads of gospel music. I recently met Michelle Williams from Destiny’s Child at this fashion show in New York – that sounds so Hollywood when I say that, but I asked her to recommend some gospel music to me. So she wrote all these song titles in my BlackBerry, because she sings gospel music as well outside of that group. I bought all the CDs and I’m getting through them, and I love them. There’s Kim Burrell and Donnie McClurkin, and it’s just these great choral arrangements and, no pun intended, a very committed vocal. [Laughs] So as a singer listening to it, it’s very inspiring. I’m always searching for the next inspiration, I’m always digging like a little mouse or something. I’m just like a groundhog or badger, just sifting through music to smell something I really like.”
There must be certain contacts you know who have got their ear to the ground who can feed it straight in to you.
“I know a guy who owns a couple of record shops in Toronto, called Cosmo’s Records. It’s great for vinyl, like if you’re looking for inspiration for samples and things. He’s got old funk, brazillian, rare groove and reggae. I also go out to a show, like a rock show, or modern art show, or dance show.”
What’s got you excited outside of music?
“Well, dancing. Dancing has got me very excited. [I’ve been] working with choreographers for my videos for ‘Maneater’ and ‘Promiscuous’. I had to soak my feet in a sink full of ice, because my feet hurt so bad from practising.”
Are there any certain styles of dance that you’re doing?
“Um... I like modern dance, but I’m not trained as a dancer, so I just kind of watch. I’m a wannabe. I just stand in the corner and watch! I noticed all around, dance is having like a resurgence of popularity. I think it’s been kind of like neglected for a while as an art form, but I think it’s very exciting in the modern world because everything is done for us now technologically. So people are marvelling again at the fact that the human body can do so much physically. It’s just awe-inspiring. That art form has new worth I think again.”
On to fashion. Is there any particular designer you like? Or anything you can predict?
“You know what? I’ve gotten more into fashion in the last couple of years. Before, I was really just living in Puma, Adidas, Fornarina and anything casual. I do love American Apparel though. That’s my casual store. I love that. I’ve been rocking... [laughs] You know what I like? I’ve been getting more into designers. I like Stella McCartney’s stuff. It’s interesting. What’s cool about it is it’s not so fancy. It’s perfect for my age group. Then I like Marc Jacobs. With those two you know what you’re going to get. Like you can go and get a good pair of boots. I don’t mean that in a demeaning way. They’re practical but sharp pieces I think. I’ve also been wearing a Portuguese / Canadian designer named Arthur Mendoza. Really nice dresses and evening wear. Formal, but fitted and good for curves. I like figure hugging clothes. I’ve been into tight clothes lately because it just fits better. I like tight dresses. Anything that just shows off my body. I’m into that now. As you can see in the videos I’m just a bit more sensual, more sexy. I don’t know, it’s just the way I feel right now. After I had a baby, I just felt a renewed love of my body. I tend to look for designers and things that are stretchy and flattering. Like True Religion Jeans are good for the curvacious bum! There’s a tip! [Laughs]”
I wanted to ask you about travel. Have you done much lately to anywhere?
“Yeah... Well, recently I went to Taiwan. I have a sister who lives there, and I went on this little trip by myself with my daughter. The two of us. It was really fun! We went to this city called Kaohsiung, it’s the second largest next to Taipai, and it felt like the safest city on the world. It was so cool, and everyone, like families, travel around on their mopeds and motorcycles, and you can accept candy from the cab driver without a second thought, you know? It was a great place. Society Can Work! [laughs] It gave me faith in human beings by being in Taiwan. I was like, ‘Oh God. Society can actually come off!’ Haha! ‘We can pull of the idea of a perfect society!’ [laughs]”
I think a lot of people in our age group definitely want that. As our generation gets older, it should – fingers crossed – calm down.
“I have the same hopes. Especially in the next generation coming up, like my daughter’s generation. I feel very hopeful about our future.”
Is there anything else you would like to do, maybe writing for anybody else, or producing, or acting?
“Oh yeah...Sure. That’s another thing I’ve been doing. I’ve been taking acting classes for two years with a private teacher in Toronto. I mean when I’m in town I go to class, or go to a group class.”
What’s the group class like? How are they with you?
“They’re cool. [My teacher] usually just introduces me and then I sit down and nobody really says anything... until the end! They’re really cool. They’re chill. Acting’s really unifying, everybody is on the same playing field and you just feel really vulnerable. It taught me a lot about being really vulnerable, which helped with the writing process. My life really changed the first day of acting class. I purposely roller-bladed there so I would feel vulnerable! [laughs] When I got there it was like, ‘Oh my God. Why have I been waiting so long? This is so fun.’ You don’t only dip your toe in the water, you totally jump into the deep and you’re like, ‘Wooow. This is scary,’ because you can’t be afraid of looking silly, you have to really go there. I’m using it in my photoshoots and video shoots and the studio. Just taking on the role of entertainer and not shying away from it, just accepting the role of performer, and that’s been helpful to. That’s the reason why in my record I’m just going for it, and in my videos.”
I know you’ve done loads and loads of performances, but has it helped you express yourself differently at all?
“Yeah, definitely, because when I’m on stage I know more about staying in the moment. It teaches you to stay focused. Also, confidence – how to carry yourself and [your] poise. Especially in photoshoots or in the studio, you can take on a character and create a scene in your mind and your performance will come across more honest or more engaged. It makes everything easier. Well, because when I started in this business, I didn’t come from the Mickey Mouse Club and I was quite jealous of them, because they already knew how to dance and sing, and they knew what looked good on TV and what didn’t.
“I was raised more like a musician with a band outfit on. A marching band outfit! [laughs] Then the other stuff I had to discover for myself in my bedroom. [Within] the four walls of my room was where I discovered myself as an artist. When I came into the spotlight, my first photoshoot was Vanity Fair, my first performance on TV was ‘Saturday Night Live’ and ‘The Tonight Show with Jay Leno’, [I was] like, ‘Yikes.’ I didn’t really know what I was doing and so now, I’ve finally caught up. I get it, and I know poses and when you take a picture, I know what looks flattering, and your best side, and all the things I used to think were shallow, I had that real rock star mentality before where I was like, ‘Whatever! I’m just doing my thing.’ Which is great and it was the age I was at. I was like, 22, now I’m a mother and I think differently. I think, ‘Wait, this is my job. I should take it just a bit seriously and try to make it the best it can possibly be’. So I’ve changed that way a lot.”