Hanging with Nelly

Nelly Furtado shares her thoughts on music, motherhood and fame

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With the release of her second album Folklore, Canadian musician Nelly Furtado is rocking the airwaves once again. Raised in Victoria, B.C. and living in Toronto, the 25-year-old Grammy-winning sensation sits down with Chatelaine.com to discuss motherhood, being Canadian and her plans for the future.

HB: Why did you choose Folklore as the title of your new album?

NF: To me, folklore represents culture, a return to simplicity, getting away from the fast lane and finding the time to reflect. Everyone has their own folklore. Every office, every school—folklore is always happening around us. This album is about tuning into your own folklore and listening to the stories being told around you.

HB: Did you set out to create an album that deals with embracing folklore, or did it just evolve?

NF: A couple of years ago I thought it would be cool to do a more simplistic sort of folk album with modern musical elements that still had serious lyrical content. I think we somewhat achieved that, but things really morphed once we got into the studio. What we ended up with was a very personal album. I feel like I almost didn’t ‘make’ another album—like it just sort of happened.

HB: You recorded Folklore in Toronto while you were pregnant. Do you think that affected the sounds, styles and themes of the album?

NF: I do. On a practical level, because my diaphragm was a lot lower, my voice was a lot lower. My range and tone were also different, and I liked it. But it was also a really cool experience on another level. It was the most fun I’ve ever had recording. Some days I was tired, but I could relax in the studio. I didn’t have to focus on the (physical) stresses of being pregnant. When you’re recording you get to sit all day, sing and eat—you can order anything you want and you don’t have to cook!

In terms of the album’s themes, I was definitely more calm and reflective, which was a perfect state of mind to be in. Being pregnant is one of those rare times when you are encouraged to look inward—which was great!

HB: How have things changed for you now that you’re a mom?

NF: I used to put a lot of stress on my body, whereas now I’m a little more well-paced. Before Nevis [her daughter] I could do a bit more of everything. I’d hop on a plane with no sleep, catch colds, get stressed. But now I find I’m a lot more calm and rational.

One of the nice things about being a recording artist is that I can usually make my own schedule and do a lot of stuff from home.

HB: Nevis is quite a unique name. Does it hold any special significance for you?

NF: I just really like it and thought it was a cool, different name. It’s ancient Latin and translates really well into Portuguese, Spanish and French.

HB: Your first album Whoa Nelly! was very upbeat and positive. But not only is Folklore more reflective—there’s also a new seriousness. On Powerless, the lead single, I’ve heard that you take aim at the media for manipulating its subjects and trying to turn them into something they’re not. Do feel that you’ve been misrepresented?

NF: Powerless is really more about taking a picture of some of the realities of modern-day society. It’s not so much about criticizing, but understanding and feeling part of that society. You’re always looking for identity in life. You look in magazines and television and billboards and it’s impossible not to be affected by that. I think it plays on the subconscious mind. So I did touch on that a bit. But my experience in the music business hasn’t been too affected by those pressures.

I think it’s a much more general phenomenon I’m talking about. It’s more about growing up and not quite feeling like I fit in. I think you really have to write what you know, and those are the kinds of themes that are always close to my heart. I’m always looking at the world critically—it’s not an angry thing, it’s an insightful thing. I think we can be positively critical about what we want to see changed in the world.

HB: What influences in your life led you to being such a critical thinker?

NF: I think the way I was brought up had something to do with my outlook. I saw a lot of cool things. The first time I went to Portugal I was only nine. I saw how people led a totally different, rural lifestyle. I also used to hear stories about the ‘Old World’. Portugal was a dictatorship when my parents were growing up, so things were 40 or so years behind. It just reminds you that there is a bigger world than what’s outside your front door.

And, I’ve always been adventurous and reflective. I always loved writing and thinking, and the more you do it, the better you get. I always tell people, write as much music as you can, because practice really does make perfect.

HB: Your Portuguese culture and heritage are obviously extremely important to your music. As is your appreciation for different genres like hip-hop, funk and jazz. Does being a Canadian factor into this mix?

NF: Yeah, definitely. I’m very proud to be Canadian. We have true freedom of speech and it’s considered positive to talk to and about the government. Being proactive in general is encouraged.

Actually, I moved to LA for a while, but then I moved back. Toronto is a great city. But as much as I love it, I’m also a West coast, outdoor-loving hippy. Maybe it’s from growing up in Victoria—there’s an authentic British Columbian side to me.

As a songwriter, the nature and vastness of Canada also influences my musical style. The tradition of Canadian songwriters involves guitars, and if you take away all the production in my new album, I think it could still stand with just a guitar.

HB: There’s a lot of talent out there, but few people find mainstream success. Why do you think you’ve had such good fortune?

NF: I think I have an edge because I speak more than one language. That’s allowed me to have a very multi-cultural fan base. It also helps people identify with me because they can say “Hey, I’m kind of like her.” I guess there is also a positive, fresh energy to what I do.

But the message I send to young people interested in this business is that it’s really important to surround yourself with people who play music. If you know a keyboard player, hang out with them because that’s how you learn and improve. You could be a great songwriter, but it’s also important to have other musical experiences—you have to add those skills to your resume.

Growing up in Victoria, when I was 14 or so, I didn’t know any musicians. Eventually I hooked up with some people doing hip hop and I thought, this is good, it’s something—it’s music. And I learned from it and apply that to what I do today. It’s important to be open-minded, go out there, make music and get over the fear of thinking you can’t do it.

HB: Did you always know this is what you wanted to do?

NF: I’ve know since I was four years old, actually. I did a duet with my mom on stage. I felt proud and had a vision of performing for a bunch of people. The dream finally came true [in 2001] when I performed with U2 at Slane Castle in Ireland for over 80,000 people. It was like “OK. So this is what I was dreaming about when I was four!”

HB: Obviously the consequence of being in the public eye is losing some privacy. How difficult is it to balance sharing yourself with your fans and still keeping your personal space?

NF: It’s a fine line. You can totally shut people out and they see it as aggressive. Or you let people in and they don’t know where to stop. I’m always dancing on that line, I guess.

What happens to a lot of celebrities, unfortunately, is that they let everyone in and end up losing a bit of their sense of self.

I don’t think that will happen to me, though, because I’ve got a very normal and grounded family life.

HB: If your life was different and you had a more conventional nine-to-five job, what do you think you’d do?

NF: When I first came to Toronto I was 17 and trying to make it in the music business, so I had to get a nine-to-five job. I worked for an alarm company, and that’s when I realized—I never want a nine-to-five job! I guess everything happens for a reason.

I used to want to be a magazine editor though, and now I’d really like to study creative writing.

HB: What’s next for Nelly Furtado?

NF: When I finished Folklore and I sat down and listened to it from start to finish in my own CD player, I felt a real sense of satisfaction and excitement for music, which I hadn’t experienced for a while. The music made me more excited about music. So right now I’m just ready to create more. I have a little home studio, and I’ve already been writing some stuff. Maybe I’ll write for some other people, too. And, we’re touring all next year. So I guess, for now, I’ll just continue making music and try to keep finding inspiration!