Nelly Furtado
"It’s raw artistry, organic creativity, simplicity, musicality… all those things!"

Nelly Furtado is a songwriter.

It’s a prosaic observation, but it’s also the most important thing you can place her as. The past 15 years have wielded colossal international hits, huge tours, and even the launch of her own label – but beneath all this, she still views herself as a simple songwriter.

It’s a fact she admits she has sometimes lost sight of. 2012’s ‘The Spirit Indestructible’ was yet another huge success, a genre-pilfering blast of creativity that fused contributions from a cast so broad it made way for both R&B super-producers The Neptunes and EDM stadium hogger Tiesto. At points, though, it felt that Nelly Furtado herself was being obscured.

On the phone to Clash from Los Angeles, she’s remarkably open about the subsequent changes in her life, and her approach to music. “I guess three years ago I started writing again in a way that I hadn’t since I was probably like 20 or so… really just trying to find that artistic burrow again, a singer-songwriter person in a flowery dress sitting in a room writing song after song. I really missed her! So I had to take steps to find her. Like anything in life change is not easy, and I think the journey inwards is the hardest journey.”

So she acted. Stepping aside from her long-term manager, Nelly then exited her label, focussing purely on her own art. “You know what it is? I took the veil off.,” she says. “As a woman in the music business we got on a horse, right? And we find success. And all our wildest dreams come true, but at the same time we’ve built up this little mini-empire, and all of a sudden we have a business, and all of a sudden we have the Allstar Entertainment Inc.”

“I even had my own label, I was signing artists and doing A&R, and then I had to step away and say: wait a minute, this isn’t making me happy. I missed creating. I just wanted to be a creator. I just want to make things!”

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Taking several steps back, she desperately sought fresh air. At one point, she even worked anonymously in a record shop, seeking to regain that pure love of music that propelled her earliest recordings. “I worked at my friend’s vinyl shop,” she explains. “He’s been really inspiring to me over the years because he’s kind of like an encyclopedia of world music, Brazilian music, old jazz music, and classic rock. My car drove itself in front of his door one day, without realising that I needed to be around music again.”

“So I literally emailed him cold turkey and said: hire me in your store! I’m desperate! It’s music for my soul! I spent the day there and came away with Minnie Ripperton albums, and I came away like: I remember this! I remember this! I remember this feeling of making music, the way she felt when she made this. It’s raw artistry, organic creativity, simplicity, musicality… all those things!”

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I think creative connections have remarkable potential...

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Trips to Kenya to participate in a charity project literally took Nelly Furtado out of her daily routine, and she almost immediately fell in love with the African country and it’s culture. Taking her guitar along for the ride, she was moved – and wholly enraptured – by the universality of music, and also the profound simplicity of its role in daily Kenyan life.

“It’s funny because when I did my Spanish album (2009’s ‘Mi Plan’), I remember feeling like music was really engrained culturally in a lot of the countries I visited in a different way, on a different level. And so when I went to Kenya these beliefs were fortified in a whole new way because I would always bring my guitar, and from the moment I arrived I would play some songs, and print out some lyric sheets and have no idea if they would connect with the material.”

“I’m still an idealist and I really believe in the idea that music can actually heal people, and heal the world, and bring people together,” she continues. “I really witness this when I go and play music and sing to people and connect to people on that level. On a creative level. I think creative connections have remarkable potential. It’s so easy for us to put each other in boxes nowadays, but I think if we all write songs together we can prove to each other that we do have something in common, no matter who you are or what you believe in.”

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I really believe in the idea that music can actually heal people...

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Taken at face value, such optimism could be ripe for a cynical response – after all, these are troubles times we live in, and it takes more than pop music to solve deep societal fissures. But the sheer innocence of Nelly Furtado’s replies, and her absolute, complete sincerity is overwhelming. She truly practises what she preaches – she loves music, she loves the impact it has on people. Put simply: she’s a fan.

“I think I slowed down,” she explains at one point in our conversation. “I think I purely just started to smell the flowers again. I literally just think I started to appreciate beauty in the ugly things again. I think I had lost that.” “I mean, you can’t force a poem, right? A poem just kinda happens. But if you’re not awake you will never notice the poetry around you.”

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With her eyes wide open Nelly Furtado began to spot a different path, one she used to walk but had since wandered away from. Invited to perform at a Japanese festival she was introduced to St. Vincent’s Annie Clark, a songwriter she had long openly admired.

“We bumped into each other backstage,” she explains. “She was really friendly, and came to hang out and say ‘hi!’ - so she came by the dressing room. We had this hilarious thing where I gave her a cardboard cut out of my head that the Japanese label had made as a promotional item. And she’s so sweet she kept it for a while, the poor thing!”

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It’s really important, I think, when a producer challenges an artist.

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It was a fortuitous meeting in more ways than one. St. Vincent placed Nelly in touch with her producer, John Congleton, who agreed to oversee the Canadian artist’s new material. For Nelly Furtado – long used to the rigours of the pop experience – it was like a blast of cold water on her face.

“It’s really important, I think, when a producer challenges an artist. John really doesn’t give a crap about hit songs, commercial success, sales, that’s really not important to him. So obviously I had to write songs that would impress him.”

“He was basically asking me to look at myself a little deeper, and try a little harder to write better songs. And that’s what I did!” The relationship quickly blossomed, with Nelly hurling herself back into songwriting with an energy she hadn’t felt since her youth.

“I think this is where we go wrong in adulthood – we buy into this myth that we only need role models when we’re children. We only need role models when we’re youths. But that’s not true, we need role models right into adulthood too. We need mentors, we need people who believe in us. And John really believed in me as an artist. He felt there was something in me that maybe wasn’t being highlighted so I guess he wanted to honour that, really.”

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We need mentors, we need people who believe in us.

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Operating with incredible intensity, the songs poured out of her. Working at John’s base in Texas, the two completely overhauled what a Nelly Furtado album could sound like and achieve. “He’s clever!” she gleefully exclaims. “John comes from punk and alternative – not pop. He re-arranged my songs and came up with wonderful ideas to make things that much more original, or interesting. He’d come up with arrangements I would never come up with.”

“It was kind of an exploration in minimalism, too, where less is more. You need a good producer to say stuff like that. And I trust him. I trust him tremendously. And I think he appreciated when I trusted him. He likes when artists let him produce. When they allow him to produce. And I think there’s great freedom in that when you put trust in someone. I think it’s really liberating for an artist.”

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The results are certainly liberated. Out now, new album ‘The Ride’ veers from pained, acoustic introversion to caustic synth-funk, a stripped down return that resolutely turns away from glossy chart-oriented pop to find something of renewed depth. It’s a mark of Nelly’s deep trust in her producer that even the album title emerged at John Congleton’s suggestion. “I was struggling,” she admits. “I wrote down almost 100 titles in my notebook, and one day he said ‘I think I came up with a cool name for an album title’ and I was like ‘what?’ and he’s like: The Ride. And I liked it right away.”

“I realise now that I think he understood the themes to the music before I did. I think he got it. All these songs speak to a bit of disillusionment but also being OK with that. I would almost call it my mistake celebration album.”

“The last day in the studio when I was listening to John’s mix of ‘Carnival Games’ I actually completely got overwhelmed with emotion and I had to run to the bathroom and cry because I realised the creative process was over. It’s kinda sad when it’s over. And I think I also… it hit me how I was a little bit broken when I got there, and I was a totally different person by the time we had done the album. It was really neat.”

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I would almost call it my mistake celebration album...

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Out now, ‘The Ride’ is album loaded with questions, but few answers. Yet Nelly seems to be at ease with this, at ease with the realisation that her career isn’t built around chart placements or streaming figures, but an ability to choose her own path. The questions are her own.

“I’m asking myself questions,” tells Clash. “Like, when are you ever going to break free from these chains? When are you going to get off the carnival ride? When are you going to stop letting people take you on a ride? When are you going to stop choosing the pipe dream, and choose something a little bit more tangible? All those things!”

“When are you going to start being OK with making mistakes? When are you going to start loving yourself, and accepting yourself in all your flaws? So yeah – they’re all questions! Definitely! I feel like people can relate to that, because we’re all flawed. We don’t have all the answers. No one does.”

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'The Ride' is out now.

For tickets to the latest Nelly Furtado shows click HERE.

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