Nelly Furtado: Selling the sizzle

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      The Nelly Furtado who gazes out from the cover of Inside Entertainment's April issue looks calm but intense. Her dark-brown hair is frozen in the grip of some impossibly perfect indoor breeze, and the strap of her red Nicole Miller cocktail dress hangs off a bare shoulder. Ice-blue eyes peer from below pink-frosted lids, and Furtado's golden skin appears Barbie-doll smooth.

      When the Georgia Straight shows the singer the magazine, she says she remembers doing the shoot some months ago but admits that she hasn't seen the cover yet. When she does, her bemused reaction carries an undertone of familiar resignation. “Wow,” she says, casting an eye at the photo. “That doesn't even look like me.” By this point, three albums into her career as a global pop sensation, the Victoria-born and now Toronto-based single mom has grown accustomed to the digital manipulation of her features, but it still has the power to surprise her by pointing out her supposed deficiencies. “I didn't know there was something wrong with my nose until I saw it retouched,” she says.

      Sitting for interviews at a downtown Vancouver hotel, the 27-year-old Furtado looks positively radiant, ever-so-slightly asymmetrical nose and all. That's worth noting, because whether she likes it or not, her image is the centre of much discussion at the moment. This is hardly a recent development; Furtado herself addressed the topic on her 2003 song “Powerless (Say What You Want)”, in which the performer, who is of Portuguese descent, sings “Paint my face in your magazines/Make it look whiter than it seems/Paint me over with your dreams/Shove away my ethnicity”.

      What has tongues wagging these days is sex. First there was the interview with European gay-lifestyle magazine GUS, in which Furtado said she believes all people are inherently bisexual. People have also been abuzz about the sexually frank lyrics on Furtado's recently released third CD, Loose, not to mention the midriff-baring libertine she seems to have become, if the video for the hit single “Promiscuous” is any indication. “After I had a baby, my body changed a lot,” Furtado says by way of explanation. “I got more curvy and felt more like a woman, and I think I'm just more proud of my body now. I think I'm a late bloomer. You know, I was a tomboy for a while, and I kind of all of a sudden went, 'Wow.' I started celebrating my femininity a little bit more.”

      Recorded in Miami with Tim “Timbaland” Mosley cowriting and producing most of its tracks, Loose is a heavily beat-driven outlet for that celebration. The aforementioned “Promiscuous” is a hot-blooded hip-hop duet between a flirtatious Furtado and Mosley, while the thumping, synth-tastic new wave of “Maneater” scans like the female-perspective answer to the old Hall & Oates number. The latter song finds Furtado encouraging the listener to “move your body around like a nympho”, which goes a long way toward explaining why Rolling Stone opined that the singer has gotten in touch with her “inner slut”. That's a charge Furtado denies, but she does acknowledge that in marked contrast to her comparatively more cerebral last record, Folklore, Loose is all about the body, not the mind.

      “I really think something happened to me in Miami when I was down there,” she states. “It's a really sexy city. I'm like a sponge. I kind of become my environment sometimes. That's the way I experience life.”

      Furtado insists that her apparent transformation into a libidinous reveller is not a self-conscious attempt at changing her image. Rather, she says it's merely a revelation of a hitherto-unexplored aspect of a complex whole. “I like the idea of the funny, sexy, and smart woman; the three-dimensional sort of thing,” she says. “I think more than anything, more than the clothing, it's my attitude that people are noticing, because I'm a lot more confident as a performer, and I think I'm able to express myself more completely on-stage and in my TV performances and my videos. So I think that's what's really turning heads.”

      The singer credits her producer's unpremeditated approach to music-making with giving her the confidence to trust her instincts. “The way Timbaland makes music is he makes it from the gut,” she reveals. “He's really impulsive, and he dances while he makes beats. His body's always moving, and so I had no choice but to jump right in and let go of thinking and follow my impulses too. So it's a much more impulsive album; it's much more raw. It comes from the gut. It has musical errors. That was important for me, and that's why I called it Loose, because I wanted it to be reality audio. Now that reality TV's so popular. I wanted to make it less precious. And that came from listening to rock music, like indie rock.”

      Furtado gives particular kudos to Controller.Controller and Death From Above 1979, two Toronto acts that take a visceral, eminently danceable approach to their post-punk aesthetic. Furtado caught a double bill of these bands and was impressed. “I noticed how sexually assertive the singers were on-stage, and I got influenced by that. One person described it as like a 'sexual menacing', and I think some of the songs [on Loose] have that weight to them.”

      Loose never comes close to Controller.Controller's brand of indie death-disco, but the disc offers a slice of percussive reggaeton (the Spanish-language “No Hay Igual”), a dash of sparkling Latin pop (“Te Busque”, featuring Colombian superstar Juanes), and a slather of sunset-rubdown R&B (“Showtime”). “I'm a person who listens to all kinds of music, and I channel it into my own music in a way where you can't even hear the influence at the end of the day,” Furtado says. “I guess it's like a computer: you just kind of input information and then you process it your own way.”

      The results of that processing have met with generally favourable reviews, although a few dissenting critics have noted that the one thing that seems to be absent from the new album, with all its floor-filling beats and genre-splicing hedonism, is Furtado herself. E! Online said that on Loose, Furtado “mysteriously trims away her individuality and morphs into a J.Lo imitator”. Vibe accused the artist of losing herself in “Gwen Stefani–like posturing”, while Pitchfork stated that “the strangest thing about Loose isn't its irregularity, but the simple fact that this doesn't sound like Nelly Furtado at all.”

      The singer deftly sidesteps the question of where exactly her identity can be found on the album, but she is quick to point out that elements of R&B, dance music, and especially hip-hop have been present in her work since even before her debut CD, Whoa, Nelly!, came out in 2000. “I think the thread that holds this album together, and holds my musical history together, is the technology thread,” she says. “I really love urban music, whether it's hip-hop or electronic trance, drum 'n' bass, or whatever it is. I like it all, and I've dabbled in all of it. My first recording gig was for a hip-hop group [Plains of Fascination] when I was 16, and then I did the trip-hop thing for a year when I was 17, and then I jammed with a techno DJ from Victoria called Matt Johnson. We used to jam together when I was going to college. I would even dabble on the keyboards and drum machines. Even when I was eight years old, I was asking my parents for Casio keyboards so I could jam.”

      Anyhow, naysayers be damned: Loose is a hit. As of this writing, the record holds the No. 4 spot on Billboard's album rankings, with “Promiscuous” sitting atop the same publication's Hot 100 singles chart. Locally, Loose is No. 1 on the Straight's own Top 50. All of which must seem like vindication for Furtado. Prior to the new disc's release, she was an artist with something to prove. Whoa, Nelly! was a Grammy-winning, six-times-platinum success story, but its follow-up, Folklore, was a commercial letdown, thanks to a complex web of bad timing. It could be argued that the CD–buying masses simply didn't know what to make of the serious-minded record, which addressed themes of cultural identity and boasted performances from such decidedly non-pop guests as Bela Fleck, Caetano Veloso, and the Kronos Quartet. Moreover, Folklore was released right as Furtado's then-label, DreamWorks, was collapsing, which meant the album didn't get the push it warranted. A new mom at the time, Furtado couldn't tour much in support of Folkore, which didn't help matters. The disc sold well and charted respectably, cracking the Top 40 in both the U.S. and Canada, but it failed to attain the dizzying heights of its predecessor.

      For that reason, Furtado was determined to stage her return to the spotlight with an unashamedly populist, world-conquering effort. “I have a bit of that fighting spirit,” she admits. “I think Timbaland brought that out in me more than anybody, because he's such a good producer, and he really pushes you as an artist. You always feel like he's throwing you a fastball and you have to hit a home run. He's the one producer who truly makes me feel challenged on every level as a musician, as an artist, and conceptually too. He kind of challenges me to think in a more universal way about what pop music is and what it means to people. I think, just elementally, he brings out my more passionate and powerful side of myself as an artist. So I think he aided in giving me that kick-ass mentality.”

      Then, of course, there was the matter of making sure the suits were satisfied. Furtado claims she received more encouragement than pressure from the overseers at Interscope, which owns Geffen, the label she records for.

      “They were challenging me a lot,” she says. “They were pushing me in a positive way, the label. Jimmy Iovine, the president of Interscope, said, 'You know, you and Timbaland made a promise to people when you put out that “Get Ur Freak On” remix [a 2001 collaboration with Missy Elliott]. You have that urban side of you that you've never explored. You've only given people a taste of it, so I think it's time for you to deliver on that promise.' And that's what I did.”

      Indeed she did. And that's a good thing, even if it does mean that Furtado will have to look at barely recognizable reconstructions of herself for some time to come.