Born: December 2, 1978, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
Occupation: Singer and songwriter
Height: 5' 1"
Background: Portuguese and African
Nelly is resting her toned arms on the table. She's got something around her wrist... probably some sort of fancy bracelet. She's got a sort of funny look on her face. She's wearing her hair back. She looks sexy! She looks better in a see-through shirt.
Nelly Furtado Quote:
Nelly Furtado Biography:
Nelly Furtado pla yed her first real shows after signing a record deal last year at the tender age of 20. "I did four Lilith Fair dates, and for the encore, everyone who performed that day would get onstage and sing [Bob Dylan's] ‘I Shall Be Released.' I was singing with Chrissie Hynde and Sarah McLachlan and Beth Orton," she says, still incredulous. "It was like a dream. I just kept thinking, ‘What am I doing here with all these seasoned pros?'"
It's a reasonable question for an untested artist who grew up in remote Victoria, British Columbia, a first-generation Canadian, the daughter of working-class Portuguese parents. Furtado has indeed taken only the first few steps along her path, but her wide-ranging taste suggests an artist who has sampled much that music has to offer. Further evidence of her eclecticism is found in the instruments she plays ( guitar, ukulele, trombone ), the languages in which she sings ( English, Portuguese, Hindi ) and the debut album that represents another dream fulfilled. To be sure, Whoa Nelly! (released on DreamWorks Records Sept. 26, 2000) boasts a hybrid sound that is uniquely her own.
The most recent chapter in Furtado's story began when, at 18, she leapt onstage to sing at a Toronto talent show for mostly black, female performers. It was there that she met her manager, who also represents multiplatinum Canadian act The Philosopher Kings. Shortly thereafter, the Kings' Gerald Eaton and Brian West produced a demo for Furtado. The results were adequate, but the well-rounded teenager already had plans to go backpacking in Europe, then head home to study creative writing.
She nonetheless stayed in touch with Eaton and West, who kept insisting she return to Toronto. Furtado recalls: "I went to see The Philosopher Kings both times they played in Victoria, and both times they said, ‘You gotta come to Toronto and do some more demos.' I was, like, ‘I don't know. I'm in school, I want to write, I'm learning to play guitar - blah blah blah.' Then one day Gerald just called and said, ‘You're coming to Toronto.' So I went for two weeks and it was awesome. The three of us totally clicked. Gerald and Brian are amazing - smart and charismatic and wonderful to work with. They created the most positive creative environment you could imagine."
The material they recorded during those sessions ultimately led to Furtado's deal with DreamWorks Records (where she was signed by A&R exec Beth Halper). Eaton and West (known collectively as Track and Field) came on board as production partners.
Among other things, Whoa Nelly! is a melding of Furtado's accumulated musical inspiration. The singer-songwriter-producer grew up with plenty of mainstream pop - Abba, Lionel Ritchie, Madonna, Paula Abdul - but in her formative years, she became fixated on its urban incarnation. An infatuation with youngsters Kris Kross led to an embrace of early ‘90s R&B like New Edition, Bel Biv Devoe, Salt-N-Pepa and Jodeci. Furtado informs: "On my 12th birthday one of my friends bought me a Mariah Carey tape."
The first tape she bought for herself was by TLC, which foreshadowed her development into a hip-hop fan. De La Soul, Ice-T, Digable Planets, P.M. Dawn - these artists consumed Furtado until her senior year of high school, when she started listening to her older brother's CD collection. There she discovered Radiohead, Oasis, Pulp, Garbage, U2 and The Verve. That summer a friend from London upped the ante by making her a mix tape of music by classic artists like Simon and Garfunkel and modern standard-bearers like Prodigy and Portishead. "I got into The Beatles then, too, and Smashing Pumpkins," she says. (Furtado's sponge-like nature can be partially attributed to what she calls her "obsession" with pop culture. "I love it," she says. "I can't help it - I love awards shows, magazines, movies. I'm totally star-struck").
This panoply of influences is matched by the music of Furtado's ancestral homeland. When she was 16, she took a giant step toward securing her own creative voice while on a trip to Portugal , where she uncovered the local equivalent of an MC battle: "I went to this club and just got up onstage and started singing, making up lyrics off the top of my head. That's what hip-hop's all about - freestyling. The fado tradition in Portugal has a similar thing called cancoes desafios, which is basically spontaneous singing. You try to show up the other person onstage with you - you dis their mother or say they're lazy or something. There are a lot of colloquialisms involved and you've got to know the language of the land pretty well to get it right."
The realization of this cultural convergence gave way to another epiphany when Furtado went to London to visit the friend who'd given her that all-important mix tape. "One night, my friend's dad played a Brazilian compilation CD and I was hooked," she declares. "It was African and Portuguese music coming together. The emotion and the romanticism comes from the Portuguese side; the rhythm and groove and energy come from the African side." Someday she wants to make an album of Brazilian music, sung entirely in Portuguese. And though her love for these sounds may have been foreseen considering her Portuguese heritage and gravitation toward R&B and hip-hop, Furtado's career in the rarefied world of professional music is something of a surprise. "My mom has always worked in housekeeping at this place called The Robin Hood Motel," she reports. "My dad does stone masonry and had a small landscaping business. I worked with my mom as a chambermaid every summer for eight years, so I know what it's like to work for money. I vividly remember getting my first paycheck - I spent it on clothes."
The origins of Furtado's work ethic and down-to-earth disposition, then, are clear; the font of her artistic leanings is perhaps more elusive. "It may sound strange," she says, "but I think my creativity has always been connected to the outdoors, to when I was a kid and I'd go outside and sing." She elaborates: "My parents are from the Azores, a Portuguese island group in the mid-Atlantic. They have farmland there, about 50 acres, with cows and everything. It's very beautiful. I think that's why my parents moved to Vancouver Island [where Victoria is located], which is also beautiful and similar in other ways as well."
"My earliest memory is of camping, and then being in a boat," she reminisces. "I was always on my bike, always in the creek. My friends and I would build forts and play all day. Growing up surrounded by that kind of beauty has a lot to do with how a person feels - it just makes you a certain way." Apparently, it made Furtado creative, and that creativity found its natural outlet in song.
Furtado's mother, who sang in church, was an early inducement in this direction. "I remember hiding behind the couch and listening to my mother and some other ladies from the church practicing for big festivals like Portugal Day. When I was four years old, I sang a duet with my mother for about 300 people. Even at that age, I knew I loved performing," Furtado reveals.
Secular music also made its presence known at home. "We had a pretty dope stereo in the living room when I was growing up," she says, "but there was this other record player in my parents' bedroom. I'd go in there and sit by myself and listen to that Billy Joel album Glass Houses over and over. The thing that intrigued me the most was the sound of breaking glass on the record. I vaguely remember trying to sample it onto a tape recorder. Unfortunately, I tripped over that record player one day and broke it - the speaker fell off."
The sound of breaking glass was a bit of an omen as Nelly grew into adolescence. "I was hanging out with the naughty circle in school," she confides. "These kids' parents let them stay out all night and sleep over wherever they wanted to. I wasn't allowed to do those things, but I'd break my curfew all the time and get in trouble. Then I went through my little girl-gang thing; we called ourselves the Portuguese Mafia. We'd crash parties, and if someone pissed us off we would go back and let them know it. But the worst thing we ever did was throw rocks at the windows of school buses parked in abandoned lots."
Those years were not all vandalism, however. Furtado also played trombone in her school's marching, jazz and concert bands and recreated Janet Jackson's video dance routines with friends who shared her love of urban pop. Hearing her discuss this music with obvious knowledge and passion, one might think she grew up in big-city America. But her community had an even more diverse makeup. "I bonded with other first-generation Canadians," she illuminates. "Their parents were from all over - China, India, Africa, Latin America. I experienced many different cultures, which enriched my musical knowledge."
This enrichment in turn spurred her evolution as an artist. "Not long ago, I was just making music for music's sake - I made music with anyone I could, every chance I got," she says. "But it was very self-involved; it was just for me. My first recording experience came when I was 16 , when I sang backup vocals for my friend's hip-hop group."
Furtado's next creative milestone came the following year, when she moved cross-country. "After high-school, I went to Toronto," she narrates. "I got a job at an alarm company and started working my way into the music scene. I was part of an experimental trip-hop duo called Nelstar. It was me writing melodies and a hip-hop-style producer coming up with the beats. We made lots of tracks and even filmed a video."
Despite this progress, Furtado recognized a key skill she had yet to master: "At the time, I didn't feel ready to take the next step with my music, which would have been recording and getting a complete release out," she says. "I was writing solid melodies and coming up with arrangements, but it really bugged me that I couldn't write proper songs with a guitar - I knew that was the final frontier."
"Actually," Furtado continues, "I always had this goal to learn guitar. I played ukulele at school, so I knew those four strings - two more couldn't be that much harder, right? And I already knew the strumming action. But it takes a while before you get your own identity on guitar; when you start, your songs sound pretty straight-up folk."
Still, playing this traditional instrument did not discourage Furtado's interest in progressive music. "I'm attracted to the roots of anything fresh and cutting-edge," she confirms. Her enduring absorption of other artists' work reflected this penchant. "I love Jeff Buckley," she says. "Grace - that changed my life. He totally influenced my singing and songwriting and performing, everything." She also began to soak up the music of international artists like Amalia Rodrigues and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Of course, all of this was brought to bear on Whoa Nelly, but it was the artists who traversed cultures that left the deepest impression on Furtado's debut.
"I made this record because I was inspired by Cornershop's When I Was Born For The Seventh Time," she states. "It was pop music, but it was a mixture of pop and Indian music, which I found totally exciting. [Beck's] Odelay had a similar effect on me. It was super-creative, wonderful-sounding, full of integrity - and not melancholy. Sometimes it seemed that everything I liked was sad, so hearing that was very meaningful for me. Those two records made me realize I wanted to make a pop album, something with the edge of the Portuguese and Brazilian music I love, but also something happy. I liked the challenge of making heartfelt, emotional music that's upbeat and hopeful - like Cornershop and Beck and Bob Marley have been able to do."
Furtado extends this philosophy to her live show. "I don't want to be on the road every night dwelling on the negative stuff and getting depressed over it," she says. "I've gone to see some of my favorite bands, like Radiohead, and was, like, how can they do this every night? How can they torture themselves like this? That's why Beck's show was such a big deal. He made me feel like I can groove every night, like I can party onstage. Some of the music I write can put me in a difficult emotional space and I need to balance that. I want to spread the love; I don't want people to cry after my show - unless they're tears of joy."
Furtado is eager to put this commitment into practice. "I can't wait to get on the road," she says. "That's what I've been waiting to do my whole life, you know? It's always been my dream to have my own band. I've always imagined siting on the bus, reading for hours until we get to the next city. That might seem weird to some people, but I've always been a nomad at heart; I love to wander."
Furtado's focus on a future of such dreams-come-true does not prohibit her from living in the moment. She particularly savored her time in the studio. "I could feel how special that was the whole time we were doing it," she affirms. "I know I'm going to look back on it with very sentimental feelings. Toward the end, when we'd be sitting around sipping Coronas, I began to feel sad. I'd been making music with Gerald and Brian for a year and a half and it was almost over. It was a little like the end of high school - we needed some yearbooks to sign."
But Nelly understands that there are other musical avenues yet to explore. "I'm ready to move on," she says. "I want to grow and develop. I'm just gonna keep on writing and see where it takes me."