"When I signed my first deal," she says, "I spent hours with my lawyer making sure there was a clause in my contract that if I choose to record a Portuguese full-length, I would be allowed to go to another label if they didn't want to release it. I've always known that I'd be putting out Latin albums, so it's all where it's supposed to be."
Granted, she sings in Spanish rather than her parents' native language on her new album, Mi Plan. And yet, it's still remarkable that she has marshalled the major-label promotional machine in full force for a collection of songs in a language that much of her primary audience doesn't understand.
Kitted out in dramatic black-and-white in a four-star hotel suite in her adopted hometown of Toronto with publicists and aides around her, the Victoria native explains how she set Mi Plan in motion. When her American label, Interscope, asked for what she calls "a quickie Spanish album" to cash in on her 2006 pop breakthrough Loose, with translations of its songs and one or two originals, she demurred. "I knew deep down that wasn't my destiny," she says. "I always wait till this 'gut thing' happens where [I think], 'Oh right! This is what I'm supposed to do.' "
One such gut feeling came about when she and her guitarist and collaborator, James Bryan, invited singer/ songwriter Alex Cuba to his studio in Toronto's west end for a writing session. Furtado asked Cuba (who derives his pseudonym from the country where he was born) to translate a set of lyrics into Spanish.
"I had to prove myself to him," she recalls, as the jazz-andblues "purist" wasn't familiar with her music. In the recording booth, she nailed the translation in one take, giving Cuba the "shivers," and the two decided to write more songs together; the one she'd just sung, Mi Plan, became her new album's title track.
She swapped labels for the project to Universal Latino, and recruited a variety of Spanish-language stars to lend their talents to the album, including Dominican bachata star Juan Luis Guerra, jazz-flamenco artist Concha Buika, Spanish rapper La Mala Rodriguez and Mexican-American singer and accordionist Julieta Venegas. Furtado wanted to expand her musical reach, and also to legitimize her project.
"Nobody wants any fakers," she says. "You don't want anyone just bandwagoning, [saying] 'I'm going to be a Latin pop star because I can.' If you're going to put an album out and focus on any language, it has to be convincing; it has to have integrity. I didn't want to pretend that I'd been dancing salsa since I was two -- I was in a Portuguese folk-dancing outfit when I was two!"
She began speaking Spanish in high school, and while she's not entirely fluent, she chose the language because it "translates into pop way easier than Portuguese." Indeed, the variety of styles brought to Mi Plan by her collaborators is polished by a synthfriendly Europop sheen. "I want to save my more regional or folkloric or alternative album for when I put out a Portuguese full-length," she says, "because I think I'm going to need a lot of living before I put out something like that. Even my own mother said it: 'I don't think you'll be able to record in Portuguese till you're at least 40!' "
The 30-year-old Furtado has a ways to go, then, although her singing on Mi Plan is more openly emotive than ever -- accentuated by her telenovela-style videos and her strikingly monochrome attire. Her subject matter is moving on as well: The track Suficiente Tiempo, for instance, is about the time it takes to do one's domestic chores. She spent the first year after touring the openly sensual Loose, she says, "in fisherman rubber boots and velour track pants at home, leading a very unglamorous life.
"As a songwriter, if you don't strip [things] away once in a while, you get really boring, and you start writing about hotel rooms and airplanes. So I try to go back to basics and hide in a hole until I feel like I've got something to say."
Furtado prefers not to be an unreachable star in the pop stratosphere. "I love supporting indie anything!" she enthuses. When screaming punks F---ed Up asked her to appear on their charity Christmas single in 2007, she readily said yes -- no strings attached, no managers involved. And when her friends in Toronto fashion-freak, dance-pop band Fritz Helder and the Phantoms needed a break, she formed her own label, Nelstar, to release their debut this summer, and then offered to do their lighting on a tour of B.C. and the Yukon.
But the transition from stadium star to small-club entertainer can have its hitches: "They fired me after the second gig, cause I was trying to be too dramatic and shoving lights off after every song. It's like, 'This isn't the [Air Canada Centre]. You've only got three lights to work with there, honey.' "
It seems, then, there will always be at least one constant in her winding career: "As much as I try to run away from it or escape it, I always keep coming back to music. God was nice. 'Let's give her a talent -- let's let her at least be able to do music, 'cause she's horrible at everything else!' "
And there's that free-spirited laugh again, as catchy as one of her songs. It's impossible not to laugh along.
Mike Doherty, National Post
Published: Monday, September 14, 2009