Nelly Furtado makes smart entry into Latin music market

The first single on Nelly Furtado's new album, Manos al aire (Hands in the Air), recently hit No. 1 on Billboard's Latin radio chart. Photo: Charles Trainor / By Jordan Levin

Nelly Furtado's musical career has been filled with drastic changes. She started as a funky hip-hop / fusion phenomenon, soaring to success with her 2000 debut Whoa, Nelly and its Grammy-winning hit Fly Like a Bird, then veered into a Brazilian-tinged world-beat detour. She returned to the mainstream in 2006 with the bestselling, sexy pop-hip-hop of Loose.

Now Furtado is back with a new sound and a new identity -- Latin songstress. Her latest album, Mi plan, a pop-rock record filled with famous Latino guest stars, comes out this week. It's an idea that's been brewing for some time. The Canadian-born daughter of Portuguese immigrants, Furtado performed Portuguese songs as a child. She recorded a hit duet in Spanish, Fotografia, with the Colombian rock star Juanes in 2002, and he returned the favor by guesting on one of two Spanish songs on Loose. (Incidentally, Furtado's husband is a Cuban-American from Kendall, a sound engineer she met while recording Loose at North Miami's Hit Factory / Criteria studios.)

Mi plan looks like a smartly calculated entry into the Latin music market. The first single, Manos al aire (Hands in the Air), released in early August, recently hit No. 1 on Billboard's Latin radio chart. The album's guest list includes Dominican pop-bachata idol Juan Luis Guerra, Mexican regional music heartthrob Alejandro Fernández, Mexican singer-songwriter Julieta Venegas, Spanish rapper Mala Rodriguez, and her countrywoman, flamenco-jazz singer Buika.

But Furtado, a thoughtful musician who writes her own songs, found that working in Spanish invigorated her creatively, opening up a more personal and emotional style of songwriting.
"All these songs were inspired by me just living my life, taking two years off after the crazy schedule I had before,'' says Furtado, sitting in a tiny vocal recording studio at Criteria, where she recorded key tracks on Mi plan. "And being surrounded by the people that mean the most to you, your family. And then my music, which wasn't giving me inspiration in English, but then I turned to Spanish and I am so inspired now.''

Contrary to what the name implies, Furtado says Mi plan was anything but planned. "My plan is really not to have a plan,'' Furtado says. "As I get more life experience, I remember the real challenge is you can have plans, but they can change in a moment. A lot of little moments inspired this album.''

The first moment, like many, came by chance. Furtado was home in Toronto after an exhausting stint promoting and touring Loose, enjoying time with her daughter Nevis, 5, and her new husband, Demacio Castellon. But the music she was writing with her guitarist James Bryan wasn't exciting either of them. They talked about bringing in another singer, but didn't do anything about it. Then Furtado's percussionist gave her a CD by Alex Cuba, a Cuban bassist and songwriter living in Northern Canada. The CD rattled around Furtado's car for a couple of months until she finally played it and said, "wow, I love it.''

Around the same time, she recalls, Bryan called and said, "Hey, you know we were talking about using another singer? What about a Spanish singer -- Alex Cuba is coming to town.''
Initially, Cuba was skeptical: A jazz and blues lover whose own music is a virtuoso mix of Cuban, rock, jazz and Caribbean styles, he wasn't a big fan of Furtado's commercial pop. And Furtado had only had four years of high school Spanish. "He was very aloof -- which I loved, of course,'' Furtado says.

But the two of them clicked musically, writing four of the songs on Mi plan within the first four days. "I'd say to Alex, you know, I was feeling kind of sad the other night -- and he'd say, let's write a song about it.''

Instead of the elaborate production of Loose, helmed by master hip-hop producer Timbaland, Furtado went back to basics. "Loose was 90 percent written with a beat first, and then I'd write my melodies and songs to the beat,'' she says. "Mi plan was written with guitar and voice, so it was really about the songs, and what I was feeling at that point.''

If the songs and videos -- and Furtado's persona -- on Loose were sexy and exuberant, coming off her divorce from Nevis' father, the tone on mi Plan is intimate, thoughtful, romantic. Instead of long nights in the studio, Furtado and her songwriting partners Cuba and Bryan would start early in the morning, then head off mid-afternoon to pick up their kids from school.

The songs reflect that quieter mood. Feliz cumpleaños was inspired by Furtado's melancholy over turning 30. Suficiente (Enough) is about the working mother's dilemma of "not having enough time in the day. You wake up -- and yes I do live in a messy apartment -- and you have to get breakfast, and yes, sometimes I don't have groceries in my fridge ... and you don't have enough time for a date, you don't have enough time to focus on love.''

In Manos al aire, she tamps down her anger to preserve her relationship. "My rule in love is always being the first to say you're sorry,'' Furtado says. "It's all right and healthy to argue, but at the same time you have to know when to put down your armas [weapons].''

It was a sentiment, like so many on Mi plan, that she found easier to express in Spanish. "That's obviously a very personal thought, and one which I don't think I could express in English the right way,'' Furtado says. "I think I can get away with more in Spanish. I think you can be a lot more passionate. On this album it's about what are these really intimate things close to my heart that I really can't say in English.''

That emotionally open attitude left Furtado free to enjoy moments like the ones on Bajo otra luz (Under Another Light), recorded at Criteria with Venegas and Rodriguez. The song features a giggling freestyle romp by these very different artists.

"Julieta said we were like tres brujas -- three witches around the microphone,'' Furtado says. "I always record with guys. But this song, recording with three girls the energy was amazing. We really had a good time.''

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