Already a star in American pop music, Portuguese
Canadian songstress Nelly Furtado breaks ground, and barriers, with her new Spanish-language album Mi Plan.
By Fernando Ruano, Jr.
It’s around lunchtime and Nelly Furtado is consumed by thoughts of arroz con pollo. Engaged in lively banter about all things food with one of her associates, the talk prompts a sudden yearning for a plate of the traditional Cuban dish or a visit to her mother in law’s kitchen.
“Oh, my God ... El [arroz con] pollo a la churrera is to die for,” says Furtado, who’s married to Cuban-American producer Demacio ‘Demo’ Castellon and a frequent visitor to his parents’ suburban home in Miami. “Their cooking rocks. The platanos maduros and all that stuff is... yum. I’m getting hungry just thinking about all the food.
”Happily chatty and casually clad in a loose-fit pink tee and tight grey-washed jeans, the 30-year-old Canadian-born singer/songwriter boasts a girl-next-door like demeanor. By all appearances, she’d definitely make a good dinner guest.“I can do some damage around a dinner table,” Furtado says. “I have a pretty good appetite for a girl.”
Her hunger and passion for good food is surpassed by her appetite for musical creativity. To satisfy her professional hunger for something new, Furtado, who’s known for her pop and radio-friendly English-language tunes, branched out by recording, and completing, Mi Plan. It’s her fourth full-length album, but her first in Spanish. It was released in September by Furtado’s own Nelstar Music label. Although Furtado has had a number of collaborations with Spanish-language musicians to her credit (including Tu Fotografía with Juanes for his Un Día Normal 2002 album and a remix of No Hay Igual alongside Calle 13) the idea of recording and releasing an entire album in a language she’s not fluent in might be considered a risky move.
What made the project increasingly difficult was that it surfaced not long after Furtado had completed an exhausting yearlong tour to promote her 2006 chart-topping album Loose. She began in Europe performing 23 shows in five weeks, traveled to Japan, crossed through Canada and concluded in the U.S.That album featured hit single Promiscuous, and sold more than 10 million copies worldwide, according to representatives at Universal Music Latino. While wildly popular, the tour left her a bit winded and short on inspiration.“I wasn’t exactly in the mood [to write and get back in the studio]. It was weird because in a way I had lost my desire to write in English,” she says. “I was searching—and needed—something new.”
At work in the studio with her close friend and guitarist James Bryan and unsuccessfully trying to pen lyrics for a new album, Furtado, the daughter of Portuguese immigrants, even tried her hand at authoring songs in Portuguese—but she wasn’t too crazy with the results.
Things started sounding different after Cuban-Canadian singer-songwriter Alex Cuba dropped by one day and suggested she put it together in Spanish. “I really liked what I was hearing after Alex came into the picture,” says Furtado, who listened to plenty of Latin music in her teens in Victoria, British Columbia, including crooners Luis Miguel and Laura Pausini.
“I learned Portuguese really young, so it helped with the Spanish,” she says. As a student, Furtado had hung around with plenty of friends of South-American descent and learned a choice word—or two—in addition to taking Spanish courses in school. But that was nothing compared to what she was experiencing with Cuba and Bryan.
“I loved what I was hearing,” says Furtado. “I felt free singing in Spanish and expressing myself . It was like letting my Latin soul loose. The depth of the lyrics was gravitating to me.”
The plan took a slight turn as the three headed back to the studio to write material for the album. The result: 24 co-authored tracks that were eventually cut down to a dozen, including duets with Alejandro Fernández, Juan Luis Guerra, Julieta Venegas, Josh Groban and La Mala Rodríguez.
Heavy on love relationships and adorned with an intimate and romantic lyrics, the up-tempo dance, melodic and folksy album features lead track Manos Al Aire, a club fixture that has already topped the charts in Germany, Colombia and Argentina. The song has allowed her to reach new heights in the U.S. as well, recently making Furtado the first non-Hispanic to reach No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart with a Spanish cut.
While the Grammy-Award winning Furtado, who climbed her way up the pop charts and left her footprints with I’m Like a Bird off her debut album Whoa, Nelly! (2000) and Loose (2006), appears to genuinely appreciate the fruits all the mainstream success have allowed.
“I’ve always tried to keep a steady ground,” says Furtado. “I’m blessed to have so many beautiful things happening to me right now.” She admits to finding a new appreciation for her profession after the birth of her now six-year-old daughter Nevis. Furtado gets a kick whenever her daughter starts singing (in Spanish no less) and asks questions about some of her new songs.While enjoying the fruits of a new and successful production and the anticipation of another long tour, she is also fond of the days when the lights didn’t shine so brightly.
The wide-ranging Furtado, who has sold over 18 million records in a career spanning a decade, recalls her musical roots. As an adolescent she established herself by singing in church and playing the keyboard and guitar (after losing interest in the trombone). “I was just so moved with the sounds [of music]. Even as a kid I looked forward to going to church because I knew I was going to get a chance to sing.”
Furtado began sneaking out of her house in British Columbia and into DJ booths as early as age 12. Interacting with underground rappers and DJs led to invitations to contribute her vocals on a few albums. On a summer visit to Toronto, Furtado met Tallis Newkirk of hip-hop group Plains of Fascination, and the meeting resulted in her contributing vocals to Waitin’ 4 The Streets on the group’s 1996 album Joining The Ranks.
She moved to Toronto after graduating and soon teamed with Newkirk to form Nelstar, a trip-hop duo that specialized in the down-tempo sound that emerged from British hip-hop and house scenes of the mid-1980s.
But it wasn’t until she performed at Honey Jam, an all-woman music fest in 1997, that she garnered the attention of Philosopher Kings singer Gerald Eaton and was invited to write songs with him. Shortly after she cut a demo and had her first record deal with Dream Works.
Party’s Just Begun (Again), her first single, was released as part of the Brokedown Palace movie soundtrack. As part of the Party, Furtado sings, “I feel like falling asleep and never waking up. Its not like my glass is empty but I need another cup.”
Ten years later she finds herself swimming in unchartered waters, but determined to keep moving forward. “I’ve never been afraid of taking a risk,” says Furtado, whose recent album was a surprise to some in the music industry because she is practically unknown in Spanish-language music circles.
Furtado’s albums have a track record of success, and that could spell continued success for the accomplished star—no matter what language she sings in. “In my opinion music is sort of a language in itself,” says Furtado. “It may really sound vague but that’s what I’ve gathered from just traveling [the world]. ”
Furtado is prepared to give her versatile chops quite the workout in coming months with the continued traveling to show off her newest baby and a possible tour next year. Regardless of the outcome, Furtado says: “I do it from the heart.”
Nelly Furtado | Hispanic Magazine 2009
Already a star in American pop music, Portuguese