When the trappings of success led to an on-stage breakdown, singer-songwriter Nelly Furtado walked away from her career. Fast forward six years and Prince Harry’s pop princess is back…
‘I know how many women around the world will envy me for having a letter from Prince Harry,’ says Nelly
In a vast mansion in a well-heeled suburb of Toronto, Nelly Furtado is confessing her secret criminal past. ‘My song “Parking Lot” really reminds me of being 14 years old and hanging out around the 7 Eleven with my friends until 4am, stealing sweets,’ she says, dissolving into laughter. ‘I thought I was a bad-ass back then.’
This morning the Portuguese-Canadian Brit- and Grammy-winning singer-songwriter, now 33, could not seem less ‘bad-ass’ if she tried. Friendly and voluble, she even apologises for talking too much, as she careers from topic to topic, enthusing about a recent epic road trip across America (with her sound-engineer husband Demacio Castellon, and Nevis, her eight-year-old daughter from her relationship with DJ Jasper Gahunia) and the nostalgia that infuses her record.
'I’m a bit of a hippie, I need to escape. My husband laughs at me, because I take myself off to the woods'
The album, Nelly’s fifth, is aptly titled The Spirit Indestructible, and though she denies it is wholly self-referential, she has certainly overcome some serious setbacks to reach this point. When she was 20, her breakthrough single ‘I’m Like a Bird’ was an international smash hit, and her first album Whoa, Nelly! sold six million copies. Her second album, Folklore, didn’t fare so well, however, and while touring with her third album, Loose, in 2006, she suffered a nervous breakdown on stage and decided to press pause on her career – a bold move in a notoriously fickle industry.
Now, after six years away from the spotlight (involving only one self-produced Spanish-language album), she’s back with an urban-sounding album (the first single from which, ‘Big Hoops’, is released this week), which she describes as ‘a friendly punch in the face. That’s not meant to sound aggressive,’ she clarifies. ‘I just wanted it to have attitude and not take itself too seriously.’ Here Nelly talks comebacks and royal admirers…
I always knew I was going to make it. From the first time I sang a duet with my mum in church,
aged four, that was it – the idea was in my head.
I was the opposite of a Disney kid; it wasn’t about show business, it was about music, about sitting and practising your instrument. My grandfather and great-uncle were composers, and my father, a landscape gardener, was a huge fan of traditional Portuguese music, so it’s in the family. I was brought up in Victoria, British Columbia, and when I told my mum I wanted to move to Toronto, age 17, she was not happy, but she was still supportive. During the hard days, early on in Toronto, when I was crashing on my sister’s sofa, calling home and crying, she’d say, ‘Well, it’s what you wanted.’
My 14-year-old self had a lot of attitude. At that age, you already have your personality, but you haven’t suffered any knocks. I remember putting on my big hoop earrings, my baggy trousers and my backpack and taking the bus downtown to hang out at the mall. As I would stand there and wait for my friends, I already felt like I was on a poster. I already felt like I was famous. My role models growing up were TLC, Queen Latifah, Mary J Blige – strong, assertive, sexy, smart women.
I am a bit of a rebel at heart. I always leave room for a little rule-breaking and disorder.
Six years ago I had a nervous breakdown on stage. I was on the Loose tour and my daughter was with me – I was being a mum and a singer on the road. I was exhausted. Then one night I went on stage and I suddenly realised how stressed-out I was. I actually cried my way through the first two songs.
I took a break from music and went home. And I realised that being at home and having the whole family experience was what I was seeking.
Over the past couple of years I have come to terms with my small-town upbringing, and now I can look at it in a positive way. You run and you run and you run, and then you think, ‘Wait a minute, that was beautiful!’
It was not easy to take time out. I had to learn to say no. People were trying to get me to record another album. I wasn’t worried about burning any bridges, though. My career has had its ups and downs – it’s not like it has all been super smooth.
My first trip to Kenya, 14 months ago, was an awakening. I was invited there to shoot a documentary about a high school for girls in a region where very few girls are educated. In Africa, I really remembered who I am. I was raised Catholic, but I see myself as more spiritual than religious. I was able to come home and write all these lyrics, so there are songs on the album about God.
I am not a brand, and that’s been very much a choice. I turned down lots of make-up offers,
fashion campaigns, perfume deals… I always felt that I wanted my main product to be music.
This business requires some fighting – that’s part of it. Even in the beginning, I had to fight to wear trainers in the ‘I’m Like a Bird’ video.
Marriage has been really good for me. It’s so nice to know that somebody loves you. There’s also something about having the domestic side of your life calm that helps give you a foundation. People do say that from commitment comes great freedom, and I think it’s true.
Co-parenting with an ex is not easy, but I think it’s really important not to have any ill will. My daughter is lucky because she has two great dads in her life. All three of us are in the music business, so we understand each other’s crazy schedules. Nevis is a real music-biz kid.
‘I have met Prince William and Prince Harry, who are so sweet. Harry was the one who invited me to perform at the Concert for Diana, and was up dancing during my song “Say it Right”. And there’s going to be a real fanfare for the Jubilee in Canada – we still love the Queen and the Royal Family’
Being a small family unit is kind of nice, you can just pack up and go – my husband is from Miami and I have family in Portugal and Canada. But we do talk about having more children and I’d like to – maybe between this album and the next.
My daughter thinks writing songs is a joke. She’s been able to do it since she was tiny, so she doesn’t think it’s a big deal at all. She’s like, ‘Really Mummy, is that all you do all day?’
Singing at the Concert for Diana at Wembley in 2007 was a real high in my career, and I’m so glad I did it. British Columbia is still quite colonial – we still very much love the Queen and the Royal Family. I met William and Harry when I performed at the concert – they are such lovely boys. It was Harry who invited me to perform at the Concert for Diana, and was up dancing during my song ‘Say It Right’. They wrote to me afterwards to thank me for taking part and I’ve kept that letter. I know how many women around the world will envy me now for having a letter from Harry!
There will be a real fanfare for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee here. When Kate and William got married, it was a huge event. Children wrote them letters and people had parties while they watched the wedding.
People value tradition in a different kind of way these days. We live such fast-paced lives and we don’t always take the time to think about culture and heritage and great traditions, of which the Royal Family is definitely one. I think the way people celebrated the wedding last year shows that they do still care a great deal about the Royal Family.
Kate and William’s wedding really brought people together. And when they visited Canada earlier this year, the response was just incredible. Everyone was very proud that they chose to come here on one of their first official visits.
Now I’m a mother, I also see the love story between the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge through my daughter’s eyes. I remind her that even princesses go to the bathroom, just like everybody else – it’s my job to keep it a little bit real!
The old-school idea of a princess in a castle waiting to be saved is something I talk to my daughter about. Even at her school they look at why princesses in stories are always getting saved and don’t have jobs. I grew up in a feminist household and I want to pass that on to my daughter.
‘I was not prepared for the scrutiny that fame would bring. If I had been a celebrity at 16, I would have been misbehaving so badly’
I think the Queen commands huge respect – she is an icon and there’s so much love for her. She is strong in her role as a mother, as a woman, and
has her partner Prince Philip supporting her.
I love that the Royal Family doesn’t cave into trends – they live in their own fashion world. And it’s great that Kate wears the same outfits several times – she’s very down to earth. But whatever she does she seems to be criticised – too high street, too thin. As women, we should support each other and not be catty about each other.
There have been so many changes in the music industry since I started out. I feel calmer and more comfortable about myself in my 30s, but I am very aware how much older I am than the youngsters coming through now. That’s the payoff. I hang out a lot with my husband’s two lovely younger brothers, though. One is 22 and the other is 23, and they have a music blog. They are the ones who signed me up to Twitter and get me listening to new things. You have to stay engaged – everyone’s grandmother has a Facebook page these days.
I was not in any way prepared for the scrutiny that fame would bring. Thank goodness I was
20 when it arrived. If I had been a celebrity at 16, I would have been misbehaving so badly. Or, I would have been so repressed and trying so hard not to misbehave that I’d have been a total wreck by 25.
Dealing with my own body image was difficult at 21, and it’s still difficult now. When you are constantly looking at pictures of yourself, you become incredibly self-critical. Not only do
you need to be a musician, but you feel that you also need to look like a model. I think I had a good, solid upbringing, but I was still like, ‘Oh my God, I look fat in that dress.’ I have evolved over the past five years though. I’ve got to the point now where
I can look at any picture of myself and love it, because I feel like I am coming into my own. It’s
so much better than the state of mind I was in when I was in my early 20s.
I’m a bit of a hippie, I need to escape. My husband laughs at me, because I take myself off to the woods – like Snow White, listening to the birds! But I grew up around trees and by the ocean. I think I’ve kept a little of that spirit.
Listening to The singer Grimes from Montreal – she reminds me of me when I was about 17. I also like the band Grouplove, and the latest Incubus album, and I’m in love with St Vincent – she has three albums, all of which I love.
Style Icon I have always loved Jennifer Lopez [right] – she can even pull off flashing a nipple at the Oscars!
Reading Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. I’m only on chapter one, but it’s going well.
Beauty product I use a lot of Himalayan salt in the bath – it’s really invigorating. You can add jojoba or sweet almond oil and make your own scrub with it. I like the John Masters Organics range too, especially the lip balm.
Saving up for Another road trip – I want to go to Tennessee again. I’d never been to the national parks in the US before and they are gorgeous.
Splurging on Air travel. It’s getting so expensive now.
If you could live anywhere Miami – there are so many people from around the world, there’s such a spirit there.
‘Bucket List’, a track on The Spirit Indestructible, is about the things you have to do before you die. Here’s Nelly’s own list:
I really want to ride in a hot air balloon, as I say on the record. Even my daughter knows that. She always says, ‘Mummy, that’s your dream.’
Do a triathlon – a friend and I almost did one last year, but we bailed out because we got scared about the lake swim.
Visit Alaska, Greece and Iceland.
Direct a movie of some sort.
Spend New Year’s Eve in Bahia in Brazil – everybody dresses in white and they put candles in the ocean – it’s pretty amazing. And I want to go to carnival in Rio too.
Start making art. I have so many random ideas for installations.
Nelly’s single ‘Big Hoops (Bigger the Better)’ is out tomorrow, and her album The Spirit Indestructible will be released in September (Polydor)