Here come the girls. Backstage at Elstree Studios, a troupe of perfect bodies files past, wearing fishnets: Nelly Furtado’s backing dancers. Then she appears, dressed like an S&M Barbie doll in a frou-frou miniskirt and black leather biker gloves. Each finger is encrusted with spiky rings and sparkly knuckledusters, and she’s wearing outsize hoops, of course — ‘The bigger the better, the better the bigger,’ as she puts it in her new single — and this particular pair is decorated with silver shark bites. ‘Wearing hoops makes me feel less insecure, more confident,’ she says in a voice surprisingly small and vulnerable for a pop diva with some of the most powerful lungs in the business.
Nelly, 33, sold six million copies of her 2000 debut album Woah, Nelly! and became everyone’s favourite Portuguese Canadian: feisty, beautiful — she could be Courteney Cox’s little sister — wholesome yet kooky, singing about how she was ‘like a bird’ who wanted to ‘fly away’. (Turns out she meant it: ‘Birds are my power animals… eagles are important to me… I’ve always been attracted to ravens…’) Her accordion-heavy second album Folklore was rather niche, but she came roaring back into fashion in 2006 with Loose, produced by hip-hop genius Timbaland and featuring dancefloor favourites such as ‘Promiscuous’, ‘Say It Right’, and the insanely catchy UK number one ‘Maneater’. It was the bestselling album in the US that year.
But at the highest point of her success, she suffered a burn-out. One night, she started crying on stage and couldn’t stop. She was struggling to combine being a single mother to her daughter Nevis, now eight, from her relationship with DJ Jasper Gahunia (‘Nevis means snow, and I thought she kinda looked like Snow White when she was born’), with the demands of touring. ‘I was fine by the third song,’ says Nelly. ‘But yes, I’d describe it as a breakdown. Not like a complete one where you have to have a lie-in for 30 days or whatever. But it was like a light bulb went off. I was like, “OK, I’m going to take a break, do some passion projects.” ’
She wrote an album in Spanish, Mi Plan. ‘I felt like I had nothing to say in English, I needed to let it all flow through me in other languages.’ She married her sound engineer, Demacio Castellón, in 2008, and made peace with her inner overachiever. ‘I’m quite proud of myself for learning how to say no. You’ve got to learn how to take care of yourself, how to balance your life. Success is really about spending time with family and friends. And hobbies. I like baking. I like arts and crafts. I like basketball.’
She is surprisingly demure for a girl wearing knuckledusters. ‘Well, it’s been a big couple of years for me, I've been on a real journey. There’s been a big shift in consciousness for me.’ She means getting through the breakdown, writing her new album and also, I think, Gaddafi-gate. In March 2011, as the Libyan dictatorship began to topple, Wikileaks revealed that Mariah Carey, Beyoncé and Usher had each been paid $1 million to play a private gig for Gaddafi’s son’s New Year’s Eve party. Nelly owned up to the fact that she, too, was culpable. ‘In 2007 I received $1 million from the Gaddafi clan to perform a 45-minute show for guests at a hotel in Italy,’ she tweeted. ‘I am going to donate the $.’ When I ask her about it, Nelly tells me that the Gaddafi gig had been weighing on her mind for some time. ‘I did the concert way back when. Then I went to Kenya in January , right before the Arab Spring started, and it was a real education. I was with the Free The Children foundation, and they are so knowledgeable, and we were having conversations, and that was when it kinda hit me, how negative an impact some of these, y’know, dictators have on their people, in the long term. And I just couldn’t stop thinking about that money…’
She puts her hand on her chest, trying to find the words: ‘In my heart I…’ She knew she needed to give the money to charity, fast. ‘That was an interesting journey figuring out what I would do with the money. I really wanted some of it to go towards the territories. So I chose this project called Girls For Change, which is in Gaza and Egypt and Tunisia, and eventually Libya, helping 12- to 18-year-old girls learn leadership skills and empowerment. It’s been so rewarding just to see these girls with what I feel is an indestructible spirit.’
And with that awe-inspiring conversational segue she leads us on to her new album, The Spirit Indestructible, out next month.
It must be a fun time to be a pop diva now, in the post-Gaga scene. ‘You definitely can’t be lazy!’ she laughs. Madonna has clearly been an inspiration but would Nelly follow her example and bare, say, a nipple on stage? ‘Me, I think body parts are powerful, so you’ve got to use them wisely. That’s just how I was brought up. As I get older I’ve come into my body more and more and got more comfort-able… I think it’s about doing what you’re comfortable with.’ So in the future she might do something more risqué? ‘That’s what I’m saying!’ Does she feel pressure to wear a lobster on her head? ‘No. I feel that as long as you’re connecting with the crowd that’s the main thing. I still believe in a passionate performance — like Adele, she’s a great performer, and she’s super-vulnerable, so people can relate to that. It’s the vulnerability they’re connecting with.’
Struggling with self-confidence is something Nelly is all too familiar with. ‘Over the past four years I’ve been on something of a journey about my body. I used to be like lots of people in this business: “I need to go on the treadmill for the next photo shoot.” No, you need to train your body for the health of your heart, for flexibility, for your bones, your blood, your nerves, your cells. Not for how you look. Working out for aesthetic purposes just seems so, so…’ Shallow?
‘Maybe. I mean, you’ve got to learn to eat for the right reasons. To eat for nourishment. Not to confuse eating with love, as many families do. Not to eat because you don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t have any vices, and it’s the only thing you do that feels like something naughty.’ Was that you? ‘Yes, for a while. I ate because it was naughty. As a kid, yeah. It’s a journey everyone goes on. I used to be, like, “Woah!” looking at photos of myself on the red carpet, caring about how I looked. I don’t any more. I don’t even look at the pictures. There’s no value in that.’
Nelly has also banned cable TV at home in Toronto, and frequently switches off internet access. ‘I encourage reading and critical thinking for my daughter. She’s eight years old and I’ve started to teach her some media literacy already. I feel that it’s really important that young men and women know about Photo-shopping. They need to know everybody’s airbrushed, squeezed, shrunk, no one fits into sample sizes — people get surgery to fit into those sizes, girls need to know that.’ But surely Nelly’s publicity photos are airbrushed, too? ‘Yes. I’ve got a lot of creative control over what I look like. On my website I’ve got some documentaries about the making of my album that aren’t airbrushed, it’s just me, doing my thing, going into the studio, with my hair looking a riot. It’s reality.’ So she’s now in what’s known as a good place? ‘I can now look in the mirror naked and love myself,’ she says, then laughs. ‘Sorry, was that too much?’
Quick and birdlike, Nelly really can talk. Although she spouts all the usual pop-star pieties, she’s somehow adorable, a steel butterfly. I respect her for answering maturely about Gaddafi, and the whole Nelly package comes with a delightful dash of the unexpected. She’s invited the Apache world champion hoop dancer Tony Duncan on tour with her, and has been soaking up his Native American philosophy. ‘The eagle symbolises a messenger from the spirit world, so maybe it’s like when I sing I’m sending out a message, a vibration?’ Nelly, I salute you, and your cosmic vibrations.