INTERVIEW: Nelly Furtado goes everywhere, finds herself

There’s a good reason why Nelly Furtado isn’t a bigger star than she ought to be. It’s because this has all been just a “hobby” for her.

The singer admits as much during a recent interview to pump up interest for her show at the Jubilee Auditorium on Tuesday, part of a big round of press to promote her entire Canadian tour, which is not drawing the crowds one would expect from a Grammy-winning, 10-time Juno winning artist with all those hits. They don’t give these things to just anybody, you know.

So, blunt question: why isn’t she more famous?

Furtado replies, “That’s the price you pay for being passionate about music and refusing to believe it’s your job all these years. It’s just still seeing it as a hobby. My poor manager. He’s suffered many grey hairs because of it. I’m just really hard headed and I just do what I want to do. Some people come along, some people don’t. I’ve made my hobby into a career, but sometimes I still look at it as a hobby so I don’t always make the best quote unquote career choices. But I enjoy it every step of the way, which I think is the most important thing.”

There’s more to it than that. First of all, Furtado hasn’t seemed yet to have developed a cult following along the lines of Jann Arden or Tegan and Sara, who have no trouble filling the Jube not once, but twice. Furtado made her mark in pop radio. She still does. The top-40 audience has a voracious appetite for fresh treats.

It’s delicious white carbs, burns up quick, more please! One day a song is in high rotation, six weeks later it’s finished – especially if you don’t have the hype machine working 24/7 for you as it was for Nelly in the early days. Unless you keep pumping out the cotton candy, you’ll never get as big as Rihanna, or even Ke$ha. That’s just the way it works.

Furtado had a kid in 2003, daughter Nevis, and hasn’t toured as much as her poor manager may have wanted her to. Doing a whole album in Spanish (despite being of Portuguese heritage), “Mi Plan” in 2009 certainly didn’t help build momentum with her English audience, though it did win a Latin Grammy.

But even if you put those things aside, it’s always been a challenge to figure out just who Nelly Furtado is. Is she a pop diva? An adult contemporary balladeer? Is she a dance artist? A hip hop queen? A global worldbeat fusionaut? Twelve years in the mainstream and we’re still not sure. If she’s going to develop a distinctive sound, she sure seems to be taking her time about it.

We did an interview for the Edmonton Sun in 2001, behind the debut “Whoa, Nelly!” album. She exuded self-confidence that bordered on just being full of herself, as she talked about her ample gifts: Singer, songwriter, producer, at the time just 23 years old and with – let’s face it – just the one pretty fluffy song on the radio, “I’m Like Bird.” This star had one hit wonderment written all over her, or so it seemed.

That first show in Edmonton at the Winspear Centre that night was a revelation. Furtado lived up to every bit of her own hype, and then some. Truly a triple threat, beautiful singer and the music took the audience to places far beyond the top-40 radio world: Into exotic music styles that spanned the globe, into esoteric subject matter, delivered by excellent backing musicians, in a huge variety of musical styles and incorporating both electronics and acoustic instruments, at the end of which fans may have wondered: Man, that was great, but WHO is this chick?


All over the map

She remains rather eclectic. Guests on her 2003 album “Folklore,” yielding the hit “Powerless (Say What You Want),” included Bela Fleck and the Kronos Quartet. Then there’s her new one, “The Spirit Indestructible.” Name another album that would have both Bob Rock AND Tiesto as producers. Does she have to work with everybody? And then on the radio is the fun but odd song called “Big Hoops,” which seems to be about the joys of giant earrings – and yet again we get an apparently shallow depiction of an artist with far more depth.

Furtado is well-spoken in interviews, talking passionately about her philanthropic work around the world, with Free the Children and other organizations, mainly in the field of educating young women in countries that may frown on young women being educated. In 2007, she played a private gig for Muammar Qaddafi, who reportedly paid Furtado $1 million, which a few months before the Libyan dictator was killed in 2011 she announced would be donated to charity, half to build a girls’ boarding school in Kenya.

Asked how or if her deeper thoughts get into her music, she says, “I think it’s depends. On a song called Bucket List, you could go on a million sky dives, but if you’re by yourself with nobody to hold your hand on your death bed, then what is it all worth? If you put love at the bottom of the list, what’s the point of a bucket list? That’s the whole point of the song.”

She has another on The Spirit Indestructible called “Arab Spring,” a weighty title indeed.
“It’s not a political song,” she says. “It comes from me looking at footage of TV, like the Libyan rebels, and feeling wow, myself as a young Canadian, I have no idea what it’s like to live through a war. I have no idea what it’s like to walk in a battle with my best friend by my side, and then lose my best friend to the other side, or to have lost my friend because of his own ideology vs. mine.

“I’ve grown more accepting of other people’s ideas, and I’ve tried to seek friendships of people with polarizing opinions. It try to create a bridge, and at the end of the day, that’s what we should be aspiring to so. If we talk about world peace and wanting people to get along, if we’re shocked at people who don’t and we’re shocked at war, we have to look at the wars in our own lives. Who are we shutting out because they voted for someone different than you?”

She’s not one to pick sides, saying, “We’re all human. There’s always going to be a bridge between all of us. I think that’s why my music has been so eclectic over the years.”

Asked, half jokingly, if she plans to “get serious” at this stage in her career-hobby and start focusing on one thing instead of flitting around so much, take a stand, as it were, she says she probably will.

“I think I will become more stylistically unified in the future,” she says. “I see more music that is sophisticated and mature and adult, and also more streamlined. Sonically I’ve done a lot of eclectic pop albums, so I’m kind of ready to go off into a genre now. I don’t know if it’s jazz or fado (Portuguese folk music). I don’t know what it will be. I should be interesting as I get older and more wrinkly to see what avenues I’ll find for myself.”

Still, she’s only 34. These days a lot of creative people don’t “get serious” at least until they’re 40.

She laughs, “I’m not doing that. You can quote me on that.”
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