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How Nelly Furtado Put the "Promiscuous" Girl Behind Her and MadeHer Best Album Yet
The pop star explains how she turned her darkest moment into something beautiful.
If you were alive and listening to music in 2006, you have heard “Promiscuous.” You might even find out you still know all the words when it comes on the radio and shock your friends with your flawless delivery of the line, “Is your game MVP like Steve Nash?” In which case, you wouldn't be alone.
Despite the fact that “Promiscuous” will no doubt end up in the first paragraph of her obituary, Nelly Furtado still appreciates it as a “good-quality track,” even if it doesn’t quite reflect where she’s at now in life. “I love playing it,” she says. “Someone played it at a party last weekend, and they did a 10-minute remix of it, and I loved it. Because it sounds good! It’s good music.”
Nelly and I are having dinner to discuss her new album The Ride, out in March, but given that she’s been to this Lower East Side restaurant before and has strong opinions about many items on the menu, it’s hard at first to steer ourselves away from talking about how fucking great the bok choy is (and for me to prevent myself from telling her how often “Promiscuous” soundtracked “club night” in college). She also has a lot of questions about my own background and family, which with some people would be an obvious deflection tactic, but with her seems genuine. She really does want to know more about the weird island my grandpa lives on in Washington state than I can tell her, and whether or not having to switch schools as a child made me “emo.”
The Ride does not sound like any Nelly Furtado album you’ve heard before, and while skeptics may think that’s a ploy to gain entrée into a more rarefied indie world (she premiered the video for “Pipe Dreams” on Pitchfork), Nelly’s account of the recording process makes it clear that this album means more to her than anything she’s done in a while. “I came [into the studio] broken,” she says. “I came there really empty. As cliché as it is, when you’re really going through it, it can be so good for songwriting. I hate saying that, because then people feel like they have to go through adversity to write good stuff, which I don’t think is true … but I’m hands down more proud of these lyrics than any lyrics I’ve ever written.” Fans who know Nelly for buoyant, carefree songs like “Big Hoops (Bigger the Better)” and “I’m Like a Bird” might be surprised by The Ride’s jagged instrumentation, not to mention some of the album’s more melancholy themes. “Carnival Games,” for example, is an ode to time wasted on fleeting pursuits that don’t ultimately make you feel any less empty. You didn’t see that coming from the “Promiscuous” girl, did you?
"When Loose blew up way bigger than anything I’d ever done, I felt swept into this weird pop cyclone,” she explains. “I was like, ‘Oh, I guess this means I’m supposed to do this, and have a stage that looks like this and costume changes and the whole thing.’ I wanted to do it, because I wanted to try that hat on and prove to myself I could do it. It was very calculated. I named it Loose before I even did it; the cover and everything was in my head, like, three years before I even recorded it. But then it happened and I was like, ‘This is a lot. I don’t think this organically suits my personality.’” After “Promiscuous” and Loose cemented her as a household name in 2006, Nelly backed away from Top 40 pop, releasing a Spanish-language album in 2009 and the somewhat less radio-friendly The Spirit Indestructible in 2012. But in the world of meat-dress-wearing Lady Gaga and surprise-album-dropping Beyoncé, Nelly’s lower-key personality and relaxed vibes no longer quite fit in the pop landscape, and she more or less dropped off the collective radar.
She eventually started her own label and spent some time working with other artists, but it didn’t feed her creativity in the way making her own music did. After splitting with her manager of 18 years, she started to feel a little lost. “I was making this effort to be alone, to see if I could just be by myself and think about where I wanted to take my career,” she says. “I was in a very unique state of mind. And because that business relationship was like a father-figure business relationship, I think I kind of got depressed. I was like, ‘Ugh, I gotta pull myself out of this.’” By the time she started dabbling in recording again in 2014, her self-doubt had gotten so intense it was keeping her up at night, before her studio sessions. "It was similar to when I ran a 10K," she says. "The night before, I couldn’t sleep, and all the self-deprecating parts of the brain kicked in and said, 'Why are you running a 10K? You’re an idiot. You’re not gonna be able to do it. You suck.' It was so bad. Your shadow aspect or something comes in full force and starts talking to you."
In 2015, David Byrne asked her to participate in his Contemporary Color project, which paired color guard teams with musicians like St. Vincent and Kelis for a mini tour. It was there that Nelly finally got a glimpse of what it was like to put your art first, and only your art. “It was honestly the best decision I ever made,” she says. “All of a sudden, I was with this group of artists whose art was coming from such an organic place. They weren’t in that pop umbrella at all."
The color guard tour is also where Nelly met Dev Hynes and reconnected with Annie Clark (St. Vincent), both of whom helped her along the path to making music that felt truer to herself. “Dev was almost like a mentor,” Nelly says, “because when I met Dev, he told me about how when he first got popular, he had opportunities to tour all year long," but he didn't because he realized a heavy tour schedule "did not make him happy and content." He instead pursued projects he "truly loved," like performing with Yoko Ono at MoMA or dancing with ballet star Maria Kochetkova for his "I Know" video. Dev in turn recorded the song “Hadron Collider” with her and introduced her to the artist Ryan McNamara, with whom Nelly collaborated on a songwriting project at MoMA PS1 in September 2016.
But it’s Annie Clark’s influence that’s most prominent on The Ride, thanks in large part to production by her own longtime collaborator John Congleton. After meeting Annie at a festival in 2012, Nelly asked for John’s phone number, “which in musician land is like asking for your boyfriend’s phone number,” and they eventually got drinks and hit it off. Nelly was initially nervous to work with John, whose background leans more toward rock than her own (and whose Dallas studio is full of “creepy things like old mannequins”), but she says their differences pushed her in new directions. “John is like this no-bullshit type of person, so I felt very challenged,” she says. “I felt like, ‘I have to impress him. I have to bring my A-game.’ That’s what you want. You want somebody to challenge you. You want to feel pressure. The first day together, we wrote 'Flatline.' I remember working on it and he was like, 'The lyrics are OK, but I think you could do better, you could dig a little deeper.' Sometimes you need that.” The advice must have taken, because several songs on The Ride do go deeper than something like "Maneater," as good as it is, ever could. “Cold Hard Truth” is about rediscovering your independence after leaving a relationship, while “Right Road” is about picking yourself up in moments of darkness even when you feel like wallowing.
John also pushed her to record her vocals in one or two takes, and use real instruments rather than synthesized ones, which at this point is a rarity in pop music. “That’s why on ‘Pipe Dreams’ there’s, like, proper church organ,” she says. “I just felt like John was a nice slice of the old school that I wanted in on.” On the last day of recording, she cried upon hearing the final mix of the song “Carnival Games,” because she realized just how much The Ride had restored her. “I ran into John’s little weird bathroom where he keeps his Grammy, along with weird photos of families he doesn’t know from secondhand stores,” she says. “And then I cried. What was happening creatively was a total refuge for me. I had gone there to repair, restore, and reinvent myself and become whole again, because I feel like I did come broken.”
All of this doesn’t mean that The Ride isn’t still a pop album, just that it’s a pop album more in the vein of Sky Ferreira and Lana Del Rey than, say, the Chainsmokers. Radio play would be fine, of course, but it’s not the end goal. Nelly is perfectly happy with her relatively quiet life in Toronto (and occasionally New York City, where she recently got a place in the Meatpacking District) with her 13-year-old daughter, Nevis, and the freedom that comes with having no one to answer to but herself. “I’m definitely not into regret as a concept,” she says. “I’ve always pretty much tried to live by following my heart, and I feel like if you’re following your heart and you’re being authentic in the moment, you can’t ever really regret anything.”