Nelly Furtado: 'Swagger in spades'
- 7 May 2012
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
It's been six years since Nelly Furtado's multi-platinum album Loose, which featured the smash hit single Maneater and collaborations with Justin Timberlake and Chris Martin.
She followed it up with a Spanish language record that missed the UK top 100 altogether. So, as she returns to a commercial pop sound, the Canadian star has everything to prove.
"If you wait this long to put an album out, you'd better be sure you tried your best," says Nelly Furtado.
In fact, the 33-year-old devoted so much time to her new record that producer Salaam Remi accused her of being "three years pregnant" with it.
The album has gone through two titles, half-a-dozen producers, and a mountain of songs - both old and new.
"In the final stages I was getting really anal about it," says Furtado.
Why did she get so obsessed? The singer calls it "devotion to my fans", but the reality is that she's been absent from the charts for too long.
After the career-defining urban pop of her 2006 album Loose, Furtado followed her own path - getting married, establishing her own record label, and recording a Spanish-language album.
Mi Plan sold well internationally, allowing the Canadian artist to tour South America for the first time, but she has been absent from the US charts for five years.
So it's no surprise that The Spirit Indestructible revisits the pop hooks and colossal beats of Maneater - a song so incendiary it literally started a fire in the recording studio.
Furtado says the new material has "swagger in spades". The lead single Big Hoops (Bigger The Better) rumbles like a volcano as the singer recounts her teenage love affair with hip-hop over a warped bassline.
"I'm channelling my 14-year-old self," Furtado says. "She's thinking about putting on her big hoop earrings and baggy pants and going to the mall downtown."
The lyrics quote Salt-N-Pepa, A Tribe Called Quest and Blackstreet - bands the teenage Furtado listened to in the suburbs of Victoria, Canada.
"Hip-hop was super-exotic to us in Canada," she recalls. "Because we were near the south, we could get some of the radio stations from Seattle.
"I remember attaching a wire clothing hanger to the antenna of my radio in my bedroom, so I could get the frequency and get that station and listen to the top 10 every night."
"It was very liberating, finding that confidence through the music. And that's what Big Hoops is about."
Nostalgia is a big part of the album. Parking Lot touches on similar themes to Big Hoops ("let's dance in the rain"), while Waiting For The Night is based on a diary Furtado wrote as a "smitten sixteen-year-old" on holiday in Portugal.
To help recapture the sound of that era, the singer sought out Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins, one of the biggest R&B producers in the 1990s.
Jerkins worked with many of the bands Furtado name-checks - playing keyboards for Blackstreet and writing hits for Michael Jackson, Aaliyah, Beyonce, TLC and Kanye West.
"One track that he did that I loved was The Boy Is Mine with Brandy and Monica," Furtado says.
"He was telling me about the ad-libs - how they had to be equal and fair.
"They had to count out the number of lines to make sure everybody had the same amount."
"I love hearing that kind of stuff."
The singer's own fans won't have to wait so long to hear the secrets behind her songs. Every moment of the recording process has been carefully documented on video, with weekly "webisodes" being posted to YouTube.
It's a common part of music marketing these days - alongside free downloads, Facebook pages and endless "teaser" clips previewing forthcoming music videos.
"It's become a content-hungry universe," says Furtado. "The most important person on your team nowadays is your videographer because they're constantly filming you.
"But I'm quite private, so I get a little bit nervous about that stuff."
The pressure to document recording sessions was particularly difficult.
"At first, I wasn't able to write a song with the cameraman in the room," she says.
"I've always admired people who can write like that. I've been there at hip-hop sessions where Kanye West will walk in and write in front of all 20 guys in his team. I'd be like, 'oh my God!'"
"But on this album, the videographer would stay in the room and I eventually forgot he was there. It takes practice. It's another creative relationship."
What the videos illustrate is that, unlike some pop stars, Furtado is directly involved in the creative process.
One clip shows the singer improvising a melody while producer Salaam Remi taps out a beat on a music stand. With the quick addition of some tape-slap reverb, the track gets a name - "popsicle jam" - and is pencilled in as an interlude on the album.
Recording sessions largely took place in Darkchild's studios on America's West Coast, although some songs were recorded in Jamaica and Canada.
Inspiration came from further afield, however.
Furtado is an ambassador for charity Free The Children, which supports education and development projects around the world.
Last year, she donated $1m to the organisation to assist in the building of a girls' school in Kenya. Her subsequent trips to East Africa "changed my life," she says.
"I experienced real joy for the first time... Communal joy. Obviously giving birth was joyful, personally. But when I went to Africa, I really experienced people celebrating and being joyful together for the first time.
"It really reinforced my belief in humanity. It reminded me who I am. That's why the album is so childlike."
The experience also inspired the album's title track, which pays tribute to mankind's ability to overcome adversity (set to a thumping club beat, naturally).
Opening the album, Furtado sings quietly: "Through my one square foot window, I can see outside / I have chains on my feet, but not in my mind."
She says: "So many things have happened that have inspired me in a lot of ways to believe in humanity.
"What a great year to write an album - the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement. So many things happened last year that are great fodder for songwriting."
Big Hoops is out on 4 June. The Spirit Indestructible follows on 18 June.