Nelly Furtado: The stories behind my hits

By Mark Savage
BBC News entertainment reporter

Image caption,
Nelly Furtado's UK hits include Maneater, Turn Off The Light, Promiscuous and Powerless (Say What You Want)

In the decade since Nelly Furtado first came to our attention with I'm Like A Bird, the Canadian songstress has dabbled in pop, folk, hip-hop, electronica, dance and world music.

"I've definitely confused people," the singer laughs, "but I guess that's part of what I do".

"I've always listened to a really broad spectrum of music, from British rock bands to Canadian folk music to Brazilian samba music, it's all stuff that turns me on.

"The one unifying thread is, clearly, I'm a pop singer and pop songwriter and melody and lyrics are central to what I do."

Furtado concedes that the scattershot approach means she has had to "find a new fanbase with every record", but it seems to have worked.

Loose, her collaboration with hip-hop producer Timbaland, went platinum in 32 countries. The follow-up, a Spanish language disc called Mi Plan, may have seemed like career suicide - but it won a Grammy and topped the Latin album charts.

"My goal is to always record albums where pretty much every song sounds just as good with only an acoustic guitar and a vocal," Furtado explains. "That's always the test."

As she releases her first greatest hits compilation, the singer-songwriter told the BBC about the stories behind her biggest songs.


Try, which is a ballad from the second album, Folklore. I was about six months pregnant with Nevis my daughter at the time. So that album has a lot of sincere, emotionally poignant moments for me. I was really inspired.

The second half of the song was totally improvisation. It captured a lot of emotion. So every time I sing it in my live show - all around the world it's had the same reaction - fans get quite emotional, and there's a lot of crying. And I have cried when I sing it. A lot of people have told me the song gave them hope or helped them through a difficult situation.

This is true - there are many witnesses who were there: When we recorded Maneater a speaker caught fire. It started smoking and a flame shot out of the speaker, which nobody at the Hit Factory in Miami had ever seen before in the 40 years the studio has been there.

We put that beat on, and it was so rumbling and rapturous and pagan that it incited a fire! We actually were scared of the beat. We felt like it had the devil in it, or something. We put it away for a few weeks, until we had the courage to play it again. It was life-threatening! Someone almost got first-degree burns.

Say It Right. I had no idea what a giant song it would become. The thing that still perplexes me about the song is that I still can't put into words what it's about. I think it's maybe about personal, visceral abandon. Throwing yourself into something without inhibitions.

It has a mystery to it - which is something I always wanted to do with a pop song. When Timbaland and I were creating Loose, we were really inspired by the Eurythmics and songs like Sweet Dreams. Songs that are definitely pop songs, but that draw you into certain abstract states of mind. And I think Say It Right has that quality. It's quite haunting.

We wrote it really late at night. It was four in the morning and it just kind of came out of nowhere. We'd been watching Pink Floyd's The Wall on a huge screen all day long on mute - so I think it was playing into our subconscious a little bit.

When we were recording Loose, we really liked the sounds we were creating in the studio. My whole life, I had grown up making beats in my friends' basements and loving the rawness of this direct sound, before you fix what is broken. For major records, you smooth down and master the sound but on Loose we did the opposite. We wanted it raw, we wanted it visceral, we wanted the speakers to buzz. We fought for that. The label asked us to do better, smoother mixes and we refused. I said, "no, it needs to sound this way".

Sonics are everything. A lot of the beats and the sound on Loose are louder. When Timbaland put out my album and then Justin Timberlake's album, there was an actual volume increase. I think everything on the radio became louder after that, for the next five years. Because what we did in the mix stage was creating the illusion of having the speakers turned up to 11. We were maxed out on all fronts. You're getting volume - which is what people want, because that's what you feel at a live show.

I really like Say It Right, because it was directed by the British photographer, Rankin. He just knows how to create beautiful portraits - and I think he captures the chemistry between Timbaland and me really well.

And I just did one for a song on my Spanish album, Bajo Otra Luz. I did that with my friend Aaron, in Toronto on the street. We went to the costume store together and we picked out a bunch of costumes - and it captures my fun side. I'm a jokester, I'm just a big clown at the end of the day. Actually, I ended up being a clown for Hallowe'en this year and I went back and got the exact same costume I wore in the video. I loved it so much. Who wouldn't want to be a clown all day long?

Turn Off The Light. We've done electro versions, hip-hop versions. Timbaland came and surprised people when we played it at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York. We did my regular version, then it was Tim's urban remix, and then we rapped, and then we went into a heavy metal ending, where I played guitar and traded licks with my guitar player. It just got rowdy, and the crowd would really move and jump in that part.

It's a great festival song, too. I played it at Glastonbury and people jump and move. It's got a lot of groove potential, so if you want that, you can really get it going on that song. It's got a bluesy raunchy sounding solo in the middle. It's great for moshing to.

My daughter, Nevis, has been singing the new single, The Night Is Young, a lot. She just goes "free, free, free, the night is young" She likes singing that. And she was obsessed with the beat of Say It Right for a long time. She would tap it out on different things, pots and pans.

I really wanted the Get Ur Freak On remix I did with Missy Elliot. That was really important for my career, because it opened the whole hip-hop world to me, right after I'm Like A Bird came out. So there was a cool duality going on.

There's a funny story behind it, too - People would play that remix on the seriously urban, street radio stations in New York and the DJs said: "Oh, Missy's done a duet with a Jamaican boy."

I also wanted my duet with Michael Buble, Quando Quando Quando. It's like my jazz tune. The duet with Timbaland and Justin Timberlake [Give It To Me] isn't on there, either. And I have a really cool duet with Josh Groban. We wanted to do a collaborations album for a while, because I've done so many - and I'm still doing more. I'm not in a band but I have a thirst and a desire to be around musicians. When I was 12 I would sneak out of my house and hang around with DJs and MCs. I think I spend more time hanging around and jamming than focussing on my career.

I'm working with Salaam Remi, and we've forged this amazing friendship and musical space for ourselves, where we're really enjoying each other's company in the studio. So he did two new tracks on the Greatest Hits - Night Is Young and Girlfriend In The City - and we're really tapping into something cool.

I'm really into alternative music at the moment. I've also worked with Michael Angelakos from Passion Pit and I've been in Jamaica with a producer called Genius, trying some different styles. I think the new album will be a real throwback to [debut album] Whoa, Nelly! in terms of the eclecticism and the alternative influences. I really feel like there's an earthiness there that's really great.

The Best Of Nelly Furtado is out now internationally, and will be released in the UK on 29 November via Polydor.

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