Ups and downs, twists and turns. Nelly Furtado — the Victoria-raised pop star and Grammy-winning singer — has suffered all those and more during the course of her career.
Tribulations notwithstanding, Furtado’s creative spirit remains intact more than a decade after she got her start, a remarkable feat given her often tumultuous profession of choice.
Furtado, who rode I’m Like a Bird to the top of the charts as a 22-year-old unknown, has weathered all sorts of stylistic storms during her career.
Some would argue she has made it this far on instinct. Furtado cares little about what matters to the pop-music audience, only what is important to her. That’s something she attributes to her infallible positivity.
“This idea that artists are always going to make the right choices and do the right thing is kind of a falsehood,” Furtado said recently from her home in Toronto. “That’s what my songs are about. Falling down and getting back up again.”
Being a quixotic performer hasn’t always made life easy for the singer, who turned 32 on Dec. 2. Following the Grammy-winning success of her smash debut, Whoa, Nelly!, she recorded its 2003 follow-up, Folklore, while pregnant with her daughter, Nevis. The introspective album was the first in a series of career twists from Furtado, who continues to flip styles and sonic palettes.
Her fifth and most recent recording, The Spirit Indestructible, is her first English-language album since 2006, and first album since her Spanish-language debut, 2009’s Mi Plan, which she was able to release on her own imprint, Nelstar Records, due to a clause she wrote into her contract.
“Even as a 20-year-old young girl, I knew I’d be making Latin records,” she said.
While the sales statistics haven’t been spectacular, and the reviews even less positive, The Spirit Indestructible represents an important signpost in the singer’s career. Not only did she feel rejuvenated making the recording with producer Rodney Jerkins, one of her longtime idols, Furtado threw every idea she had at its creation, from reggae rhythms to dance beats.
She said she didn’t pay much attention to what is currently on the charts. It’s too late to abandon her play-anything ideals at this point in her career, Furtado admitted. “The choices I’ve made have helped me for the long term. Now, after this album, I can finally do whatever the heck I want to do. I can do a Portuguese album, or a Brazilian pop album, or another English album. Now I feel like I can truly do what I want to do. A bit of an exhale, I guess you could say.”
Despite wanting to be free from constraints as a performer, Furtado is nonetheless at a career crossroads. She is eager to start anew, perhaps as an independent artist.
She has one English-language album left on her contract with Interscope Records, which will be cleared off the books in due time.
Work on it has already begun, Furtado said. By the time it wraps, she will reassess her priorities.
If anything, she expects further changes.
“My long-term goal is to be independent, quite frankly,” she said. “I got quite spoiled doing Mi Plan, and in the context of my English projects, I’ve had a lot of creative freedom. It’s quite addictive, that creative independence. You start to crave it more and more as you move forward.”
Furtado and her band have been in rehearsals for weeks as preparation for her upcoming tour, which begins Tuesday in Victoria.
The outing marks the first time Furtado has toured in Canada since 2007, when she was on the road to promote Loose, which became the best-selling album of that year.
Pop music has undergone a sea change in the years since, and it would appear that Furtado is struggling to fit in amid the Taylor Swifts and Katy Perrys of today.
Her music is much deeper and thoughtful, but it’s also spread across the musical map. I’m Like a Bird was huge hit based largely on its singularity, although it had help from a major label marketing push.
In some ways, the same song wouldn’t fly in 2013, in part because of the fractured nature of the music industry and the dissolution of the mainstream music press.
Furtado knew she could have fallen in line with the status quo on The Spirit Indestructible. Instead, she stuck to making an album that is uniquely hers, regardless of the commercial potential. The Spirit Indestructible debuted in September to a lukewarm response, both in the U.S. (where it debuted at No. 79 on the sales charts) and Canada (where it landed at No. 18).
Her upcoming tour has also suffered from a lag in sales. Dates in Winnipeg (Jan. 18), Ottawa (Jan. 21) and Hamilton (Jan. 28) have all been cancelled, while her Jan. 9 appearance in Vancouver has been moved from the Orpheum Theatre to the much-smaller Commodore Ballroom.
“I don’t even know who’s going to be in the crowd,” Furtado said of her ever-evolving fan base.
“It’s kind of funny when you’ve been doing it for a while. You end up getting fans who are the same age as you, but by this time, they have families, so they might bring their kids. Plus, the diversity of the music over the years, you don’t know who your audience is after awhile.”
Given the difficulty of marketing music in the current environment, Furtado could have made her life easier by playing nice with every outlet that came calling, accepting every photo opportunity or putting herself in places paparazzi are known to frequent.
For Furtado, nothing could be more loathsome.
“It can be quite destructive, now more than ever,” Furtado said. “Look around us, with the information and the photos. It’s quite powerful. You have to be very vigilant.”
Furtado and her family have been nothing if not militant in their quest for privacy. She often travels with security, and is cryptic about when and where she travels during her down time.
“It has become habit, to be honest,” Furtado said of the precautions she takes to keep her daughter and husband, producer Demacio Castellon, out of the spotlight.
“I think it’s important. It’s a personal thing. Whatever works for you, but for me, I really like to keep my personal life quite private. Even with my wedding, I didn’t tell anybody I got married until about six months later. It keep things easier, much more simple.”
Simplicity is something Furtado strives to have in her life at all times. Her Vancouver Island upbringing has enabled her to navigate the world of pop music better than most, and frequent trips home to visit her family in Victoria help keep her grounded, she said.
“As I get older, I love Victoria more and more.”
The “idyllic” nature of her youth played a central role in many of the songs on The Spirit Indestructible, similar to the way her Gordon Head roots were woven into the songs on Folklore.
Despite the similarities, there’s a noticeable difference between the two recordings, according to Furtado.
“Folklore was a little more dark, in the stuff I talked about. But on this album, it’s a lot more light. I think it’s a part of growing up. I’ve come to my rose-coloured nostalgia moment, where I’m celebrating home. It’s taken many years to get to the point where I feel lucky.”
Furtado couldn’t believe her good fortune during the recording of The Spirit Indestructible, the majority of which was co-written and co-produced by Jerkins, who has worked with everyone from Britney Spears and Michael Jackson to Lady Gaga and Destiny’s Child.
Furtado clearly remembers listening to a host of Jerkins-related music during her youth, which made the experience all the more important.
“When you meet people like that, you’ve got to really deliver. I like feeling like that, like I’ve gotta hit it out of the park. I love that feeling.
“Every time I pulled up to his studio, I felt like a little kid riding her bike over to a friend’s house, saying, ‘;What are we going to play today?’ I took the time to celebrate it. I knew that you can never re-create those moments. They happen once and they are gone.”