It’s been a long, wonderful and sometimes challenging ride for Nelly Furtado since the multiple Grammy-winning singer arrived on the wings of her first hit, “I’m Like a Bird.” Her career has seen her top the charts numerous times with subsequent hits like “Promiscuous” and “Maneater,” while selling over 16 million records worldwide. Along the way, the native of Victoria, B.C. formed her own company, had a daughter, Nevis, recorded a Grammy-winning Spanish language album and devoted herself to her favorite charity, Free the People. But after her 2012 album, The Spirit Indestructible, Nelly wanted off the rollercoaster and took a five-year break. Now she’s back with a new album, The Ride, and spoke about her creative renaissance, motherhood and philanthropy.
Your record company is calling The Ride your comeback. This would be my third or fourth comeback (laughs). Maybe it’s my coming into, coming into myself. It was certainly my longest break. I did a creative renaissance. Took a playwriting course at the University of Toronto’s Continuing Studies program. Did some ceramic classes. And I moonlighted at my friend Aki Abe’s Toronto record store, Cosmos Records.
How did that happen? I went in there one day when I was really sad. I hadn’t seen Aki in years. He played me a bunch of cool records, including Minnie Riperton’s Adventures in Paradise. That really inspired me. On my new song, “Carnival Game,” the line says “Don’t mistake this for an adventure in paradise just because the ride looks so good.”
So, a musical reawakening? Yeah. Before, I had my own label, signing artists and doing production, being more a figurehead for my company as opposed to an artist. I forgot that creating gave me peace. Then, while on tour, I met St. Vincent, who introduced me to John Congleton, who’d been her producer. He’s very focused on creating. And I met Dev Hynes, aka Blood Orange, and worked with him.
How did they influence you? They all reminded me that being myself is enough. “Pipe Dream” is really about not wanting the artificial version of myself or anyone else. When you have a pop career and success, you have a large group of people around you. Women have a tendency towards nurturing. You feel obligated to support everyone and put their needs ahead of your own.
And you were doing that? Yes. As a female head of business, I realized that I had distanced myself from the simple singer-songwriter version of myself. Everything had gotten too big. I found that I wanted to scrub my own floors and clean my own toilets again, like when I was a chambermaid. So, I did that. And I managed myself for a full year and a half.
Was that like flying without a parachute? Exactly! I had to find out who I was. The truth was not very pretty.
Always trying to please people? Yes. As a child, I was obsessed with Pierrot, this sad, entertaining clown. And I thought, “That’s me!” I loved “The Entertainer.” I had a little music box that played that song. I’m altruistic. I thought, spreading joy? Sign me up. And then you try and entertain your family and friends instead of just being quiet. So, with this record, I was getting back to myself. There’s a sad clown theme on “Tap Dancing.” And “Carnival Game” is about spending all your money on the games, rides and cotton candy, and then feeling sad afterwards. It’s about finding lasting pleasure. “Dream” is also about not wanting to be sold a dream anymore. But it wasn’t sad. Taking back my life was empowering.
Were there other influences? “Paris Sun” was actually influenced by a movie called Breathless starring Jean Seberg. I saw it on a flight. I saw Jean Seberg’s beautiful haircut and I cut my hair the next week. The movie influenced the music, because the movie is very film noir and reminds me of this spy walking through the streets of Paris, following the lover anonymously.
Your charity work took you back to Africa. Yeah, I wrote some songs in Kenya. I brought my guitar because I’d always write songs with the high school girls. I wrote “Palaces” there, inspired by the architecture. Then I wrote “Pipe Dreams” while I was walking with local mamas fetching water from the river, which is a custom they demonstrate to show how long it takes to take water from the river as opposed to the well. That walk would prevent some girls from going to high school because they’d spend the whole day fetching water.
How has being a parent influenced your work? I feel it’s a blessing, a privilege, to raise a child. My daughter, Nevis, teaches me things everyday. She’s so intelligent, and it’s nice to have earned her respect over the years. Parenting has enriched my life in such a way that I have a lot of experience to draw from. The way being a mom forces you to wrestle with so many different emotions is really healthy. As your child gets older, your relationship becomes almost poetic.