Born December 2, 1978, in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada; daughter of Antonio Jose (a stonemason and landscaper) and Maria Manuela (a hotel maid) Furtado; children: Nevis (daughter; from her relationship with Jasper "Lil' Jaz" Gahunia).
Addresses: Record company—Geffen Records, 2220 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404. Website—http://www.nellyfurtado.com.
Performed in hip-hop duo Nelstar, late 1990s; released Whoa, Nelly!, 2000; sang on remix of "Get Ur Freak On" by Missy Elliott, 2001; released Folklore, 2003; released Loose, 2006.
Awards: Juno Awards for best single, best songwriter, best new solo artist and (with Gerald Eaton and Brian West) best producer, CARAS, for "I'm Like A Bird" and Whoa, Nelly!, 2001; Grammy Award for best female pop vocal performance, Recording Academy, for "I'm Like A Bird," 2002; Juno Award for single of the year, CARAS, for "Powerless (Say What You Want)," 2004.
Canadian singer and songwriter Nelly Furtado surprised listeners and critics alike in the early and mid-2000s by blending pop and rock styles with international influences reflecting her Portuguese heritage. Her first album, Whoa, Nelly!, sold two million copies on the strength of her free-spirited personal anthem "I'm Like a Bird." After her second album did not do as well commercially, she reinvented herself in 2006 by collaborating with an accomplished hip-hop producer to craft an album with a catchy, sexy immediacy. The album, Loose, generated hit singles before it was even released and made Furtado one of music's stars of that year.
Furtado was born in Victoria, British Columbia, to Antonio, a stonemason and landscaper, and Maria, a hotel maid. Her parents had immigrated to Canada from the Azores, a chain of islands that are part of Portugal, in the 1960s. She first became interested in music while listening to church choir practices her mother hosted in the family living room and while listening to her father's records, which included Led Zeppelin, Blondie, and Billy Joel. She joined the school choir, played trombone in her school band, and took piano lessons. Her tastes ranged from R&B such as TLC and Salt-n-Pepa to British alternative rock bands such as Radiohead and Oasis. Later, she discovered Portuguese singers such as Amalia Rodrigues and Brazilian singers such as Caetano Veloso. Brazilian music became her greatest inspiration, she told Time writer Christopher John Farley—"not just because it's sung in Portuguese, which I understand and speak, but because it's got all these great rhythmic elements."
After graduating from high school and moving to Toronto in 1996, Furtado worked a day job at an alarm company and performed as half of a hip-hop duo, Nelstar, by night, writing melodies and freestyle rhymes. Two members of the Philosopher Kings, a funk-pop band, saw her perform and offered to help her record a demo. That recording, which helped her land a record deal with Dreamworks, included many of the songs that appeared on her debut album, Whoa, Nelly!.
Released in the fall of 2000, Furtado's debut blended rock and hip-hop with international styles, especially Portuguese fado, a slow, sad ballad style, and Brazilian bossa nova, a laid-back variety of jazz. The single "I'm Like A Bird," a song that she told Cosmopolitan is about "following your heart and doing what's right for you rather than settling for something that's more comfortable," became a hit. The song led to a huge spike in the initially slow sales of Whoa, Nelly!—the album went on to sell two million copies.
Critics were as impressed with Furtado's daring genre-bending as record-buyers. David Browne of Entertainment Weekly praised her playful energy and the album's surprising mix of instrumentation ("dub basses, lulling jazz trumpets, mambo pianos, and death-metal guitars, often in the same song"). He gave the album an A grade, calling it "a Day-Glo playground in which R&B, world music, psychedelia, and singer-songwriter craft meet and romp for an hour." Stephen Thomas Erlewine of All Music Guide called the album a "surprising, precocious debut." He was impressed that Furtado laid her emotions bare in the lyrics, mixed musical genres so boldly, and took risks with her singing. "Furtado is a restless vocalist," he wrote, "skitting and scatting with abandon, spitting out rapid repetitions, bending notes, and frequently indulging in melismas" (singing more than one note on a single syllable). Some of the critical praise for Furtado was measured. Writers noted that some of her lyrics seemed self-absorbed and simple, with a lot of references to birds and sky, and that her high, pinched voice did not always sound as good in concert as on her album. But in general, her musical approach was greeted as fresh and exciting.
Furtado toured the United States in the spring of 2001 and opened for electronica artist Moby on his summer tour that year. When she played her first show in Portugal and sang her Portuguese song "Onde Estas?" (Where Are You?), the appreciative crowd yelled, "Fadista!," which means "fado singer." Meanwhile, she re-embraced hip-hop by singing on a remix of the Missy Elliott song "Get Ur Freak On," which became a hit. At the 2002 Grammy Awards, she won for best female pop vocal performance for "I'm Like A Bird."
Farley, writing for Time International, praised Furtado for her music's connection with her cultural roots. "Her looks are as distinctive as her sound," Farley wrote. "Her complexion is olive—the color of tea mixed with cream or of lightly toasted bread. Her eyes are so bright and blue they appear unreal, like a black-and-white film colorized for TV ratings. Her face is that of a new North America, a beguiling mix of diverse influences."
Writers, and Furtado herself, have also noted that being Canadian has affected Furtado's music. She told Austin Scaggs of Rolling Stone that she still lives in Toronto because it is "the most multicultural city in the entire world…. You can be anything you want in Toronto. You can be Jamaican, you can be East Indian. I can be Portuguese when I feel like it. I can be any culture really. That's why my first album was world pop: I grew up in Canada." Her country also nurtures her songwriting in another way, she told Farley of Time International. "I feel like there's a sense of openness and open space in Canada that lends itself to reflection and that lends to great song-writing," she said. "Beside the fact that we're really close to America so we kinda get a groove of what's going on, but we're far enough away that we can put our spin on it."
In 2003, Furtado and her boyfriend, Jasper "Lil' Jaz" Gahunia, a DJ, welcomed the birth of their daughter, Nevis. Late that year, Furtado released her follow-up album, Folklore. Her aim was to make a "modern folk record" using stringed instruments like the banjo, dulcimer, and the Portuguese ukelele, she told Stephen Mooallem of Interview. The album was not as successful as her debut, selling only about 500,000 copies and generating no hit singles. Since the album was selling better overseas than in the United States, Furtado embarked on a long world tour, with her baby and boyfriend traveling with her. "I was breast-feeding Nevis and traveling like a gypsy," Furtado told Margeaux Watson of Entertainment Weekly. "Japan, France, Germany—we have lots to tell her when she's older."
Reviews of Folklore were mixed. Erlewine of All Music Guide called it "a self-conscious, somber affair that takes itself far too seriously," complaining that the mix of international styles and alternative pop seemed "heavy-handed" and that Furtado seemed to be chronicling every minor mood swing she had gone through since becoming mildly famous. Browne of Entertainment Weekly complained that her lyrics had become self-righteous, but overall, he found the album as imaginative and enthusiastic as her debut. And Frank Scheck of the Hollywood Reporter praised both her album and a performance on her 2004 tour, declaring that Folklore had "beat[en] the sophomore jinx artistically if not quite commercially," that its songs had even more complex rhythms than her debut, and that some new songs "came off even better in concert than in the recorded versions, no mean feat considering the album's superb production."
After touring for Folklore, Furtado took a two-year break from her career. She did not need to record or perform, since she had shrewdly retained her publishing rights in her deal with her record company in exchange for a smaller advance. When she and Gahunia broke up after a four-year relationship, she felt inspired to perform again. She solved the dilemma about where to take her career after Folklore by dedicating herself to upbeat hit-making. She wrote her next album in Miami and recorded it at the Hit Factory, where she teamed up with famed hip-hop producer Timothy "Timbaland" Mosley, whom she had worked with on "Get Ur Freak On." The result was Loose, an album that completely embraced the pop hooks and trends of 2006 and remade Furtado as "glammed up, sexed up, and ready for the dance floor," as Erlewine of All Music Guide put it.
The album generated two huge singles, "Promiscuous" and "Maneater." "Promiscuous," a duet with Timbaland, was promoted with a steamy video that co-starred Justin Timberlake. (On the recording, she mentions her friend Steve Nash, a star basketball player from Victoria with whom she does charity work, and soon had to deny a rumor that she was romantically involved with the married Nash.) "Maneater" admiringly told the tale of a mischievous woman. The album's lyrics seemed to echo the theme of free-spirited independence from her first album in more mature, specific ways. In interviews, Furtado said the album reflected her confidence and her continued excitement about musical experimentation. "Before, I was a flower child floating down the river like a leaf, not knowing where that leaf was going," she told Watson in Entertainment Weekly. "Now I'm in a place where I'm just entirely myself. It feels really good. I think it's infectious, and very seductive." As for the music, she told Watson, "I'm not faithful to one style—I'm a musically promiscuous girl." The album also included "Te Busque," a duet with Colombian singer Juanes, and a mellow track, "All Good Things (Come to an End)," co-written with Chris Martin of the British band Coldplay. More than one writer noted that after an album full of potential nightclub hits, "All Good Things (Come to an End)" provided a perfect occasion for chilling out at the end of a night.
Critics generally praised Furtado's comeback. Chuck Arnold of People gave the album three and a half stars, declaring that Furtado and Timbaland proved to be "unlikely kindred spirits." Erlewine of All Music Guide gave the album four stars. He described the first half of the album as dominated by Timbaland's production, with Furtado's voice just another instrument, while Furtado's adventuresome tastes come out more on the second half, with its Latin and other influences. There were some exceptions to the praise. "Much of Furtado's charm comes from her low-key, girlish sensuality," wrote Will Hermes of Entertainment Weekly. "But Loose tries to amplify that into the cartoon hottie-ness that now defines pop divadom." Furtado was clearly imitating pop stars such as Gwen Stefani, Hermes wrote, but could not quite pull it off.
The success of Loose made Furtado a media darling throughout 2006. Kate Rockland, a Style Desk reporter for the New York Times, took her out on the town for a feature and raved about her glowing skin and fashion sense. "True to her new sexy image, she wore gold Yves Saint Laurent heels custom-designed with thick rubber soles for stage performances," Rockland reported. Rolling Stone called Furtado's album "the soundtrack to your summer" and asked her to name five of her favorite songs. Her choices, like her music, reflected her extremely varied tastes. She named Canadian songwriting legend Leonard Cohen's song "Hallelujah" as her top song, and could not decide which recording of it was her favorite, torn between those of two ethereal singers, Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright. She also picked songs by contemporary gospel singer Kim Burrell and Somali rapper and singer K'naan, as well as two huge singles of 2006, Justin Timberlake's "SexyBack" and "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley.
In November of 2006, Furtado debuted her new single from Loose, "Say It Right," at the American Music Awards. As the year drew to a close, Furtado was in the midst of a world tour and considering new avenues for her creativity. In interviews late in 2006, she expressed an interest in acting that had grown from taking lessons to prepare for a role in an Indian film that did not get made. She was lis-tening to a lot of contemporary American gospel music and hoping to record an album entirely in Spanish and Portuguese with Argentine producer Gustavo Santaolalla.
Whoa, Nelly!, DreamWorks, 2000.
Folklore, DreamWorks, 2003.
Loose, Geffen/Mosley Music Group, 2006.
Calgary Herald, November 22, 2006.
Cosmopolitan, February 1, 2002, p. 148.
Entertainment Weekly, October 20, 2000, p. 75; November 28, 2003, p. 123; June 16, 2006, p. 25; June 23, 2006, p. 68.
Hollywood Reporter, February 13, 2002, p. 30; May 7, 2004, p. 10.
Interview, November 2003, p. 86; August 2006, p. 118.
New York Times, April 7, 2001, p. A23; March 9, 2002, p. B17; June 19, 2006, p. E3; July 16, 2006, p. ST4.
People, September 3, 2001, p. 70; December 1, 2003, p. 44; June 26, 2006, p. 45.
Rolling Stone, July 13, 2006, p. 136.
Time, October 16, 2000, p. 122.
Time International, August 6, 2001, p. 38.
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"Loose: Overview," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=10:5b841vg6zz9a∼T1 (November 14, 2006).
"Nelly Furtado: Biography," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=11:w1de4j374wau∼T1 (November 14, 2006).
"Nelly Furtado" Rolling Stone, http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/10533457.tif/nelly_furtado (November 26, 2006).
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"Why Is Nelly Furtado's New Album So Loud?" Rollingstone.com, http://www.rollingstone.com/artists/nellyfurtado/articles/story/10603268.tif/why_is_nelly_furtados_new_album_so_loud (November 25, 2006).