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Nelly Furtado

And this bird can sing.

A crisp afternoon in the city, snow abundant, a few kids shooting hoops regardless in an otherwise empty lot, a CD player accompanying them, almost all stuff from the rap charts. On Nelly Furtado’s new record, more metaphorically than literally called Loose, there is a true musical affinity with this music, an understanding of it, accompanied by some grateful folk touches and some resolutely pop sounds. As Nelly enters the studio for some photography, she is singing something she just heard on the street, sits down for some styling, and she’s beautiful, that’s for sure.

The new record is strong from start to finish. Each song has a distinctive introduction, some studio banter, a few seemingly random chords that suddenly come together, but never a straight-ahead slam into the song. Each song also ends in a unique way, whether it is a coda, some comment about the jam, or most often some instrumental work to bring it out. These are Beatles trademarks, extra incursions of creativity and intelligence into what is all too often a homogenized product: the popular song.

The record is on the studio sound system while Nelly is being made up and dressed for the photo shoot, and between tracks she sings a bit of “I’m Like A Bird”, the song that basically launched her career into the pop stratosphere. “That was so long ago,” she laughs. She is thoughtful about her music of the present, the direction it’s taking, and agrees with my Beatles analogy: “We really tried to give this an organic energy, jamming and singing and constructing the songs. But after we got it to a certain stage, I wanted to give every song something else. So we worked on how to bring them in, and how to end them. And the arrangements, you’re right, they are sparse. That’s because I wanted everything to stand out, nothing to get lost. When there is tabla, you should really hear the tabla.”

She is remarkably patient with the lengthy make-up process. “In the early days, this really bugged me. Drove me crazy. But it didn’t take me long to realize that it’s much easier to go with it, it’s part of the business, and you have to do it. It took too much energy to fight it.” She has her own, particularized sense of style, wears almost anything with great flair, adores costume jewellery, but looks pretty amazing in Chanel cutoff jeans. “The hair takes awhile. I’ve had a child, so it’s thinning a bit already,” she laughs again. The hair stylist shares a few points on volumizing, but basically says what everyone in the room is already thinking; her abundant hair is just fine, and the session rolls along. The thinning hair comment, though, is representative of Nelly. She is bright and a bit brash, totally self-aware and confident, and a straight shooter, although very much on the articulate side of the ledger.

“We really tried to give this an organic energy, jamming and singing and constructing the songs. But after we got it to a certain stage, I wanted to give every song something else.”

While photos are being taken, an advance copy, almost a rough cut, of Sam Roberts’s Chemical City rushes out of the studio speakers. Nelly responds to some songs more than others, often dancing between shots, clapping her hands in time, or tapping a thigh. “Oh, what’s the name of that one? I love it,” she says at one point. (The track is “Bridge to Nowhere”.) It must seem like a long way from her suburban Victoria neighbourhood, where she ran a touch wild with a group of friends and musicians, many of whom have had success in the industry as well. And Nelly has a lot of loyalty to those days and the people who inhabited her world. Luisa Duran, who is today applying make-up, was one of those high school friends. (“Nelly called one day, and said, ‘Hey my new record comes out soon, and we’re going on tour. 18 months. Want to come along?’ I said absolutely, and here we are.”)

Back in the make-up chair for touch-ups, Nelly thumbs through a couple of earlier issues of NUVO, sees Céline Dion and smiles: “She knows how to reach her audience, doesn’t she?” No doubt. (Not that Nelly considers her own audience to be necessarily the same, but the advance hype surrounding Loose is pretty intense, and her label, Universal, believes they have a hit on their hands. I’m sure that is true, and there is so much crossover potential here, from genres like rap and hip-hop, that are not always given to that sort of thing, Black Eyed Peas aside.) She also comes across an interview with Michael Bublé, with whom she did a duet (“Quando, Quando, Quando”) for his latest album, It’s Time. I tell her in some detail about Michael’s recollection of the recording, how Nelly showed up at the studio, pulled up a chair and a microphone, and blew everyone away with her jazz-inflected take, miles and miles away from Engelbert. Another laugh, and she affirms “I just wanted to come at it a little differently. And I was working a bit on my own new songs at the time, experimenting with things. I just wanted it to be musical.”

That is the guiding principle behind her new record, as well. “The first two, well, one was a trip-hop, pop thing, the other, more folk, but still a little too cerebral. I wanted this one to be much more about feeling the music.” Still, a song like “Explode”, from Folklore, has a lot of the elements you will find on Loose. When asked about the bass line for that tune, she nods, agrees that there are some thoughtful, compelling arrangements, and that the bass player really knows how to play music, not just accompany the rest of the band. “That’s probably my favourite song from that record.” It has a wonderful video to boot, with some animated segments that caught a lot of people’s attention: “They asked me if the lead character could be developed into a television series for kids. But I just couldn’t see her being used to sell gum and sugared cereal. So I said no.” Again, there is Nelly’s forthright approach, and at this stage in her career, no usually means no.

We listen to the patient arrangement of “’Fraid”, with its lovely a cappella ending. “We showed up at the studio, I brought some lyrics, but often I wrote them while we jammed. It is such a talented team. And Tim, well, he is a master of moods. He travels with a duffel bag full of CDs, seems to know every song, and he creates these amazing beats. We all work with that.” Tim is Timbaland, Miami-based rap producer, who has a certain way with a popular hit, while never seeming to sacrifice his credibility within the more hardcore community. So, he can produce “Cry Me A River” for Justin Timberlake, and collaborate with Snoop Dog at the same time. Or produce Missy Elliott and Jay-Z, Nas and Aaliyah. (He worked with Nelly and Timberlake for a track on Timberlake’s upcoming record, as well.)

“When I was 13 or 14, it was just me and my friends, listening to R&B, Salt-N-Pepa, that kind of thing. And Indian music, I loved it … these are cultures that I borrow from.”

Nelly Furtado makes deliberate decisions with her music, knows how to assemble the right team for what she wants to achieve, and in this case, “I wanted to reflect the live shows a lot more. Onstage, it is like being part of a collective, and I wanted this new work to have that kind of feel. I was a little too analytical with the previous records.”

There are influences, of course, beyond the artists she brings in to record. “When I was 13 or 14, it was just me and my friends, listening to R&B, Salt-N-Pepa, that kind of thing. And Indian music, I loved it. Cornershop was always one of my favourite bands. These are cultures that I borrow from, and then with Tim, or Juanes [with whom Nelly has performed live, and recorded several times, including a stark, lovely ballad on Loose, called “Te Busqué”], it all comes together.” Nelly was behind the glass, producing her first two albums, but this time around, her approach was much different. “With Tim producing, I just showed up, played music, had a lot of fun, even made up lyrics on the spot. It had a spontaneous feel, and I think that translated onto the tracks.” There has been a lot of attention to production detail, though, and in that process she is very involved. “Promiscuous”, the first single (and which has been, to an unfortunate degree, interpreted quite literally by a certain number of advance press) shows all the hallmarks of a great basic track being polished a bit, the arrangements vibrant and fresh but complex and well-thought-out as well. Or “Maneater”, again a killer groove, what Nelly calls “voodoo energy, elevated energy” but the song ends with a complex array of vocals which might even overwhelm a lesser song.

Tabla (on “Wait For You” for example), Brazilian percussion (“Say it Right”), and even a bit of late 50s, early 60s girl-pop come to vivid life on “Showtime”. There is a wide array of musical influence on this record, but it is all coherent, held together as a whole by the forceful singer/songwriter at the centre of it. After listening to “Showtime”, Nelly says, “Yeah, I wanted to sing a song like all those great pop singers did.” We talk a little about Lesley Gore, whose string of Quincy Jones-produced hits included “It’s My Party”. “Wow,” says Nelly. “I remember that one. Great song.”

There is also a duet with Coldplay’s Chris Martin. If you happened to catch Coldplay on Austin City Limits doing “In the Sun” with Michael Stipe, you might not be surprised to discover how great a harmony singer Martin is. “All Good Things” is the song; it begins with Martin sounding very much in high-pitched Coldplay mode, but he soon brings his vocal down into an incantatory-style accompaniment of Nelly’s own vocal. The result is beyond charming, nearly haunting in its beauty and its simplicity. “I loved doing that,” Nelly says. “Chris wanted to drop in to the studio because he loves Tim’s work so much, and Tim loves Coldplay, and, well, there we were. We just started jamming, and Chris just did his own thing alongside mine. It was great.”

Night has descended on Toronto, and Nelly has events, and miles, to go before she sleeps. The hoop’s mesh sits quiet, the snow has a thin crust on it, since the day got just warm enough. As she begins to pack up, she talks a little about family, her parents, Portuguese, who taught her how to respect and abide by a solid work ethic, her daughter, nearly three years old, who teaches her about spontaneity and joy. It is safe to say a whole lot of people are going to listen to Loose over the coming months, beat-driven but always catchy somehow, whether in cars, in clubs, or at someone’s home, and they will find some pleasure in the listening, and want to get the record for themselves, so they can get better acquainted with it. It’s that sort of music, popular in a fairly broad sense, but deeply personal as well.

And as Nelly Furtado, the person who is the creative force behind this music, goes out into the Toronto night, it is astonishing to realize that seven hours have gone by in a beat. All good things come to an end. But then you buy the disc, and it’s yours, again.

Beauty note: Bronze Universel de Chanel; Cristalle Gloss in Cappuccino Rouge; Hydrabase in Lilac Sky; Aqualumière in Santa Barbara; Les 4 Ombres in Stage Lights; Écriture de Chanel eyeliner in Anthracite; Cils à Cils mascara in Noir Le Sourcil; Pro Lumière Professional Finish Makeup. All make-up by Chanel.