Nelly Furtado On ‘The Ride,’ Her Rogue Spirit & Resurfacing: Interview

Mike Wass | March 31, 2017 12:00 pm
Nelly Furtado's "Cold Hard Truth"
Nelly Furtado's creative rebirth continues with new single "Cold Hard Truth."

Nelly Furtado has got her groove back. Since returning in late 2016 with “Islands Of Me,” the Canadian pop star has reignited the passion of old fans (and made plenty of new ones) with a string of eclectic buzz singles. She showed off her alt-pop chops on “Pipe Dreams,” delivered a bone-rattling banger with “Cold Hard Truth” and yanked on our heartstrings with beautiful ballad, “Phoenix.” It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise then, that The Ride (out today) is a stunning return to form.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Nelly about her 6th LP earlier this week and she opened up about finding her new sound with the help of alternative music producer, John Congleton. The enduring hitmaker also talked about the joys of releasing an album independently and reflected on the lasting impact of Loose. Other topics of conversation included ageism in pop, The Spirit Indestructible and the ever-changing landscape of the music industry. Get reacquainted with the rejuvenated singer in our Q&A below.

When did you decide to release The Ride independently?
That type of decision doesn’t come flippantly, you know what I mean? My end game was always to eventually become independent. So what that basically means is that you own your future recordings and that you basically can record whatever, whenever, however you want. You can just clear it overnight. You know, I could duet with you and we could put it out tomorrow and be fine. It’s very liberating. I’ve always been prolific. I’ve always written tons of songs.

I had experimented with the independent world while recording Mi Plan, which essentially was a Nelstar-owned project, but it was distributed through Universal Latino. Even when I had a major label, I’d do things like secretly make a music video and then kind of hand it in and ask for them to pay me back. “Do It” was done that way. I think even “All Good Things Come To An End” was like that. I’ve always kind of done that. I’ve just done my thing. I’m a bit rogue, I guess.

So this is a completion and actualization of my rogue self. I had my own imprint. I signed a couple of acts to that imprint. So I’m very familiar with the ins-and-outs of the record business. I feel like, maybe at the end of the day, I’m just not really a company girl. I’m just an independent spirit. I mean, I always admired Ani DiFranco when I was a teenager because she was so fearless, so strong and brave to have her own label at a time when barely any artist had their own label.

My path was different. I definitely knew that I wasn’t that strong and would need support. I enjoyed working with several companies over the years and they provided this great megaphone for me internationally, for people to know all my songs and my titles. It’s definitely not coming from a place of like, “Ugh, I’m exhausted with this.” Not all all. It’s just a natural, very organic phase of my life. That’s truly the way I see it.

You haven’t released a traditional lead single. If you were still on a label, what would it be?
We did this really intentional non-single approach. We were like, “Let’s just let people discover this digitally.” Let’s just put it on Spotify and Apple Music, so that each song can fit into a different playlist. A song like “Phoenix,” which is a ballad, could really be on a sleep playlist because it’s so mellow and relaxing. But then you have a song like “Paris Sun,” which could very well be on an indie-alternative playlist. I’m trying to think of the most pop-y song for Top 40 radio. What would you think?

Yeah, maybe. But there’s no autotune on the album and I think most pop radio songs have some autotune on them, besides for maybe Adele. Like all EDM has autotune, which is great! It’s a sound. It’s stylistic. But I produced my album with John Congleton, who’s an alternative producer, and the acts he works with aren’t on the radio, besides for maybe alternative rock or modern rock. I don’t think I have anything, sonically, on the album that really, truly fits into commercial Top 40 radio. Maybe “Sticks and Stones”?

That makes sense.
It’s got a more commercial feel to it. I would say.

You mentioned “Phoenix” earlier. If I’m interpreting the lyrics correctly, it sounds like you were really back at square one before making the album.
Yeah. So that kind of kicked off the album. That was the first song I wrote for this album. I was in England recording “Sticks and Stones,” which I co-wrote with Paul Barry. He actually co-wrote “Let It Go” with James Bay. And also Mark Taylor, who co-wrote “Broken Strings” — the song I did with James Morrison. Mark Taylor actually co-wrote “Hero” by Enrique Iglesias and “Believe” by Cher.

Two classics!
Isn’t that crazy? Yeah! So he’s amazing. He’s a really nice guy and he records in rural England. “Phoenix” came out of that session. And also “‘Bliss,” which is the B-side that’s only available on vinyl. That’s the only one not available digitally. It’s my vinyl hook. “Phoenix” was written out of this dark place in my life. You know just like when your gas is on empty? I was really, truly on empty by August of 2014. I was feeling very low. I was feeling very empty.

I was just at that point where you’re at the bottom of the pool and you need to come up for air. And “Phoenix” is the moment I touched bottom and started surfacing again. I had to pick myself up. I flew cold-turkey over to England, by myself, and found this bed-and-breakfast in rural England. I would lie in bed ask myself, “What are you doing here?” I hadn’t seen Mark in years, so I was basically working with strangers. But I pulled myself together and dusted off my laptop. Because if music can’t pull you out of this, nothing can, you know?

How did settle on your new sound with John Congleton?
He’s an incredible producer. I think he’s one of the best producers in the world. I’m going to go out and say that. He engineers, mixes, produces, writes. He’s also a singer and plays guitar and has his own band. So, he’s one of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with. It was very effortless. He doesn’t even have an assistant with him in the studio. He does everything from repair broken microphones, to tell you that you need to re-write your lyrics.

I loved that! He really challenged me. He took the art very seriously and he looked at me very sternly and said, “You’ve really got to focus and make this artistic or else.” He said, “I think this is an important part of your career, and I think if you do this right, you’ll be very grateful that you did it this way.” I think his sound is interesting. It’s actually a very simple concept. For him, it’s not about the ingredients, it’s the recipe. Nowadays, we have so much technology. We have so much equipment, but he doesn’t sit there and tinker. He’ll just combine sounds in a unique way because he has a very high level of musical skill.

He also works with very talented musicians. That’s pretty much it. That’s all you need. Me, John, and three other musicians. Three or four other musicians. That’s why it’s such a singular sound. Because we really did take a singular approach. He also would tell me to stop singing sometimes. Like, I tried to stuff these songs with lyrics and he was like, “You know, it’s okay to just let the music breathe sometimes.” “Paris Sun” originally had this whole breakdown and he just looked at me and said, “I don’t like any of that here.” Someone just had to put a lid on me, you know?

CREDIT: Ben Guzman

Just to take a quick detour, are you aware of the impact Loose had on a whole generation of kids?
It’s still blowing my mind all these years later. And I think I’m only realizing it now, when I hear these stories from people, where they’re just like, “You don’t understand, this is the album that was the soundtrack to my childhood/teenage years/coming out,” whatever! It’s all over the map. I was in Montauk at a club and “Promiscuous” came on and I saw this girl just dancing her heart out.

She didn’t know I was watching and then her friend told her that I was watching. She just blushed and said, “I’m sorry, I just love this song and it just takes me back when I hear it.” I just finally realized that sometimes songs are bigger than you. They take on a life of their own and that album is important to so many people, you know? I love that! I think it’s so cool.

I loved The Spirit Indestructible, but it was something of an acquired taste. Are you happy with how it turned out?
That’s a really good question. I mean, I recorded it for like two years or something. I did so many tracks for the album and, at the end, we just picked a lot of the ones we had been doing. I think, maybe the songs could have been in a different sequence. I liked a lot of the B-sides. But not really. I never really regret anything. And I think it has a lot of life force, that album. I think it has a lot of energy and a lot of life force. Which I think is also very valuable and valid, you know?

“Big Hoops” is still one of the kookiest lead singles I can think of.
I love the way it sounds! I do think some of the sonics on the album are pretty incredible. I think Rodney Jerkins is an incredible producer and I really liked working with him. And I forgot how good that album was, but I put it on recently. I hadn’t heard it in like three years and I texted Rodney and I was like, “Hey, we made a really good album.” And he was like, “I know, right?” Sometimes you forget that. You don’t take the time to go back and listen. And I listened, and I was like, “You know what? This is a really good album.” I was like, “I’m proud of this.” As long as you’re proud of everything, I think that’s all that matters.

Going back to The Ride, can you please explain the cover?
Well, wait till you see the vinyl! I really recommend people get the vinyl. At least look at it online. So I have a friend. Her name’s Samantha McCurdy and she does 3-D, three dimensional sculptural artwork. So that green protrusion is piece of art that she made especially for the set that day. We wanted to give a sense of community in the artwork. The cover is a pastiche. It’s not a simple album to pack into a visual, so I just decided to be as simple as possible in terms of this is a moment I captured in Dallas while I was actually completing the album. So I like that my expression is organic to when I was creating it.

Pop music is inherently ageist.
Yeah, totally!

Have you experienced that yet?
I don’t think “old” is a bad word. I really don’t. That’s why I love vintage clothes. Why? Because they’re old. I love certain types of wine. Why? Because they’re old. I think the problem is people are afraid of the word. But I love it. I hope people call me old. I’m 38 and I feel like I’ve learned so many awesome lessons because of my age. I have been doing this for 20 years. I want people to know I’ve been in the game for two decades. I think that’s cool.

I’m not at the point now where… I’ve never had Botox or fillers or anything like that. My friends always say, “Well, you don’t have any wrinkles.” But like, I don’t know! I was raised in this feminist household and my mom was always very proud of her wrinkles. She didn’t have that many, but she grew old gracefully and she aged gracefully. And I think there’s power in that. I think it’s extremely attractive to own your maturity. I’m very young at heart and I have a young spirit, so I have young friends.

I just feel so young inside. What’s great about it is that you can hang and have fun with all these young, creative people, but you don’t have any of the hang-ups of your twenties because you’re really secure in yourself. And you’re so confident that you’re on top of the game. You’re like, “All right, this is wicked!” But I think the problem is when you try in a way that doesn’t feel authentic. You know what I mean? This new music, especially, is super organic to where I’m at mentally, physically and emotionally.

How different is the music business from when you released “I’m Like a Bird” to now?
You can’t even compare it. I mean, back in the day, I was signed to DreamWorks Records, which at the time, was still owned by Jeffrey Katzenberg, David Geffen, and who was the third investor? Steven Spielberg! How could I forget? So it was a very glamorous thing to be signed to Dreamworks Records. They had this little boutique building that was so beautiful. It was like I was signed to the boutique hotel of record labels with this amazing roster of experience. It was totally any young artist’s dream.

It was a beautiful thing. I’m so happy I got a taste of the old school record business. I’m trying to think of specific stuff that was different back then. Okay, back then your only presence on the Internet was maybe a blog. Maybe there were fans on there talking about you in some sort of thread. That was your only direct connection with fans and you couldn’t even talk to them. And if you did a day of press, the websites were last on the list. Now all the web stuff is at the top of the list.

It’s hilarious. It was so cool, though. Whenever I meet younger artists they’re like, “You’re so lucky you got to make music at that time!” And I’m like, “You’re right, I was lucky. I’m super lucky.” I feel very lucky that I was able to capture the last days of the old music business. I skipped University and went straight into music because I knew it was going to change. I had this weird, impending doom about the music business. It was really weird. I had this like sixth sense that everything was going to change and I needed to experience it now. That’s why I started so young.

I’m going to come to you for a psychic reading.
You should!

In one of your interviews you mentioned that you watch old Madonna and Jennifer Lopez interviews to relax.
There’s nothing more relaxing than watching somebody in a great outfit be super charismatic in a chair! I don’t know! I’ve always loved entertainment and I’ve always loved fashion, I’ve always loved looking at people on the red carpet. I almost love Googling red carpet looks the day after an event more than I actually like actually going to a red carpet. Because you’re in your pajamas and you get to look at all the pretty outfits and the makeup. I really like that. I love fashion and beauty.

Do you have a favorite celebrity to Google?
I don’t know. Not necessarily. It just depends. I usually look it up after an event or I might look up all the Oscar dresses. I know how much work goes into a red carpet look. I appreciate the effort. I know that they’re wearing tape underneath the dress and cutlets. So I’m like, “Bring it, girl! Bring it! That looks great!” You know? I’m like on their team. I’m on their team and I’m cheering them on.

Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.
Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

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