the records that made nelly furtado
Ahead of her new album "The Ride," Nelly Furtado talks heartbreak, dressing like Janet Jackson in high school, and defying musical expectations.
It's a scary realization, but it's now 17 years since Nelly Furtado broke through with "I'm Like a Bird." The song could easily have remained her signature hit, but in 2006, the Canadian singer-songwriter teamed up with Timbaland to make Loose, one of the great pop albums of the noughties, and home to era-defining hits "Promiscuous" and "Maneater." After collaborating with Blood Orange last year, Furtado is now back with The Ride, an album she calls "modern pop-alternative." Recorded with St. Vincent's producer John Congleton, it's her catchiest and coolest set since Loose. Musically, she's always been an artist who's tricky to pin down, but these are the records that made Nelly Furtado.
What was the first record you bought?
It would have been TLC's debut, Ooooooohhh... On the TLC Tip. It had that great single "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg" on it. I remember it so clearly: me and my friend walked down to this little record store in the mall in downtown Victoria [British Columbia] where I grew up and we both bought the same cassette! I think we dressed up as them for Halloween, like, three times in one year — I'm not even sure how that's possible.
What was the song that got you through your first heartbreak?
You know what, my first legit heartbreak — not just puppy love — was happening right around the time The Verve were really exploding. I really loved their album Urban Hymns, but I also loved the album that came before [A Northern Soul]. There was a song on that album called "On Your Own" that was just, oh my God, so good. I can remember breaking up with a boy and then sitting in my car by the beach just listening to that song. And then I loved the song "Sonnet" from Urban Hymns. Those two are both amazing breakup songs.
What's the song that reminds you of school?
Honestly, anything from Janet Jackson's janet. album. We did a dance routine to "If" and we pretty much got suspended because it was so racy. We performed this routine in front of 300 kids at assembly and did pretty much everything she did in the video. The principal was unhappy with us because he said it "simulated oral sex" — which some of the dance moves in that video kind of do. Me and my friends were actually called "The Janets" at school because we all used a lot of Dippity-do gel in our hair to make it look long and curly, just like Janet had at the time.
What was the song that changed people's perceptions of you?
Oh my God, you know which one! I would say my Blood Orange collaboration, "Hadron Collider." It's quite recent actually, which is kind of cool. Dev [Hynes] and I met when David Byrne was putting together this concert series and we just really clicked; we almost felt this magnetic attraction to each other creatively. So we booked this room in Toronto and wrote and recorded "Hadron Collider" within those first few hours of working together. I think he and I share two things really: sensitivity and, well, preciousness! But I definitely think recording this song with Dev has shifted my trajectory a bit, in a really cool way.
What's the song people ask you about most often?
Ha! I'm not going to lie, people ask me about "Promiscuous" all the time! They love to ask me, "How was recording with Timbaland?" or "What's Justin Timberlake like?" or "So, are you really a promiscuous girl?" I guess that whole "Promiscuous" and "Give It To Me" era was my first time having real club tracks. I've seen people really bust a move on the dance floor to "Promiscuous," and then they notice that I'm watching, and they're so embarrassed, but also so happy to see me! I think the power of dance is like a superpower. When a song can really make people dance, it almost lives on in their bodies or something, it's crazy.
What's the song you wish you'd written?
Oh, I'm gonna have to go back to the U2 classics. I wish I wrote "One." Or come on, everyone wishes they wrote "Imagine" by John Lennon, right? Aim high, aim high!
What's the most played song on your iTunes?
So many! Right now, I'm listening to Syd's album a lot, I'm listening to Kehlani's album a lot, and I've recently discovered Thundercat's music. His new album, Drunk, is just so brilliant. And there's a great new band out of Bed-Stuy who I'm writing with at the moment called The Skins; I'm listening to them a lot, too.
What's the song that reminds you of your parents?
Well, I actually wrote a song about my dad called "Picture Perfect"; it's on my second album Folklore. It's about his journey emigrating from Portugal to Canada and how cool he looks in all his old rock 'n' roll photos from the 60s. Like, him buying his first car. Those old photos always look so perfect.
What's the song you want to be played at your funeral?
Honestly, the first thing that comes to mind is "Live Forever" by Oasis. Because that song is kind of a banger, it's earnest but fun, and I always think funerals are for the living. When I'd just graduated high school, a friend came to visit from England and he had this mixtape with, like, The Prodigy and Radiohead and Pulp on it. So we just went Britpop-crazy for a while. I remember really loving stuff like Beth Orton at that time, too.
What do you like watching on YouTube?
I like watching old interviews. I don't know why, but I'll be like, "I feel like watching Madonna on David Letterman." Or, do you know what I do if I'm in a bad mood? I google J Lo interviews. And I'll just watch J Lo on Ellen. I guess my little guilty pleasure is watching these beautiful women doing fabulous interviews on TV. My new motto is: "Keep calm and google J Lo." If you're about to troll your ex online, just keep calm and google J Lo.
Nelly Furtado's new album The Ride drops 31 March.
Text Nick Levine