Why Is Nelly Furtado's New Album So Loud?

The singer talks about Timbaland, gospel and her awesome high-school play

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How do you jam in the studio? Do you use your voice, as an instrument obviously, or do you play something?

We had this one song "Say It Right" -- it affected my vocals a whole lot. We put all these reverbs and weird alien sounds on the voices for a while. I heard that U2 writes a lot of their songs that way, in the actual control room. So I thought I'd experiment a little bit. The cool thing is we did the mixes as we went. The whole album is a board mix theoretically. We didn't bring in the fancy mixer at the end. That was my dream, because for so many years I've liked my demo tapes more than my finished albums. That's why the album has such loud volume. It didn't have that final wash over it; it didn't have the final pressing at the end, save for a couple sounds. We were listening to a lot of electro -- I love Bloc Party and Death from Above 1979. Tim and I mutually love System of a Down. And the mixing engineers were really conscious of having that rock sound. That's why it's called Loose. We kept those coughing, laughing, distorted bass lines. We just kind of leave it off-the-cuff. Anyway, when I'm in the studio, I just write melodies, lyrics. I used to write on guitar more often . . . but a lot of my songs weren't getting better. So I just try to let other people play guitar and I would sing on their melodies. Kind of like Anthony Kiedis and the Chili Peppers.

There you go.

In the studio, Timbaland had some beats that were already kind of halfway there; and then he had beats that he just had nucleuses of; and then other stuff we jammed together. We had a song called "Say It Right," the song where we had effects on the vocals. Basically it's like four in the morning, and Timb's like, "Go home, you're tired." And I'm like, "Really? I'll show you," and put my little hoodie on and then I started to jam. Then Nate -- he writes like a 100 beats a day -- he and Timbaland and I started jamming on the song, and basically we produced it and wrote it as we went. So it got more intense as I kept singing. Then we went back and took the vocals we liked and perfected them. That particular song, we used four microphones in the live room and we moved them around, like every two minutes or something. That's why when you listen to it --there's a lot of dimension. It kind of sounds like he's in another country [laughs]. So we experimented a lot with depth and different sounds. On a song called "Glow," I used my hands to create a sort of crescendo, a do-it-yourself crescendo on my vocals. Kind of like if you move your hands in front of your mouth to change the effect of your vocals. Also to get a certain sound on "Glow," I'd hold the note and then I would kinda go "Gllooooooooow" on my vocal chords -- which, you know, the vocal teacher wouldn't like too much.

So, some random questions: What do you think when you see yourself on TV after the fact?

It's hard to watch. Supposedly, my greatest performance is when I worked with an aboriginal vocal group from Saskatchewan. And I did it on the Juno Awards in Canada, and I did a rendition of my song "Powerless" with them. It was like a big medley with all these extras carrying signs, and it was really cool. And I still haven't watched it because I don't want to ruin the vision of it in my mind. With SNL, maybe in a couple of weeks, maybe in a couple of months I'll have the courage to watch it. Because when you do watch yourself that's when you become better as a performer. I'm sure all the greats, especially like the Beyonces of the world, watch themselves to get that perfection going. I'm working with the same choreographer that she works with. This whole choreography thing is new to me. I always loved dancing but I was a little shy about it before. Now I'm just loving it.

What about reading reviews?

Reviews are tricky. There's that whole thing about if you read the good ones, the bad ones hurt even more. [Laughs] I'm made of steel now. I'm a mother. I've had food thrown at me in crowded restaurants by a toddler. I've got a lot tougher armor now. Before I was really sensitive to the things people would say about me, review about me. Now it's like, publicists never show you the bad ones anyway. The publicists only show you the good ones.

How come you still live in Toronto?

Because I love it. You know that Toronto is the most multicultural city in the entire world. There are a hundred languages spoken in Toronto; 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 [laughs].

Or Spanish.

I can be any culture really. That's why my first album was world pop: I grew up in Canada. I didn't need to wait for the complete Internet revolution, I didn't need to wait for iTunes to learn about world music because I lived in Canada. I had been listening to world music since I was fifteen years old. That's who I was. That's why I stay there. The other great thing about Toronto is that it's a city where gay marriage is legal, grassroots political activism is encouraged and easy to find. I'm raising my daughter there. Culturally she's a quarter Filipino, a quarter East Indian and half Portuguese. So for me it's the best place to raise her. I feel grounded when I'm there. It's also like a big city, but it's not massive. I think Toronto is just getting on the map with all the bands coming out of there now.

Was there music playing for the birth of your daughter?

It's a really cool story. The day she was born I was listening to Erykah Badu's Worldwide Underground. Maybe I needed that fellow musician momma energy in the room. In that first month after she was born, I played her a lot of Caetano Veloso, and I played her Elliot Smith. Some nice mellow stuff.

What's the last record you bought?

Kim Burrell, "Everlasting Life," which is a gospel album. I've been listening to that and Mary Mary's album that came out in 2002 -- it's called Incredible -- and this other gospel album by Donnie McClurkin. You know who recommended these gospel CDs? I've been meaning to get into gospel for a while and I ran in -- this sounds really Hollywood -- but I ran into Michelle from Destiny's Child at New York Fashion Week. We were sitting together at the Miss Sixty show. This sounds so Hollywood.

She's a musician, not an actress, so it's less Hollywood.

We were talking about her own gospel project, and I said, "You know what? I really need some recommendations on gospel. Because when you go to a store and you're trying to discover a new genre, you can buy stuff that you're really not happy with when you get home." Clearly you can go on the Internet now, and do your thing, but I don't have enough time. And I still like to buy CDs, support the cause -- though I love iTunes. Anyway, so she wrote in my Blackberry a bunch of CDs and I bought them all. I listen to a lot of them on the road. I dunno if I'm redeeming myself after making such a sexy album. [Laughs] But I like any devotional music: I also listen to devotional East Indian music, Pakistani music. No pun intended, but the vocals are really committed. It's very inspirational too.

You have an incredibly broad range of musical taste.

I grew up playing ukulele, guitar, piano, trombone. I didn't really censor it -- and growing up in Canada you get everything. I always know there's a new genre left to discover. For me, it's like a metaphor for life. I feel like if you can get down with any style of music, you can get down with any style of person. So it's fun for me -- I get to expose my fans to different vibes and they, in turn, open their minds too. I'm always undergoing mind-opening.

What's up with your acting?

[Laughs] What's up with the acting? Nothing, the reason why I started studying acting was that I was supposed to do this film in India, this Hindi film that never came to fruition. I studied for it and I was supposed to fly to India and do it. I was taking crash courses in acting and then I discovered I really liked it. That's what kind of opened me up to this whole, new loose vibe of this album. Just kind of letting your ego go, and saying, "Who cares if I fall flat on my face? Let's just try living." Acting teaches you to let go of your ego and feel really grounded. I started taking these classes part-time with this really cool teacher in Toronto, a friend of mine. And then I started preparing for another role in a film called Nobody's Hero. They haven't finished filming it yet but it's an indie movie and I couldn't do it because I had to go on the road and promote Loose at the last minute. I have an agent I'm slowly opening up to. But it's totally scary -- I had to maybe do five seconds of acting in "Maneater": I lose my dog and I find my dog at the end of this video. It's something I did as a kid just for fun, like school plays.

What school plays were you in?

My first school play was "The Pied Piper." Then in eighth grade I did the "The Wind in the Willows." I was Mole. Yeah, pretty hot -- before the Ugly Duckling bloomed. Then I did this original play called "Walking With the King" that my drama teacher wrote with another teacher. God rest his soul, he just passed away. It was all about walking and these people who go to Mardi Gras in New Orleans to find the King -- to find Elvis. I sang a Patsy Cline song in it, "Walking After Midnight." It was so edgy, so awesome! There were like scenes with the red light district, transvestites. It was very avant-garde for eleventh grade.

[Expanded From Story in Issue 1003 — June 19, 2006]

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