If it's been a hot second since you've thought about Nelly Furtado, here's a refresher on the shapeshifting Canadian pop star: One minute she's singing flitty acoustic numbers about individuality, and the next she's crafting sexy R&B-infused bangers with Timbaland about, well, being sexy. Yeah. You remember her. And if it feels like one minute Furtado was there, like in a massive way, and then she wasn't, you're right. This was by design. In 2012, following a run of mildly received albums, she retreated from the spotlight. "You need to learn how to say no to survive mentally and emotionally," Furtado says. She went home to Toronto, worked stocking shelves in her friend's record shop, and started scrubbing her own toilet again. She needed to recharge. But thanks to friends like Annie Clark of St. Vincent, who introduced her to Grammy-winning producer John Congleton, Furtado wasn't out of the picture for long. The result is the independently released The Ride, Furtado's first album in five years, and another bold, fantastic reinvention. Where once there stood a jazz-minded singer-songwriter or a Top 40-aiming pop star, now exists a boundary-pushing alternative-pop risk-taker. The album is artsy, over-the-top, New Wave-y, quirky. Call it Nelly 3.0. Nowadays, she explains, she'd rather be doing sound installations at Art Basel or an exhibit at MoMA PS1, exploring "the idea of songwriting as a tool for empathy and compassion," than trotting up onstage and dancing in front of thousands of people. "Those are the kind of things I can do just because they bring me joy. Period."
Author: Dan Hyman | Photography: Brad Torchia | Modeling: Nelly Furtadowww.gq.com
GQ: How does it feel to be back in full-on album promotion mode after time away from the music-industry machine?
Nelly Furtado: It's kinda weird. I guess you never really stop. I had an imprint for a while, so I was signing other acts and co-writing and producing other acts. But it's very different than when you go out promoting your own album. The first week I did a real promo run for this album I was like, "Whoa! I'm tired, I forgot what this was like." You have to get your sea legs back again.
Artists and critics alike like to lean on the 'comeback' narrative. How do you view your new album in that regard? A comeback? A reinvention?
I don't think it's a comeback. I'm just heading in a different direction. Really my curiosity guides me in my career and in my life. I'm a bit of a navigator. I don't know if it's because I'm Portuguese—we have some pretty famous navigators, if you go through your history—but I have that navigator inside me and it's what drives me. It's curiosity. I dunno—things have been just going in my direction in terms of a more artistic path. It's not that I wasn't going on an artistic path before. It's not that I never led my creative pursuits.
And that also involves searching for creative people who push you.
I feel like you get what you give in the universe. And shortly after I met John [Congleton] I met Dev Hynes from Blood Orange and I did a really cool collaboration ["Hadron Collider"] for his album. He introduced me to a new way of approaching the world as an artist: Let the creativity come to you rather than chasing things. Organically just meeting cool, interesting people led to me feeling confident enough to complete this album. And now I'm feeling really great about it. It's been really cathartic for me personally because the lyrics are super hard-knocks honest. "Life beat me up a lot and I'm going to talk about it!"
"Palaces," in particular, is a brutally honest song. You're not beating around the bush about feeling that fame and celebrity are a farce.
No, I'm not! And I wrote that near Mombasa, Kenya, actually—a coastal town. I was inspired by some of the architecture and I was really thinking about this concept of façades: the façade versus what lies beneath. And this idea that palaces are supposed to create change and so you're building palaces around a problem. Even a body: If your body is not structurally sound, you can't just build muscle around it and not expect yourself to still feel sore.
It sounds like you're talking about your own identity struggles in your own life and career.
One hundred percent. The problem is if you have output all the time you're not inputting into yourself. You can become plagued by ambition. Our society affirms and rewards that. Our emotional growth as human beings is so different than this outward mark of success.
You talk of following your creative muse as something relatively new. But you've always seemed an artist who follows her instinct.
I'm definitely idiosyncratic. And I think that's why I can't relate to the concept of branding. I can't. It just doesn't feel like me. Why put yourself in a box? It's so limiting.
I've experimented with boxes. But then I get bored. I put out Loose and I enjoyed dancing onstage and singing songs within the confines of an urban-pop context. But at the same time, after awhile, I just wanted to go away and create something new again. I never like to repeat myself. Repetition is very boring. That extends to my hobbies as well. They change all the time. I did this 10K race last year, and although I trained for it incredibly hard and I enjoyed the process, I then was like "Now what do I do?" I'll try a hobby and then just move onto something else.
You were quite young when your career took off.
It was a whirlwind. I'm grateful that social media wasn't around back then. Because I think it must be extremely difficult for artists coming of age in the spotlight. And it's true: I was 20 when I signed my record deal and got on the road right away. A lot happened very quickly. Having to mature in the spotlight is always interesting. You're going through stages and phases in front of everyone. Which is strangely kind of alienating. You're made to feel like you're the only one who changes. But everybody changes! No fair!
This album has a song about that topic: "Tap Dancing." It's speaking to the idea that it's easy for an entertainer or celebrity to crash and burn. And the reason why is because you don't get to give any energy to yourself. So of course you're going to crash and burn. I say, "I shouldn't have to dance at all for you to love me." I shouldn't have to take this tap-dance into my personal life. When the stage ends and the lights shut off, I should be able to be still and quiet and work on my internal world. But the problem is a lot of people never get to do that because they're too busy. And they never get a chance to say no to anything.
I always say that as a woman in this business, when you get successful, you feel obligated to the people that you've hired to help support you. And you feel the nurturer in you wants to just please everybody and keep saying yes to everything.
That involved extremes for you: going back and working at your friend's record store. Even cleaning your own bathroom. Very method.
I think I was really "in search of." What is really being grounded? Grounded is not just "I'm going to take some time off." I wanted to clean my own bathroom again and wash my own laundry again. I really missed normal life. I wanted to make it as isolated as I possibly could. It really helped me, honestly. It sounds silly but it kind of saved me.
For a long time you may have been playing to expectations as to who and what people thought Nelly Furtado the pop star was.
Any business model works on expansion. Especially in our Westernized way of looking at things. "If you're not expanding, you're failing." You can't just break even. The problem when you combine art and commerce is that artistic expansion is never the same as commercial expansion. That's where the dissonance lies. I always knew what I wanted to hear, and I've always written my own songs, so that really helped. There was never any magician in the back corner formulating my image. But that said, when you have success in the music business you undeniably feel pressure to produce, for sure.
I get the sense though you're the happiest you've ever been.
That's one hundred percent safe to say. I just feel true happiness comes from emerging from struggle. It comes from being willing to look at the uglier sides of life and take the journey within. Really look at things in a truthful and honest way. That's very difficult. But once you do and take the leap to accept it all it's very rewarding. I'm very happy now. Experiences make you rich. Even pain. Like I say in "Pipe Dreams": "I want to feel the good and bad in everything… even when it hurts."