You’ll probably hear the name Nelly Furtado and think to yourself that it isn’t one you’ve heard in a while. Her absence, though, is deliberate; after over a decade of touring, writing and running her own record label imprint, she’s been on a much-needed hiatus to learn an important life skill: how to say no. Her first album, Whoa, Nelly! was released in 2000 when she was 22, and her daughter, Nevis, was born three years later. From then on, she juggled her music career with being a mum.
“My life was pretty much on fast-forward from the age of 20,” she says over the phone from Los Angeles. “I signed my first record deal, and then it was constant juggling of my work and my home life. I became a mother at quite a young age, I was 25, then I had a long-term business relationship [with her ex-manager] who was like a father figure to me. A couple of years ago I realised we had to part ways, and when that ended I took a look at a bunch of stuff in my life, and had this urge to simplify it. I didn’t quit music, but I quit juggling. I thought, 'I’m going to clean my own toilet and wash my own underwear!'”
Nelly’s latest album, The Ride – her first in five years – is a jump back to the quirky folk-pop that made her name, and chronicles her struggle to find herself again. “This album is all realisations,” she explains. “I didn’t wanna be surrounded by bullshit anymore; I want to demand truth from the people around me and from myself. It’s about dreams not always matching up to reality and coming out of the other side.” With hindsight, she says, she can see that life’s responsibilities sometimes took her away from who she was, which was, in her words, a creative, sensitive soul. “I started taking ceramics classes and playwriting classes at the local university,” she explains, “working at my daughter’s school library sorting books, and working the till at my friend’s record store. All those things help me remember who I was.”
The themes of the album – inner strength and renaissance – are immediately obvious in the lyrics. “We were meant to be alone” she sings on “Cold Hard Truth” and on "Phoenix", a “pretty ballad with a healing quality that I used as my life raft to come back to the surface”, she gently announces that “it’s time to find your wings again”. But stripping her life back to the basics didn’t come easily. “It’s difficult for women in the business because our maternal side comes out,” she muses. “You have people who rely on you to feed their families. You’re expected to maintain that because that’s how business works – any business model is based on expansion and exceeding your numbers. Women in particular, because of our desire to nurture, don’t want to get off that wheel because we feel [responsible] for other people. I remember I was on the road with my daughter and I realised I didn’t want to raise her on the road anymore. It was hard, because I had to say no to a lot of people, but the most important person is yourself and your family.”
When I ask if she thinks women in the public eye are more heavily scrutinised for their decisions than men, Nelly agrees emphatically. “I have utmost respect for any woman in any business who’s successfully balanced those responsibilities,” she says. “There was a big scandal, I think it was the CEO of Yahoo, when she said she was going back to work six weeks after having a baby [in 2015, Marissa Mayer returned to work within one month of giving birth to twins]. People just tore her down. And I thought it was the most overt display of misogyny and the patriarchal world we live in that I’d ever seen. My heart went out to her. I thought, ‘God, who has the right to know what this woman feels?’”
Furtado passionately believes that the key to a more harmonious world is empathy. “I have a song on the new album, “Sticks and Stones”, which was the only song I didn’t write on the album. It’s written by Mark Taylor, who also wrote ["Broken Strings"], the song I did with James Morrison a while back. I thought it was beautiful, and I flew to England to record it. It’s about laying down our battles. I feel like you could get two people in a room who had different political beliefs and get them to write a song together. If I can’t get along with someone who voted for a different person, we’re doomed. That’s why we have war. All we’re missing is a little bit more compassion and empathy.”
The introspective new record is undoubtedly representative of where Furtado’s at in her life right now but casual fans might still associate her with her hit 2006 R&B album, Loose. The single “Promiscuous” catapulted her into the mainstream and transformed her overnight from cult sensation to fully fledged, overtly sexual pop star. But rather than being a strategic play for the image-obsessed pop world, Furtado says it was a chance to revel in her own female sexuality. “I was going through a kind of sexual renaissance,” she says. “I’d just finished nursing my daughter, I was 26, 27, my body was [different] and I was like, ‘Oh wow, I’m a woman now, I’m not a girl anymore!’ I consciously made a decision to do a more streamlined pop album because I wanted to prove to myself I could do it.” In actuality, then, says Nelly, Loose was her being free and not worrying too much about what people thought. “It was an authentic part of me”, she says.
Eventually, though, Nelly found herself trying to live out what she calls a “polished pop persona” in her stage shows and interviews, and thought, ‘I don’t really wanna be a robot anymore’. That’s not to say she wants to distance herself from the album, or from “Promiscuous”, which is still guaranteed to fill dance floors. “Oh my God, I heard it at the club the other day and was like, ‘I can finally dance to this without feeling weird’,” she laughs. “Sometimes music is just bigger than you. It’s not even my song anymore, it just belongs to all the memories and parties that people had listening to it. It’s neat when a song becomes a weird institution to itself. Last summer, I was partying at this really amazing place and this girl, she was singing every word like she was at karaoke, and she didn’t know I was standing right beside her. When her friend told her it was me, she was so embarrassed! But just like music can help someone through a good time, it can help them through a hard time. It works both ways.”
The Ride is out on 31st March