Nelly Furtado combines the romance of Portuguese fado with hip-hop electricity
Even during the eight summers she worked alongside her mother cleaning hotel rooms, Nelly Furtado knew that she would grow up to be a musician. Her childhood in a working-class Portuguese-Canadian family in Victoria (her father, Antonio, is a stonemason and landscaper) was steeped in song and dance. Her mother, Maria, sang at Portuguese festivals, and Nelly began doing so as well when she was only 4. Later, as she learned folk dancing and took up the ukulele and jazz trombone, Nelly was confident she would one day become a recording artist. And now, the 21-year-old’s soon-to-be-released debut CD, Whoa Nelly!, is getting the kind of advance buzz most young artists can only dream of. Everyone from Vanity Fair to Rolling Stone has heralded her as one to watch. And Entertainment Weekly dubs her “the thinking woman's Christina Aguilera.” But that is selling her short. She is better described as a Portuguese Lauryn Hill—hip-hops most successful crossover artist.
Whoa Nelly! (Dream Works) is an accomplished and refreshing debut owing much to Furtado’s diverse musical interests: Portuguese fado, Brazilian bossa nova, Pakistani devotional singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, alt-rockers Beck and Radiohead, pop artists Mariah Carey and TLC, and lots of hip-hop. And it doesn’t hurt that Furtado is a dark beauty with blue eyes and long black hair. Naturally, the artist has high hopes for her debut, but she insists she is more interested in pursuing her own musical vision than in saturating the market as Aguilera and Britney Spears have done. “Why would you want everyone buying your record because it is the cool thing to do?” she asks. “I’d prefer people to find out about me in an organic way.” During a recent performance at Toronto’s Phoenix Concert Theatre, where she was opening for the Canadian band Jacksoul, Furtado was stiff and showing signs of inexperience for the first half of her act. But then she let loose, showcasing her strong, versatile voice that moves easily from baby-girl cooing to sultry to rough staccato to passionate Portuguese fado. Performing one of her finest songs, the teasingly sexy Turn off the Light, she swivelled her tiny hips to a crouch and jumped back up with one hand in the air, pumping the crowd like a confident, seasoned hip-hop performer. “When I first came out,” Furtado said of the concert the following day, “it was like coming out of the blocks in a track meet—you try so hard and you are almost overdoing it. But I just chilled a little and eased into it.”
Furtado began expanding beyond Portuguese music in high school, when she hung out with electronic DJs and went to dance clubs and raves. In 1998, after a year of creative writing studies at a British Columbia college, Furtado moved to Toronto to record a demo with Gerald Eaton and Brian West of the Philosopher Kings. She had been writing songs with Eaton, who encouraged her to break away from her underground street scene and develop her sound into something more professional. The demo landed Furtado a slot on the 1998 Lilith Fair tour and her Dream Works recording contract. Now, West and Eaton wait in the wings like proud fathers. “I am no longer her mentor,” said Eaton after seeing her recent Toronto performance. “I am a huge fan.”
Furtado, who accompanies herself on the guitar for some songs and performs with a seven-piece band, plans to immerse herself more in the hip-hop side of her music in the future—taking cues from DJs on how to produce new music with turntables. But she will never forsake her musical roots. “There are two sides to me,” she says, “the urban, street-smart English singer, and then the Portuguese singer. When I sing Portuguese, I kind of turn into another person, very emotional, more like a songstress.” Furtado’s rare combination of talents may bring her to pop success without compromising her artistic vision.
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