10/05/2009 11:14 PM | By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times
Strutting into the W Hotel in a tight purple dress, matching pumps and isnt-she-somebody-famous? sunglasses, Nelly Furtado is the very model of a modern pop princess. The burly bodyguards, the anxious make-up assistant, the aura of casual conspicuousness - it's all there.
But a few minutes later, seated poolside and sipping chamomile tea after swapping her high heels for slippers, Furtado is as sensible as her footwear. Bubbling with sly humour, thoughtful observations and emotional frankness, she lays out the back story to her new album, Mi Plan (My Plan), her debut all-Spanish-language CD.
The album's first single, Manos al Aire (Hands in the Air), an up-tempo cri de coeur to a sensitivity-challenged lover, has been racing up the charts from Austria to Mexico, a testament to Furtado's global musical mentality and polyglot marketing power. A world tour is scheduled to start later this year.
While some might interpret Mi Plan as a belated dash into the booming Latin pop market, Furtado, the child of immigrants who moved from Portugal's Azores archipelago to British Columbia, points out that she always has split her recordings roughly 80 per cent to 20 per cent between English and Spanish.
She also kept a clause in her DreamWorks Records contract allowing her to make Latin albums whenever she liked.
Mi Plan, the chanteuse says, came out of her desire to delve deeper into Iberia's lyrical sensibility, which she previously has explored in duets with colleagues such as Colombian superstar Juanes. She also felt, instinctively, that Spanish would be the best tongue for conveying her current state of being as a working mum who savours the quotidian pleasures of parenting, making music and daily life in her Toronto hometown.
"I tried to write in English a few times, and it was, like, 'forget about it'. I just had no inspiration," she says. "And then when I started writing in Spanish it was like, 'Whoah! I get to finally pay tribute or experiment with all the Latin pop sounds that I love. And all the artists.'"
In Furtado's case, that's a lengthy list.
She began compiling it as a child, through her exposure to traditional Portuguese fado, folkloric and pop music, which she heard at church, in her family's home and in the immigrant environs of Victoria, British Columbia. She has vivid memories of summers spent visiting the family's ancestral home in the Azores and of rummaging through mildewed boxes crammed with compositions written by her grandfather, a conductor and marching band composer.
"I remember looking at pieces of my grandfather's old clarinet after he passed away and holding them in my hands, and just [feeling] a lot of raw musical energy."
She took Portuguese lessons until she was 12, a run-up to her adolescent crush on Brazilian music and her embrace of such iconic artists as Tom Zé and Caetano Veloso. In high school she started studying Spanish, the linguistic sibling of Portuguese. She reckons her command of the language is now 50 per cent to 60 per cent.
But it wasn't until she matched vocals with Juanes on his No 1 Hot Latin hit song Tu Fotografía (Your Picture) - and repaid the favour by asking him to chime in on her own single Te Busqué ([I] Searched for You) - that Furtado found her comfort zone. Additional collaborations with artists including Calle 13, electronica-tango outfit Bajofondo Tango Club and reggaeton duo Wisin & Yandel helped cement her Spanish-language connection.
The clincher was Furtado's marriage last year to Cuban American producer Demacio "Demo" Castellon, who had worked with her on 2006's Loose album, which sold 10 million copies worldwide. "That makes all the difference, because then you find yourself using Spanish a lot more, in a lot more personal situations, intimate situations," she says.
In making Mi Plan, Furtado said, she felt she needed collaborators to fully tap into the rich melodic and poetic possibilities of Spanish-language culture. So she enlisted such can't-miss talent as Mexican pop-alt-rocker Julieta Venegas, the Spanish jazz-flamenco singer Concha Buika, Mexican crooner Alejandro Fernández and a wild card, Josh Groban, the singer-songwriter whose eclectic gifts make him something of a spiritual cousin to Furtado.
"I just think he's incredible because he's in his own lane and he's very fearless," Furtado says.
Most crucial for the new record was Furtado's decision to team up with Cuban-Canadian singer-bassist Alex Cuba, who helped pen most of the tracks on Mi Plan.
"Nelly is somebody very real. She lays it down flat on a table. She just tells you what she's feeling," says Cuba, who just released his own album, Agua del Pozo.
Furtado says that singing in Spanish allows her to channel deeper, contradictory feelings than might be permitted in English, turning emotions on a dime.
"Singing as a Latin female I can be less two-dimensional," she said. "Like Manos al Aire, in the verse I'm kind of almost angry. I'm accusing my lover. I'm, like, mad. But in the chorus I'm vulnerable, and I throw my hands up and say, 'You know what? I want to make this work.' And I think in English the song would be a train wreck."
So far, Furtado's career has been smooth motoring while veering from cheeky funk and hip-hop to sophisticated forays into Afro-Brazilian batucada, samba and tropicalia. Occasionally, though, her tendency to shed old stylistic skins and grow new ones has divided her critics, particularly over rhythmically frisky releases such as 2003's Folklore. Entertainment Weekly praised the disc as "exultant music" that goes "on its merry, multicultural way", but Rolling Stone dismissed it as a "slick, multicultural hodgepodge".
From Furtado's perspective, it's not so much that she has changed as that her media followers have. "When I came out with my first CD, I would tell people that the CD was influenced by... Tom Zé, Caetano Veloso, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan," she recalls. "And it was like I'd get blank stares from journalists. Because some of them had never heard world music."
Today's sonic landscape is much richer, she believes, thanks largely to the internet and iTunes. Listeners of all stripes are more accustomed to - and have come to better appreciate - music that embraces a host of global influences, including her own. "In 2010, it'll be 10 years since my first album came out. And now I finally feel like I fit in."