Nelly Furtado on Dev Hynes, Going Indie & Why 'The Ride' Is Her 'Hangover Album'
The "Promiscuous" singer explains why she took pottery classes & made several trips to Kenya before returning to pop.
In 2000, Canadian singer Nelly Furtado burst onto the charts with her single “I’m Like A Bird,” a folk-drenched pop jam that would be a karaoke go-to for years to come. Since then, Furtado has hopscotched between folk, pop, dance and R&B, touring the world and winning two Grammys along the way.
Now, five years since her last album The Spirit Indestructible, Furtado has taken back the creative reins to independently release a pop record, The Ride, due March 31. The world got a taste of the direction Furtado was pursuing last year with “Hadron Collider,” a highlight from Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound album; overall, however, Furtado has remained out of the limelight during the past five years, devoting much of her time to traveling, her nonprofit Free the Children and focusing on self-empowerment.
Finding her authentic self has been a big part of Furtado redefining her craft, and it’s something that shines through on The Ride. Tracks like “Islands of Me” and “Pipe Dreams” tap into the singer's funkier side, while much of the record is dedicated to identifying Furtado's truest self, be it through beauty or pain. "It was just a breakdown of major relationships in my life coming to an end,” explains Furtado. “I was trying to push past it, and get back to me.”
What were you up to during the past several years between albums?
This is my first official release since 2012, [and] since then, I was doing a bunch of things. I had a label -- my own imprint at the time -- called Nelstar, and I had released my Spanish-language album [2009’s Mi Plan] under Nelstar and Universal Latino. I continued the label to include a couple of other acts I was developing, the last one being Dylan Murray, and I decided to move on from having a label in 2013. I’ve also been working with my nonprofit, Free the Children, and we do youth engagements, community partnerships, empowerment in different places and workshops with girls -- I’ve been going on a lot of trips to Kenya.
I took some time to pursue some personal passions. I did everything from pottery classes to sewing classes. I took a playwriting class at the University of Toronto to pursue a few ideas I had. It was a time of self-development, but the whole time I’ve also been recording. This whole record took about two years to record off and on from start to finish.
How did you end up working with John Congleton?
I first met John Congleton in August 2014. The very first song that I wrote for the album was called “Phoenix,” and that’s kind of where the journey began. About a year before that, I met Annie Clark from St. Vincent -- she and I were both playing a festival in Tokyo called Summer Sonic and we struck up a friendship. One day I asked Annie to give me John’s phone number. I asked what he was like to work with, and she spoke very highly of him. John and I met up for a drink in a hotel lobby in L.A., and I think he was mixing the Earl Sweatshirt album at the time. He and I chatted for a long time and really got along. I flew to Dallas and was staying at this tiny hotel called The Belmont -- not far from his recording studio called Elmwood Recording, which used to be a mortuary. At the time, I was managing myself because I had just ended a 20-year professional relationship -- our friendship has remained, but we just went in different directions professionally. I found myself having this thrill of being completely independent, and I got a shuttle ride over to John’s studio. That first day we wrote the song “Flatline,” which ended up being one of my favorites of the album.
What has it been like releasing your record independently?
It was really symbolic for me -- I got to get this album back from Interscope, so I get to own this album. It’s an independent release, released through several distributors throughout the world. It was so great to have a megaphone of a huge label supporting me for almost two decades, because now I have this audience and it’s so wonderful to have my creative output match the brevity with which I can release things now that I’m independent. I feel grateful, but I feel like it’s well-earned, especially because I’ve had experience in the independent realm.
How did you end up meeting Dev Hynes?
Dev Hynes and I met through David Byrne. Exactly 14 months ago, David Byrne had the color-guard show, which was called “Contemporary Color,” so he recruited me, St. Vincent, Tune-Yards, Lucius, Dev Hynes and more. The coolest thing was that David Byrne told us we’d perform with these high school color-guard groups. He said not to bring anyone from your band -- he only wanted “cross-pollination.” He said Dev and Merrill Garbus would sing backup for me -- I was like, “Whoa, lucky me.”
At rehearsal I met Dev, and we immediately clicked. It reminded me of the time I met Timbaland. Dev and I said “hi” and exchanged numbers immediately. He was coming to Toronto the next week, so we got in the studio. The song "Hadron Collider” from his album was literally the thing we recorded that night -- it’s my demo vocals.
Did working with Dev change your sound?
Working with Dev is totally separate than my new album with John. It’s like, John’s weirdness meets my pop-ness. Dev and I write music so naturally. To me, Dev is this beautiful, sensitive soul -- probably one of the truest artists I’ve ever met. I just got a place in New York, so I’m sure we’ll be making more music soon.
What kind of story are you trying to tell on The Ride?
I’m excited that the lyrics have a lot of weight, because I feel like I’ve genuinely matured. I’m calling it my “hangover album”: The party was fun, but then you crash on the ground and wake up the next day and feel kind of cool, but have stuff to deal with. That’s what all the songs are about. There’s this song called “Carnival Games,” about spending money at a carnival and getting a bunch of really cool-looking stuffed animals, but you’ll never really know what winning is like because you haven’t taken the time to look within and try to search for real happiness. The song “Palaces” is the same thing, where you’re looking for this perfect land and that breaks down. It’s like, how are we going to break down the materialism and break into love? Then the song “Islands of Me” is about the “me, me, me” culture -- like, is that where humanity is heading? Is this our destiny?
“Pipe Dreams” is the same thing: I was actually in Kenya when I wrote the song. When I was walking with a big canister of water on my back, I started writing “Pipe Dreams.” It was basically, don’t give me your artificialness -- it could play into friendship, lovers or anything. Don’t give me the watered-down version of you. I want the real you. I’ve been working with a lot of artists from Dallas, and we have this sunflower symbol with swords on it, which is sort of the perfect symbol for the record, because life when it is at its most beautiful is at its most painful.
On a sunnier note: Where do you keep your Grammys?
My mom keeps a lot of awards at her house. She’s so cute -- she has them in this beautiful, little case. I have to admit if I try to put it out I just get worried it’s going to get wrecked, so I don’t really display it -- I keep it in its box. It’s so boring. But I got a Latin Grammy in 2010 and the guy that A&R’ed the album physically took my Grammy to Colombia so his whole entire family could see it. My Latin Grammy is more well-traveled than my regular Grammy.