Fear of the Flighty

Nelly Furtado doesn't speak in words, phrases, or sentences. She speaks in salvos, cluster bombs. How does this fit in with her self-professed fear of coming across as shallow? Not that you could ever accuse of shallowness a Grammy-Award-winning singer/songwriter who effortlessly fuses hip-hop, world music, rock, and dance. But then she said it herself. In an earlier interview she called this her fear of "frivolity."

"Oh, that," she laughs. "I just have a lot of nervous energy. Plus I got over it."

Which isn't to say that Furtado is not the human equivalent of helium. Or even that she is not a little on the flighty side. It's just that she has made peace with her inner entertainer.

"I just learned to appreciate where I'm at," she says. "People try to reinvent the wheel and be rocket scientists when they're just firemen. When I started out I had this attitude about being an entertainer; I was like, 'Oh, no! I should be writing books! I should be in school studying literature!' Now I am more comfortable with myself. When I walk onstage, I don't worry about anything other than giving the people a good pop show."

Her Burn in the Spotlight tour speaks to that peace. After sharing the stage with Moby and OutKast on last year's Area: One tour, she is headlining her own show, which takes its name from a line in her song "... On the Radio (Remember the Days)."

"I picked that," she explains, "because no matter what, once you decide to try to get to this level, once you decide to make a pop record, you're in the spotlight and you gotta perform. You gotta be able to provide the entertainment. You gotta show your talent or you'll just burn."

She had role models for burning in a good way. "I did a lot of shows with OutKast and they are just amazing," she says. "They really inspired me with their whole approach to their show, just them out there enjoying being themselves."

Furtado has had a lot to enjoy recently. Her single "I'm Like A Bird" won a Grammy for best female pop performance and her double-platinum album Whoa, Nelly! earned five Grammy nominations. Even before the Grammy honors, Furtado was riding high with hit singles like "Turn Off the Light" and a fan base that included Elton John and Billy Joel.

Furtado's eclecticism is part of her appeal. Despite the multiracial reach of hip-hop, much of popular music remains segregated by radio-drawn barriers -- rock here, rap there, Latin elsewhere. Furtado, on the other hand, brings a virtual bouillabaisse of influences to the table. Whoa, Nelly! encompasses everything from Brazilian styles to abstract beats and trips into the hip-hop arena with superproducers Timbaland (who remixed Furtado's "Turn Off the Light") and Missy Elliott. She appears on the remix of Elliott's "Get Ur Freak On," which appeared on the soundtrack to Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.

Blurring boundaries comes naturally to Furtado, who grew up in a Portuguese household in Victoria, British Columbia. Her parents immigrated to Canada from the Azores islands in the Sixties, and her mother, who Furtado says "stressed bilinguality," encouraged her daughter to explore her Portuguese heritage, nurturing a love for that culture's fado music tradition (Furtado has expressed interest in recording a fado album in the near future). Still Furtado felt a bit of an outsider as a child, taking bean sandwiches to school when Portuguese cuisine was not exactly common in the other kids' lunchboxes.

Music was part of her life from the beginning. Her mother used to hold Roman Catholic choir practice in the living room, while a young Furtado used to sneak listens to her father's Led Zeppelin, Billy Joel, and Lionel Richie albums. Soon she gravitated toward tropicalia -- particularly Brazilian artists like Caetano Veloso. She also developed a love for R&B/hip-hop performers like Kris Kross and Bell Biv DeVoe, TLC, and Salt-n-Pepa. Later, she got into alternative acts like Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead, and the Prodigy. An eclectic record collection, combined with British Columbia's multicultural bohemia, helped shape the wide-ranging soundscape that would surface on her own disc some years later.

"Where I grew up you spent a lot of time outside," she says. "It wasn't odd to make a bonfire and head down to the beach with your friends. And I bonded with a lot of first-generation Canadians. Their parents were from all over: China, India, Latin America, Africa. I experienced many different musical cultures. And we were always close enough to the States that we knew what was happening in the music scene there."

This world-spanning outlook has helped Furtado connect in ways unintended but welcome.

"I received a cool fan letter from a girl in America," Furtado recalls. "It said, 'Thank you for making me realize there are different kinds of people around me.' That meant the world to me, because that's all I wanted to do. I may have opened her ears to something. That means a lot.

"I feel the essence of music should be about creativity and life and passion," she continues. "Not categorization or segregation. Music shouldn't have to be about what kind of shoes you're wearing or what kind of club you go to. '... On the Radio' talks about how, although you may think you have a sense of identity, that sometimes that [sense is] based on what you look like, how old you are, what your hobbies are, and which books you read. And you have to ask if [your identity] shouldn't be based on something deeper."

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tony Green