"I threw myself into the deep end to see if I could swim," Nelly Furtado says. "I let go of the voice that says, 'Oh, no, what if I can't do this?' because you never know until you try."
In preparation for her new album, Loose (due June 20, 2006, on Geffen Records), she tried writing rhymes and rapping, she tried out collaborations with a who's who of producers, she tried not to get a sunburn in Miami, she tried her hand at Spanish hip hop, and she tried to create a music more of the body than the mind. A prime example of the latter is first single "Promiscuous," a duet with Loose producer Timbaland, known far and wide for his groundbreaking work with, among others, Missy Elliott, Justin Timberlake and Aaliyah.
It stands to reason that gold and multi-platinum certifications (for 2003's Folklore and 2000's Whoa, Nelly!, respectively), a pair of Top 10 singles ("I'm Like a Bird" and "Turn Off the Light"), and a Grammy Award (for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance), to name just a few accomplishments, would afford a certain level of confidence. But nothing has inspired Furtado to throw caution to the wind more than motherhood. "Motherhood makes you fearless," she says. "The album is very youthful-sounding," Furtado continues, "and I think that's partly due to the presence of this two-year-old in my life. I was with her all day every day and then I'd go to the studio at night, and I think that translated into a playful energy I feel onstage but that hasn't really been heard on my records."
"This album shows me letting go in so many ways," Furtado attests. "For example, with the track 'Promiscuous,' I co-wrote the lyrics--something I've never done before--with this rapper from Alabama named Attitude. That was extremely freeing because it allowed me to experiment with interpreting a character, which I then took into the video shoot" [directed by Little X, perhaps best known for his clips for Usher, Nelly, Ludacris and Sean Paul].
Furtado is so animated while talking about this stuff that it's hard to believe her when she says, "Every time I make an album, I say to myself, 'This is the last; I'm never going to make another one.'" She does clarify, however: "Then I get the bug and I make music that excites me and I start it all up again."
She started Loose up by holding what she jokingly calls a "hip-hop workshop" with her emcee friend Jellystone: "We'd write rhymes, dissect them, and try different flows over beats. That's what planted the seed for this album. I grew up listening to hip-hop and R&B but when it came to my own music, I kind of put that on a shelf. With this record, though, I knew I wanted to have that sound."
Starting with her long-time production team of Track & Field, she also knew she wanted to check out a variety of producers. "Working with new producers," she hazards, "is like trying on new clothes you never know what you look good in until you try it on. And sometimes they will see something in you that neither you nor anyone else could see." So she traveled with her daughter from Toronto to London to work with Nellee Hooper; to Los Angeles to work with Lester Mendez (who produced, "Te Busque," her moving duet with Juanes) and Rick Nowels (co-writer and producer of the gorgeous ballad "In God's Hands"); and to Miami to work with Pharrell Williams and Scott Storch and finally, Timbaland.
"It was like I stopped at these different ports along the coast and at the end of the journey, I came to the grand ocean liner that would take me out to the wide blue sea," she says. The big boat she's talking about is Timbaland, of course.
Asked about their creative chemistry, which was in ample evidence on the Nelly-enhanced remix of Missy Elliott's 2001 hit "Get Ur Freak On," she says: "It's like love musically, between us, that's what it's like. Everything he plays inspires me; I want to sing to everything he writes. I adore what his stuff sounds like."
What Nelly calls the "vortex" of their collaboration on Loose got off to a sizzling start. "My first night at the studio in Miami," Furtado narrates, "we all jammed. [Co-writer] Nate Hill had this ferocious beat up, and there was this crazy, tribal voodoo energy in the room. I've never felt anything like it it was so intense. The volume was turned up to 11, and all of a sudden I started to smell smoke. I looked at the speaker and flames were shooting out of it. We were so scared of the track that we put it away and didn't touch it for two weeks."
The crazy, tribal, voodoo track in question is "Maneater," about which Furtado says, "That one truly has a life of its own; it makes you move." It's another Loose standout, one that embodies the eminently danceable hip-hop/new wave hybrid that distinguishes much of the album's sound.
"We had this Eurythmics thing going on in the studio," she explains. "I kept calling Tim 'Dave' and he'd call me 'Annie.' Eurythmics had this spooky, keyboard-driven pop sound. That song 'Here Comes the Rain Again' I'm not 100 percent sure what it's about, but it always takes me away to another place, and I love it. That's how I feel about 'Say It Right'; even though I wrote it, I don't really know what it's about, but it captures the feeling I had when I wrote it, and it taps into this other sphere."
Also citing Blondie, The Police, Talking Heads, Madonna and Prince as influential to the creation of Loose, Furtado notes: "We were picking up on some of the more surreal, theatrical elements of '80s music, the stuff that puts you in sort of a dream state. There's a mysterious, after-midnight vibe to this album that's extremely visceral. I want people to escape into the music and indulge their most animalistic impulses."
While recording Loose at Miami's Hit Factory, Furtado immersed herself in the escapist fantasy that is everyday existence for a superstar producer. Asked if she got caught up in the city's nightlife, she responds: "There was no need to hit the clubs because the party was in the studio. Timbaland is one of those magnetic, larger-life-personalities. He lives like a rock star. Producers really are the new rock stars. They have the huge mansions; they drive a different fancy car to the studio every day; they've got beautiful women around. People show up with briefcases full of cash and say, 'Gimme a beat.' It was a really exciting environment to be part of."
Working with Timbaland also meant having access to other artists who want to work with Timbaland. Lil' Wayne stopped by to contribute "the most amazing freestyle ever" to a remix of "Maneater." Attitude was on hand to not only co-write "Promiscuous" but also lend a rap to "Afraid." And Chris Martin of Coldplay popped in to co-write the lilting "Why Do All Good Things Come to an End?"
Of course, Furtado was thrilled to throw open the door when these collaborative opportunities knocked. She seems to have an insatiable appetite for new and novel creative pursuits. One of these took the form of "No Hay Igual," one of two Spanish-language tracks on Loose. She relates a particularly productive exchange with Pharrell: "We were hanging out and he said, 'You should do a reggaeton track,' and I said, 'What's reggaeton?' He played me some stuff and I was blown away; as far as I'm concerned, it's the most exciting musical movement going on today. As it was, I was speaking Spanish to everyone down in Miami. So I tried to write something like that, just for fun. It's not really a reggaeton track, though; it's more my own personal interpretation of that sound."
The extremely percussive "No Hay Igual" is another example of the "body music" that defines Loose. My first two albums are very polished and pristine and shimmery," Furtado points out. "There's a static quality to the songs, almost like they're paintings. This one is much more from the gut. The songs are beat-driven, so they get your heart pumping and your blood moving. 'Maneater,' for instance, is a song with a pulse. This stuff is going to be amazing live because there will be so much room to explore and play and have fun."
"It's true that a lot of this record is about physical attraction, but there's also a naive, almost childlike quality about it," she ventures. "Some of the lyrics remind me of when I was 13, sitting in my room [in Victoria, British Columbia] writing R&B ballads all day. I've somehow returned to that place where I'm innocent about love."
She remembers when "Say It Right" was born: "It was 3:00 in the morning and kind of chilly in the studio, so I put my hoodie on, which is a great metaphor for this album: With this record, I have my hoodie back on. It's like I'm 14 again, sneaking out my bedroom window to go down and hang out with the hip-hop kids."
This back-to-the-future phenomenon spilled over into the making of the record as well. "One of the reasons we have the little conversations from the studio between the songs what I've been calling 'reality audio' is to take the mystery out of the process. I want the listener to see that we were just jamming and letting loose, like I did on the improvisational tracks I used to make when I was 19. It's not rocket science. We mixed each song as we went along and just used those board mixes on the record. Rather than end up feeling like the demos were better than the finished tracks, which has always happened to me in the past, we just decided to not fix what wasn't broken."
Indeed, the raw, lighting-in-a-bottle spontaneity of the collaborative process is at the heart of Loose. "This record shows who I am in a jam-type environment, where I really feel the excitement of the creativity flowing," Furtado reveals. "It's who I am at my most artistic. I live for that, and I'm very grateful to be able to share it."