The Many Faces of Nelly
Miami, Los Angeles, and Ravinia. Those are the only U.S. destinations that currently appear on Grammy winner Nelly Furtado’s tour schedule, following the wildly successful South American tour for her latest album, Mi Plan. “I heard about [Ravinia] through a colleague who said it was a really amazing festival to play,” Nelly says. “Some of the favorite moments in my career have been playing eclectic festival events.”
Plus, check out our EXCLUSIVE audio interview with her below!
Eclectic is a word that Nelly is very comfortable with. Her first album, Whoa, Nelly! varied greatly in style from track to track as she blended all of her musical influences—from folk, to funk, to rock, to hip-hop—into something entirely her own. This determined vision earned the album a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Vocal Album; one of the more traditional pop songs from the album, “I’m Like a Bird,” played regularly on the radio and won her the Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, beating out Janet Jackson and Faith Hill’s offerings, and launching Nelly to stardom.
It’s a fairly safe bet that any other artist, finding herself in Nelly’s position, would figure she had a winning formula, recycle her bag of tricks, and ride the wave of commercial success. But not Nelly! She surprised everyone by turning away from her genre-mashing style and releasing a hugely rock-influenced album, Folklore, which relied heavily on acoustic instrumentation and truly showcased her vocal abilities. And, although it’s considered less commercially successful than her first release, Folklore still sold more than 3 million copies worldwide, and, possibly more importantly, helped define Nelly as an artist—both to her fans and to herself. “There have been plenty of moments where I really don’t understand what’s going on in my life until I write a song about it. I think it’s really a means of communication for me, because it’s so organic that it’s impossible for me to plan it,” she says. “I just kind of follow what my interests are at the time. It’s just like life. Life is full of surprises, so I guess that’s why my music is, too.”
She’s not kidding: Nelly’s third album, Loose, was yet another musical about-face, for which she teamed up with hip-hop impresario Timbaland. Together, they crafted a new sound for Nelly, which she calls “punk-hop”—an addictive, completely individual combination of her ethereal vocals and grinding synth sounds with driving dance beats. The experiment was an undeniable success: Loose went double platinum in the U.S., triple platinum in the U.K., brought Nelly more Grammy nominations, and made her the top artist in global record sales in 2007.
So there she was again, at the top of music charts worldwide and planning her next move. She had released three albums in three different styles, experienced the thrill of rocketing to fame with the first, the disappointment of underperformance on the second, and the surefire formula for record sales on the third. But she wasn’t about to become predictable now.
“I don’t want people to like me just because I’m saturated in the market. I always want people to like my music because it’s good or because it catches their ear,” Nelly says. “Sometimes, when you ride the wave of your own momentum, people start buying records just because of your name, rather than the music. I think it’s important to keep challenging yourself.” So, in a move she describes as “obvious,” and others might describe as “unusual,” she released her next album, Mi Plan, entirely in Spanish.
Although she was raised in Canada, Nelly’s parents were from Portugal, and she’s spoken Spanish since she was 14 (as a nod to her Latin roots, she dipped into Spanish for a song or two on her previous albums). But surely a North American record company executive’s greatest nightmare has to be a top-selling artist announcing her plan to release an entire album in a foreign language—and, in a further head-scratching move, to pare back the very dance-club overtones that spearheaded the success of Loose. But that is just what she did.
Mi Plan is obviously grounded in Nelly’s love of Latin music: Synthesizers and thick drum samples take a backseat to acoustic instrumentation and earnest delivery of heartfelt vocal melodies; the inside of the album jacket—which seems like nothing so much as a family photo album filled with people caught in moments of energy and affection—contains snapshots of the cavalcade of Latin music stars who jumped at the chance to collaborate with her. “Mi Plan was purposely collaboration-heavy, just because there are so many amazing artists in the Latin world that I wanted to work with. Also, I wanted it to sound like a community effort. I wanted it to have all those layers of experience,” says Nelly. It certainly did: Mi Plan opened at No. 1 on the Billboard Latin Music Chart, confounding all doubters, and Nelly, not surprised at all, simply pushed back work on her next English-language album to extend the South American tour.
Even though Nelly has never made conventional choices, she has a history of making the right ones. And it’s a sure bet that we on the North Shore (who are among the privileged few in North America to experience the Mi Plan Tour,) won’t need a translator to enjoy the Ravinia show. “I play all my singles. You have to give people the whole body of work. It’s actually easier now, four albums deep, to have a nice, big, long show,” Nelly says. “I was at a show last night and there was a band that only has one album, and I was like, ‘Why is the show so short?’ I remember those days, where you could barely fill up an hour because you only had one album to draw from.” But not Nelly. Not now. A decade after beginning her career, the organic ebb and flow of Nelly’s music still reflects her interests and her desire to speak to people in the one, universal language that she speaks most fluently: music.
Nelly Furtado appears at the Ravinia Festival on Friday, September 3. For more information or to get tickets, visit ravinia.org.