Three years ago, Nelly Furtado was just a woman named Kim in a playwriting class at the University of Toronto's School of Continuing Studies.
"Only the teacher knew my other life as a singer," says the award-winning singer/songwriter, whose sixth album, The Ride, marks her long-awaited return to pop. "My name was just Kim, which is my middle name."
And no one recognized her?
Furtado shakes her head. "No, not until the end. I had a couple of really good friends by the end – and they were, like, 'We didn't know it was you!'"
Today, Furtado's long dark hair has been shorn in a pixie cut. She appears shy, rarely making eye contact, turning her small hands over in her lap. She speaks about her music in a meek, awkward way, as if it's a new boyfriend whose affection she remains unsure of. There's little of the bold confidence one might expect from one of Canada's greatest singing talents. The artist who has sold more than 40 million records worldwide has been struggling with an existential crisis, questioning what her life was about and what she wanted next. "I was in search of personal autonomy," she says. "It was about me finding a more simplified version of myself."
Sounds as if it's a premature midlife crisis by most standards. Furtado is young – 38 years old. But it's understandable. Everything in her life has been accelerated.
"I had a very fast-paced life since I was about 21, professionally and personally," she offers, referring to when her debut album, Whoa, Nelly!, with its chart-topping folk pop single, I'm Like a Bird, catapulted her to worldwide fame and a Grammy.
"I was a mother by the time I was 25. I owned my own home by the age of 22, 23." Every three years, she put out a new album. "I had to put on the brakes."
The Ride, released at the end of this month, is a testament to her rediscovery of creative meaning. During the five-year hiatus since her last album, The Spirit Indestructible, she has been destructible, walking away from "a long-term business relationship … somebody who was a father figure to me," questioning the meaning of her life, she confesses, and leaning on family members to help her regain confidence and come in from the storm.
At her nadir in the summer of 2014, she bolted to London, England, to work with Mark Taylor, who had produced Broken Strings, a duet with Furtado and British singer James Morrison in 2008. The day after she arrived, she wrote Phoenix, the first song for The Ride, a ballad about resurfacing. "I built myself a life raft – come back, come back," she offers in a whispery voice to explain the experience.
"I don't always see myself clearly," she says of her family's help during that period of darkness. "Other people see you. They might remind me that being an entertainer, being a singer, is very positive to do and spend your time doing. Sometimes, you need reminders."
Really? She doubted her talent?
"My singing teacher, who works with all kinds of people, told me every singer hates their voice," she says flatly, turning to look at me with turquoise eyes beneath a thick fringe of false eyelashes.
She hates her voice?
"I don't hate my voice," she shoots back. "I don't think I have a particularly remarkable instrument. I think I'm lucky because I write songs and sing. That helps. Of course, you can sit there all day and criticize yourself and feel less adequate as an entertainer."
The playwriting class at U of T was all part of a creative odyssey Furtado embarked upon, sending herself out into the world, not as a global celebrity, but as a flâneuse at the mercy of inspiration, beauty, creative terror. She took pottery classes at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto, worked in a friend's record store and thrust herself into creative challenges.
Through Annie Clark (the singer better known as St. Vincent), whom she met in 2012 at the Summer Sonic festival in Tokyo, Furtado was introduced to John Congleton, a Grammy-winning producer and writer in Dallas. "I flew to Texas, cold turkey," she says. She had brought some "garage band tracks" of vocals and a guitar on her laptop. "He didn't like anything. Then, luckily, I remembered this melody – that's the chorus of Flatline – and I kind of sang it to him, and he was, 'Well, I really like that. Let's do that.' He had already booked session players for the next day. No pressure!"
She laughs for the first time in the interview. "So, I showed him my first draft of the lyrics for Flatline and he was tinkering away at the music, and he said, 'Those are all right, but I think you can do better. I think you can dig a little deeper.' And here I am – this is my sixth album – and I'm kind of, like, 'Wow. Okay.'"
She welcomed the criticism. "It's about respect. I respected him as a producer. Nothing he does is dictated by commerce. It's about art. I already knew he wasn't going to be impressed by how many top-40 hits I had or something like that. I really like the feeling of terror in the studio. It makes all my synapses fire."
There's a sense about Furtado of satisfied exhaustion, of having finally found her way back to be in an interview again, in a small room, in a comfy chair, talking about the magic of what she may have begun to doubt. Throughout the conversation, she makes segues to describe some of the songs on the new album, talking about them and their genesis as if they were places she visited on her odyssey. There was that place where "you're not feeling anything any more, and you know something's wrong." It was the genesis of Flatline.
Another time, she had a profound realization about her whole life. "[The song] Tap Dancing was written because I had a meeting, and someone said, 'Why are you tap dancing? You don't need to tap dance. You are who you are. Period.' And then I realized that I had been tap dancing throughout my entire personal and professional life."
And by that she means?
"I mean performing for others."
To prove what she can do?
"Yeah," she responds thoughtfully. "Seeking some kind of validation. Or seeking to entertain people rather than seeking stillness and quiet."
From early on in her life, music entered her head spontaneously, and she never knew why. "I would open my mouth, and melody would fly out. … Sometimes, I would just perform for friends," she says of her childhood, growing up the youngest of three children in a Portuguese-Canadian family in Victoria. "My sister used to say, 'Hey, Nel, make up a song!' And the reason she would ask me to make up a song on the spot like a singing monkey was because it was delightful for her to watch me cry while I sang.
"I would get welled up with emotion … so obviously, I was connecting to something quite deep within myself, and that's why I don't really think it out; that's the reason why every album is different and why my style is always different."
When I interviewed Furtado five years ago about The Spirit Indestructible, she was starry-eyed about a spiritual awakening in Kenya, where she continues to work with WE Charity. She was in anti-celebrity mode then, too, and talked about how her then three-year marriage to Demacio Castellon, a sound engineer, and domestic life with her daughter, Nevis, now 13, kept her grounded.
But then a shift happened. "There are some big changes in my life. … You're thinking one way, and then you make a big change and it alters everything." She is unwilling to elaborate on the upheavals in her personal life. She continues to live in Toronto but recently bought a place in New York, where she often goes on weekends.
She has learned not to feel compelled to harness the melodies every time they fly into her head, but to see them as part of her life and the way she relates to herself and others.
Last fall, she collaborated with her friend, the performance artist Ryan McNamara, for an event at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Sitting in a room at a desk with a tape recorder, she "was trying to explore the question of, 'Does the well run out? What is this idea of the muse, of the collective unconscious?' I wanted to prove that there was empathy between people always, like even when you walk by people on the street and you feel connected to them but you don't know why. I think this can be proven with a song, with the songwriting process."
Every 15 minutes, a new group of participants would enter the room. Furtado would ask them what they had dreamed the night before or what their favourite holiday had been.
While they talked, she would start to sing. "There was laughter and there were tears," she says of the MoMA PSI installation. "It was really quite transformational for me."
Last summer, driving around in her car, she would sing what came into her mind; what she was feeling. "Then I would throw it out the window," she says. "It wasn't for recording purposes. It helps when you're going through emotional turmoil, because you can sing yourself to peace. It is my form of meditation."