Nelly Furtado

Nelly Furtado: “Let’s pull the mask off now”

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Short Profile

Name: Nelly Kim Furtado
DOB: 2 December 1978
Place of birth: Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
Occupation: Musician

Ms. Furtado, do you feel like you have a good understanding of who you are at the moment?

Thank God, yes, finally I can say that truly with conviction — I think I’ve said it in the past and lied! Don’t get me wrong though, we’re all still discovering ourselves. I think I continue to take away layers of the onion, you know, I love learning about myself. These days I’m really trying to tackle things that I’m scared of as much as I can.

Why is that so important for you?

I think it’s through action that we really find out who we are. A funny thing happened to me over the years: I became a figurehead of my own company, I had a label, I was signing artists, I was doing development and A&R and production… But that fatigued the other side of me, who is just this creative person who wants to make things.

“When it was over and I realized I’d never have that back again; that experience will only be a memory now.”

How did you snap yourself out of it?

I started doing things like playwriting classes and ceramic classes and sewing class and work at my friend’s record store so that I could really, really unlearn all the rigidity and unlearn all the responsibility and all the pressure and stress. I found that the new stimulation and the new sights and sounds and new learning, new fears, that kind of kept me going. I also did this 10 kilometer race last year… I was going through a hard time emotionally so I used the running as a way to pull myself out of it because that’s when all your synapses are firing, right? I used the running as a way to heal.

Does music also help in that respect?

Definitely. I cried the last day of recording my latest album. Listening to the final mix, the tears just started to fall — I felt immense sadness. And what I was feeling was the loss of the experience of recording. I realized that the studio had become a little safe place for me. It was like confessional! I confessed all my sins on the songs. And then when it was over and I realized I’d never have that back again; that experience will only be a memory now. And that’s always sad, I think, because the best bit is really recording. That’s the best part. Sharing is too, but when you record it, that’s the cathartic moment, right? That’s when the healing really happens.

Has performance and music always played that role for you? Even as a kid?

Yeah, when I was a child, I think I had an undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder. I would have these thoughts, these intrusive thoughts and it was really hard for me. And I didn’t know what it was until I saw Oprah Winfrey talking about OCD on TV. I think I was seven or eight, and I found out that what was going on was at least normal and nothing to be worried about. But it was still hard. When you’re so little and you have these deep thoughts… It can be scary!

It is still difficult when you’re having those thoughts as an adult.

Right and my childhood was interesting too because my mother was just brilliant, she was smart, and although her and my father were immigrants, my mother made a conscious decision to speak English with us at home. She always showed us that we could be Canadian but still connected to our ethnic histories as Portuguese-Canadians. And that was a gift, a real gift! I never felt like I had to choose one or the other, I felt like I could be both… But I also felt like I was living a double life because at church on Sundays, I was surrounded by other Portuguese kids…

And this wasn’t the case during the week?

No, I was surrounded by mostly Anglo kids! Kids who maybe thought my lunches smelled funny, or that my skin was an interesting shade of olive that they weren’t familiar with. There’s shame involved in that, I think. I think you struggle with shame when you deal with insecurity as a child. I guess I was also a bit nerdy too, right? So in general, I was a child who was in my mind a lot. And music was definitely my safe place. I’d get lost in the music. The music could just kind of take over. It was my spirituality, I think. That’s when I felt connected to something higher than myself, I felt safe. I felt love when I sang.

Do you sometimes still feel that kind of Otherness these days?

I think I live in my own world, in my head, and I’m an idealist. I’ve realized that the status quo is overly pacified with things that have nothing to do with who I am, and therefore I feel like a fish out of water. But looking back, I don’t know if my experience was entirely negative, you know? As you get older, even in your twenties, you might be like, “Oh my God, I was so sad as a child!” But then when you get in your thirties, you’re like, “Wait a second…” It can never be perfect. Those experiences definitely made me stronger, like “This is what makes me unique and different and special.” No other kids are playing ukulele in a folkloric outfit on Sundays! (Laughs)

“The song is like the salve, the grease on the wheels of my emotions that help me understand myself more.”

Is that why so many of your songs have themes of individuality and self-discovery?

My songs have been helpful to me mentally. If I don’t understand what I’m feeling, then I write a song. It’s almost like I have latent emotional understanding of myself! And the song is like the salve, the grease on the wheels of my emotions that help me understand myself more. I wrote something like “Shit On The Radio” because I was mad at all those fake friends, who said to me, “Make sure you don’t sell out now that you’ve signed a record deal,” or something. And then, you know, I didn’t understand why people wanted to use Photoshop on my pictures after my first album, so I wrote the song “Powerless” because I felt disenfranchised and I felt the weight of the world, you know? 

Petra Collins said that it’s important for young people to see a role model being honest about what they struggle with so that they can see themselves in those role models.

That’s it, and I think a lot of my lyrics are very much about dealing with: “Okay, let’s pull the mask off now.” Is it not enough to just exist and be? Do we have to play all these roles all the time? Do we have to satisfy these quotas? I think people want some type of flashy story with an album from an artist but… I can never fake it. My heart has to be in everything I do. I can’t fake anything; I end up unraveling. So, for me, I think it’s okay to just kind of mess up and fall in the dirt. And that’s a story enough, right?