"I hate that word 'comeback,' " Nelly Furtado says as she cringes in her seat in the sunny backyard of a midtown Toronto café. "It suggests Rocky," she says, leaning forward and holding up clenched fists in a cartoonish show of aggression.
Fighting to reclaim pop princesshood she is not, at least not intentionally. "I make music as I need to. It's a sixth sense," she replies when asked if she has tried to make her new and fifth album, The Spirit Indestructible, a more calculated attempt at a hit after her last one, Mi Plan, sung in Spanish, failed to catch on.
The Canadian singing sensation, who shot to fame (and won a Grammy and Juno) in 2001 with her debut album, Whoa, Nelly!, is an anti-star, speaking about her work in earnest descriptions of collaboration and starry-eyed spiritual awakening more in keeping with a fiftysomething volunteer than a 33-year-old who could give Gwen Stefani a run for her pop platform.
Dressed in frumpy librarian glasses and no makeup, black jeans and a tangerine T-shirt, Furtado is all soft and goddessy, a cliché of a celebrity-shunning Canadian. It's as if she has crossed a threshold into thoughtful maturity, marvelling at what she now feels, like a child who has entered a room full of sparkling, wondrous toys.
Whoa, Nelly, all right.
She begins an explanation of her inspiration for the new album with a mention of gratitude, the Oprah-fied spiritual balm of our times.
She and her husband, sound engineer Demacio Castellon, and her daughter, Nevis (from her relationship with Jasper (Lil Jaz) Gahunia), have been spending time with Free The Children in Kenya, where she is funding an all-girls boarding school. She tells me that she has met inspiring people, such as Spencer West, a speaker for the not-for-profit organization who lost his legs as a child and recently climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. "I'm going, 'Wow, like, I'm so lucky that I can even sing, that I even have an audience,' " Furtado says dreamily, turning to look at the sun-dappled trees. "I always put my heart into everything, whether I'm performing in front of 10 or 10,000, and not a word of it is exactly the same because I'm so in the moment. I'm so appreciating everything."
Her gushy life-is-beautiful tone shifts abruptly when I ask about the Gadhafi incident, the concert she gave for the family in Italy in 2007, owning up to it once Mariah Carey and others were outed by WikiLeaks in 2011. She instantly recoils, crossing her arms against her chest. "I do this concert, and I'm completely ignorant of anything," she protests sharply. When the private gig was made public, she donated her fee of $1-million to Free The Children. "It reminds you a bit that I'm kind of a target, or how quickly you can be a target," she says meekly.
Her black hair is scraped back in a long braid, which she flips over and over with her small hands, hanging onto it at times, like a life rope. Her nail polish is dark blue and chipped. There's a vulnerability about her, an anxiety, that results in a paradoxical duality. She is both tentative and willing to please; happy, when asked, to discuss all aspects of her life – motherhood, love, marriage, fame. When she speaks about The Spirit Indestructible, she does so with understated pride, a tinge of apology almost, as a mother might briefly talk about her child for fear of bragging too much.
"Sometimes, the music comes out of me and I don't really understand. Sometimes, it's like my subconscious trying to send my conscious a message," she explains about her creative process, breaking into an awkward laugh at the end.
For Furtado, her music is a way to make sense of her life. A great reader – she mentions Isabel Allende's Island Beneath The Sea and Esi Edugyan's Half-Blood Blues as having an influence on this album – she treats her music as her psychological memoir, which she can then read over and over to reacquaint herself with what she was thinking. "I've spent a lot of my career figuring things out through my work, through my songs," she says. As a result, her signature as an artist has been not to have one. "I don't think I fit anywhere," she says. "And this record is really cool because it's truly eclectic. There's pop, there's reggae, there's folk, there's rock, everything."
A big psychological marker in her life was the onslaught of fame. She treats it as an ailment, something that doesn't make her feel good. Clearly, she has spent a lot of time trying to tamp down its fever. "I'm a professional musician," she states flatly when asked how she feels about celebrity. "When I look at my career that way, it becomes very easy to deal with this idea of fame. Because it's not real."
She yanks on her braid again, looking off to the middle distance. "It's great having fans," she continues, turning to me briefly with her azure-blue eyes. "And I like being famous for the songs. I like when people come up to me and say, 'Thank you for writing Try [from the second album, Folklore]. It helped me through a breakup. It helped me with the death of a parent.' "
Furtado cites her background as the third and last child of working-class Portuguese immigrants – her father a stonemason and landscaper, her mother a hotel maid – as a grounding force in her life. But that doesn't mean she didn't want to escape it – at least in the beginning. "When you're from a small town like Victoria and you have these big dreams, you kind of have to keep them close, and you have to bolt a little bit," she explains. "I knew what I did and what I wanted, but I didn't brag about it. I had family who didn't even know I sang until they turned on the TV and saw my video."
Once she was in the bright lights, being photographed for Vanity Fair and interviewed by David Letterman, it was "pretty surreal" and overwhelming, she says, forcing her to withdraw and listen to her inner self. Being famous hasn't brought her the happiness she envisioned, she suggests.
I ask her which single on her new album she likes the most. "It's High Life because it's so out there and bare," she responds immediately. The "seed" for the song was planted during the tour for Loose, her third album. She had "kind of a nervous breakdown," she explains, finding herself onstage in Amsterdam during a concert, crying. "We dream about success and we idealize success only to find that pot of gold we thought was success is not at all and that we have to live a life of balance and health to be truly successful," she says.
Furtado seems to prefer to stay under the radar. Even her marriage to Castellon in 2009 was kept out of the press. She is protective of her family, refusing to let me visit her at her home in Toronto, which she calls "a grounding force in my life" and where she has lived for 13 years. About love, though, she's her hippy-dippy self, all spiritual and breezy: "I think love just happens. You can't force it. You don't choose who you love. You just do. I think love requires bravery. It doesn't have to make sense."
She keeps on going – for a few more phrases of surrender this and follow that. It was another whoa, Nelly, moment, but I let her gallop off on her tangent – it was clear that the star who avoids the spotlight is happiest to talk as an everday woman, a mother and a wife, in a pigtail and jeans, who just wants to go make lunch for her daughter.