Nelly Furtado's latest album, The Ride (out March 31 on Nelstar/Sony) is a serious departure from her previous work. Though Furtado has always kept one foot outside the pop star world, the singer took an indie left turn on the album, on which she and producer John Congleton (best known for his work with St. Vincent and Angel Olsen) strip back the layers of radio-friendly pop production to create a more raw and grounded collection of songs.
Her transformation away from the sounds that produced international mega-hits like "I'm Like a Bird" and "Promiscuous," began a few years ago, when Furtado hit a creative dead end.
"I found myself getting so far away from the joy of music," she tells Exclaim!
To help cure her funk, the Toronto-based singer made her way down to local record shop Cosmos West, run by her friend Aki Abe. "I used to go there to find inspiration, like on my first album, Whoa, Nelly!" Sympathetic to her plight, one of the shop's staff members played her Adventures in Paradise, by '70s soul singer Minnie Riperton. Furtado says the music left her with a "sense of bliss."
Wanting to sustain that feeling, she asked Abe for shifts at the shop. "I just want to be around the vinyl," she says. "I was like this crazy person who had been starving for a long time and just needed some musical food."
The stint behind Cosmos West's till clearly worked. Following her shift work, Furtado, went through a creative reinvention, collaborating with a variety of different artists and media including David Byrne, producer Dev Hynes and New York performance artist Ryan McNamara. But it was her admiration of and friendship with St. Vincent's Annie Clark that led Furtado to Congleton.
Of his work with Clark, Furtado says that she "loved that her records reminded me of something from the past that I couldn't quite put my finger on. It sounded like music is supposed to sound." She credits Congleton with giving the record a singular sound, something she says her records have lacked in the past. "He doesn't care about commercial success. We just clicked and I met him halfway.
"We found comfort in each other's idiosyncrasies."
From opener "Cold Hard Truth" to final track "Phoenix." The Ride chronicles Furtado's reckoning with the mistakes she's made in life. "I'm in the gutter right now, but I'm looking at myself and that's the hardest thing, to look inside yourself." She credits her newfound voice as a product of aging. "I'm older, so I have more to say."
Furtado self-funded the Dallas-based sessions without telling her then-label, Interscope. When they got wind, they encouraged her to go another route. Instead, Furtado got herself out of her contract and opted to put the record out on her own, something she'd done previously with her Spanish-language record Mi Plan. "It's definitely more of a pop-alternative album. It's truly an indie album," she says, "which is probably why it sounds that way."