Singer-songwriter Nelly Furtado has sold more than 16 million albums and 18 million singles worldwide. She's gone multiplatinum in 32 countries and won a bevy of awards, including a U.S. Grammy and the Canadian and British equivalents.
But after Furtado recorded her last album, Mi Plan, in Spanish and took home a 2010 Latin Grammy for it, she was unsure about singing in English again. She even considered retiring as a pop musician.
In an interview with Tell Me More host Michel Martin, Furtado said, "After each album, I go through this phase where I kind of question everything, but then the music always pulls me back in. The music always gets me back in the studio, doing what I love to do."
Furtado's latest English-language album (her fifth album overall), The Spirit Indestructible, came out Tuesday.
Writing in Spanish taught her to think about songs in terms of themes, metaphors and things she never thought about when writing in English. "I took that back into The Spirit Indestructible — this new one — and I feel very proud of the lyrics. I think they're a lot more cohesive than my past work," she said.
The inspiration for the album came from a trip to Africa about two years ago to shoot a documentary for Free the Children. The charity has built hundreds of schools for youth and provides clean water and health care to millions of people worldwide.
Furtado said that while she was in Kenya, she felt a renewed sense of joy, an affirmation in hope, and an excitement for the future — all while reading books about the past, such as Isabel Allende's Island Beneath the Sea.
The album's title track was inspired by Spencer West. At age 4, West lost his legs due to a genetic disease. Now he's an author and a speaker for Free the Children.
Furtado explained, "He was going on this epic climb that he had been planning for years up Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest peak in Africa, to raise money for clean water projects and also to motivate his, you know, all these kids that kind of look up to him to redefine their 'possible.' And I thought, 'That's the true spirit indestructible!' "
Other songs on the album that follow that inspirational theme include "Believers (Arab Spring)," "Miracles" and "The Most Beautiful Thing." Furtado said that people have to take the time to live, and that making mistakes, falling down and getting up again is all part of living — ideas she likes to explore in her songs. "Music is soul food, and I think you find the hungry people whereever they are," she said.
Furtado's sound has evolved over the years. Whoa Nelly! (2000) belongs to the mind, Folklore (2003) belongs to the heart, Loose (2006) belongs to the body and The Spirit Indestructible (2012) belongs to the spirit, she said.
She always tries to make her songs universal, she said, but she recognizes that her musical journey has alienated some fans.
"You have successes, you have failures and everything in between, but at the end of the day, the music speaks louder than all of that. And when you see people singing certain songs at your shows, it always makes you feel better, you know?"
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. What do you do after you've sold more than 16 million albums and 18 million singles worldwide, gone multi-platinum in 32 countries, won many awards, including a Grammy, a Latin Grammy and the Canadian and British equivalents of the Grammy? You might come back from a short break feeling indestructible.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPIRIT INDESTRUCTIBLE")
NELLY FURTADO: (Singing) I have a spirit indestructible, a heart that was made pure, unbreakable and that's for sure, unshakable, so give me more.
MARTIN: That is international star, Nelly Furtado, singing the title track from her new album, "The Spirit Indestructible." It's Nelly Furtado's fifth album and the first in English after "Loose" in 2006, which debuted at number one on the Billboard Top 200 chart and she's with us now.
Nelly Furtado, welcome to the program.
FURTADO: Thanks for having me. It's nice speaking with you.
MARTIN: Now, I understand that your last album was recorded all in Spanish and I think people will remember. It was called "Mi Plan." It won you the Latin Grammy, but I heard you weren't so sure about singing in English again at all and you were even thinking about retiring. Why would you do that to us?
FURTADO: I don't know. I think, you know, it was a lot of fun doing the Spanish one and, right before, I kind of tried to sing in English again, like around 2007, and then I kind of was really bored with singing in English. It had been about eight years, so I decided to kind of get off that horse and, after each album, I go through this phase where I kind of question everything, but then the music always pulls me back in. The music always gets me back in the studio doing what I love to do.
So that's kind of the guarantee. The music remains pretty pure, which is kind of great.
MARTIN: Just to remind people who may not remember your story, that you are - you're born in Canada. Your parents are of Portuguese heritage.
FURTADO: Yeah. They're from Portugal.
MARTIN: They're from Portugal, so what do you think of as your first language?
FURTADO: I'm a first generation Canadian. OK. So my mother decided to speak English at home with us so she could practice her English, as well, so my parents spoke English to us at home. They put us in Portuguese night school, so we learned - you know, a couple days a week after school, we'd go to this night class and learn Portuguese, so my reading and writing level in Portuguese, you know, was about like grade seven.
And then, as a teenager, I learned Spanish in high school, so then I just kind of went down that path because I met so many people within the Latin music industry and it just became a bigger part of my life. So I think - well, mainly in English, but sometimes, you know, depending on who's around, words will pop out in Spanish or I'll forget somebody doesn't speak Spanish or, you know, in Portuguese, you know, certain things will come out to you.
But, in general, I generally think more often in English, I would say, although writing in Spanish taught me a lot because, for the first time, I worked with co-writers because I - you know, I've always written my own lyrics, but in Spanish, you know, I needed some help to really make sure the poetry was there and it was good for me because it taught me to think about songs in terms of theme and metaphor and things I never think about when I write in English and I think it took that back into the "Spirit Indestructible," this new one, and I feel very proud of the lyrics and I think they're a lot more cohesive than my past work.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPIRIT INDESTRUCTIBLE")
FURTADO: (Singing) A heart that was made pure, unbreakable and that's for sure, unshakeable, so give me more. Through my tired eyes, I phase out the rain. With a meditation, I erase my pains. There's a rhythm flowing through every vein and the melody is never ending. I have a spirit indestructible, a heart that loving was made for, a body that's a miracle. I have a spirit indestructible.
MARTIN: Where did the idea come from?
FURTADO: One of the great things about taking a break is you really get to live life again and you get to experience things in a more slowed down kind of way where you can really receive them. And the time came for me. I was lucky enough to be invited to go on a trip to Africa, to Kenya, specifically, about two years ago and I went over there to shoot this documentary on behalf of this charity called Free the Children that works out of Canada that was started by 12-year-old Craig Kielburger and they build schools all around the world and it's very holistic and fresh and different and I really fell in love with the whole movement.
And, when it was over there, I just felt this renewed sense of joy, a real sort of affirmation and hope and started feeling excited about the future while, at the same time, I was reading books about the past. I was reading a book by Isabel Allende, actually, "Island Beneath the Sea," where she talks about, you know, this great moment in history where the slaves that had come to what was then Antilles, what is now Haiti. Basically, how they fled to the mountains, became maroons and overcame Napoleon's army, no small feat, and became the first black republic.
So it's books like this and also just meeting amazing people and just feeling faith in the future again. I think that's what my travels and my experiences led me to and also the title actually was an album title before it was a song title. I was reading a book and the words flew out at me, you know, "The Spirit Indestructible," and then I wrote the songs.
MARTIN: There are two music videos for this song.
MARTIN: The one shows you on top of these really breathtaking snowy mountain scenes, and there is a beach bonfire and it's very, you know, evocative. But there's another one which focuses - which you are not in at all, except for your lyrics - and which seem to be narrating his life perfectly.
MARTIN: It's about a man named Spencer West and he climbs Mount Kilimanjaro using only his hands. And I am not doing justice to it, describing it, this - I can't do it. But talk to me about that. How did that come about?
FURTADO: Yeah. "Free the Children" has this great movement called Me To We, and it's all about trying to inspire young people, because young kids in schools all across North America from different kinds of communities, they all get together with this essence of how can I go from thinking about myself to thinking about the community around me? So they have their own speakers.
And Spencer West became one of their speakers. He lost his legs when he was four because of a genetic disease and he lived his life. And, you know, he never let it hold him back, but at the same time he wanted to give back more so he became a speaker for the children. He's since become an author and he motivates kids to redefine their possible. And he was going on this epic climb that he had been planning for years up Mount Kilimanjaro, the tallest peak in Africa, to raise money for clean water projects, and also to motivate his, you know, all these kids that kind of look up to him, to redefine their possible. And I thought that's the true spirit indestructible. And so, you know, they gave us all their footage and we used it for the lyric video.
MARTIN: There are a number of songs on the album that really seem to have a spiritual dimension. Why don't we play another one called "Miracles," how about that? And then you can tell us about that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIRACLES")
FURTADO: (Singing) If you question my faith, I'll still believe. I need this air so desperately. So I can breathe. Show me all of your miracles, pulling me inside your water. Oh, never felt something real before. I believe you know your miracles.
(Singing) You're in my heart, in my mind, in my body and soul. I'm feeling your power and I'm loosing all control. And I'm weightless, this space is divine. Divine, divine.
You know, I just really believe you have to take the time to live. And I think when you put that reality that, you know, fallen on your face, getting back up again, you know, experiencing life, making mistakes, I think that's essential living, and I like to put that essential living into the song. So people can buy the album, listen to the album, whatever, feel the music, hear it somewhere, and feel engaged. I want the music to do something, you know, to the listener, and I think that's what I strive for when I'm in the studio. So yeah, this period of time was incredibly joyful for me the last couple of years. And, you know, I kind of document the highs and lows in music. And there's a lot of fun on the record. There's a lot of big beats, a lot of adrenaline. But at the same time there's this, yes, there is a spiritual thread running through the record, more than any of my albums.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Nellie Furtado. Her latest album is "The Spirit Indestructible." It came out on September 18 and she's with us now.
Now, I don't want to stereotype you here but...
FURTADO: It's OK.
MARTIN: ...this is a little bit different from one of your other big hits, "Promiscuous," with Timbaland.
FURTADO: Very different.
MARTIN: Which is - so I have to ask, you know, does being a mom have something to do with it? Maybe you don't want to sing about being promiscuous anymore.
FURTADO: Yeah. It's a different phase. When I did "Loose," you know, it was a very different time for me. I think I was coming into my own as a woman and I was feeling, you know, pretty great. I recorded the album in Miami and it was a real nighttime kind of record, and I always try to just speak my truth on the microphone and whatever will be will be. But, of course, you know, it's a different time for me right now and - yeah, my daughters eight now, actually. And yeah, definitely in this record I wanted it to have its own mood. And I even had one song that sounded more like a "Loose" kind of song but I purposely put it on the deluxe because it just didn't feel like it fit the theme, because I really believe in albums having a thread. My first album, "Whoa Nelly," belongs to the mind. The second one, "Folklore," belongs to the heart. "Loose" belongs to the body, and this one belongs to the spirit.
MARTIN: Gosh. In that end, what else would you like to hear? What would you like to hear?
FURTADO: I really like the song "Bucket List" because I think kind of anybody can relate to it, because like everybody kind of has a bucket list, I think.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUCKET LIST")
FURTADO: (Singing) Climb a mountain swim the seven seas. Get your body to look like Hercules. Jump out an airplane with a parachute. Fly up and away on a hot air balloon.
At the end of the day, if we spend all of our time trying to get to our bucket list and we put in love at the bottom of the list, you know, I think we're kind of sad.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUCKET LIST")
FURTADO: (Singing) In this lifetime I want you to be mine. 'Cause I took a long look at my bucket list and I saw that at the bottom it said our first kiss. And whoa-ooh, I'm running out of time. Whoa-ooh I'm running out of time.
(Singing) Get on your boots and visit...
MARTIN: I have been fortunate to ask a number of other of artists this question. Are you worried that your fans won't travel with you on this journey? You've gone, as we've said, this journey from kind of mind to body to spirit.
MARTIN: This is where you are. Are you at all worried that your fans aren't ready to make the trip with you?
FURTADO: I don't know. I mean I think I've always been competing with myself, like I kind of live in my own musical world. I really don't see music as having boundaries. It's just not the way I grew up, you know, with all the multicultural things I was exposed to, growing up as a first generation Canadian and with my friends who were also first generation and learning about their cultures. So I just make music that kind of suits my whims and fancies. And you know, I never want to be un-relatable. I never want to be like selfish about it with the writing. You know, I always try to make my songs universal. But for sure, you might alienate people along the way. I have alienated people along the way, but that's part of the good part about doing this for 12 years now, because I kind of know like, OK, you know, you have successes, you have failures and everything in between. But at the end of the day the music speaks louder than all of that, and when you see people singing certain songs at your shows, it always makes you feel better, you know?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BELIEVERS")
MARTIN: Talk to me about "Believers." It's the final cut on this album.
FURTADO: It's called "Believers, Arab Spring," and I literally wrote it about three, four weeks after the Arab Spring began. I was just moved. I was really moved by the Libyan revolutionaries on TV and I thought in my mind, this song comes from the perspective of a young man or woman heading off into the battle, a civil war, something that I really cannot imagine because I grew up in Canada. You arrive at the battle with your best friend by your side. And then, alas, at the end of the day you turn to your side and they've chosen the other side. And the song asks, where are all the believers? Where did you go, my friends?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BELIEVERS")
FURTADO: (Singing) Where'd you go oh where'd you go my friends, my friends. You said you would be there till the end, the end. Knock you down you get back up again, again. And when they run after you, you just run from them. Where are all the believers? Where are they when you need them? Where are all of the healers? Why'd they run away? Where are all the believers? Where are all of the healers? Where are they when you need them to? Get down and pray. This is the right time.
MARTIN: What reaction are you getting to the album?
FURTADO: Passionate reaction, which I love. Just passion, and I want people to need the music. If they like it, I want them to need it and need to play it because that's how I respond to music I really love. I just need to play it in my car. And music is soul food and I think you find the hungry people wherever they are.
MARTIN: One of the things I heard you say, though, in a previous interview, is that when you started on the scene 12 years ago, you were bringing all these different sounds to the table, all these musical heritages and inheritances to the table...
MARTIN: ...and for some people that was very new.
MARTIN: Now a lot of people are doing it. There's a lot more acceptance. Do you feel more acceptance now for your vision than when you started out?
FURTADO: I so do. I so do. I was in, you know, in the restroom at the last place I was at and I heard Psy, "Gangham Style," and I turned to my friend, I said, you know what? This is my world now that I'm living in.
FURTADO: There's Korean on mainstream pop radio in America. I love this because that's the world I grew up in. So when I came out with my first CD, I was like, yeah, why not have a Bossa Nova influenced song? Why not feature Caetano Veloso and work with Asha Bhosl from India on my remix? You know, like that's the world - that's the musical world I live in. So I do feel like the world has kind of caught up in this beautiful world we live in now as you can access everything. There's - these borders are crashing down and I think it's incredible.
MARTIN: What's next for you? You've done - this is the fifth album. You've come back to English...
FURTADO: Yeah. That's a good question.
MARTIN: And I think your English primary fans are very grateful, even though a lot of people loved "Mi Plan," so what's next for you?
FURTADO: You know, I want to record in other languages again. I'd like to do a follow-up to my Spanish album and I would really like to do a Portuguese album. So we'll see, you know?
MARTIN: Well, no rush. Just don't forget us. Just don't forget about us.
FURTADO: I won't forget you.
MARTIN: Nelly Furtado is a Grammy-winning singer-songwriter. Her latest album is called "The Spirit Indestructible," and she was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York.
Nelly Furtado, thank you so much for speaking with us.
FURTADO: Thank you for talking to me, Michel. It was great speaking with you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SPIRIT INDESTRUCTIBLE")
FURTADO: (Singing) From my one square foot window I see outside. I've got chains on my feet but not in my mind. I'll be dancing all day see the sun outside. Don't know how long it will be. Can't stop me.
(Singing) I have a spirit indestructible. A heart that loving was made for. A body that's a miracle.
MARTIN: You've been listening to the title track from Nelly Furtado's new album, "The Spirit Indestructible." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.