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POP MUSIC

The World Is Her Beatbox

Nelly Furtado throws a little bit of everything into her hip-hop melange--including a measure of self-confidence.

November 26, 2000|ALEC FOEGE | Alec Foege is a freelance writer based in New York

NEW YORK — Don't be fooled by the Top 40 radio popularity of Nelly Furtado's trip-hop meets "The Girl From Ipanema" sound. The young Canadian singer-songwriter who's winning raves for her debut album is all about shattering expectations, musical and otherwise.

She claims slick pop singers Mariah Carey and Mary J. Blige as her early idols, yet packs her own records with edgy, unpredictable global rhythms. On the cover of her CD, she poses like a budding teen star, but in person she exhibits a refreshing maturity--she's sunny yet remarkably well-grounded.

More proof of her uniqueness lies in the diversity of her audience. Since its release last month, Furtado's album, "Whoa, Nelly!," has attracted admirers of all stripes, from the teenage acolytes who flood her with e-mail to the ultra-hip DJs who spin her vinyl singles in the underground Toronto club scene where she got her big break.

One of her songs, the profanely titled "---t on the Radio," is a rebuke of people who assume that Furtado sold out her musical ideals to pursue mainstream stardom. At a recent show, a man old enough to be her grandfather told her he heard her via a Napster download and become an instant fan.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 10, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Singer's roots--Pop singer Nelly Furtado's parents hail from the island of Sao Miguel in the Azores, a Portuguese island group in the Atlantic. A story in the Nov. 26 Calendar gave an incorrect island name and location.

The 21-year-old performer's short career path has been similarly unpredictable.

In 1999, she appeared in the lineup of the Lilith Fair, a virtual unknown alongside established artists such as Sarah McLachlan and Chrissie Hynde. Only months earlier, Furtado made plans to postpone her music career to attend college. Even before her record was out, she was spotlighted in Vanity Fair and Interview, based on advance buzz and early performances.

Hype of this sort often breeds skepticism. But "Whoa, Nelly!" delivers with a fresh bouquet of songs that perfectly capture the joy and pain of a young adult breaking free of adolescence, all set to a postmodern collage of samples and fluid Portuguese and Brazilian rhythms.

Since its release in October, critics have compared Furtado favorably to fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell, as well as to female hip-hoppers TLC and edgy pop-rock experimenters Beck and Bjork. Rolling Stone called the album "soulfully, intelligently, sensuously international."

One usually expects praise to go straight to a young performer's head. But Furtado seems unaffected by the torrent of attention.

On a bright fall afternoon at SoHo's trendy Mercer Kitchen restaurant, she hardly notices her cool, metal-surfaced surroundings, instead sipping a glass of Evian and talking loudly and enthusiastically about her good fortune.

"I feel like I've been doing this forever," she says. "I'm kind of one of those kids that got hold of my older brother's Jim Carroll [books] too early. I've always just been very street-smart."

"Whoa, Nelly!" has only sold about 12,400 copies so far, but her record label is unconcerned, focusing on the big picture.

Beth Halper, the executive who signed Furtado to DreamWorks Records, says she was impressed by her talent and self-confidence.

"There's a naturalness to her, and a real primal desire to be doing what she's doing," Harper says. "It's her ability to challenge herself and one-up herself to make the music better and better--there's no barriers with her."

"She has incredibly strong convictions for someone so young," says DreamWorks co-head Lenny Waronker. "She really gets into a zone and goes with that. Because of that, the music is original and very much an individual's vision.

"In a way, I think you have to be that young to do what she's doing, because she's less conscious about the business and much more conscious about this creative path that she's on."

*

Dressed in a baby-blue crocheted sweater, flared jeans and silver hoop earrings, the pixie-like singer exudes a fresh, brassy attitude that starkly contrasts with the studied restraint of the black-clad crowd around her.

Punctuating her conversation with an infectious, staccato laugh, Furtado says she gained her self-confidence growing up as an ethnic minority in Victoria, British Columbia, a small, mostly white city on remote Vancouver Island. Although she was born in Canada, both of her parents are from San Miguel, a Mediterranean island that is part of Portugal.

Her father works as a landscaper and stonemason, and her mother is head of housekeeping at Victoria's Robin Hood Motel, where Furtado sometimes helped out cleaning rooms as a child.

"As a first-generation Canadian, you stand out and you are different," she says, her crystal-blue eyes flashing against her cafe au lait: complexion.

"You bring your bean sandwiches to school, and kids go, 'What's that?' But it was a positive thing for me, because it was a source of identity, going to my Portuguese church and folk festivals."

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