Not on Your Nelly!

Nelly Furtado is on the line, and she's stoked. She's on a high from her Grammy win for best female pop performance, decent reviews of her concert tour and the fact that her homeboys on the Canadian Olympic hockey team struck gold in Salt Lake. And there's still more good news.

"This is so amazing. I just got a telegram today from the president of Portugal congratulating me on my Grammy," she announces.

For Furtado, that proclamation from President Jorge Sampaio is a validation of her roots. Born to a Portuguese couple who immigrated to Canada in the '60s, the 23-year-old grew up in Victoria, British Columbia. Even before she broke the news to her family at 17 that she was splitting for Toronto to become a musician, Furtado had a gut feeling that her Portuguese/ Canadian upbringing meant she had to blaze a different path.

Six years later, Furtado must feel like she's racing down the platinum brick road. It's been less than 18 months since her debut album, Whoa Nelly, was released, and already she's been on the cover of Canadian Time. In February, she shared the cover of Entertainment Weekly with Alicia Keys and India.Arie as one of "pop's prized young superstars." And a few weeks back, she worked on some new tracks with the Neptunes, only the most in-demand producers on the planet. In Canada, she's become known simply as Nelly (forget that hip-hop dude of the same name), joining the likes of single-monikered megastars Alanis, Shania and Celine as Canadian singers who took turns blowing the doors off alt-rock, country and pop radio in the past decade.

Whoa Nelly is more than a snapshot of a young woman seeking her place in the world; it's a pop record with bold instrumentation, myriad influences and yes, some unmistakably radio-ready hooks. Furtado wrote all the lyrics and has solo writing credits on half of the album's 12 backing tracks. While all show some street-wise potential, not all of them yield magical results -- but some do. Scratches, acoustic guitar, elegant bass playing and just the right amount of percussion boosts the hip-hop track "Shit on the Radio"; a seductive bossa nova beat carries the song "Legend" to Sade territory; and in "Party," Furtado oozes sensuality with a feathery, slightly ragged voice that's still a work in progress. "Party" also features this telling lyric: "I'm changing my inflection, and how I say the words / Maybe it will sound like something they've never heard."

What most of the world hasn't heard is that Canada is one of the most diverse nations on the planet, a fact that Furtado's music reflects. Once home mainly to native Canadians and the descendants of British, Irish and French immigrants, Canadian cities now teem with immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, East Asia, the Middle East, Africa and the West Indies. "Turn Out the Light," one of the album's strongest tracks, shows that Furtado spent a few summers in Toronto soaking up the sounds at that city's annual Caribbean Festival, one of the largest such events in North America. There's some stylized rapid-fire toasting and scatting in that song, as well as in "Party." "On those tracks, my manager [who is Jamaican-born] was really teasing me about it, because he heard even more of a reggae influence," she says. "I'm not sure where it comes from, but it works."

Something else that works is Furtado's natural beauty. Love-struck men and boys bombard her with fan mail, a fact of celebrity life she's learning to handle, "as long as it's not too obnoxious." But, she points out, "I get a lot of male fans besides the teenage girls at my shows, and they're into the music, too. I like to think what I'm doing is more universal than just for males or females."

While some of her silicone-enhanced contemporaries might have trouble finding Canada on a map (never mind Portugal), Furtado, along with Keys and Arie, is part of a growing backlash to the Stepford stars like Britney and Christina. This new breed of beautiful but whip-smart women are eager to improve as artists and not afraid to go their own way. "I was really excited to be part of that [Entertainment Weekly] article," Furtado says. "It was about representing something new and relevant, not just some stuff about what kind of clothes we were wearing."

But it was just the kind of clothes that Furtado was wearing in her "I'm Like a Bird" video that caught the eye of rapper Missy Elliott, who asked Nelly to collaborate on the hit song "Get Ur Freak On." Backstage at the Grammys, Elliott told the Canadian press that Furtado's simple shell top and running shoes made her pay attention more to Nelly's voice. "She wasn't in hip-huggers and this little bra top, she just had on some jeans. I felt like she wasn't following a trend," Elliott said.

Furtado thinks her lack of artifice in dress and music is part of the "openness" of Canadian culture that seems to come through in the music of her countrymen -- take, for example, Furtado fave Robbie Robertson. "There is a greater respect for roots music in Canada," she says. "My acoustic guitar is a big part of the album, and I grew up with the guitar and bonfire on the beach, which is also part of our culture. Just you, nature and simple reflections."

Of course, Furtado's acoustic guitar also spent some time languishing in the corner of her bedroom as she gathered other influences. She first delved into music with her dad's Billy Joel records. Once she moved to Toronto, Furtado developed a serious yen for British trip-hoppers Portishead, as well as urban, electronic and hip-hop artists (notably Kriss Kross and Salt-N-Pepa), which certainly put her on a funkier plane than Canada's other music superstars.

And Furtado is perfectly happy to be the new face of Canadian music. "I think what really excited people [in Canada] was the fact that I reflected the tastes of young people more than other stuff that was happening. To be put up there with Celine and Alanis, who have sold so many records, it's a credit to what I represent," she says, adding that she is just as content to reflect the multiculti dynamic of a country that admits far more immigrants per capita than its southern neighbor.

"Oh, yeah, I make a point of hammering my culture down everyone's throats," she laughs. "I really make sure I mention it in my U.S. interviews. For me, it's just so amazing to go on tour now and see the Portuguese and Canadian flags out there in the audience. As a young girl, I so desperately wanted to see my Portuguese culture reflected more, so to get all these letters from fans over there saying they appreciate what I'm doing makes me proud."

Especially, no doubt, when they come from President Sampaio.

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Greg Barr
Contact: Greg Barr