The 'Loose' singer talks about Paris Hilton, music contracts and touring with a baby

By Margeaux Watson
Updated June 09, 2006 at 12:00 PM EDT
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

It was like a reality show. ”One day Ricky Martin was there with a hundred Latin journalists glued to him like a swarm,” Nelly Furtado says, describing the scene at Miami’s Hit Factory as she recorded her third album, Loose. ”The next day paparazzi were hiding in the bushes to get a glimpse of Paris Hilton making her record.” It had all the ingredients of a Surreal Life casting call, but how did the Grammy-winning Canadian singer, who once shared the stage with Aretha Franklin and Mary J. Blige, end up amid these pop-cultural punchlines?

After a debut CD, 2000’s Whoa, Nelly!, that sold 2 million copies and made her a worldwide star at 22, Furtado’s follow-up, Folklore, failed to click with listeners and sold just 500,000 units. ”It had a lot of cynicism,” she admits. ”People were wondering, ‘Where’s Nelly? Where’s the butterflies?”’

Nearly three years later, there’s still no sign of butterflies, but Furtado has emerged from her cocoon with the aptly named Loose (out June 20), a confidently sexy mix of party anthems and slow jams. As the first single, ”Promiscuous,” and its follow-up ”Maneater” (a song so hot a speaker caught fire while she was recording it) show, the 27-year-old isn’t beholden to fans of her airy breakthrough hit, ”I’m Like a Bird.” ”It’s not about how big my audience is,” she explains. ”It’s about having an audience that understands what I’m doing. I’m not faithful to one style? I’m a musically promiscuous girl.” And with the soaring popularity of ”Promiscuous” and its steamy video featuring Justin Timberlake, Furtado is proving an old maxim: Getting around can do a career good.

”To me, Nelly’s like Pat Benatar or Fleetwood Mac,” says rapper-producer Timothy ”Timbaland” Mosley, who co-piloted the making of Loose. ”She’s timeless and can do different kinds of styles.” That’s been evident since Whoa, Nelly!‘s quirky amalgam of pop, folk, bossa nova, and Latin sounds. Still, that album collected dust for several months before ”I’m Like a Bird” took flight up the charts and thrust Furtado into the spotlight. ”It was like being thrown into a circus,” she says of the experience. ”I matured really quickly. I think that’s why you see a lot of young entertainers getting engaged or settling down — they mature hyper-fast.”

Sure enough, Furtado soon fell in love with Jasper ”Lil’ Jaz” Gahunia, a DJ, and got pregnant in Dec. 2002. She wanted to keep recording, but the timing was curious: Furtado started work on Folklore five months into her pregnancy. ”Everyone — including my mother — thought it was ridiculous,” she says.

Even as her somber sophomore effort was confounding fans, the singer ”was in the coolest mood,” she says. ”Three weeks after I had my daughter, I had a fitting for The Tonight Show and I fit into like a size 14 pants, but I didn’t care. I had that glow.” With Folklore faring better abroad than in the U.S., Furtado decided to tour with baby — and daddy — in tow. ”I was breast-feeding Nevis and traveling like a gypsy,” Furtado recalls. ”Japan, France, Germany — we have lots to tell her when she’s older.”

Afterward, the Victoria, B.C., native retreated to Toronto and quiet domesticity. She could afford to idle in perpetuity, thanks to financial foresight. When she landed her first deal at age 20, Furtado sacrificed a one-time windfall to retain her publishing rights. “I’ve watched a lot of Behind the Music specials,” she says. “I didn’t want to be Elvis — you know, sign a record deal for a Cadillac.”

Still, a contractual cloud hung over her: She owed her label another album. But Furtado was in no rush to record, until she ended her four-year relationship with Gahunia. As she explains, “When you break up, this overwhelming rush of individualism comes over you — it can be very inspiring.” At the time, Furtado was being prodded by Interscope Records chief Jimmy Iovine to go upbeat. Once she relocated to Miami to write and record, that was a foregone conclusion. “I played with Nevis in the sunshine every day until 7 or 8 p.m., and then I’d hit the studio,” Furtado says.

Working with Timbaland was equally carefree. The two collaborated on the 2001 remix of Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On,” so Furtado trusted his ability to meld genres with syncopated rhythms and melodic stabs. “[Loose] has an ’80s feel with a new twist,” Timbaland says. “It’s old-school new-wave sounds with heavy beats.” Furtado also teams with Colombian singer-songwriter Juanes and Coldplay’s Chris Martin, who co-wrote the track “All Good Things.” As a result, Loose feels fresh and wide-ranging yet in control—a fair reflection of Furtado these days. “Before, I was a flower child floating down the river like a leaf, not knowing where that leaf was going,” she explains. “Now I’m in a place where I’m just entirely myself. It feels really good. I think it’s infectious, and very seductive.”