Nelly Furtado's left boob is peeking out of her gaping black blouse, but she's too busy discussing her love for Ani DiFranco to realize. She's squirming in the seat of an aqua-and-burnt-orange striped booth in a set for a 1970s-themed diner inside New York's YouTube Studio, where famous vloggers shoot their videos. I'm trying not to stare as she twiddles her Longhorn ring and plunges her hands in and out of the pockets of her inside-out shearling coat.
"Look!" Furtado demands. She shows me the inside of her ochre-colored coat, flashing a sheer black bra in the process. "You can wear it two ways! It's literally reversible." She's wholly amused despite her obliviousness, opening and closing her jacket again and again over her breast. She's laughing. I'm laughing. Her left boob is still out. She spells out the clothing brand for me: "D-R-O-M-E. Drome. That's so rad," she says, slumping back into the booth and finally noticing that her left boob is half-exposed. She doesn't seem phased. Why would she be? This is the woman who gyrated in music videos, wearing everything from low-rise jeans and a cropped sheer blouse in "Promiscuous" to a tiny white wife beater in "Maneater."
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Except the Furtado seated across from me is not the same mid-2000s Furtado whose abs were envied by teenage girls and whose music was the soundtrack for teens making out in cars. Between her short jet-black hair and fake eyelashes, Furtado still drips sex appeal, but she also exudes a maturity and sensibility she hadn't yet acquired while recording 2000's Whoa, Nelly! or 2006's hit album Loose. This month, she's putting her emotional development on full display with The Ride, her sixth studio album which she considers her first album in years that she recorded as an artist instead of as "someone wearing a business hat."
You're like a fetus again. You feel a little lost.
"You know when [you] partied and you wake up the next day feeling a little sick, but you also feel so alive because you maybe purged some demons?" Furtado asks. She launches into singing, "Sunday morning and I'm waking up." Before I can answer, Furtado interrupts her singing: "This is my hangover album."
Throughout The Ride's 12-track journey, Furtado cares less about delivering pop anthems and more about singing honest lyrics. She describes the past 11 years as "such a journey through a series of events," some serendipitous and others disruptive. Much of her evolution can be traced to 2014 when she outgrew an 18-year-long business relationship with someone she considered a father figure—a fallout that she considers destabilizing. The rapport was "totally platonic," she stresses, furrowing her eyebrows and fiddling with each of her five rings, but it was still one of the longest relationships of her life.
"Anytime you change your life in a big way, there's a dissonance between you and the world," she explains. "You're like a fetus again. You feel a little lost."
Naturally, she turned to songwriting—but this time around, she decided to manage herself. On The Ride, there'd be no "huge band," no big crew—none of what she calls "pop accoutrements." Her pop career has followed a bizarre trajectory of ebbs and flows. After releasing 2000's global top charter "I'm Like a Bird," she languished till her 2006 comeback album Loose, which was one of the major mid-2000s pop records masterminded by Timbaland. For The Ride, she aimed to collaborate with John Congleton, the producer of several St. Vincent albums, such as the critically adored Strange Mercy.
"I liked the intimacy of the vocals," Furtado says of Congleton production. "[John] records things in a very traditional kind of way but with a modern sensibility. He's got a keen ear and isn't too precious about sound."
Last year at a Japanese music festival, she bumped into Annie Clark, who sings under the nom de guerre St. Vincent, and asked her to connect them. Clark agreed. Shortly afterward, Furtado was on a last-minute flight to Dallas, where Congleton records in his Elmwood Recording studio, which is housed in an old funeral home in the southwest neighborhood Oak Cliff. He's very attracted to "dark and morbid things," Furtado says.
She found their collaboration cathartic. After losing the 18-year-long relationship, Furtado started writing songs that pried repressed emotions out of her. She felt stripped. Since Congleton was also "confident in his nakedness," Furtado felt comfortable chipping away at the facades she had built to sell records. Songwriting gave Furtado a newfound self-awareness.
"I don't know how I feel until I write a song about it," she explains. "Songs live in the unconscious, and [tapping into that] is so important to my growth as a person. I don't really know how else to figure myself out."
While composing "Phoenix," the last song on the album but the first that Furtado wrote, she tapped into her "latent emotions" during a bout of depression. She believed she had written the ballad for a woman she had met on recent trip to Kenya. During the recording session, Joachim Johnson, her photographer, dispelled her conviction. "He looked at me [after the recording] and said, 'Nel, you wrote this song for you, huh?'"
Several songs take their titles from amusement park references. The most obvious is "Carnival Games," an upbeat but melancholy track imagining Furtado throwing down dollars to win a prize, only to spend all her money and leave unfulfilled.
"It's like when you're on a ferris wheel and everything looks amazing, but then you get off and realize you're in the same place you were when you got on," Furtado says. "You were distracted for a bit, but you didn't have any time to reflect because you were too busy experiencing."
The music video for The Ride's first single, "Pipe Dreams," looks like a home video recorded on an old VHS camcorder. Furtado stares into a mirror. She sings, "If I can't really know you, I'd rather walk on."
The sadness was present when she recorded her final vocal take of "Pipe Dreams." After she finished singing, Furtado snuck off to Congleton's bathroom, where she cried standing next to his Grammy. She was overwhelmed with the realization that she'd never be there again—she'd never check into the Belmont Hotel, take the shuttle to the studio in Oak Cliff, and spend the day tapping into her unconscious.
"I felt like I never wanted to leave because this place healed me," Furtado recalls. "It helped me remember parts of myself that I forgot were there. I came here to put myself back together."
As with any piece of art, The Ride serves as documentation of Furtado's evolution as an artist. Less of a comeback album, it's more of an archive of her rumination about all the people she's been since she became Nelly Furtado the pop star. It's her acknowledgement that life is fast and retrospection doesn't always come soon enough. While she has undeniably matured since she put out her first album in 2000, Furtado would still throw down $5 bills to squirt a water gun at an amusement park—she just wouldn't spend all her money this time.
At the fake dinner, she sarcastically apologizes, "I'm so sorry we didn't get to order anything to eat." At the end of another table, a hairstylist clutches a spray bottle. He mists Furtado's hair a few times as she sits perched on her coat that may or may not be inside-out. "Is this spray just coconut water?" Furtado asks him. She lets out a drawn-out wow. "I love that."