Nelly Furtado may have disembarked from pop stardom "to experience life" for a few years before making her new album "The Ride," but the "Promiscuous" singer kept herself plenty busy. From moonlighting at a record store and training for a 10km run to raising her now-13-year-old daughter and visiting the Kenyan school her million-dollar donation built.
"My nature is to take time and reflect. I'm kind of a quiet soul, believe it or not," Furtado tells HuffPost Canada during a recent visit. "Obviously, I have an entertainer inside of me because I've been entertaining for 20 years but there's another side of me that is just really normal. So for the last five years I really let myself stop and take on some fun life stuff that I hadn't had time for when I was touring around the world."
Furtado released her first hit, "I'm Like a Bird," back in 2000 and then the massive success of her album "Loose" in 2006 pushed her toward 16 million albums sold. But after releasing the Spanish-language "Mi Plan" in 2009 followed by the pop flop that was "The Spirit Indestructible" in 2012, Furtado says she "lost the passion for making music."
So she enrolled in classes to learn to write plays, which she says helped her with songwriting, and took up pottery, sewing, and running.
"For the last five years I really let myself stop and take on some fun life stuff that I hadn't had time for when I was touring around the world."
She even spent some time working in her friend's Toronto record store Cosmos Records, which had the unintended impact of helping pull her out of "a dark time" by pushing her back into the studio.
"My friend Aki has a couple record stores in Toronto and I called him up one day and said 'I just walked into your store and I felt the most joy that I've felt in ages.' I listened to Minnie Ripperton's 'Adventures in Paradise' and I listened to ['60s psychedelic soul band] Rotary Connection. I just sat there listening to records," she recalls.
"I hadn't been to that record shop in so long but I used to go there when I was recording my first album. Track and Field, my producers, and I would hang out and buy records and be inspired by them. I think I had lost that real passion for music. But it's so back again."
Furtado also found personal and professional inspiration further afield in Narok, Kenya.
"My life really changed when I got to work with such a great non-profit as We.org," Furtado says of the charity formerly known as Free the Children, which also runs We Day youth rallies across Canada, the U.S. and U.K.
Furtado famously re-gifted We the $1 million she was paid by the Gaddafi family for a private concert years earlier, and much of that money went to building an all-girls high school in Kenya called Oleleshwa.
"It's been so enriching. They've been great role models for my daughter, all those beautiful strong young women. Best role models my daughter's been around, hands down," she says.
"On my forth trip to Kenya I wrote the lyrics for 'Pipe Dreams,' 'Live' and this other song called 'Palaces,'" she recalls. Furtado says she was on a "water walk" with some of the local mamas, doing what the women had to do before Free the Children came in to dig a well for the community, which is when inspiration hit.
"I have always believed music can change the world because... art starts conversations, creativity starts conversations."
"If there's no borehole to get water you have to go all the way down to the river. It could take hours to get their water for the day and this was preventing young girls from attending school," she says. "I'm carrying the [water] canister and it just fell out of my mouth: 'don't sell me no pipe dreams."
Once Furtado felt ready to get back to music, she found herself returning to a world much darker than she had left it. In 2016, when she performed the national anthem at the NBA All-Star game in Toronto alongside an indigenous flute player, she faced xenophobic attacks on Twitter where she was told to "go back to Portugal."
But that type of negative response only strengthened her resolve.
"I think music can change the world," she says. "The whole point of my songwriting experiment was to prove empathy between strangers. I have always believed music can change the world because... art starts conversations, creativity starts conversations.
"It's the human heart that stirs us."
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