We recently chatted with Grammy-award winning artist Nelly Furtado, who told us about her improvisational technique for songwriting in the studio. Furtado is the executive producer and principle writer on her new album, The Spirit Indestructible. The “I’m Like A Bird” singer told us about “writing on the mic,” her idea for an alt-rock girl group and more. Let’s get this party started.
Your remix version of Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” is one of my all-time favorite jams. The notes you chose in the song feel very exotic. How are you able to channel the hip hop persona you used on the song and elsewhere?
From the time I had my first band, at age 17, Nelstar, a trip-hop band, I always felt that vocal experimentation was very important and I always found it fascinating. During that time, I developed a style of singing that I called “skat-singing” where you sing lots of quick notes very randomly, in different syllabic arrangements. It’s equally influenced by the Brazilian Tropicalia movement, jazz music, Hindi music, beat poetry and hip-hop. On “Freak On” I wrote the lyrics first, and then improvised the rhythm and melodies while singing it down — it’s a very improvisational technique. Glad you asked!
What instruments did you use to write the songs on your new album?
The Spirit indestructible was mostly created in a jam setting with the producer and I working together in the mix room. We turn the Shure 58 on, the keyboards will be on, and I start singing… the producer starts playing the piano, or beat, or keys, and we record everything. I love writing on the mic because I used to improvise a lot in live, jam-band settings, often in front of an audience. I like hearing it coming back at me. I also wrote one of these songs, “Thoughts,” which features The Kenyan Boys choir, on acoustic guitar.
How did the co-writing work on the album?
We wrote the songs in-studio and in the moment, like a true jam. I usually come up with the melodies and lyrics spontaneously and simultaneously, appropriating to whatever music/vibe is going on courtesy of producer/co-writer- sometimes just one note or chord inspires a whole song. It’s fun re-directing the chords vocally too where I feel a bridge or chorus coming… After we’ve got some vestige of a song going, I go back and listen to it a few times so I can finish the lyrics-this usually takes about an hour… but I may decide I need a bridge where there wasn’t one weeks or even months later… then, if I’m really lucky I cut the vocal the same day as writing it. When you can do that, with certain songs, it’s a sure-way to get the mood right in the vocal. The producer will often keep adding parts, and sometimes we come up with musical interludes together well after the song is finished.
Who do you like in the current crop of female musicians, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, etc.?
If I had to produce a female super pop group I would pick Adele, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, and Nicki Minaj for the group. If I had an alternative group, I’d choose Annie Clark , Lykke Li and Merrill Garbus, the singer from Tune-Yards.
When did you start writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later?
I had a constant flow of music and lyrics in my mind from the time I learned to speak, but the first time I wrote down a real song I was 12. They were funny R&B songs about love lost – quite cute, with perhaps a few decent melodies, but quite far from professional.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
“Get it Together” is what it was called. “Boy we’ve got to get it together… to survive we’ve got to get it together…” I’d never even had a relationship before! I ran into the kitchen and sang it for my mom.
What’s the last song you wrote or started?
A song called “Oceans” that I wrote on the plane the other week, let’s hope I finish it!
What is your approach to writing lyrics?
I try to honor the moment, and be fearless , interesting, but universal at the same time. On this album, I paid way more attention to lyrics, because I had just come off writing a Spanish album where myself and my Latin co-lyricists often took metaphor and theme into consideration in a very applied manner. I started to apply that method again when writing these English lyrics alone, and I’m very happy with the results.
What’s a song on your album you’re particularly proud of and why?
As a writer, I’m quite proud of the song “Bucket List.” It’s quite folky, melody-wise. The concept: It’s all about having a bucket list so long that perhaps you’ve left love for the very end, and by then, it’s much too late. Rodney Jerkins produced it.
What’s a lyric or verse from the album you’re a fan of?
“All I wanted was to live a really good life with a memory reel of all the highlights.” From the song “High Life”.
Are there any words you love or hate?
I sang the word “guitar” when cutting the Andrea Bocelli song “Corcovado” with David Foster recently, and it didn’t exactly roll off the tongue. R sounds sung always end up being either hooky or terrible. My writing vice is the slang word “cuz”, which constantly battles “because” in my songs! It’s uncanny.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
“Try,” from Folklore. It’s meant for crying too, and everyone needs a good cry once in a while. Whenever I sing it live, either the audience or I am in tears. I’ve had many fans tell me that it’s helped them cope through some challenging life experiences.
Do you ever do any other kinds of writing?
I used to write poetry in college. I also wrote art, concert and theater reviews for my college paper. Last year I wrote an editorial piece for the Canadian newspaper, The Globe and Mail about my trips to Kenya working with Free the Children.
If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
Katy Perry and Madonna.
What do you consider to be the perfect song (written by somebody else), and why?
“Ring Of Fire” by June Carter Cash. It’s got the perfect mix of mystery, pep and melody. A new favorite song is “Hearse” by Ani DiFranco. It’s so, so beautiful.