It was hard to go anywhere in 2006 without hearing Nelly Furtado's expert flirting anthem "Promiscuous." The song, like much of Furtado's Timbaland-produced album Loose, was a surprising zag into mainstream pop and R&B for the crunchy Canadian singer who once sang about flying like a bird.
"It was really an experiment for me," Furtado says today of the double-platinum album. Tired of the quiet acoustics of her first two albums, 2000's Whoa, Nelly! and 2003's Folklore, she dreamed up her ideal stadium-pop album, which became Loose. And she got her big tour, playing theaters in the U.S. and arenas in Canada and Europe — but it came at a price. "I was more of a stylized version of myself," she tells me. "It was fun, but I get bored very easily. I was kind of fatigued by all the promotion."
So rather than try to extend her success, Furtado began to retreat a bit. "I went in search of new dreams," she tells me, in a tone that sounds breathy and quiet over the phone. Her penchant for whimsy is clear when you speak with her for any amount of time, as she waxes poetic about finding creativity in a craft store and describes herself as a "curious painter."
Three years after Loose, she recorded the Latin Grammy-winning Mi Plan, entirely in Spanish, followed by 2012's The Spirit Indestructible, which delivered brassy, Top 40-style R&B produced by Destiny's Child/Brandy collaborator Rodney Jerkins, but didn't end up being a huge success. After that, she says, it was time to move away from mainstream pop: "I think when people stick to just one sound, it sounds like commerce. It wasn't artistry. Occasionally it could be artistry, or maybe obsession, or syndication.
"It's hard to please all people anyway," she says, with a sigh. "I guess I've never really tried."
Enter The Ride, Furtado's new album (out March 31) and her first in five years. It's produced by John Congleton, who's worked with indie-rock bands from Spoon to Sleater-Kinney — and, most importantly, St. Vincent's Annie Clark, who connected him with Furtado. "I kind of stalked him online, stalked a couple interviews," Furtado tells me with a laugh, describing how badly she wanted to work with him.
The Ride's sound has a synthetic quality that seems to draw a lot of inspiration from Clark's most recent album. Songs like "Right Road" and "Paris Sun," replete with reverbed guitar riffs and wonky, modular synths, are unmistakably St. Vincent-esque.
Nelly Furtado has rarely stuck for long to a specific genre or style across her career. But The Ride, along with an early-2016 collaboration with Blood Orange's Dev Hynes on the cassette release "Hadron Collider," seems to poise her for a different kind of pop career than the one she had with Loose. "Any time I feel super challenged, and super on edge, it's a wonderful feeling," she says. "And I think John and I both knew we were in high-risk situations [where] we both have something to prove."
For Furtado, the most important thing was demonstrating her ability to be a capital-A artist. "I didn't realize I had something to prove until John told me, 'Look, I really think that if you do this right, this should set you up artistically for the rest of your career,'" she says. "He said it would start to position [me] as more of an artist than what people see [me] as."
The Ride is ultimately, in Furtado's words, a record about making mistakes. She mentions "Carnival Games," a downtempo electro-pop song on which Furtado cries thinking about "all the years of playing carnival games." The image is meant as a metaphor for her pop career: "In a way, I've spent a lot of time at the carnival," she tells me. "I spent a lot of time eating cotton candy, and being on these pretty vibes, and hearing the pretty songs — but, what am I walking away with?"
On another song, "Tap Dancing," she does what she calls a "sad clown routine," revealing the dark side of being a successful performer. "Don't look too closely, just clap your hands / Don't say you know me, just cue the band," she sings. The song, she explains, is about her wondering "when does the entertaining stop? When are you not onstage? And when do you stop entertaining your friends and family and just be still?"
Working with people like Congleton and Hynes, Furtado says she's had a "second coming of age." "Children need mentors, teenagers need mentors, but we also need mentors as adults," she says. "I think life's a lot tougher as you become an adult." But if you think The Ride is an indication of what Furtado's sound might be like going forward, don't get your hopes up. The musician never wants to get too comfortable working in any specific sound. "I've realized recently that I'm just not a joiner," she says. "I ran a 10K last spring, and I knew initially I wasn't going to join the culture of running, you know?"