It’s the year 2000. I’m 12 years old and sitting in my parents’ basement in London, Ont., watching the regular after-school programming on MuchMusic. The screen on our small, boxy TV cuts to the opening scene of a new video: a young woman lying in a green meadow. Soft strings play through the tinny speaker as Nelly Furtado’s distinctive voice fills the room with the opening lines of “I’m Like a Bird,” the Canadian artist’s lead single off her debut album, Whoa, Nelly! “You’re beautiful, that’s for sure,” she sings, and that’s exactly how I feel about her, seeing her dressed in low-rise baggy jeans, a red crop top and her soon-to-be-signature extra-large hoop earrings.

From that moment, I was hooked on Nelly—and so, it seemed, was everyone else. The song was everywhere (at the White Oaks Mall, where I hung out with friends, at the local car wash, at the Victoria Park outdoor skating rink and on repeat on my Sony Discman), and it would go on to become a massive worldwide hit that earned Furtado a number of accolades, including a Juno Award for Single of the Year and a Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.

“I’m Like a Bird” was just the start for Furtado, who is originally from Victoria and moved to Toronto after high school to pursue music. Over the next few years, she would establish herself as one of the most prominent artists in pop music with more hits (“Promiscuous,” “Maneater” and “Say It Right,” to name just a few) and a few high-profile collaborations, including one with producer Timbaland on her quintessential 2006 album, Loose. Timbaland signed Furtado to his label, and she worked on his own chart-topping album, 2007’s Shock Value, providing her pen and vocals for hit single “Give It to Me” alongside Justin Timberlake. To date, Furtado has been nominated for seven Grammys and 18 Junos (and hosted the latter event twice, including this year’s ceremony, which took place in March) and has sold over 40 million records, making her one of the most successful Canadian artists ever.

Justin Aranha

Dress (Tania Martins), cuff (Jenny Bird) and bangles and earrings (stylist’s own)

I first met Furtado in 2012, when she performed at the MuchMusic Video Awards in Toronto. I had started working as a Much VJ after winning VJ Search in 2009, but I still felt new to the industry and was star-struck by someone I had admired for so long. I was immediately impressed by how kind and down-to-earth Furtado was in person. She was so gentle and completely disarming. Over the next decade, our paths crossed occasionally (I work for Etalk and am now the Canadian entertainment show’s L.A.-based reporter), and I had the pleasure of getting to know her better each time. Like all her fans, I’ve been patiently awaiting new music, so I was thrilled to hear that she’s releasing an album later this year. It’s her first since 2017, although she did digitally reissue Loose with bonus tracks in 2021 to celebrate its 15th anniversary and reunite with Timbaland and Timberlake for the release of the song “Keep Going Up” in September last year. She took a break from music to raise her three children and embrace motherhood, but her creativity kept whirring. Having had my own child in 2023, I find myself in awe of Furtado and inspired by her nimble balancing of parenthood and work. Her eldest daughter, Nevis, who is now 20, even worked on this album with her. Now, Furtado feels like her life is full—she’s inspired by the younger generations (including her own children), she’s confident in her artistry and she’s embracing different ways to express herself. This vortex of creative energy has led to her new work.

Furtado walks a fine line of being both extraordinary and deliciously normal—in the best way imaginable. Her music is empowering. It’s bold and mould-shattering. And it’s everywhere—she’s had worldwide hits, performed on the biggest stages and been praised as a keystone artist in the music industry. And yet, even with all this success, Furtado remains inquisitive, soft-spoken, humble and Zen. She’s a loving parent who takes pleasure in the simple joys of raising her kids, a giving collaborator and a true artist. She is, quite simply, Nelly Furtado.

Justin Aranha

Tank top (Vanna Youngstein), necklace (Etero at Hudson’s Bay), bracelet (Jenny Bird) and earrings and rings (stylist’s own)

Nostalgia is everywhere right now—especially in fashion, with the return of low-rise jeans, itsy-bitsy tank tops and giant hoops. It’s actually really similar to what you wore in your “I’m Like a Bird” video. But when you hear the words “come back,” what comes to mind? Because it’s all very loaded.

“When you say it today, it feels like I’m coming back into myself. It’s weird—I was at the Juno Awards nominee announcement, and it almost felt like it was 1999 again. I remember going to the Junos right after I got signed, and nobody knew who I was. [So] this [event] felt super nostalgic. There are going to be times in your life when you kind of go away from your passion for a while because you’re pursuing other interests. You go through pauses. But I’ve never been more passionate about music [than I am right now]; the only time that could compete is [the time] right before I made my first album. Now, I’m more mature so, emotionally, I feel like I’m better than ever. I’m more assertive and strong-willed; I have more confidence, and I’m smarter. It’s version 2.0. It’s quite blissful. It’s nice having experience. When you’re in your early 20s, you’re competitive in a different way—you’re looking all around and have a lot of insecurities. But now I’m really competing with myself, and I know I only have myself to answer to at the end of the day if I do a bad job at something or don’t feel good about it. I’m leaning more into the craft of what I’m doing. And if I try my best, I can detach from the rest of it. That’s where I find the joy and probably why I feel like I’m back in 1999, because that was me on the streets of Toronto in my raver pants putting up my own flyers because I felt that people should check me out.”

Now, I’m more mature so, emotionally, I feel like I’m better than ever. I’m more assertive and strong-willed; I have more confidence, and I’m smarter. It’s version 2.0.

When I was growing up and listening to your music, I thought you exuded confidence. It’s reassuring to know that we’re all human and we all have these dips and have to go back to square one. So how do you find confidence now and why do you think you’re more confident?

“It’s just life experience. I feel like I’m experienced in several different areas. I don’t know it all—I’m still learning—but I feel like I got rid of a lot of baggage in trying to heal myself emotionally and move past certain things in my life. I feel refreshed. When your cup is full, you have more to offer. I’ve learned how to fill my own cup, so my cup is full.”

What does filling your own cup look like for you?

“It’s being honest about the facts that I’m a creative person and I need to pursue my talents. We’re programmed to think that [once we become a mom], we can’t be an artist anymore because one thing has to become more important than the other. My friend Lido Pimienta—she’s an amazing Colombian-Canadian artist, and she’s a mother too—would always remind me: ‘Your art is important. Your art is also your child.’ As women, we’re not used to thinking that’s okay. We’re not allowed to value [a career] on that level. But you have to recognize that your job is important to you and part of who you are, so if you deny yourself the expression of what is at the core of who you are, you’re actually not quite doing it right. That’s what I mean when [I say] I’ve let go of baggage—like, these ancestral archetypes of motherhood and wifedom. I have come into my own new reality and have greater peace with those things. Yeah, I am a mom, but I’m also a woman, an artist and a creative person, and I have to honour all the parts of who I am. Period.”

Justin Aranha

Jacket (Moschino at Hudson’s Bay), corset (Ottolinger at Absolutely Fabrics) and necklace (Par Ici)

As a mom, if you pursue your passion and get that energy out, you’re able to show up for your kids in a better way. You’re living authentically and showing them how to pursue a passion

“Yeah. I’ve definitely enjoyed being the mom who’s, like, ironing clothes. You can do both—you can make the soup, but then you can make something else that’s not for your kids. It’s almost like teaching yourself a new way to sing. I remember being in the studio one day, and one of the female engineers was in the other room—she was an assistant and hadn’t spent as much time in the actual room. My daughter was working with us that day and was like: ‘Yeah, we have to actually be the change. We should invite her to sit with us so she can learn and not just be outside sitting at the desk while we continue to complain about the world.’”

I know you have three kids, but I wanted to talk about how you involved your oldest daughter in this project. Are you looking to her and her friends for what they’re listening to? How does she influence your creative process?

“My oldest is 20. She goes to New York University, and she’s a really brilliant young woman. I admire her a lot. She’s a strong, tough cookie, and she’s very independent. Seeing this new generation of empowered young people who have a really good perspective on work-life balance has been influential. They sort of have this [way of ] not compromising and of listening to their [inner] voice. She has her own job in the music business—separate from me—but when she’s around, she helps me. She’s in A&R [artists and repertoire, the division of a record label responsible for scouting and overseeing the artistic development of recording artists and songwriters] on my new album. That’s what she does in her own life in addition to being a student. And she co-wrote some good songs with me on this one too.”

Seeing this new generation of empowered young people who have a really good perspective on work-life balance has been influential. They sort of have this [way of] not compromising and of listening to their [inner] voice.

Justin Aranha

Top (Sapodillas), Jeans (Cotton On at Hudson’s Bay), bracelets (Jenny Bird), necklace (Par Ici) and earrings (stylist’s own)

That must be such a weird and surreal thing for you. And she’s at the age you were when you started your music career.

“It’s been super rewarding. When this project was in its infancy, we would go to the studio, and it was a bonding experience. It’s been beyond my wildest dreams that we’ve been able to do a lot of this together. [Earlier in my career], I was definitely doing it for her, working hard to set a good example and to prove to myself and her that I could see it through.”

On this album, you reconnected with your boys—Timbaland and Justin Timberlake. Why are they such great collaborators? And how did it feel to be back in the studio with them?

“It was so magical. Some of the things that have happened I have no explanation for. It just felt like magic to me. My social-media person was like, ‘You really need to FaceTime Timbaland, and we should record it to commemorate the anniversary of Loose.’ I was like, ‘Okay,’ and we arranged the call. What started as a cute social-media moment turned into this very healing two-hour conversation between Timbaland and me. He basically gave me my flowers and was like: ‘Thank you. The freedom of your state of mind when we made that album was so special. You set the tone for what we made afterward—for what me and Justin made after that.’ Then what he said, which really blew my mind, was: ‘You sound really great on that Dom Dolla track [“Eat Your Man”]. I really like it.’ It was almost like I felt my heart release something. It felt so good to have that appreciation from him. We went into the studio literally weeks later, and Justin immediately agreed and got on the track [‘Keep Going Up’]. It was kind of a miracle that the three of us could do this again just for the love [of it].”

Justin Aranha

Corset and trousers (Wynn), tank top (Fruit of the Loom), hat (Tierre Taylor), bracelets (Jenny Bird), necklace (Mondo Mondo at 100 Percent Silk Shop) and earrings (stylist’s own)

Something that’s so stressful about the music industry now is that there’s so much pressure to make a moment happen—like making a song go viral on TikTok—but it has to happen organically. That’s something new you’re navigating with this album. How has that transition been?

“Thank God I am a hands-on learner and learn quickly. I learned the most about social media from Dom Dolla and his team. Their entire audience and buzz are [built] on social media. Dom has a really huge social-media team who are constantly working, and there’s never a moment lost. That’s very different from how I grew up in this business. That’s why I filmed me and Timbaland getting together again—you want to film these moments. I actually have a documentary I’m editing right now that’s basically the same thing. We made the studio into the set, and we filmed us recording this album for a whole week. I think I used to be more of a hippie—like, ‘No, we don’t have to record everything.’ But now I want to record everything because documenting can be a powerful thing, and I’ve learned that from the new generation. This sounds weird, but I’m at an advantage because I have ADHD, which I was diagnosed with in the past couple of years. I feel like it’s made me gravitate very naturally to TikTok because the fragmentation and meta-ness of TikTok really works with the speed of my brain.”

It seems like you’re excited about the new music and to be a part of everything. You’re not scared or intimidated by this new virtual world. You’re figuring out where your voice fits within it.

“Yeah, 100 percent. The music business is more fun than ever because there’s way more cross-promotion now—fashion, beauty and music all live together, and it wasn’t like that even 10 years ago. There are endless opportunities and ways to express yourself, and you aren’t judged in the same way you would have been back then. It feels very authentic, and social media has made promoting the music a lot more fun, to be honest.”

Justin Aranha

Dress (Ottolinger at Absolutely Fabrics), bracelets (Jenny Bird), rings (stylist’s own) and shoes (Giuseppe Zanotti at Hudson’s Bay)

The music business is more fun than ever because there’s way more cross-promotion now—fashion, beauty and music all live together, and it wasn’t like that even 10 years ago.

Justin Aranha

Top and skirt (Eliza Faulkner), shoes (Balmain at Hudson’s Bay), cuff (Jenny Bird), necklace (Par Ici) and bangles, earrings and rings (stylist’s own)

With new music comes touring. Have you thought about that yet? I am a new mom and am trying to figure out the world of momming while also doing my job. How do you approach that with little ones?

“I had my oldest with me on tour from birth—we would choose our dates [based] around school breaks and stuff like that. I’m going to do something like that again— have [my kids] be a part of it in a way that’s positive and beneficial. For me, having a whole lot of faith in God helps—as does trusting my instincts. Now that I’ve got a fully grown 20-year-old, a five-year-old and a four-year-old, I have perspective and experience. Having raised [one child], I know what kind of stuff they remember, what’s important and which basket to put my eggs in. Being a mom is the best job in the world, and you just have to take it one day at a time.”

I heard a rumour that Drake has a toilet that plays “I’m Like a Bird” when it flushes. Is this true?

[Laughs] “Who told you this?”

The internet told me this!

“I will not speak on Drake’s toilet.” [Laughs]

Justin Aranha

Nelly Furtado is wearing a top and dress by Eliza Faulkner, shoes by Balmain (at Hudson’s Bay), bracelets by Jenny Bird (left wrist), a necklace by Par Ici and the stylist’s own bracelets (right wrist), earrings and rings. Editor-in-chief Joanna Fox Publisher Sophie Banford Photographer Justin Aranha Creative director and stylist Nariman Janghorban Makeup artist Susana Hong Hairstylist Chanel Croker Manicurist Tiffany Sachs Set designer Kendra Martyn Editorial producer Estelle Gervais On-set producer Laura Malisan Production assistant Claire Poulter-Baker Photographer’s assistants Nika Thompson, Judy Gu and Josh Hotz Stylist’s assistants Rizelle Sadcopen, Kaylah Wilson and Miki Diamond Set-design assistant Kira Evenson

The May 2023 issue of ELLE Canada will hit newsstands and Apple News+ on April 22, 2024.

Read more:
Nelly Furtado is ELLE Canada’s May 2024 Cover Star!
ELLE Decoration Canada: Discover Our Spring 2024 Issue