Born on December 2, 1978 to Portuguese parents (Maria Manuela and António José Furtado, both late 1960s immigrants from the Azore Islands), Nelly Furtado was named after Soviet gymnast Nellie Kim.
She grew up in Victoria, BC and at age four began performing and singing in Portuguese, with her first public performance being a duet with her mother at a church on Portugal Day. She tried out just about every instrument her musical family’s household had to offer and sang in church choirs, but also listened and forged her early sound to the R&B tinged pop hits of the day, like TLC and Mariah Carey. Eventually those influences also included Brazilian rhythms, British pop, and hip hop that would all later become part of her overall multi-genred music.
While visiting her older sister in Toronto after Grade 11, she met Tallis Newkirk from the hip hop group Plains of Fascination. Hitting it off, she ended up singing background on their 1996 album, JOIN THE RANKS. After graduating from high school she moved to Toronto and formed the hip hop duo with Newkirk, Nelstar. But within a year she was looking to make a go of it on her own, and met Brian West and Gerald Eaton of The Philsopher Kings. They agreed to help her on some material she’d written, and produced a demo she shen shopped around, when Dream Works Entertainment came calling.
Her first actual single came while putting the finishing touches on her debut album. “Party’s Just Begun (Again)” was released on the soundtrack to the movie “Brokedown Palace” in 2001. Her neo-hippie imaged mixed with fresh, eclectic rhythms translated into instant gold for her debut, WHOA! NELLY later that year. The first single, “Turn Off The Light” mixed Brit-pop with her Portugese heritage (a distinction she’s proudly said seperated her from the rest, as she even spent time as a teen in a Portugese marching band) into the top 10 in several markets.
She followed up with “I’m Like A Bird,” described by one critic as “Madonna mixed with Wilf Carter, with a pinch of Pavarotti thrown in.” But the song’s operatic yodelling catapulted to the top of the charts in Canada, as well as parts of Europe, earning her a Juno for single of the year, as well as a Grammy (and four more nominations) for best female vocal, leading to 7 million albums sold worldwide. Other noteable tracks included “I Feel You,” which featured Esthero on background vocals.
After an opening slot on Moby’s tour ended, she took time off to have a baby while still writing material for her sophomore album, but not before she appeared on Jurassic 5’s “Thin Line,” and on Paul Oakenfold’s songs “The Harder They Come” and “These Words Are My Own.”
FOLKLORE, her much anticipated second record, was released in November 2003, and was heralded by the critics as ambitious and experimental. But generally positive reviews didnt’ translate into drastic sales domestically, but scored three international hit singles in “Powerless (Say What You Want),” “Try,” and “Força” (the theme of the 2004 European Football Championship). Furtado performed this song in Lisbon at the championship’s final, in which the Portugal national team played. The final track on the album, “Childhood Dreams”, was dedicated to her daughter, Nevis.
She reinvented herself again and got her groove on for LOOSE, released in 2006 and produced by hip-hop superstar Timbaland. The smash “Promiscuous” (which Timbaland did the duet) and “Man Eater,” her first UK #1 single, showed a little girl who was hard to label was all grown-up, but still just as confusing. The hip-gyrating rhythms and overt sexuality of the other two singles, “Say It Right” and “All Good Things (Come to an End)” were dance club and video and radio airwaves hits, helping the album sell over 7 million copies worldwide and earning her five Junos the following spring.
In ’06, for World AIDS Day, Furtado also took part in an AIDS awareness concert in South Africa with Enrique Iglesias, Kanye West, Kelly Rowland, Snoop Dogg and Kelly Clarkson. She also hosted a program about AIDS on MTV, which also featured guests Alicia Keys and Justin Timberlake. Once her world tour had ended in the summer of ’07, she released her first concert DVD, simply entitled THE LOOSE TOUR, featuring various performances around the world and the usual backstage and other behind the scenes footage.
By this point, her music had also been featured on several television programs, including “Roswell,” “One Life to Live,” and the Portugese soap, “Floribella.” And in ’07 she also dabbled in acting, portraying an accused murderer on “CSI: NY,” and saw March 21, ’07 proclaimed as “Nelly Furtado Day” in her hometown of Victoria. In 2008, she lent a hand to Italian group Zero Assoluto on the ballad “Appena prima di partire” (Win Or Lose), released throughout Europe.
She took her time delivering a follow-up, but after nearly three years, she released her first Spanish-language album, MI PLAN, in September 2009. The first single “Manos al Aire” topped the Billboard Hot Latin Songs, and went gold in South American markets, making her the first North American singer to top the Billboard Hot Latin Chart with an original Spanish song. “Más” and “Bajo Otra Luz” followed up the charts.
Before the year was over, the songs were repackaged into MI PLAN REMIXES, a month prior to her first compilation, THE BEST OF NELLY FURTADO. The record nicely summed up her first four albums, and included two remixes each of “I’m Like a Bird,” “In God’s Hands,” and “Night Is Young,” the latter of which was released as a single prior to the album, and only available as a bonus for downloading the album off Amazon.
She started 2010 out by performing at the Vancouver Olympics opening ceremony, and continued on the road for the rest of the year, which took her across the globe and her first dates in eastern Europe, including Warsaw and Prague. Later that year, she became the first Canadian ever to win a Latin Grammy, for best female pop vocal, and then in October received a star on the Canadian Walk of Fame in Toronto.
In 2011, Furtado became one of a long list of singers who came under fire for accepting extravagant sums of money to perform for Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s family. She immediately promised to donate the $1 million she’d received for the 2007 concert to charity.