TORONTO - After rattling the charts with her sexed-up clubquake "Loose," Nelly Furtado faced a difficult riddle: how to follow the biggest success of her career, a disc that sounded like nothing else in her catalogue?
She took her time pondering that question. First, she took a couple years off, enjoying a slice of homebody life for the first time in her career. But still, the answer didn't come — after three years, she pressed ahead and issued the Spanish-language disc "Mi Plan," in part to tide over fans.
Eventually, still uptight over "Loose," she mused on quitting English-language music altogether — although how much that was a real concern or a self-motivational strategy is hard to discern.
"I go through this love-hate thing with my career," the chipper 33-year-old said in a recent interview while lounging on a couch in a Toronto hotel room.
"I really think it's psychological, where I tell myself I'm going to quit so I can get back into the studio and create something that's too good for me not to quit.
"I have to create that tension. I have to create that do-or-die, gotta live for it. I guess it's my way of making sure the quality's there....
"It's a bizarre, weird artistic game I play."
Well, it appears as though she won, because on Tuesday, Furtado will release "The Spirit Indestructible," her first English-language album in more than six years.
It's a testament to the taut power of "Loose" that it was so hard to craft a follow-up. That album featured four top 5 hits in Canada, went multi-platinum in 32 countries and moved 10 million copies worldwide.
And it's not a coincidence that she approached "Spirit" differently.
Where gifted hip-hop producer Timbaland gilded nine of "Loose"'s tracks with his distinct sound, he's nowhere to be found on Furtado's new disc, which features production from Grammy winner Rodney (Darkchild) Jerkins and Amy Winehouse collaborator Salaam Remi. And while "Loose" cast Furtado as a glam, hip-swivelling vixen, "Spirit" finds the Victoria native exploring disparate sides of her personality.
"'Loose,' without meaning to, became more of a concept album — and I guess my concept was pop — let's make this very broad, thematic album, where it's very light in a way but sonically together," Furtado said.
"'Mi Plan' as well, is very one sound — it's very much a latin pop record — so it's quite sonically consistent in one way.
"But this album isn't. It's back to the fun, and the risk, and the real irreverence. What I like most about it is I feel some of that punk attitude on this album that I had on my first album."
Yet even if Furtado's concept was not having a concept at all, common themes soon began emerging in the new tunes she was writing. Primarily, "The Spirit Indestructible" finds Furtado revelling in nostalgia.
Propulsive first single "Big Hoops (Bigger the Better)" is a callback to "that 14-year-old girl with that fire inside ... who knew the microphone was really where she should be," with lyrics that directly reference early '90s hip-hop hitmakers Salt-N-Pepa. The booming "Parking Lot" was inspired by Furtado's recollections of late-night teenage gatherings outside her local 7-Eleven, while piano-powered knocker "High Life" goes "back to the girl in the bedroom dreaming about being a famous singer."
"There's a big difference between her dreaming about it and what happens when you achieve those things," said Furtado.
A moment later, she realizes the implications of such a statement — that she sounds like a celebrity complaining about being famous.
"I never want to be that artist to write songs about like, being in a hotel room, or on a jet plane, on a private jet — 'Ahh, it's so hard,'" she says, laughing.
"'High Life' is the closest I've come to writing that song, but I think I've at least tied it together with something that people can at least sing along to."
Indeed, Furtado has tried hard to maintain her approachable normalcy even as her profile has ballooned.
Following the success of "Loose," she retreated into routine — swapping stilettos for rubber boots and velour track pants while she drove her daughter to school each day and thought about music only in her spare time.
"I really viciously guard that — it's my only way to stay grounded really, is to live a normal life," Furtado said. "I'm proud of that. I definitely wear it on my sleeve. I like that I do all the same things and have pretty much all the same friends that I used to have."
She notes that it hasn't always been that way, that in the beginning of her career especially — don't forget, Furtado dropped her multiplatinum debut "Whoa, Nelly!" at the tender age of 21 — she struggled to carve out time for herself.
"It's like, whoa, you don't have any time to slow down and look at your life. But in the last four or five years, I've had the chance to do that. I've been lucky enough to get off the horse and really gain a lot of perspective."
She also sought rejuvenation away from home.
Seeking inspiration, she switched off her phone, loaded up an RV and embarked on a month-long journey through the U.S. south, exploring the Smoky Mountains and swimming in waterfalls.
"I think that solitude is an important piece I forget sometimes," she said. "I mean, I grew up in Victoria. It's a beautiful place, and I wrote a lot of my first songs there. It's nothing but solitude, really."
Maybe on her travels, she could stop hearing the echo of "Loose."
But while she admits that album left a daunting shadow, she says "Spirit" doesn't necessarily need to sell in similarly huge numbers to soar.
"The lucky part is I've had all kinds of success, quote-unquote, in terms of sometimes critical, sometimes personal, sometimes commercial," she said.
"I'd be lying if I said there wasn't any pressure. There always is some.... But for me, it's about sharing the songs. I just want people to have the songs be part of their lives.... I hope people take that strength and can enhance their day with it, somehow. That's my measure of success."