Photo credit: Ben Guzman

Pop Music

How Nelly Furtado Found Her ‘Dallas Sound’

The bestselling pop singer, who recorded her new album in Oak Cliff, talks about her 'love affair' with the city.

On the day she finished work on her latest album, Nelly Furtado listened to a song called, appropriately enough, “Carnival Games,” and went to the State Fair of Texas. Furtado, who appreciates the extravagant all-caps neon “FUN” of carnivals and midways, saw that the sensory overload of Dallas’ most over-the-top seasonal feature—a head-spinning array of rotating wheels and blinking lights that leave little opportunity for self-reflection—dovetailed with the song’s contemplative lyrics about becoming too absorbed by life’s trivial interests.

It wasn’t the first time Furtado found serendipity knocking at her door in Dallas, the unlikely incubator for what’s being called both a comeback and a reinvention for the bestselling pop singer, who largely kept under the radar for much of the five years following the release of The Spirit Indestructible in 2012. The Ride, out March 31, was recorded with John Congleton at the producer’s Elmwood Recording studio in Oak Cliff, and heralds a new indie-friendly sound for an artist whose biggest hit is the 2006 dance floor smash “Promiscuous.” Furtado’s always had eclectic tastes and a knack for redefining her presentation to the world, but The Ride is surely her first album to have what she calls a “Dallas sound.”

Perhaps her “love affair” with the city, a multicultural place with an eager and supportive DIY arts scene, isn’t so strange. In fact, it may have felt like a second home for Furtado, who cut her teeth in Toronto, Canada.

“Toronto, its essence is a sense of community,” she says, speaking on the phone from New York this week. “In Dallas, I felt that from people, and I felt the genuine artistic nature in all the people I met. And I like that I felt welcomed into that.”

Furtado was introduced to Congleton by Annie Clark of St. Vincent, who described her longtime collaborator as a fellow “Texas weirdo.” Soon Furtado, a fan of Congleton’s work on St. Vincent’s Grammy-winning self-titled album and looking to try something new, was on her way to Dallas. In the fall of 2014, she booked a room at the Belmont and prepared to get to work.

Walking into Elmwood Recording, a converted funeral home with a very particular energy, Furtado felt nervous. Congleton, known more for his work with alternative Texas weirdos like St. Vincent and avant-garde rockers like Swans than for collaborations with multi-platinum pop stars (Furtado calls her past music “democratic”), may not have seemed like a perfect match at first. Indeed, the producer discounted nearly everything Furtado had already written for the album except for the hook to the song that became “Flatline.” They rewrote the song together, and recorded it the next day with the North Texas musicians who play on most of the album: Midlake drummer McKenzie Smith, Bobby Sparks, and Adam Pickrell, now Furtado’s music director.

Despite any initial misgivings, Congleton and Furtado quickly arrived at a working groove that continued over the long off-and-on recording process for the next two years, she says. Furtado, used to big-budget productions, was inspired to work in a less busy setting, with a man who keeps his Grammy in the bathroom.

“Because John doesn’t care about Top 40 hits or commercial success or anything like that, all of a sudden, all you have is the song, and all that stuff doesn’t matter anymore,” she says. “It was almost like a confessional booth.”

It was an unencumbered process that’s reflected in the album’s honest, direct approach, lyrically and musically.

“We didn’t really overthink it. We just made something that felt true,” Furtado says. “My time in Dallas made me remember that art at its essence is just about curiosity, a simple idea, a mood.”

Furtado fell in with Dallas artist Samantha McCurdy, who helped with photoshoots and worked on album art for The Ride. She was introduced to Jake Elliott, director of the music video for the song “Pipe Dreams.” Filmed at a house in Lake Highlands, the video, edited by another Dallas artist, Pierre Krause, is a lo-fi affair that seems to embody Furtado’s new, simpler aesthetic.

“My time in Dallas made me remember that art at its essence is just about curiosity…”

Aside from the city’s welcoming art community, other things kept Furtado coming back to Dallas. Beers at Double Wide. Meals at Spiral Diner. Clothes from Refinery Consignment and Human Dior. TenOverSix at the Joule, her “favorite store in the world.”

Furtado is planning to play festival dates this spring and summer with the same Dallas musicians who worked on The Ride. A tour may be in the works, and Furtado already has an idea for any Dallas performance.

“My real dream is to play the entire album back to back at the Double Wide and live stream it on Facebook.”