Syrian concert lures Nelly Furtado back to Victoria

Although she has called Toronto home for the past 20 years, Victoria-raised Nelly Furtado spends plenty of time in her hometown visiting family.

“I come back all the time,” the Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter said from New York City, where she was doing business relating to her forthcoming album.

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“You people in Victoria do not know how spoiled you are with that beautiful place.”

Furtado, 37, will return to Victoria on July 25 to perform at the Royal Theatre.

The former Mount Doug High School student, who released her first official song in four years Wednesday, is involved with Phoenix, a Syrian-refugee fundraising concert for the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society that features Alex Cuba and Neil Osborne of 54-40.

Furtado named the event after a song of the same name on her forthcoming sixth album, which is due in November.

The concert comes on the heels of a rush of activity from Furtado, who stayed quiet on the music front for the better part of four years.

She is happy to return to the stage in her hometown, and is eager to see what comes from her collaborations with members of the Victoria Symphony, who are learning some of Furtado’s hits (I’m Like a Bird and Try, among others) for the concert.

“I feel if you constantly do you, and stay true to what your evolution is as a person, you can still switch hats whenever you feel like it,” she said.

“Just as long as it is the latest incarnation of you putting that hat on.”

Furtado was brought to the table for Phoenix by refugee society executive director David Lau, who wanted to stage a fundraising show to officially welcome the Syrian families that have immigrated to Victoria during the past year. Furtado said she did not hesitate for long before accepting the offer.

“It’s a welcoming, it’s a community event, it’s an engagement event, it’s an awareness event and it’s a fundraiser,” she said.

Furtado, whose parents emigrated from Portugal to Victoria in the 1960s, feels personally invested in the work the society does for immigrants and refugees in Victoria.

“Over the years, a lot of my friends and their families have worked at the centre and have helped many families. Perhaps they even helped, in some incarnation, my family when they immigrated many, many years ago. That’s the Canadian story, right? What better way to welcome them and celebrate this new part of our Victoria history.”

Furtado sees the night as a collaboration, rather than a headlining performance. She has worked on rare occasions with symphony orchestras, but in a limited capacity. She has little experience with this type of setup.

Scores are being created for the show by two composers (one from California and one from Lithuania) who have donated their time to the event. Rehearsals will be needed, she said with a laugh.

“I’m a little nervous, because it is my first show with a symphony. But why not make it really special and unique?”

Furtado is back to making music of her own, following a break that began as a short-term idea and stretched into several years.

During her time off, the singer also went into crafting mode, taking sewing classes and ceramics classes — even playwriting classes.

She also worked with the Free the Children charity, and travelled to Kenya on a goodwill mission with her 12-year-old daughter, Nevis.

“I realized for a couple of years I had put on too much of a business hat. I found that it was becoming way too much business, and not enough art and creativity. I surrendered to the fact that I’m a creative individual and need to be an artist.”

Two years ago, she started recording in the Dallas studio of John Congleton, known for his Grammy Award-winning output with singer-songwriter St. Vincent.

It was a loose association at first — “It’s one of those things you can’t really plan out, it just kind of happens,” Furtado said — but the pair eventually clicked. “Anybody I find today that still does things for the right reasons, is fabulous for me.”

One song from the sessions, Behind Your Back, was released Wednesday, two days after she appeared on TV for Hip-Hop Honors, a VH1 broadcast from New York that saw Furtado pay tribute to rapper Missy Elliott, a friend.

“I love it,” she said of the hip-hop and rap that shaped her musical personality early on. “It’s still my roots. At the Hip-Hop Honors, I felt at home. These are my people, the things I grew up on. I feel lucky I’ve been able to walk in different lakes.”

In the years since her last album, 2012’s The Spirit Indestructible, she has been writing songs on guitar, the same way she penned the material for her star-making debut, 2000’s Whoa, Nelly! Furtado believes The Spirit Indestructible was her final pop album.

Her new guise will be revealed this year.

“It’s like when you squeeze a lemon, and you really want to get out that last bit of juice. I have shed another layer of skin.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

What: Phoenix: A musical fundraiser for Syrian refugees featuring Nelly Furtado with Alex Cuba and Neil Osborne

Where: Royal Theatre

When: Monday, July 25, 7:30 p.m.

Tickets: $65-$200 online at rmts.bc.ca, by phone at 250-386-6121, or in person at the Royal McPherson box office

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