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Nelly Furtado's new CD is pure diversity

NEW YORK -- As a 4-year-old, Nelly Furtado hid behind the living room couch, listening to her mother practice Portuguese hymns with friends in the church choir. She also would raid her father's record collection to hear Blondie, Led Zeppelin, ABBA and Billy Joel albums. She'd sing Joel's songs over and over.

Furtado learned the spirit of musical eclecticism at an early age. And now with the release of her second album -- two decades later -- she's made it her signature.

The disc's lead track, "One-Trick Pony," is all about not being pinned down to a style. In a single song, she manages to include a hip-hop beat, a banjo, the classical Kronos Quartet and a Hawaiian guitar.

"I do feel like I'm a standout, that I'm separate from the pack, that I've carved out my own niche in the pop world by giving my music an international edge and putting a new spin on how I do things," she said. "Diversity is my strength."

Furtado, who turns 25 Tuesday, grew up in British Columbia, the daughter of immigrant parents from Portugal's Azores. She won a Grammy in 2002 for her song, "I'm Like a Bird," off her debut album, "Whoa, Nelly," which has sold 2.4 million copies.

After some predictable second-album jitters where she briefly considered quitting and going back to school to study creative writing, she completed the disc, "Folklore," and took time off to have her first baby, Nevis.

With her album out Thanksgiving week, Furtado worked through the holiday on interviews and appearances, delaying one talk so she could feed Nevis in a hotel room.

It's not exactly the glamorous life she pictured as a teenager when, having cleaned rooms in the Robin Hood Motel in Victoria, she'd take a soda out to the roof and daydream about a musical career.

But it beats being a maid.

When Furtado performed after her first album, the place she felt most at home was with Moby's Area One concert tour, where she shared a bill with Moby, Incubus, OutKast and the Roots.

"Nothing made sense," she said. "Just a lot of people on one stage. And that's what music should be. It should be a celebration of differences."

In school, she played in the jazz band, the marching band and the concert band. She played the ukulele and the trombone, and that doesn't even account for the music she played with friends.

"I've never really stuck to one genre," she said. "Maybe when I was a young teenager. I was really into hip-hop and R&B, but aside from that phase I think I've been pretty open-minded my whole life when it comes to music. It's hard not to be when you grow up speaking in two languages and singing in two languages."

Furtado and her producers, the Canadian duo of Gerald Eaton and Brian West, treated the recording studio as their personal playground.

The striking song, "Childhood Dreams," is a stately ballad built around a pipe organ found in a church. Concerned the song was getting too classical-sounding, Furtado threw in an Indian instrument, the tabla.

The album also features an appearance by one of Furtado's musical heroes, Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso, who she admires for -- you guessed it -- his eclecticism.

Furtado sent the song, "Island of Wonder," to him and was delighted when Veloso wrote back how much he liked it and wanted to sing. Veloso didn't realize that the music was built off a sample from one of his own albums.

"People always ask me, `Why do you throw all these things in the mix?'" she said. "And I don't know any other way. I can't separate myself from my culture."

Furtado has attracted some attention for the lyrics to her new single, "Powerless (Say What You Want)," which hint at prejudice in how she's portrayed.

She sings: "Paint my face in your magazines, make it look whiter than it seems. Paint me over with your dreams, shove away my ethnicity."

Asked about it, Furtado said she's not referring to a specific incident. The lyrics refer not to how she's portrayed in the media, but instead recall some of her difficulties as a child of Portuguese parents mixing cultures.

"Growing up, I was the only kid in my elementary school who didn't have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in my lunchbox," she said. "That has an effect on you."

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