TORONTO — Nelly Furtado has endured the wrath of social media before, but she couldn’t bear to read people’s opinions on her new album’s cover art.
So instead of playing into the hands of Internet trolls, she disabled comments on her Instagram post and released it into the world, hoping for the best.
“I knew some people would hate it,” the Toronto-based singer, 38, says of the abstract photograph adorning the cover of “The Ride,” which arrives on Friday.
Furtado is in the centre of the image, holding a bouquet of flowers. Two hands are seen holding a slab of wood behind her and off to the side, a protrusion closes in on her unsuspecting face.
“To me it’s a little bit vulnerable,” she says. “I like that it conveys a feeling of humility.”
She calls it a snapshot of a fragile moment in her life — but it’s also the kind of weird conceptual artwork that is practically asking to be mocked online.
“I don’t like reading mean things,” Furtado says. “I mean, I will if I have to, but I don’t like it. I’m sensitive.”
Furtado has learned a few lessons about hostility in the digital age.
Her unconventional performance of O Canada at last year’s NBA all-star game inspired a firestorm of nasty tweets, while ESPN sportscaster Michael Wilbon questioned whether she was having a breakdown. One Twitter user even told the Canadian-born singer with Portuguese heritage to ”go back to Portugal.”
Furtado is still bruised by the pile on.
“I think women get extremely hammered,” she says.
“The problem with social media is it’s all sound bites, so you don’t get a lot of context.”
Furtado was already in the midst of a personal unheaval before the national anthem debacle added another layer of stress.
She was without the backing of a major label in the aftermath of the flop that was 2012’s “The Spirit Indestructible,” her hyped return to English pop music after a six-year absence.
The album landed with a thud on the Billboard charts, debuting at No. 18 in Canada and a dismal No. 79 in the U.S. where it sold only 6,000 copies in its first week.
Those figures were miles away from the 219,000 copies that 2006 album “Loose” sold in its debut week, propelled by hitmaker Timbaland’s irresistible hooks on tracks like “Promiscuous” and “Say It Right.”
“For me it was like a divorce,” Furtado says of the changes that followed the album’s disappointing sales, including a split with her longtime manager. “It was like, ‘Oh, I’m by myself.’”
She started to dabble in the arts and rediscovered where she wanted to take her career.
“I made a conscious effort to slow things down and take apart the machine, look at all the gears, look at the little bits and understand how it worked,” she says.
She was inspired by meeting indie performer Annie Clark, better known as St. Vincent, at a 2012 music festival. They exchanged numbers and Furtado pressed Clark for advice, which included getting connected with her longtime collaborator John Congleton.
After convincing the Grammy-winning producer to work on her album, Furtado booked a trip to Dallas with the goal of starting to formulate “The Ride.” But she was still creatively lost, Furtado admits, and the closer she got to Congleton’s studio the more trepidation she felt about his hefty resume of work with rock acts like Modest Mouse and Spoon.
“I felt like he wasn’t going to be impressed with Top 40 hits,” she says.
Congleton pushed her to make an “artistic album,” and introduced her to the local Texas arts scene. She perused galleries in her downtime and befriended visual artists like Samantha McCurdy, who would later craft that divisive album cover.
Songs on “The Ride” also venture into new territory where Furtado’s confidence sometimes takes a backseat.
Most stinging is “Phoenix,” the album’s devastating final song, which ranks among the most personal tracks of Furtado’s career. While the lyrics are vague, it’s hard not to read it as a confessional of being dragged through the mud of the music industry before starting anew.
Her rebirth isn’t made for radio, and with the exception of the infectious “Flatline,” there isn’t even a hint of chasing a hit.
Instead, Furtado saddles up with lopsided beats (“Cold Hard Truth”) and even drifts into gospel chants fuelled by an electric organ (“Pipe Dreams”).
“This is definitely the album with the least amount of separation between what I’m actually like,” she says.
“Not that I was putting on airs before, but I was allowing myself to fall into stylizations of the music.”
Furtado isn’t certain what’s next for her career after “The Ride,” but there are a few visions taking shape.
She enrolled in a playwriting course at the University of Toronto and is penning a script about Brazilian composer Caetano Veloso. She’s also asked herself whether she still wants to stand behind a microphone as a singer — a question she seems to revisit after every album before using it as motivation to record another.
“I’ve realized that quiet reflection is where I gain my largest amounts of inspiration,” she says.
“There’s more ideas I want to distill and things I want to understand about myself. I think that can only happen through creating.”