Like a Bird

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ETHAN MILLER / REUTERS

Canadian singer/songwriter Nelly Furtado performs at The Joint inside the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas

It's easy to compare Nelly Furtado to a bird — after all, she does have a hit song titled, "I'm Like a Bird." And there is something buoyant and birdlike about the Canadian singer-songwriter's debut CD, Whoa Nelly! — even the title is lighter than air. But Furtado, 22, is the opposite of most birds in one respect: she doesn't do the flocking thing. Her music is singular in its multifariousness, blending pop, hip-hop, bossa nova and even Portuguese fado.

Furtado feels that her diverse background shaped her musical development. Her father and mother (a stonemason and a chambermaid) moved from the Azores, a Portuguese island group in the mid-Atlantic, in the 1960s and settled in Victoria, B.C., where Furtado was born. Young Nelly did not meet many others of Portuguese descent while growing up. Even her lunch stood out: her mother would pack her bean sandwiches — popular in Portugal but unusual in Canada. "Kids would look at it and know it was different. Even having skin a bit darker than everyone else is noticeable," says Furtado, whose complexion is the color of lightly toasted bread. "You feel all these things intensely when you're little."

When she grew up, she focused on making music that celebrated its distinctiveness.

Canada, in recent years, has produced several high-profile, you-need-only-one-name-to-identify-them female singer-songwriters, including Shania, Alanis... and now, Nelly. "I feel like there's a sense of openness and open space in Canada that lends itself to reflection, and that lends to great songwriting," Furtado says. "Besides the fact that we're really close to America, so we kind of get a groove of what's going on, but we're far enough away that we can put our spin on it." This summer, Furtado released a hit single duetting with rap star Missy Elliot and performed a live duet with the rap band the Roots on the hip Area: One tour. A Canadian cool enough to hang with the best American hip-hop stars? U.S. politicians may have to rewrite NAFTA.