MIAMI (Billboard) - Nelly Furtado's first Spanish-language album is a mixture of design and circumstance, as so many grand plans often are.
There she was in the studio with her friend, guitarist James Bryan, attempting to help write the lyrics for a song titled "My Plan." But nothing worked. She tried writing the lyrics in Portuguese, but that didn't work either. And then, Alex Cuba -- a Cuban-Canadian singer-songwriter whose album Furtado had recently heard and liked -- stopped by the studio to say hello. Why not try the song in Spanish, he suggested. Then he had a go at the lyrics.
"And I really liked it," Furtado recalls. "So we started really organically writing songs -- me, him and James."
"My Plan" evolved into "Mi Plan," Furtado's first full-length Spanish-language album, due September 15 as a joint venture between Furtado's own label, Nellstar, and Universal Music Latin America. "Mi Plan" will be released simultaneously in all of Universal's 77 territories around the world and may be the most ambitious Spanish-language release by a mainstream star.
While it's common for Latin crossover artists like Enrique Iglesias and Shakira to release albums in Spanish, these always have included at least one English version of a single for mainstream radio. Even Christina Aguilera's "Mi Reflejo," her 2000 Spanish-language album, consisted mainly of translations of English-language hits -- and she has a Latin surname.
For Portuguese-Canadian Furtado, who has recorded Spanish collaborations, recording solely in that language is a gutsy move. "To me, music is a language in itself," Furtado says. "I know it sounds cliche, but that's what my experience has been around the world. I think some people, no matter what, are not going to like it because it's not the language they speak. But some of the people who listen to music in a different kind of way, they'll like it."
Given Furtado's global success, however, a Spanish-language album may be a good bet. "Mi Plan" comes in the wake of Furtado's 2006 album, "Loose," which sold more than 2 million copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and more than 10 million copies worldwide, according to Universal. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry ranked it at No. 13 on its list of top-selling albums for 2006 and 2007. Its hit single, "Promiscuous," was the fourth-best-selling online track in the world in 2006, according to IFPI numbers, ahead of hits like Shakira's "Hips Don't Lie" (which "Promiscuous" also bested in the United States, according to SoundScan) and the Fray's "How to Save a Life."
Such a sales performance is pretty hard to follow. Doing so in a non-native language has rarely been attempted. But while Furtado is treading unknown waters with a full Spanish-language release, she already has tested the Latin market with a handful of collaborations. Most notable among them is "Tu Fotografia," which she recorded with Juanes for his 2002 album "Un Dia Normal." The song peaked at No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Latin Songs chart in 2003 and also topped charts in several Latin American countries.
Beyond Latin America, her star appeal is so big that the first single from the new album, "Manos Al Aire," is already climbing the European radio charts.
"It's a very interesting project because it follows the philosophy we've been espousing for a while now: That increasingly, language is less of a barrier (in marketing music)," says Jesus Lopez, chairman of Universal Music Latin America/Iberian Peninsula, whose roster includes Iglesias and Juanes. "Fans follow their idols, independently of the language the artist performs in."
Lopez cites French artist Florent Pagny as an example. The singer-songwriter this year released an all-Spanish language album, "C'est Comme Ca," which reached No. 1 on France's sales chart and is still in the top 10. Pagny had never recorded an entire album in Spanish, but he's linked to the culture through his marriage to an Argentine woman. And Pagny doesn't have Furtado's global name, which has allowed for a worldwide release with high sales expectations.
The biggest challenge might be inside the United States, perhaps the one market where crossover artists are promoted in two separate ways, given mainstream radio's reluctance to play Spanish-language music. Universal aims for media exposure in both languages. The videos will include English subtitles in what Furtado calls her own interpretations of the lyrics rather than direct translations.
The biggest challenge in promoting a singer-songwriter who isn't, strictly speaking, Latin is, according to Universal Music Latino president Walter Kolm, communicating the album's authenticity. "We have to be very clear in conveying to the audience and the media that this album isn't a bunch of songs translated to Spanish, but that it was thought, created and executed entirely in Spanish," he says.
Furtado -- whose Spanish fluency is about 50 percent to 60 percent and who is married to Cuban-American producer Demacio "Demo" Castellon -- didn't choose capriciously to record in that language. Given her Portuguese fluency, Spanish was a natural extension, and she listened to Latin music in her teens.
After recording "Fotografia" with Juanes, she reciprocated, inviting him to collaborate on the "Loose" album track "Te Busque," which was recorded in Spanish and bilingual versions. She also recorded "Slippery Sidewalks" with experimental tango ensemble Bajofondo Tango Club. The song was included on the group's 2008 album "Mar Azul" and later remixed in Spanish as "Baldosas Mojadas."
Furtado also collaborated with Calle 13 for a remix of "No Hay Igual" that was included in the international version of "Loose" and a remix of reggaeton duo Wisin & Yandel's "Sexy Movimiento." While neither of these tracks gained traction at U.S. Latin radio, they did broaden Furtado's Latin audience in other countries.
Given the success of "Te Busque" in many Latin markets, her label, Interscope, began asking for other translated songs. Furtado turned in "En Manos De Dios" (a translation of "In God's Hands") and "Todo Lo Bueno Tiene Un Final" (a translation of "All Good Things Come to an End"). Both tracks were sent to radio, and Interscope pushed Furtado for a Spanish album to capitalize on the success.
"I started to try, but I didn't want to do it," Furtado says. "I'm not the biggest fan of translations in general. So basically, I put it on hold."
But along the way, Furtado also met Andres Recio, who formerly worked with Juanes' management company. Recio, who now works with Furtado and is executive producer of "Mi Plan," introduced her to one of his clients, producer Julio Reyes. Reyes, in turn, had worked with Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez.
With Reyes, Furtado wrote "Toma De Mi," her first full-fledged Spanish-language song. Reyes sent it to Lopez, who recorded it for the soundtrack to the 2007 film "El Cantante" and used the song for the film's end credits. That changed Furtado's perspective.
"When I wrote the song with Julio, I had no idea anyone was going to like it," Furtado says. "And then Jennifer liked it, and that gave me a little confidence and I said, 'Good, I can express myself.'"
On October 21, 2008, Furtado entered the studio with Cuba and Bryan and began writing for her new album. She eventually wrote 24 Spanish-language tracks with different co-writers and whittled the list to 12, among them collaborations with Josh Groban, Julieta Venegas, Alejandro Fernandez, Juan Luis Guerra and Spain's Concha Buika and La Mala Rodriguez.
The resulting album is full of whimsy, moving from dance to pop to folk, and harks back to Furtado's 2000 debut album, "Whoa, Nelly!," in its many textures and colors. "Manos Al Aire" is an uptempo dance track, but overall the album has an organic, more acoustic feel.
Instead of releasing "Mi Plan" with Interscope, Furtado recorded the album under her own label, Nellstar, and struck a one-off joint venture deal with Universal Music Latin America. Furtado delivers all the creative aspects -- including the album, videos and artwork -- to Universal, which markets, promotes and distributes the album. (Furtado is still signed solely to Interscope for her English releases.)
Furtado hasn't discarded the possibility of recording an English-language version of one of her new Spanish-language songs. "If any of the songs is a big crossover hit, then maybe I'll attempt it," she says. "But I wouldn't do it unless I go to the studio and it works. That's why I did the Spanish album, so it could be its own, breathing thing."
Editing by Sheri Linden at Reuters