One of three children to Portuguese parents, she was born in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. She learned to play trombone and ukulele at the age of nine, keyboard at 11, and began composing her own songs at 13. She then formed a trip-hop group called Nelstar, which allowed her to play eight dates on "the village stage" at Lilith Fair.
On performing one night at Lee's Palace, Furtado hooked up with Philosopher Kings lead singer, Gerald Eaton. Gerald would then co-produce he debut album, Whoa, Nelly, when she signed with DreamWorks.
Her style, described by Toronto Sun writer Jane Stevenson as a cross between Macy Gray meets Ivana Santilli, incorporates pop, trip-hop, bossa nova, soul, R&B, hip-hop and folk, was a result of her urge to move beyond the kinds of music that had always emotionally moved her. She has mentioned Cornershop, Beck and Finley Quaye all as factors in her sound.
Before her record deal, her music was slighty gloomy, along the lines of Portishead and Radiohead. After awhile, she tired of all her songs being depressing. She has been quoted that: "...then I realized good music does not have to be sad, it can be poppy and wonderful and fun, and that's the kind of record I want to make."
Timeline of Noteworthy Events in Nelly Furtado's career