So this is the bit where the pop singer says how great it is to be free of the band that made them famous. They explain how liberating it is to leave pop behind. Songwriting, the pop singer announces, has been like therapy. They have found out who they really are.
Well, Nicola Roberts has not left Girls Aloud. Nor has she turned her back on pop. And, she adds, the process of writing and recording her debut album – ‘Cinderella’s Eyes’ - has led her to find out very little about herself. “It’s not like I haven’t been through all these emotions before,” she says. “I’ve been living with them for years.”
Nicola might know who she is, but the question is whether anybody else does. They might know that she is one fifth of a girlband who seemed to keep pop afloat during this century’s rather lean opening decade, and they might know that she was The Ginger One (or sometimes, because she doesn’t spend her time grinning like a lunatic, The Moody One). But wherever the spotlight fell it also felt like Nicola Roberts personified the spirit of Girls Aloud. It was Nicola whose rare but cherished solo moments would be guaranteed to send fans into meltdown; in band interviews she was the one who sprang to life with unpredictable outbursts and flashes of passion and mischievous wit.
Nicola’s penchant for the unexpected is writ large on a debut solo album 18 months in the making. Thanks to some surprising collaborations with producers like Diplo, Metronomy, Dimitri and Dragonette, it’s as fresh as anything else you’ll hear this year, a riot of colossal pop melodies, underground sounds, singing, rapping, shouting and remarkable honesty. There’s ‘Yo-Yo’, which marries classic pop lyrics (“don’t want to be the last to know, will it be a yes or a no?”) to a post-Dalston Ronettes vibe and a pulsing, demented electro breakdown. Cautiously optimistic ‘Lucky Day’ has its feet firmly on the dancefloor, while ‘Sticks & Stones’ is a series of frank snapshots behind the scenes of life in a pop band. (Spoiler alert: it’s not always laugh-a-minute). Most tellingly, the breezily confrontational ‘Take A Bite’ - “you push me to fight, everybody’s got a limit, so put ’em up” - feels like an object lesson in what it might sound like if, having been yelled at, heckled, told she’s ugly and crap for almost a decade, a 25-year-old was finally allowed to scream back. It sounds, as you might expect, quite spectacular.
When it came to first single ‘Beat Of My Drum’, a coming-of-age song about “feeling confident, making a stand and trying to turn things around” Nicola and Dimitri wrote the song around an instrumental riff they both loved, but called upon the help of a man who inspired the song originally to add something extra to the track. Nicola made the call to producer Diplo who she had long been a fan of. He said he loved the song; I told him what I wanted quirky, mad sounds. I said, ‘do not come back with twenty synth lines all over it, please God don’t make it sound like a generic track. I want hard, cutting, rounded, MIA-style big dollops of sound all over the song’. The song came back and he’d completely nailed it.”
The recording process wasn’t always this easy, and some attempts at co-writing lyrics didn’t work at all. “I had to feel like I would say and mean every single one of these lyrics,” Nicola recalls. “I would say, ‘I’d never say that in a million years, why would I put it down just because it rhymes?’ It’s as simple as this: I’ve been given an opportunity to make the album I want to make, so I’ve absolutely put every last bit of heart and soul into it.”
Nicola was all over the lyrics from Day One - there’s certainly nobody else who could come up with a middle eight quite like “called me a rude ginger bitch, and said I want bigger tits, they’re gonna eat all their words, they’re talking absolute sh...” - but the melodies became another obsession, with sensational results. “Recording with the band I learned about the pursuit of perfection, and the idea that you could stop trying to improve what you were working on,” Nicola says. “There could always be a better melody, or a better lyric.” Again, there were times when sessions didn’t work out. She’d sing a rough melody, expecting it to be the starting point for a song that might take days to perfect. “But they’d be like, ‘great, we’ve got it’. I’d be like, ‘you’re joking’. And they’d go, ‘no it’s done, that’ll do’. That’ll do. THAT’LL DO? As soon as I heard ‘that’ll do’ I knew I needed to move on.”
One breakthrough came with ‘I’, which in common with many of Joe Metronomy’s other finest moments feels a bit like a pop ballad on a ketamine comedown. It’s a downbeat set-piece unlike anything Nicola had got her hands on in the last ten years. “When Joe and I started to write together he sent through some tracks,” Nicola explains, “and there were some upbeat ones, but when we got to the studio I said, ‘I really like the sound of this’. He said, ‘you know some people won’t like it because it’s not very commercial, right?’ And I said, ‘I love it because it sounds like a funeral’.”
Much of the anxiety and listlessness and fear and crying you hear across this album’s more personal tracks dates back to a seven year period following Nicola’s first public appearance. She describes the Nicola we all met then as ‘Little Nicola’. That Nicola was born in an air base - her father was in the RAF - then raised on Runcorn’s Halton Brook estate. Little Nicola would sing for her family all the time (“not in a jazz hands sort of way - my auntie and uncle used to hear me singing my way up their path and say ‘here comes Cilla’”), then one day she ended up singing for seven million people on Saturday night telly. Immediately, people said she looked moody. “I might not have smiled much,” Nicola admits now, “but that’s because I was petrified of being judged from head to toe. I was loving it every minute of performing, but Little Nicola was a lot quieter, and a lot more shy. She’s hurt a lot more easily.” It was 2009 before Nicola found her feet. “I don’t know what happened exactly,” she recalls. “I was single through the summer. I had the best time. Then there was Fashion Week, and I had a load of fun there. Around that time I changed. A lot. I just thought, ‘fuck it’.” She has a fantastic way of describing the feeling she experienced when her life made sense for the first time in eight years; when, almost overnight, she left Little Nicola behind. “I felt,” she says, “like I’d taken off a wet coat.”
It’s that feeling that helped Nicola to find the confidence, and with Girls Aloud on a break, the time, to start dancing to the beat of her own drum with solo work. Being this involved has been a revelation, in more ways than one. “Oh God,” she exclaims. “The STRESS levels of making this record! I’ve never known anything like it! It’s literally been all of me! And I had to make it like that. I had to. To be proud of it. Songs like ‘I’ and ‘Sticks & Stones’ are dream songs I always wanted to write. I passionately wanted to write these songs and I didn’t think I’d ever get to. I hear things in music that I never heard before.”
So Nicola Roberts knows exactly who she is, and very soon so will everyone else. Those who fell in love with the audacious, funny, inventive pop records Nicola made over four albums with Girls Aloud will find plenty to get their teeth into on this new album, and for everyone else there’s a whole new Nicola bursting out of these frank and fearless pop songs.
“If music makes you feel good, regardless of whether it’s Cascada or MIA, you like it, and that’s always right,” she says. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned from all of this it’s that there should never be any rules with music.”
In 2011 Nicola Roberts has something to really smile about. Whether she chooses to is, like everything else, up to her.