Hello Nicola. Where are you?
I’m in the office. It’s like a madhouse here.
Are you in your own office?
No. (Not beating around the bush) So which of my songs did you hear?
‘Yo-Yo’, ‘Beat Of My Drum’, ‘I’, ‘Lucky Day’, ‘Sticks & Stones’, ‘Take A Bite’…
And what do you think?
Well it’s a relief that it’s not awful because that would make this conversation quite awkward.
It’s interesting sounding.
Which ones do you like more than others?
I’m not sure yet. Songs like ‘I’ and ‘Take A Bite’ are obviously not singles, but seem like they’ll be really important to the album… ‘Beat Of My Drum’ and ‘Yo-Yo’ seem like singles. In terms of defining the album and making sense of you to people who haven’t got you before, ‘Take A Bite’ is probably the pick of that lot. In that it probably explains things you haven’t been able to say before.
It was definitely important for me to have those songs on the album. On other people’s records when there were songs like that I always thought, ‘I’d love to write a song like that’. That’s very true of ‘I’. ‘Sticks & Stones’ is… This situation is very personal to me, really. Joseph, from Metronomy, who I wrote it with, says the same — he’s really proud of the song.
After this many years of making a certain sort of pop music in a certain sort of way, it must have been interesting to approach songs in an ‘anti-hit’ sort of way. In that a lot of the time pop groups’ album tracks are songs that simply weren’t good enough to be singles, whereas it sounds like you’ve deliberately approached some of these songs as if they’re not ever meant to be singles.
Yes. And it’s a shame that a lot of people are making music because of how commercial it’s going to be for them. There are a lot of people like that but there are a lot of people who aren’t. I think if it was all the former then there would be no good music in the world.
Well the aim surely is to be pop and art at the same time?
And it’s not easy, which is why people don’t try it all the time and achieve it even more rarely, but that has to be the aim, surely? Obviously with the high standards of the Girls Aloud back catalogue you’ve been involved with more than your fair share of that over the last nine years, but it sounds like you’re trying to do it in a different way for your own album.
Coming from working with Brian [Higgins], who works in a very specific and different way to a lot of people, and then going in to work with people who work in a very normal way, I was so thankful that I’d had the chance to work at Brian’s. It just taught me to look at music in a whole new perspective. The idea was that you could always put in a little bit more work. I mean school is too hard a word, but it did feel like I was at a music school. I learned so much. I’ve done some songs with Invisible Men and Jon Shave, who’s now part of Invisible Men, used to be part of Xenomania and wrote ‘The Show’ and other songs. And he said to me that out of all the different girls and people who went in and worked with Invisible Men, he can tell I’ve been at Brian’s. And once he said it I realised how easy it was to tell that he'd been at Brian’s too. It’s a very specific discipline…
Is that a bit like the bond that disaster survivors have with each other?
Well (laughs) there’s a definite bond there, yes…
Was the experience of recording Girls Aloud’s music really so different?
Well… I mean sometimes Brian would let me write a little bit and a couple of songs I wrote over the years did make it onto the records but that was literally the topline — sing it down and away it goes. It was never the amount of involvement that I’ve been able to have with this. If I could get away with mixing this record myself I would do because I’ve caused DRAMAS with the mixing. With every last detail. Brian very much has control over the whole record when you’re down at Xenomania and to be able to have as much control as I’ve had with this, well, I couldn’t have done it at Xenomania.
It seems that certain artists went down to Xenomania and surrendered certain aspects of what they considered made them ‘artists’, but the rewards for that was that they got an unusual and amazing record at the end of it. But what came with that tradeoff was that they didn’t feel the same emotional connection to their own music.
No there’s not really too much emotional connection but I think that’s a given when you’ve got five girls involved. Essentially there had to be a head guy and Brian was our head guy. We wrote little bits with Brian — and with Miranda [Cooper] closely — and they always took bits from us, and he fed off us which is how we got our sound, which we were more than happy with. What Xenomania could do working together was incredible and we never would have got that with anybody else.
This feeling that you have now — is it a feeling that you always knew artists had but felt wasn’t an option for you, or is it a feeling you’re surprised exists?
To be honest. I was more than happy, really happy, being in the band and making records with the band, and I can’t wait to get back with the band and make another record. I really do really look forward to that. But it’s still so bizarre that I have my own record. I feel like I’ve been in a bubble, recording the whole thing, and only now is it, like, ‘God, people have got to actually hear this’. Now it’s going out there for other people to hear.
That’s kind of the deal isn’t it, with the whole ‘being a popstar’ thing.
And I’ve got to front it!
That must shit you up. Not even because it’s just you rather than five people, but because if you’re singing someone else’s songs and people don’t like them and say they’re awful — or even if you don’t like them — then you can go, ‘it’s not me, it’s not my fault’. Whereas if someone listens to ‘Take A Bite’ and says, ‘that’s crap’, it’s just you.
Everything from the way I’m singing to what I’m singing about to the reason Dimitri has put that beat where it is, to the reason the snap is harder on the beat in the mix… The harsh, raw reality of comping your own vocals — let me tell you that keeps your feet firmly on the ground, it’s quite horrific. And listening to things that don’t sound right, and things that don’t work, and things that do work. Then sitting with Dimitri and saying, ‘this bit louder’, and to have the opportunity not just vocally but musically too, it’s just been the most incredible journey. So yeah, every last little drop of this record is my fault. (Laughs)
But similarly if someone says ‘this is a great pop record with good tunes and I’ve just found out some interesting stuff about someone who’s been in front of me for ten years but I haven’t really listened to properly before’, then you can say, ‘thank you very much’.
It’s hard isn’t it. It’s a little bit like, even down to clothes, someone can’t put me in something if I don’t feel like myself in it. It’s the same with songs. There’s not a song on the album that I think, ‘that’s not really me’.
Describe the street you grew up on.
I grew up on an estate called Halton Brook.
Which is mentioned in one of your songs…
Yes it’s in ‘Bite Me’. I lived at The Tithings. It was this little… Well, first of all I was born in Stamford. My dad was in the RAF so I was born in the RAF camp. And I lived there for a little while. Then we moved back up to Liverpool, we lived in Runcorn. When I think about it I smile a little bit.
Well, it was a properly tough area, but I was happy there. We moved off the estate when I was about ten to a different part of the town which wasn’t an estate. It was a road! It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t anywhere near what Halton Brook was like. I remember hating it. On the estate I used to hang around with the lads, go on bike rides, make dens… All my little lad mates and me, we’d hang around the shops… But then we moved to this road and we were there for six years, and then I was in the band.
And that was when you were seventeen…
Well the auditions in the summer were when I was sixteen. And I moved to London when I was seventeen.
What is it that makes someone go and audition for that sort of thing? What separates someone who would hate being on stage from someone who would love it?
I just wanted to sing. I’d been singing since I was eleven. I loved the reaction I got when I sang.
What was the reaction?
It was always a good one.
Well yes, but…
I used to win all the little singing competitions. I just loved singing in general. When I was young and we used to go round to see my auntie and uncle, before I even got to the door they could hear me singing and I’d hear them shout, ‘here’s Cilla’. It’s all about the feeling. A feeling you get, I can’t explain it really.
Can you try to explain it?
Okay. When I was little, if i was feeling sad or something, I would go into the garden, and I would sing words out. I’d make a song up in my head and I’d sing the words out. And then I’d cry. It’s weird. Don’t ask me why because I don’t know why. But the passion that I had for singing used to make me cry. I’d do it when I was on my own. And for a long time I joined the two up, so when people would ask me, when I was ten or eleven, to sing for them, I’d sing the song then start crying.
You’d burst into tears?
I’d just be singing and tears could come out.
It’s not like I was singing anything particularly sad, it’s just that the emotion was so strong that it made me cry every time I sang. I had to really get out of that, and push that to one side, because you can’t have that every time you open your mouth! And I’d concentrate so much on what people thought of me that I didn’t even have the thought to smile. I just wanted to sing. It’s as simple as that. I wanted to sing.
Nothing destroys the love of singing quite like having to do it for a living, and the baggage that comes with it. Is the emotion you feel as special for you now as it was when you were ten?
It went away for a while. I had it when we did Popstars: The Rivals. I used to <love> the live shows. Then we got in the band and singing kind of dwindled a little bit. But now I feel like I’ve found that feeling that I had back then. I’ve found the feeling again, but I’ve found it and more. I feel like I discovered the singing again.
Wasn’t it there all along though?
It was there all along, it just went to sleep for a little while.
There’s a lot of chat in your new songs about being bullied by the media, or by people on messageboards… I’m wondering what experiences you had of that before you became a popstar. Was it when you became a popstar that these things became issues?
It was never an issue before. I mean I had loads of friends at school, I loved my hair… I mean I hated being pale but I was never taunted for it. I was so proud of this red hair I had. Even if anyone did say anything about it, it wouldn’t register because I loved it so much. A lot of people think ginger hair is a problem but when you’ve got it it’s not an issue at all. It’s other people who think it’s weird.
It’s odd isn’t it that you managed to get through school without it really being a problem. Because if there’s something — anything — schoolkids can pick up on, they will.
I loved it, my friends loved it… Like at school I was called Ginge. Cheryl calls me Ginge. I’ve always loved it so much. How can someone take the piss out of something you love so much? Do you know what, when it came to the media or whatever even the ginger thing never really bothered me, it was the ugly thing. The facial thing. If you like something you can’t be hurt by it, I guess, but if someone goes at you for the way you look and there’s nothing you can do about it, that’s when it gets a bit more difficult.
We spoke at the end of 2009 for an ‘end of the decade’ piece in The Observer. I asked you what your least favourite year of the decade had been, and you said ‘between 2003 and 2007’.
I remember, yes.
It struck me as being quite sad really. You’d had half a decade of shit.
Yeah. Well I had a lot of stuff in the band but there were things going on at home that were very uncomfortable and I had a whole period of time where I felt like I was under a cloud. But that’s fine — it’s over with now. It’s not something that I have to remember. I’m over it now and I’m happy and I’ve moved on and it’s good. Life’s a lot easier. Apart from making this bloody record!
So let’s talk about subject matter… ‘Take A Bite’, ‘I’, ‘Sticks & Stones’.… They don’t cover the same ground but they all come from a similar place. And it feels like that place is what happens when someone who’s been shouted at for ten years and hasn’t been able to answer back suddenly gets a voice. It feels like there’s anger there and spite… Not spite. Spirit I guess. But what else do we find out about Nicola Roberts on this album?
Gosh, what do we find out? I just went for the truth to me.
It was exciting that you brought up the ‘rude ginger bitch’ line in ‘Take A Bite’.
When you wore that skirt and it was all a bit wonky because ‘bothered’ was spelt wrong… Well it seems like the Nicola Roberts who’s been mythologised by pop fans for the last nine years, was born at that moment.
It’s great that you’re referencing that bit of your past.
That’s because I was working with Jon Shave on that track. We were talking about Old Nicola, stories that would go on in the [Xenomania] living room. ‘Sarah said this, then you shouted out that…’ There’s another song I did with him called ‘Say It Out Loud’. I’m singing on it like Little Nicola and only Jon could have brought that out, because that’s where that came from. I felt like Brian made me sing so quietly all the time…
Why was that, did he feel that that was your role in the band?
Yeah and I think he just preferred that tone. But I didn’t want a whole record full of that! Through the whole record I insisted, ‘I’m not singing in a quiet voice’. When I saw Jon he was like, ‘let’s bring it back for one song’. I was singing out, singing out, singing out. But Jon wanted to do a track with Little Nicola again.
In the same way that gamma rays turn Bruce Banner into the Incredible Hulk, what was the flashpoint that turned Little Nicola into Big Nicola? What was the thing that made you somehow able to cope with the ridiculous job you had and all the shit that came with it?
Erm… I think it was only a couple of years ago. These days, well, I’m one of those people who, like, I dream about things but I’m very firmly in reality. I look at things with both eyes open.
Is it hard to be so cool, Nicola?
Is it what?
Hard, to be so cool.
Er, am I cool?
Well that’s the idea isn’t it. ‘Ooh, cool Nicola Roberts with her cool things that she does and and her hair and…’ er…
Well that’s a compliment I suppose, is it?
I don’t know. In one sense saying ‘Nicola — she’s the coolest member of Girls Aloud’ might not really be the biggest compliment of all time. WHO KNOWS. But apparently you’re ‘Cool Aloud’. You’ve worked with Metronomy! You are therefore cool.
Cool with a capital K!
It’s a fine line between being cool and kool. And that fine line separates being actually cool and being not actually cool.
Are you saying I’m on that line?
You are treading that line with nonchalant ease but you need to be careful.
Why be careful?
You can look amazing, but you can take it too far and end up looking like a clown.
Well Lady Gaga can wear things that other people can’t. Actually even Lady Gaga can’t wear some of the stuff Lady Gaga wears.
Lady Gaga might argue for example that you’re not open minded enough to take her. Everybody should spread their wings. Push the boundaries! Be open minded! That kind of stuff. But I would not like to wear the meat dress. I think it’s important that you stay true to yourself and you can’t sacrifice that by catering for what you think people want. There are too many people in the world for that and everyone’s got different ideas of what they’re like, and blah blah blah, so maybe the best thing to do is be as true to yourself and your own idea of what’s cool and what stretches your imagination and then hopefully people find confidence in the fact that you find confidence in it.
It’s nice to say, ‘ooh, everyone’s opinion is valid’ and so on, but you only have to look at the nether regions of The Internet to see a whole world of people whose opinions are, quite objectively, wrong.
People are generally wrong, is that what you’re saying?
Yes. Fortunately you and I are in the minority of people who are right.
(Laughs) Well that is your opinion, but they would argue that they’re not wrong.
But that’s because they’re wrong! Of course they’re going to argue that they’re right — they’re always wrong! Their arguing about being right actually PROVES their wrongness!
Nobody likes a know-it-all, Peter.
Thing is, though, look at how many downloads you’ve sold of your single. I have no idea how many that is — let’s say 50,000. There are 62,000,000 people in this country. That’s a lot of wrongness isn’t it.
But that’s their good, hard-earned money!
Well it’s only 79p.
But I for example don’t buy every song I hear on the radio or that’s in the charts. I just buy a couple that I like or feel I need in my life.
What was the last one your bought?
I bought the LMFAO single.
That doesn’t sit alongside cool-east-London-Metronomy-collaborating-Nicola-Roberts, but that of course is why you are such a complex and fascinating person Nicola.
Well I am NOT just about that ‘cool’ thing — well, I don’t live in east London and I only worked with Joseph because I’m a fan of his not because he’s in the ‘cool’ bracket — and if you think about it I do actually like fun stuff which some people might argue is not cool. So therefore, I must not be that cool. Music snobs really annoy me.
Some people — and I’ve been guilty of this — are quite the opposite, and that’s just as bad. You’ll be defending supposedly uncool stuff so much that you become blind to the fact that some of it is pretty rubbish. There always has to be a grasp of whether something’s good or not, and that judgement has to exist independently of other things like cool or credibility or whatever.
Yes. There’s good pop, there’s bad pop, there’s good R&B, there’s… Well, there’s shocking R&B. It’s like with anything: there’s a good haircut, there’s a bad haircut. Genres shouldn’t be discriminated against but you have to accept that every genre has bad sides to it.
It’s time for the killer question that I tried to ask you in the Twitter chat you did a couple of months ago, which you ignored.
What was it?
To save a dog’s life, would you rim David Cameron?
I actually asked someone what that meant at the time, and they told me. And therefore I am not even entertaining the question.
There’s a dog’s life at stake but don’t worry.
I’m not worrying!
Where did ‘Beat Of My Drum’ come from?
Well, we found a piece of music and wrote the song around it and then created this song. We felt like we needed additional production and that’s where Diplo came in.
How did Diplo get involved? You don’t phone him up and go ‘oh hai I’m Nicola from Girls Aloud, can you produce my single please’.
Well, I was a big fan of Major Lazer and a lot of the MIA stuff, and I knew that my song needed some kind of backbone… We were in the studio for like four days trying to come up with the right mad sounds but I was so close to the song that I couldn’t step away from it. If there was one person to do it, it had to be him. I could hear what I wanted for the track and I knew that he could do it. So I asked him if he’d have a look at it for me. I rang him and it was 9am in LA. He was like [croaky LA voice] “hello…”. Amazing. It’s the same with the makeup range — there’s always a way around things. Just ask. I drive people mad.
Was it Diplo or nothing? Was there a Plan B for the song?
If he’d said no I probably would have had somebody look at it.
What’s the song about?
It’s a bit like a story. For a long time it was called ‘Baby In The Corner’. I never saw it as a single actually, I always thought of it as an album track. We had the first chorus, the melody and all of that, and I lyriced the chorus and then that led me to the verses. I thought ‘Yo-Yo’ was the first single, but taking a step back and looking at it with a wider eye ‘Beat Of My Drum’ seemed liked the one to go with first.
What do we find out from the album about your views on love and romance? What have you chosen to tell us?
I’ve actually found out that I don’t talk about it too easily. It’s easier for me to write a song about life than it is to write about love. I don’t know why, it just is. I think because when you’re with a producer… I’m more than fine with talking about life, but opening your heart up about love and romance is a little bit more awkward. So I don’t know about what you’ll learn about me, but what I’ve learned that it’s not easy to write a song about.
One of those solo popstar cliches is to start going on about ‘songwriting is like therapy’…
I don’t need therapy because I give therapy to myself. I feel like I know myself so well that I haven’t really found out anything about myself. It’s not like I wrote ‘I’ then thought, ‘oh God, this is what I’m all about I’m so shocked’. It’s not a shock to me.
There’s a line in one of the new songs about you having refused therapy.
Yes. I as like, ‘I can do this myself, I can put this into perspective in my own head, I just need the time to do it’. I just felt, I don’t need someone to tell me how to process it all. And I certainly don’t need someone to tell me what something is. Because I know what it is. I know the ins and out of this situation, I just have to deal with it. And nobody else can tell me it’s something it’s not.
At what stage was this suggested?
When I was very young still. But even then, nobody can tell you… They just can’t. You have to do it yourself. You have to find a route or a solution that’s going to make you feel better. And I can do that. I can do that in a better way than if it was someone charging me £300 a week to do it. I think anyone who’s been in a hard sort of situation will say the same thing — you have to find a way out of it. You start looking into why people say things. And you think, ‘well, they’re saying stuff because it’s what they actually think’. Or because they’re jealous, or because they’re nasty… I always know why. In every situation. I’ve trained my mind to read into why someone does or says something. So now, I analyse everything. I analyse people to make sure I know if they can be trusted or not. I read people very clearly. I analyse why people do things. And it’s probably all to do with protecting myself. So I’m quite a bleak person in that respect.
We’ve been talking for an hour now.
I feel like this has been a therapy session! (Pause) Do you think it’s going to be alright? Do you think I’ve got half a chance or not? I’m really taking a leap here, aren’t I…
It feels like you’ve got more of a chance, in a way, than someone who might have been a supposed ‘dead cert’. There feels like an outsider spirit to it, maybe not following a ‘popstar goes solo’ pattern too much.
Okay. Well we’ll know soon, based on whether I’m still living in the country or whether I’ve emigrated.