Sunday, 10 July 2011
An Interview With Nicola Roberts
Excitement about a Nicola Roberts solo project has been collecting like molten lava since she first began to emerge as the most intriguing member of Girls Aloud. Initially dismissed as the gawky one who made a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo in their first video for Sound Of The Underground, Nicola’s early legacy has in some ways been the making of her, as we’ve watched her make a very public transition from shy teenager to front-runner as heir to the group’s off-kilter pop sensibilities. It’s a shift that is referenced in her debut solo outing Beat Of My Drum (‘Two left feet I had no beat, baby in the corner keep up… oh, don’t it make your heart go wow, how I’ve turned this whole thing around?’), a pop manifesto that brusquely demolishes any fears that her solo output could never live up to the weight of expectation thrust upon it. The single, produced by Diplo and with rapped verses, at once defies all reasonable expectations while simultaneously sounding like a continuation of Girls Aloud’s sound – bold, brave and deliciously bonkers.
Of course, there were early indications that Nicola would become the group’s most exciting solo prospect. She wrote and recorded faultless solo performances on both their second and third albums (I Say A Prayer For You and fan favourite It’s Magic respectively), and as a result was invited to join pop production powerhouse Xenomania as a songwriter. When Julie Burchill described Girls Aloud as having created a new genre, ‘panty-liner punk’, it was Nicola who best exemplified its ethos. She famously reacted to Matt Willis’s accusation that she was ‘a rude ginger bitch’ by wearing a skirt printed with the legend: ‘I’m a rude ginger bitch… Botherd?!’ at a G.A.Y. gig, and reportedly responded to a pushy journalist wondering why she’d been so quiet during an interview in which bandmate Sarah had been given a hard time with the flat riposte ‘because I don’t speak to cunts’.
Flash-forward to 2011 and Nicola has created an album that couldn’t have been made by anyone else. Lyrically, it is at times heartbreakingly frank (of her initial struggles with the press she sings, ‘How funny that I was too young for so many things/Yet you thought I’d cope with being told I’m ugly/Over and over …’) while sonically owing more to M.I.A. and Robyn than Cheryl or Nadine. Below, she discusses her decision to go solo, interviewing Gaga and the supposed rift in Girls Aloud.
Is it right that the album was pretty much finished by the time you signed your deal?
I didn’t have a deal. So I did it like a new artist would, make their own record and develop their own sound, and then present the record and try to get a deal. I only had my deal at Christmas.
Do you think not having a label’s input during the creative process gave you greater freedom to experiment?
I didn’t necessarily plan to put a record out. I was at the studio and I was effectively writing my own record, but I said that I would only ever put it out if I was 100% proud of it and confident in what I’d created. I didn’t want the pressure of having a deal, or having everybody knowing I was working on a record, to then be … summoned to release a load of shit. I couldn’t have done that to myself. So I had to do it the other way around. That was more rewarding, not having everything sorted or decided by the label. Having that time to develop as a singer and songwriter, I’m just so thankful that I’ve learnt that much. I’ve had so much fun making the record I wanted to make.
When did you first have an inkling that you’d like to make a solo record?
We’d just finished the Coldplay gig, which is the last thing that the band did together. I felt very frustrated with myself and I had to get back into the studio, whether it was to make a solo record or not. I felt like, ‘Nicola, you’ve wanted to be a singer and write songs since you were 10. Why are you now trying to figure out another day job just because the band is on a break. It’s ridiculous.’ I felt angry that I didn‘t have the confidence to say that I wanted to make a record.
In the single you talk about feeling quite insecure in the early stages of the band. Do you think if it had all ended with the second Girls Aloud album you’d have had the confidence to go it alone?
Absolutely not! In the second album I was just a baby. I was so impressionable, only just finding my feet. I wrote Say A Prayer for the second album, and Brian at Xenomania heard the song and really empowered me because he was going mad over this song I’d written. I thought, ‘God, I can do this, I can write songs, and I enjoy it.’ So although I loved to write music and to sing, in terms of reality and the public perception and everything else that comes with doing your own record, there’s no way I could have done it.
You’ve worked with all sorts of people on this record, from Diplo to Metronomy. As all five Girls Aloud albums were written and produced with Xenomania, was it strange going in to the studio with new producers?
More so because everyone at Xenomania works in a very specific way. The professionalism that you learn there is instilled in you, so if you go somewhere else and they don’t have that, and you hear things like ‘We’ve got that lyric, that’s fine, that’ll do’ – I don’t work like that, and I’m not used to accepting ‘That’ll do’. Brian and Miranda taught me that there’s always a better lyric and a better melody. I’m not having a record of ‘That’ll do’. Christ, especially if I’m fronting it on my fucking own!
Of the tracks I’ve heard, the lyrics seem very personal. Was it a tough decision to be so vulnerable?
Oh my God, wait till you hear Sticks And Stones, you’ll die! The thing is, I’m writing, so unless I lie or just write a record where all you’re gonna get is a skim of the surface… I don’t know what else you want, because that’s what I feel and that’s what I’m thinking, so that’s what is coming out. I think it’s important that people can relate to the record. If not, what is the point? I’m not making a record to be self-indulgent, I’m making it because I have an amazing time doing it. But also because I want people to relate to it – that’s what I look for when I buy a record.
It’s interesting that it’s come full circle, in that you were initially perhaps seen as the most guarded member of the band.
I was just frightened of being judged all the time, and if you feel like that you are guarded. I was petrified. I was young and shy and there was a time when I was actually quite sad as a person. It’s unfortunate that that persona was given off by me, but
I didn’t know what else to do.
Have you found that negative comments have motivated you?
No. They don’t. I don’t care. I motivate myself enough because I kick myself up the arse every day. Working with the people I have makes me step up to the opportunity. If you don’t when you’re given opportunities like that then you’re an ungrateful cow. I am a perfectionist to an unhealthy degree, but that’s how I get it perfect. I hear the song the way I want to hear it, and even if it’s reverb on the third synth in the pattern, I hear that and I’m not happy with it.
You’ve spoken before about the pressure you felt to look a certain way when you were first in the band. Now that you’re applauded as a style icon, do you feel a different pressure to always look immaculate?
I don’t know how I’m perceived. I don’t obsess over that because it’s unhealthy. If I did, I’d have my nose done. I’d spend a lot of time feeling pressurised. The moment you start living for somebody else… you can’t! There are too many fucking people in the world! It’s impossible!
There was a bit of a press furore recently about you getting hair extensions and having veneers – were you surprised by the reaction?
I always say that you have to love yourself, and once you do, other people will be more comfortable with who you are as a person, and I still strongly stand by that. If anyone was that happy with how they looked then they wouldn’t wear make-up. You have to make yourself happy as well. I had short hair for so long and was bored that I couldn’t do anything with it. I wanted a high pony, so I put in hair extensions. I want to be able to smile more and not think, ‘I hate my teeth’. I don’t like my nose, but changing that’s an extreme too far. It makes me who I am and so I’ll never get it done. I like who I am, and OK I’ve got a bump in my nose, but fuck it. Some people have got big ears, some people have got big bums, everybody’s different.
How was interviewing Lady Gaga for MTV?
I thought ‘Oh God, I hope she’s not aloof.’ She can be quite enigmatic, can’t she? But I managed to get her chatting and that was nice. Because I’m not a presenter, and I don’t want to be one, but I couldn’t turn down that opportunity.
Do you get bored of addressing questions about if, and when, Girls Aloud will reform?
It pisses us off that everyone talks about a reunion. We’ve not split up, this isn’t a reunion situation. We’ve just taken a break. There are so many artists who take time between records. Just because Beyoncé doesn’t make a record for three years doesn’t mean she’s given up.
How do you feel about the constant rumours of rifts within the group?
It upsets us because no matter how much you say it’s a load of crap, you get scared that it deflates the fans. It makes us angry but what can you do? Until the five of us are back on stage together it’s not going to go away.
I’ve always imagined that you, Cheryl and Kimberley are best friends, whereas with the other two perhaps it’s more like work colleagues who you really like…
Not work colleagues. I think that in life there are always people you gravitate to more or share the same outlook. Me, Cheryl and Kimberley look at things the same way and like the same things, so naturally we’re similar. That’s just the way it is. The five of us are like sisters. It’s like the Kardashians. Khloé and Kourtney say they’re always bosom buddies and are very similar, but Kim is... It’s a bit like that. Nadine’s on the other side of the world. Some of my friends in Liverpool I haven’t seen in three months and they only live 2oo miles away. I just think that I am naturally not as close to Nadine as Cheryl or Kimberley. We love each other, we’re friends but we’re just not that close. That’s fine for me to say because that’s just the way it is. But it gets blown way out of proportion.
Girls Aloud have managed to be both musically interesting and insanely successful. If you had to choose between the two, which would you choose?
Making the most interesting music. That’s what I’m into. The record wouldn’t have been released if it was just mainstream pop music that everyone thought was safe. I couldn’t sell it. In terms of me and what I enjoy listening to, I wouldn’t have been proud of it. The record has the life that runs through my veins in it. Every last bit of sweat and tears and excitement and lack of sleep and everything has gone into the album. If you don’t know me after this record, you will never know me.
Single Beat Of My Drum is out now. The album is due in the autumn