Nicola Roberts shouldn’t really be here now, plastered across the pages of a fashion magazine, promoting a critically acclaimed album, held up as a style icon. After all, she’s that pale-skinned redhead who came to fame through a TV reality show nearly a decade ago, the one who got so teased by a fellow pop star that she took to going out wearing a skirt with the words “I am a rude ginger bitch” inscribed on it. The one in Girls Aloud who got ignored by the celebrity magazines because, basically, she wasn’t Cheryl Cole. So where did it all go so right for Nicola Roberts?
When Nicola Maria Roberts, a sixteen year old from Runcorn, decided to audition for an ITV show, Popstars: The Rivals, in August 2002, she had no idea quite how much that decision was to change her life. Initially she didn’t make the final cut but when one of the girls dropped out, after claiming contestants were being “exploited”, Nicola’s voice and vulnerable charm won over the public and she was voted into the group that would become Girls Aloud. 21 top 10 hits later, it’s easy to forget that no-one held out much hope for this band. It was accepted music industry wisdom that the largely female audience didn’t like girl bands. Their male rivals, One True Voice, were the ones pre-destined for stardom. The girls’ original manager, Louis Walsh, was said to have met the public’s inclusion of teenager ginger Nicola with absolute incomprehension. But accepted wisdom hadn’t taken into account the fact that these girls were a bit special. Authentic and likeable, they didn’t have that irritating stage school manner or bland, airbrushed, too-perfect looks that usually turned off girls who buy pop music. They looked like the kind of girls you wanted to hang with. The kind of girls you wanted to be like. So One True Voice hit the bargain bins while Girls Aloud’s career hit the stratosphere. And all the time, Nicola Roberts spent about six years being slagged off because she didn’t look like media commentators decreed pop stars should look. It didn’t even seem that shocking at the time that Radio 1’s Chris Moyles could comment about Girls Aloud that he “fancied all of them, apart from the ginger one” and get away with it. It’s a wonder when you look back at all these stories that Nicola didn’t just run and hide.
“I don’t look at that at all… that’s something that can do your head in… something so personal as what you were born with..” is all Nicola will say now about what it’s like to have to read such criticism of your looks in the press. Instead, as she got older, rather than hiding her porcelain skin and flame hair, she embraced being a bit dif- ferent. First up, there was a range of make-up for pale skins, Dainty Doll. And then there was a BBC Three documentary about the dangers of tanning and sunbeds. (She’s still got her work cut out on this one. Katie Price said only last month “I go on a sunbed so much I hardly ever burn”.)
Add in Nicola’s increasingly adventurous dress sense and you had a pop star who stood out from the crowd. Girls who didn’t look like the normal ironed-hair, heavily styled celebrity identified with her. “Fashion brings out what you are inside” explains Nicola. “A lot of people think it’s got to be blue jeans, a black coat, three inch heels. But it doesn’t have to be like that. I enjoy just going for it”.
Fashion brings out what you are inside. A lot of people think it’s got to be blue jeans, a black coat, three inch heels. But it doesn’t have to be like that. I enjoy just going for it.
Perhaps the main thing that held Nicola together, gave her the strength of character to endure the taunting and flourish in the spot- light was that, unlike a lot of the wannabes you see clogging up today’s TV reality shows, she didn’t enter Popstars: The Rivals because she just wanted to be famous. She just wanted to be a singer. “When I was younger, whenever I was sad – this is going to sound really bad – ” she momentarily looks a little embarrassed “I would go into the garden and write a little sad song in my head and I would sing it and then it would make me cry. It was the passion I had for singing… I’m so thankful that I sing. I’m so thankful I have that. I’d rather chop a finger off than lose my voice” she confides. So when Girls Aloud had a hiatus in 2009, Nicola decided to do something she’d always wanted to do: go into a recording studio and make a record her way. She’d had a good apprenticeship from years of making records with the songwriters at Xenomania but, she says, “I wanted to learn about music and about me vocally. I had the time to perfect the thing that I love to do.”
Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey had been her idols. “I used to come home and put their greatest hits on and try to copy them. I was sooo obsessed.” Suddenly the pop star looks a bit sheepish. “I remember when I was about twelve I’d say to my Dad ‘I reckon by the time I’m sixteen I’ll be able to hit those notes ‘cos I’ll have grown!’ And he’d just look at me, smile, and say ‘Yeah, love, alright…’”
And yet this self-confessed fan of warbling power ballads has knocked everyone sideways by going off and making an album which sounds like a compendium of the coolest sounds of 2011, jam-packed full of collaborations with some of the most cutting-edge electro and dance producers.
I’m so thankful that I sing. I’m so thankful I have that. I’d rather chop a finger off than lose my voice.
So how did she do it? Well, Nicola says she’d been listening to a lot of Dragonette, Major Lazer, Metronomy and the like. So she just called up the producers and DJs that she liked and asked them if they wanted to work with her. And I can see how she persuaded them. When the photographer’s assistant comes to hurry her into hair and make-up she answers sharply enough to make sure everyone knows she’s no pushover. But pleasantly enough to make sure they know she’s no troublemaker either.
Things clicked when she met Canadian electropop twosome, Dragonette, aka husband and wife team Martina Sorbara and Dan Kurtz. The track they worked on together, Lucky Day, a song they had originally earmarked for Kylie Minogue, will be her second single. They were impressed by Nicola’s passion for music and her work ethic. “She’s a really good person” says Dan Kurtz, “Very smart. Incredibly focused and determined.”
A fun collaboration with Joseph Mount of Metronomy followed – something big fan Nicola sounds like she still can’t believe. A stint with Ladytron didn’t work out quite as well and fell by the wayside. Then she met French electro producer Dimitri Tikovoi. And that’s when, she said, the record really came together. “We just totally got each other. He was prepared to listen to me… he got my back.”
So, fast forward nearly 18 months and her first single is released. De- spite everything she’s said about wanting to explore herself vocally, about wanting to be the next Mariah Carey, Beat Of My Drum is the antithesis to these vocal gymnastics. Instead, it’s a brilliantly individual track with a sparse drum-pattern, spoken lyrics and Diplo production that she chose to throw out there. There she goes, having the balls to do the unexpected, again.
“Well, I did try singing melodies over that drum beat but nothing worked. It took it away from being a cool, kinda not-giving-a-shit melody, to a bloody spectacle! So I tried it with a chant. One day I started chanting like a cheerleader. I remember Dimitri looking over at me, then just saying in his French accent ‘I don’t know if zees ees a good idea!’” But unperturbed, Nicola persevered. “The L.O.V.E bit was just put down as a demo… it shouldn’t even have been there but now I can’t imagine it being anything else”.
Still, putting out the album she wanted to, the one she says “fits the groove inside my body”, seems to be one of the most important things she’s ever done for herself. “This was a massive, massive thing for me…to have been given the opportunity to create something so personal”.
Understandably she’s nervous about how the album is received. “It’s different from putting a sin- gle out, it’s bigger and a long time coming… not just one song but the whole album! And everyone has worked so hard… All I want to hear is that people liked it.”
Inevitably we want to know about what happens next. Is this a one-off solo project? It doesn’t sound as if that’s the case. Several weeks into the promotion for the album she confides that whenever she gets a day off she runs back into the studio to work with Dmitri and co-collaborator Maya from Sohodolls.
And what about the much-discussed and hotly anticipated new Girls Aloud record? “If we do one” she stresses. “We’ve said we’ll celebrate our 10th anniversary together. It’s too early for me to sit and say anything about any plans”. But, she adds, “If we do one, I’m going to take what I learned to the table… you would, wouldn’t you?” Well, we wouldn’t want to be the one to say no to Nicola Roberts.
Hair and Make up Lisa Laudat
Nails Marian Newman
Photographic Assistance Phil Dunlop and James Anastasi
Fashion Assistance Coquito Cassibba
Digital Operator Douglas Irvine
Production Kenny Burns at D+V
Shot at Shoreditch Studios