Nicola Roberts, One-Fifth of Britain's Biggest Girl Group, Talks Solo Record and Style Ambitions

Nicola Roberts Credit: Frederike Helwig

Girls Aloud have achieved huge success in the U.K., outselling every other girl group in history, but they remain a virtual mystery in the U.S., where only a few vagrant hits have strayed onto chancier dance floors. Then there's Nicola Roberts, the ice-skinned and flame-haired Aloud member: known simultaneously as the most polarizing and mystifying fifth of the group, she's become this decade's ultimate British cult pop star (in a nation that prides itself on producing oddball glamor). Upon their hiatus in 2009, figurehead Cheryl Cole went onto to become an X Factor judge, boilerplate solo pop queen and national tabloid treasure. Meanwhile, Roberts kept a low profile, working on what would become her just-released debut solo record, Cinderella's Eyes.

Produced by avant-pop heavy hitters like Joseph Mount of Metronomy, Diplo, Dimitri Tikovoi, Dragonette, it's a maverick commercial pop release in line with Roberts' work in Girls Aloud. A Top 20 success on the U.K. charts, Cinderella's Eyes is also well-reviewed by critics stateside. Like Roisin Murphy and Robyn before her, she seems destined to become one of international pop's dark horses.

Outside of music, she's also thriving. Her striking physical appearance — which once made her a target of playground hecklers and media abuse — is now hailed by the fashion community as inspiring, her arctic doll-like appearance setting her apart from the tanned and blonde Stepford wives of pop. Fortunately, Roberts' own confidence with her looks has grown, too; she's creeping onto fashion icon turf, with designers chasing her down and her Cinderella's Eyes artwork displaying her as queen of her own hyperstylized fantasia. Rolling Stone talked with Roberts in London.

What were your priorities in making a solo record?
I didn't want to be swamped down with the so-called dos and don'ts of how to make a pop record. I wanted everything to come through what I felt or what I wanted to create. Electro, as a style, can really give you that. Coming from working with [Aloud producers] Xenomania, I got used to the idea of breaking pop rules, so I continued with that in my solo experience. There are some vocal surprises on this record; not for me, but maybe for my listeners who never heard my full range before. There are some crazy falsettos on there; the vocals are erratic, which I wanted. It mirrors the emotion I felt when singing it; I let it go there. This record is about that: giving in, letting go, pushing things to the edge.

How did you choose your collaborators?
I wanted to make a unique record, and I knew who to choose based on the sounds they could give me. That came from listening to plenty of music on my own. The dramatic, intense electro sounds came from Joseph of Metronomy; I'd been a massive fan of his work and he liked the Aloud, and I knew he was more than capable of imagining and creating a record with me. For what eventually became my first single, "Beat of My Drum," I could already hear it forming in my head — I could hear the sounds play out, I just couldn't relay them. Being a fan of M.I.A. and Major Lazer's "Pon De Floor," I turned to Diplo and he made it a reality.

You shot your first two videos for "Beat of My Drum" and "Lucky Day" in New York and LA. What did you take away from the experience?
I hadn't been to New York before. I find Americans to be a lot more open as people. They smile, they genuinely seem like they want to help you if you need something; they're warm people. In London, it's so busy, busy; I feel everyone is on their own track, and just trying to get to where they need to be. Apart from the hot weather, the American experience was great for me!

Watch the "Beat of My Drum" Video:

Removed from the context of Girls Aloud, what should Americans know about you?
I'm not someone who's going to spell it out for you and say, "Look, here's my selling point, blah blah blah." It's embarassing to be like that. Here's what's on offer; I love it — you can take it or leave it. What I can say is that this is all I have ever wanted to do; I genuinely enjoy writing and performing my music, and I wrote this album from my own experiences to give people something they can relate to. That I've had the opportunity to do that, and be happy with it, is massive for me.

Given the strong critical response you've received on both sides of the Atlantic, have you considered crossing over to an American audience?
If the opportunity came about, I'd love to. It's a massive decision to make, and one I feel that's not mine to make right now. We'll see what happens with this record, but it's something I'd love to do.

Why is that crossover something Girls Aloud never attempted, given the enormity of your domestic success?
Honestly? We never had the time. The way we worked for eight years was simply "album, cycle, tour, repeat." The hiatus we're on now is the first time we've broken that pattern. So, crossing over outside the U.K. just couldn't fit in on a practical level.

Where do things stand with the band?
I don't know at the moment. We're planning on doing something for our ten year anniversary in 2012. That's over a year away, and it's not my place to say just yet what it is we'll do. But I'm very excited for it! 

What's up next for you and Cinderella's Eyes?
I just put out the record, so we'll see how it goes down. There's a third single on the horizon; there may be a fourth. And I'm working on new music, always. I am always learning; I want to get better on all levels, including delving into the production myself. The reviews I've been getting so far have been shocking, just incredible. You never think that far ahead when you make a record; you get into the process, then you finish it, then you realize this thing is really out there in public, and what's next? I appreciate that I've done something very different with his record; it's not meant for everyone, yet the right people seem to be finding it. I'm extremely proud.

Aside from making strides with your new musical direction, the fashion community seems to adore you now. What is your attitude towards style?
If I like it, I like it. Maybe I like things that are a bit different. You can't force style; like everything else I do, it's based on how I feel. If it's too conscious, it's a lie and false. I'm quite shit at lying [Laughs]. I choose everything that I wear; sometimes I'll work closely with a stylist to look at new options, but I make the final choices.

The album cover makes quite a vivid visual statement, right down to the "Cinderella" shoes you designed yourself. What does it all convey about the music?
The album is colorful. There's red songs, there's blue songs on there, you know? I wanted that to be on parallel with the art and clothes. I wanted to work with flash photography, because I wanted everything to jump visually. Electro music jumps: sometimes when you first hear a track, you hear the synth and the beat. On another listen, more details emerge: you'll hear that third synth jump out at you. I wanted that rhythm to be present in the imagery, the way I pictured it. There's a lot going on with the sounds on this record; it was important to me that the visual side was equally eclectic, so that it came full circle. This is a full package.

Do you align yourself with particular designers?
Again, I don't like sticking with one person or thing, ever. There's a lot of cool labels out there; I'm openminded enough to be a fan of many designers and make a few of their looks work for me. Regardless of how commercial or left-field they are, I respect most designers. In London, there's Henry Holland; I wear loads of his stuff. What else? I love Topshop, I love Moschino in Milan, and I love Bora Aksu. The way Aksu does panelling is quite unique and threads his collections together; I appreciate when anyone can keep a motif cohesive over time. I believe in putting a stamp on something, to create your trademark. Xenomania did that well with our sound.

You started a makeup line for pale complexions called Dainty Doll. How is that going?
I actually just finished the Spring/Summer collection, out early next year. I'm always working on new ideas for it – it can take months to decide on products, then five months for them to be produced. I'm pleased people have taken us on board and support the brand. Next, we're hoping to extend our overseas market. Right now, you can find us in Virgin and British Airways shops if you're abroad.

Do you think about how you might cross-brand the line with the Cinderella's Eyes campaign?
Actually, no. I prefer keeping the projects separate. It has to be powerful in the same way, but the line really is its own thing that needs to stand on its own two feet. The palette for Dainty Doll isn't necessarily Cinderella's Eyes-oriented, but both reflect my aesthetics.

You've become an advocate for various social causes, particularly those based on people being marginalized for their appearance. What motivated you to speak up?
I am sick of society being wrapped up so much in the way people look. I spoke on BBC recently about the dangers of tanning, something I was wrapped up in very much when I was younger. I was pale, insecure, and obsessed with getting fake tans. When I realized how bad it was for you, I got over it, and I felt the need to say something about its severity in our culture. Through my awareness building and talks with health secretary Andy Burnham, I've helped change some laws — you now have to be 18 to use a tanning bed. I even gave a speech to Parliament, which was bizarre and scary. No man in a suit who calls himself an MP is going to be able to relate to the pressures and dangers young girls face. In some small way, I wanted to give a voice to them.

You've also been an advocate for raising awareness of bullying. One of the album highlights, "Sticks + Stones," is a bracing account of some of the things you endured.
Bullying is out of control. It doesn't need to happen; I don't know why it's still there. I wrote that song to discuss how alone you feel when you're going through it; someone of any age or background can relate to that and can be a victim of it. On a social level, we're not going a good enough job to prevent it. People are still scared to go to school, kids are threatening to kill themselves; it's disgusting that it persists. So, again, I'm giving a voice to a cause, to hopefully affect change.

Has the positive reaction to this album felt like vindication to you?
I try not to view it that way. I don't need to feel power. The process, the risk, the journey I took to make this record, has made me happier than anything else.

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