Nicola Roberts, the ‘one at the back’ in Girls Aloud, was responsible for a magnificent debut record, though chances are you’ve never heard it, Getintothis’ Steven Doherty is here to set you straight.
The year was 2009, and in the world of accessible pop tunes, Girls Aloud were very much holding sway.
But all was not well behind the public eye and they decided to take an indefinite hiatus, which at the time just seemed like code for that old manufactured band thought process, “some of them think they could do better as individual artists”.
All the talk was of the battle of the two big guns of the band, the question was ‘who would be the new Madonna?‘, would it be Cheryl Cole or Nadine Coyle?
As history has subsequently proved, both of their efforts at a solo career were nothing short of abysmal, and it was left to the quietest, most unassuming member of the band to produce the best work.
Nicola Roberts had already started working on her record and wanted to steer away from any sanitised pop version of herself, insisting on having a big say in the formation of the songs, and above all, writing about herself and her experiences.
She was not having an easy time in Girls Aloud, being unfairly singled out for her personal appearance by the media, she was regarded as the black sheep, the uncool one, which, as it would, caused her some massive self-confidence issues.
As well as this criticism, she also struggled with the loneliness of living away from home, plus the extrodinarily punishing schedule that GA were putting themselves through in order to stay on top.
The only plus point from all of this is she had plenty of inspiration for her solo album.
The concept behind the album soon formed, she would combine autobiographical lyrics from her time as a front-line pop star along with a fairy-tale theme, using the duality of hardships and happy endings, coming up with concept of Cinderella’s Eyes.
She said, “It was important that my record was personal to me, I wanted to be able to look back on it and know that I have honestly put in 100% of myself into it.
My lyrics aren’t generic pop lyrics just there because they rhyme, I’ve tried to write things as I would say them, so it sounds more like me.”
So she had the words and the concept, she just now needed some help to put it all together.
She had tried to get Kate Bush involved with the project initially, sadly to no avail, instead using producers which included Diplo, Maya Von Doll (from Sohodolls), Dimitri Tikovoi and Canadian poppers Dragonette.
And their collective fingerprints are all over the futuristic sound of the record, listening to it today it hasn’t aged a day, it’s electro ambience still sounding modern and fresh.
And so to the record itself, which arrived in September 2011.
The opening track and lead single was Beat Of My Drum, which she recognised early on in the process would have to be some opening statement in order for people to take her seriously.
Reminiscent of the Gwen Stefani-esque marching band beats which were very en vogue at the time, this sees Roberts leaving no-one in doubt that this is not going to be some miserable low-key side project, with it’s massively uplifting “L.O.V.E” chorus.
If this had been done by Swift, Perry or Spears, this would be closing Popworld DJ sets for years to come.
Even the rap middle section sounds so alive, when in the wrong hands it could have turned to cheese.
Unfathomably, the single only reached 27 in the charts, which was to become something of a theme (the theme being that not enough people buy great records).
There’s no time to catch breath as it’s straight into Lucky Day, which sees the effects come down a notch, but the strong vocals and pop sensibilities cranked right up.
It’s a more straightforward pop tune, Roberts herself describing it as a “more downbeat dance record”, with an almost old-fashioned “Could it be my, could it be” hook.
Their closest of the singles to emulating the feel of her parent band, it was released the week before the album but could only just scrape into the Top 40, despite hopes being high of it’s success due to it’s summery nature.
The third of the album’s three singles is next up, the wistful Yo-Yo. Another track done with quite an old-fashioned feel, but this time with enough going on to try and turn it into a dance track, with the beats thumped up full on the chorus.
The fact it only reached 111 in the charts is probably why it was the last song from the album to be released as a single.
There then follows a noticeable toning down of the pace following the opening trio of pop bangers, in the form of the title track.
Cinderella’s Eyes is evidently a song close to her heart, due to it being the focal point of the record. The electro feel is reminiscent of a Carly Rae Jepsen or Georgia, that sound that people are currently going mad for, almost a decade on.
“Cinderella are you happy with your fella and your home?” she asks using a Kate Bush influenced falsetto.
Porcelain Heart twinkles into heavily synth-based life, a certain sparseness giving a chance to breathe for the first time on the record, another tale of apparent despair, judging by the power-filled vocal.
Side One (if such a thing still exists) ends with I.
She’s leaving nothing to be misconstrued on this, and over an almost trip-hop backing she lists the things she hates, all the things she’s scared of.
“I’m scared to wake up one day and my bubble’s burst, I’m scared to being some two-faced person’s little stepping stone”.
The most personal song so far, which is some boast based on the level of competition for that particular title.
And just as we feel like we are starting to get to the bottom of Nicola Roberts, she then throws in a curveball cover version.
Whether it’s a message to herself or to the haters, it does seem a bit route one to do The Korgis Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime, but although It’s the only track on the album that she didn’t have a part in writing, the sentiment still seems to fit.
Say It Out Loud follows, and she’s back on board the hi-energy banger bus, another one where you can hear the trendy pop-star of today having a number one single with it.
The message here seems to be to say what you think instead of keeping it all in, sung over GaGa type beats.
Gladiator sees the robotic vocal of Beat Of My Drum make a welcome return, and it’s a futuristic 70’s disco track updated, and it’s glorious and dramatic as anything the aforementioned Lady G has ever come up with.
The bleeps of Fish Out Of Water are probably as dated sounding as the record gets but it’s just a chance to take another breather from what’s gone on before, rather than a sign that she could possibly be running out of steam, as Take A Bite storms into life.
Another track that could so easily have been a single, it’s retro arcade machine noises on the chorus add to the electric fun. And it sounds like she’s having fun, what could have turned it self-indulgence is a celebration of herself, and you can only wish her nothing but happiness, especially hearing the song that closes the album.
sticks + stones is the only song on the album that verges on the ballad, and lyrically is the perfect encapsulation of what has gone before, the message she is keen to get across, the raison d’etre of the record’s actual existence.
“How funny that I was too young for so many things, yet you thought I’d cope with being told that I’m ugly.
Over and over, I’d read it, believed it.”
A goose-bump of an ending to a maelstrom of an album.
An album which, although it only reached 17 in the UK album charts, was almost universally critically acclaimed upon it’s release, garnering generous reviews pretty much across the board from the press of the day.
Roberts herself was aghast (and understandably) vindicated by the reception it has received.
“I’ve been looking at the reviews and honestly, I could cry. Someone tweeted me all of them, giving it 4 or 5 out of 5, when you see them all collected like that, it was just like “Oh my god, that’s incredible!””
Normal service was soon to resume, Girls Aloud reformed in late 2012 for a celebration of their 10th anniversary, but their imperial phase was as good as over, with the final farewell coming in March 2013.
Since then, Roberts has kept herself busy as a songwriter, with tracks written by her making an appearance on albums by Cheryl Cole and Little Mix, but alas, no more solo material.
So as yet, we are still awaiting a follow-up to this work of beauty.
And now, after almost 9 years after it’s release, we could be now as likely to get one as at any point since then, as she’s now back in the public eye as a singer, showcasing her talents on the frankly ridiculous Saturday night ITV show The Masked Singer, which she won easily.
Fingers crossed this resurgence in popularity will include album number two, and this time widely acclaimed success.
Now that would be a fairy-tale with a happy ending.