In the great pop wars of 2003, Matt from Busted called Nicola from Girls Aloud a "rude ginger bitch". She responded by daubing "I am a rude ginger bitch … Botherd!" on the back of a skirt which she then wore on stage, instantly becoming the best member of Girls Aloud. "I've still got it," nods Nicola Roberts, eight years on. "It's in my wardrobe. I want to get it framed, actually. I'm going to put it where my plaques are." For the quietest member of Girls Aloud it was certainly ballsy. "Well I had to be," she says, suddenly more serious. "What else would I have done? Gone on stage with tear marks? What else?"
Eight years older, Nicola is, in showbiz years, roughly 80 years wiser. Sitting on a sofa in a private members' club in London, with a gold matador-ish jacket draped off her shoulders, she's very much the glamorous pop star, more polished than the girl in the hand-painted skirt, but still a fantastic jumble of tough, sweary, vulnerable and funny. She's spent the past couple of years working on a brilliantly odd solo album called Cinderella's Eyes, roping in the likes of Dimitri From Paris, Diplo and Metronomy to help her make the most of an extended break from Girls Aloud and a near decade-long adventure in pop and fame.
Nicola was 16 when she auditioned for Louis Walsh, Geri Halliwell and Pete Waterman on ITV's Popstars: The Rivals, eventually being voted into Girls Aloud, even though Walsh had taken a dislike to her. "And I knew that," she says, eyes narrowing. "I could see that he clearly didn't want me there. Don't tell me to smile, seriously. There ain't one inch of a smile in me right now when your eyes are like that, thinking, 'Please God don't let her be in the band.'" After the show, Walsh was supposed to be their manager, but unsurprisingly, it didn't work out, so they began looking after themselves. They learned a lot about the business, she says, telling me that she'll speak to new bands who don't have the first idea about who does what for them. "F*cking hell, a lot of people are so sheltered. We had to struggle for what we've learned, but we're so thankful."
Nicola describes her nine years in Girls Aloud as "weird". "It feels like day one was a million years ago, and everything in the middle is a blur." For the first time, the girl who's clearly a talker, who excitedly fires out sentence after sentence whenever we hit on a subject she's enthusiastic about – psychology, studio production, bright colours in fashion – starts to falter. "It's like, I can't, er, I can't personally quite deal with how it went from there to there. I struggle with that bit in the middle. It's almost like I need somebody to explain to me why this all happened." On the album, she goes into detail about what she struggled with in a heartbreaking slowie called Sticks & Stones, in which she describes begging her driver to buy her vodka when she was underage. "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 …"
She coped with it, she says, by getting away whenever she could. "If I finished work at five, and didn't have to be back till midday, I would go home [to Runcorn] and drive back in the morning. I hated London; I was so lonely. We'd have lawyers' meetings all day, a TV show, a meeting at the label, then we'd be finished, then I'd drive home, go and get in my friend's little Corsa. I'd hang around the shop, get chips and gravy. People would be like, 'All right Nic, what are you doing tomorrow?' 'Oh I've got bloody CD:UK!' You know, crazy. But I was two people for a very long time," she says, sadly. How did you get through it? "I didn't."
'I had to harden myself to the press treatment. Inside, I was dying'
She shrugs: "Well I did, but it was quite exhausting, to get home and switch back into this person again: 'Make sure you put extra gravy on them chips!' I'd be trying to get into a club when I was obviously underage, being normal, then getting back to London and having the head of Universal [puts on plummy voice] 'Hi girls! So we're going to take you all out for dinner and we're going to the Ivy.' And then we'd be in the restaurant and none of us understood the menu. I remember saying to the head of Universal one day, 'What the f*ck's coriander?'" She giggles. Harder to handle was the attitude of some of the tabloids, which pointed out "flaws" on a regular basis: her tan was too bright, her clothes were wrong, she didn't smile enough. Eventually, she realised the only thing she could do was toughen up. "I just had to harden myself to it," she sighs. "Actually, inside, I was dying." The fact that all of this comes out in the lyrics of her new songs was never in question. "That's normal for me. It would have been stupid for me to make an album that meant nothing."
So she didn't, quietly working away on material she knew she was happy with, without telling her friends or even her record label. "If I'd had a deal [for the album] straight away, I'd have been summoned to make a record that maybe I wasn't necessarily that comfortable or confident with, and I would have had to release it, whether it was shit or not," she says, frankly. "I didn't want to play it safe and I didn't want to make a record that was a guaranteed commercial success."
A long-time MIA fan, doing things her way involved roping Diplo in to produce her first solo single, Beat Of My Drum, a Major Lazer-style bratty dancefloor stomp, full of "quirky sounds, hard dollops", as she puts it. It may come as a surprise to people expecting a Nadine-style MOR wail-a-thon or a Cheryl-esque standardised chart hit. "I had to ring him [Diplo] and … you know when you ring a boy for the first time? I knew I only had one chance, so I just fired at him. 'I want this, I want that, don't send it back like that. I'm going to send you the session again just so you've got it.' He reassured me a bit, and I put the phone down, thinking, it's not in my hands now …"
'It's taken every last bit of confidence just to release this record'
When she got the track back, she was so nervous she couldn't bring herself to listen to it. "It meant so much to me that I was frightened I'd be let down by it," she explains. "I was at home in Liverpool and I put my little brother and sister in the car, burnt it off on to a CD, drove to this deserted field and put it on so loud that the trees were … [does an impression of a wobbly tree]. I looked at my brother, this 14-year-old lad, and he went, 'That is cool.' Then my little sister, she's 21 and a real girls' girl, said, 'That is fly.' I'm so proud of it. I can't believe it's mine. The man is a genius."
Her other surprise collaborator was Joe Mount of Metronomy, who co-wrote the album's strangest and best song, I, with her. He was thrilled to be asked, he says: "I didn't have to think twice; Girls Aloud are a very clever pop band." I is a candid jumble of observations, set against an eerie synth line. "I hope that one day we stop striving for perfection/ I hope that everybody loves my new direction", goes one line. "I don't like that you won't let me speak controversially/ Because you think that it won't sit well universally", runs another (that hers and Girls Aloud's label is under the Universal umbrella is surely a coincidence). She says it's her favourite, too. "I love it. It sounds like a funeral song. When we first started working, there were loads of tracks, and some were really commercial. I think [Joe] assumed that was what I was going to do."
Not Nicola Roberts. "What would be the point in me doing that?" she shrugs. So what she's made is a pop album, certainly, but one flecked with MIA, Robyn and Kate Bush, one that's as happy as it is sad, and one she knows is good, even if she's reluctant to believe it could be successful. "It's taken every last bit of confidence just to release this record," she explains, before doubting herself, instantly. "Or maybe I've just brainwashed myself into feeling more confident. I don't know if it's good, or if I've just told myself it's good." Maybe it just feels like you, I say. "I think it does," she beams. "It just feels like me."