x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Cinderella's Eyes: Moxie and honesty guide Nicola Roberts's solo debut

The Girls Aloud star shoots from the hip on this impressive album, facing up to her critics and dealing with the contradictions she encountered while growing up in the public eye.

Cinderella's Eyes
Nicola Roberts
Polydor
Cinderella's Eyes Nicola Roberts Polydor

"Don't it make your heart go wow, how I've turned this whole thing round," sings Nicola Roberts on her debut solo single, Beat of My Drum. You might find her question presumptuous - especially if you're someone whose heart hasn't gone "wow" since your teenage years. But even so, it's hard not to be stirred by the way the singer has reinvented herself.

Roberts, 25, has been a member of British pop troupe Girls Aloud since her own teenage years. The all-female five-piece were formed in 2002 on a reality TV show called Popstars: The Rivals - essentially a prototype version of The X Factor. At the time, few expected this gimmicky-looking combo to last beyond their first album. However, thanks to a combination of charm, chutzpah and high-quality pop songs crafted for them by British songwriting team Xenomania, Girls Aloud would buck expectations - time and time again.

By the time they announced their plans to take a break from the treadmill of touring and recording in 2009, the group had notched up 20 UK Top 10 hits, had their songs covered by Bloc Party and the Arctic Monkeys, and earned an estimated $40m along the way.

But while Girls Aloud became the manufactured pop group it was alright to like, Roberts herself earned a less favourable reputation. With her pale complexion, shy demeanour and distinctive ginger hair, she didn't fit the Noughties archetype of the blonde, bronzed girl-band Barbie. She didn't go in for showbiz niceties either. If she thought a journalist was disrespecting her band mates, she'd respond with a look that could wither an orchid.

Roberts addresses this period of her development on Take a Bite, a typically candid song from her debut solo album, Cinderella's Eyes. "When I got down to London, I had the press on my case, 'cause I didn't walk round with a smile on my face," she recalls. She later vows to make her critics "eat all their words".

It's this combination of honesty and moxie that's helped Roberts "to turn this whole thing round". And she shoots from the hip across the album. Songs like Fish Out of Water, Porcelain Heart and Yo-Yo find the singer laying herself romantically bare.

The suitably combative Gladiator sees her square up to her critics. And on the album's closer Sticks + Stones, Roberts deals with the contradictions she faced while growing up in the public eye.

That last song features what could be the album's most candid moment. Looking back on her first flush of fame, Roberts recalls having to persuade her driver to buy an alcoholic drink for her - because she wasn't old enough to purchase one herself. "How funny that I was too young for so many things, yet you thought I'd cope with being told I'm ugly," she sings. It's heartbreaking stuff.

The album's centrepiece, i, is almost as powerful. It's a stream of consciousness list of the singer's fears - everything from "losing control" to "being some two-faced person's little stepping stone" - and dislikes, which include both "Batman" and "bitchy girls". In the hands of a less likeable artist, i could become self-indulgent, but thanks to the sincerity of Roberts' vocal performance, it's touching instead. Of course, it doesn't hurt that she flips the song on its head in its final minute. When Roberts sings "I hope that one day we get the answers," i becomes something universal.

What is it about Nicola Roberts that makes her easy to empathise with? Well, in addition to being a tough cookie and a straight-talker, she has the courage of her convictions.

During her teenage years, Roberts succumbed to the western fad for sunbed tanning. As she explained recently, "I just wanted to look tanned and fit in with everyone." However, the singer has since given up this potentially risky habit and embraced her natural "English rose" skin tone.

This led her to present an eye-opening TV documentary called Nicola Roberts: The Truth About Tanning, after which she backed legislation to ban minors from using sunbeds in the UK. She also launched a line of beauty products specifically designed for women with paler complexions. Indeed, her Dainty Doll range is now so popular that it's stocked in the UK's leading pharmacy chain, Boots, which has an additional 28 outlets in the UAE.

As she's become more comfortable in her skin, Roberts has also honed her own sense of style. In the video for her current single, Lucky Day, Roberts is shown strolling the streets of New York in retro trainers and a short floral smock top. It's a gutsy outfit - one of many that's led British fashion designer Henry Holland to declare Roberts his muse. "Nicola's got a real sense of English rose about her and she likes to experiment. She doesn't conform," he enthused during a recent interview. He also likened the singer's look to that of a Hitchcock heroine.

Cinderella's Eyes features songwriting and production contributions from the Canadian pop mavens Dragonette, Joe Mount of the English electronic combo Metronomy, and the trendy French DJ Dimitri Tokovoi.

Most remarkably of all, the album's lead single was co-written and produced by Diplo - MIA's beatsmith of choice. Naturally, there is a story behind this.

The stress of perfecting Beat Of My Drum had been making Roberts ill during her recording sessions, so she decided she had to bring Diplo on board. The subsequent phone call was apparently like "ringing a boy for the first time", but Roberts' bravery paid off. "I'm so proud of [the track]. I can't believe it's mine," she gushed recently.

And Beat Of My Drum was no fluke. Roberts has made a pop album that's as cool, fresh and moreish as a coffee granita.

Cinderella's Eyes skips confidently from playground chants (Beat of My Drum) to dayglo electropop (Lucky Day) to Hi-NRG modern disco (Cinderella's Eyes, Say It Out Loud, Gladiator) to clinking synth-pop (i) to its own wobbly brand of electronic soul (Yo-Yo, Fish Out of Water). There's even one song that sounds a little like Gwen Stefani fronting a 2011 version of The B-52's (Take A Bite). Along the way, Roberts finds time to reinvent The Korgis' Eighties classic Everybody's Got to Learn Sometime for the iPad generation.

She also packs in enough pop choruses to seduce the sniffiest indie music snob. And in the process, she never sacrifices her core values: honesty, self-acceptance, tenacity, respect. Whether you've followed Nicola Roberts from her reality TV days, or just noticed her turn this whole thing around, that's got to be enough to make your own heart go "wow".

Nick Levine is a freelance music journalist based in London.