Through Cinderella’s Eyes: revisiting the solo ventures of Nicola Roberts

Now here’s the thing. Back at the start of last year, when I was writing a bit more regularly on this blog and before real life intervened, I had always earmarked this particular post for the end of September 2021. Sadly of course, given what happened in that month relating to the lady I’m writing about today, the time didn’t seem right to do so, and so the moment passed without me marking it.

Fortunately for me however, a more happier set of circumstances has emerged, and has meant my chance to write about an album – which has been one of the most formative ones of the last decade for me – celebrating a key milestone since it’s release isn’t lost after all.

Back in the summer of 2009 when, at the height of their popularity and success, Girls Aloud announced they were taking a year’s break from the band (one which would eventually last three years), they were doing so at a time when, in strictly commercial terms, it didn’t make sense on paper.

In the 12 months leading up to that hiatus alone, a fourth number one single (“The Promise”), a number one album (Out of Control), their 20th consecutive top 10 hit, a BRIT Award, a fifth sold out arena tour and a support slot for Coldplay on their stadium tour had all come their way.

However, in band dynamic terms (chiefly pertaining to becoming grown women with emerging priorities of their own outside the band), it was a mark of surprising restraint that it came later than most were anticipating it to. But by all accounts it was needed after seven years.

And so began the time of solo projects; Cheryl Cole with her stellar chart topping success and X Factor judging glory years, Nadine Coyle settling into a new life in Los Angeles and setting up her own record label, Kimberley Walsh emerging as a West End leading lady, and Sarah Harding turning her hand to acting on the big and small screen.

Much has been made – and in most cases blown out of all proportion – from varying sources in the years since as to why this break came. But suffice to say, the break was one that hadn’t been anticipated by one member in particular. Once described as the youngest, quietest and most enigmatic member of the girls (she had only just turned 17 when they formed on Popstars: The Rivals), Nicola Roberts was however, to find her voice and end up delivering the most engaging and unique of all the solo projects that emerged during that three year hiatus.

During the latter years of Girls Aloud’s chart reign, she had very quietly but confidently blossomed, particularly as she had seemed to attract a rougher ride than many of the others had when they first started. This was evidenced in The Passions of Girls Aloud, a four part documentary series for ITV2 in 2008, Nicola’s episode of which (that I also wrote about in my A Level General Studies exam, fact) saw her create and bring to market Dainty Doll, a groundbreaking – and eventually bestselling – collection of makeup designed and catered towards women with very pale skin like herself.

And after her own years of fake tanning misery, she also publicly backed a Parliamentary bill to ban the use of sunbeds by under 18s – a bill which, with her help and advocacy, became law that is still in place today as The Sunbeds (Regulation) Act 2010, her journey of which was chronicled for a BBC documentary called The Truth About Tanning. But music was always her first love.

As Girls Aloud progressed in their career, Nicola became very proactive in co-writing a lot of the material they worked on with their producer Brian Higgins, and his team at Xenomania, in particular on album tracks such as “It’s Magic” and “I Say A Prayer For You”. Having known and worked with their unique approach to writing and producing pop music for so long, she was keen to adopt the same approach to making her own music.

Speaking to Popjustice on the album’s release, Nicola said: “Working with Brian [in the band] … just taught me to look at music in a whole new perspective. The idea was that you could always put in a little bit more work. I mean school is too hard a word, but it did feel like I was at a music school. I learned so much.”

And so, without announcing to anybody that she was doing it – a conscious choice, she said at the time in an interview to The Guardian: “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 began working on the material that would eventually become her debut solo album.

Cinderella’s Eyes is so titled, as it feels like a fairytale being recounted over the course of 12 tracks, but with a deeper modern day undercurrent contrasting it throughout. The bouncy title track of the same name explores this idea in some depth; “No more pretending, these happy endings / You gotta make one” and the post-chorus lines: “Cinderella, are you happy? / With your fella and your home? / Had to wake up from a nightmare”.

In many ways it could have been a perfect introductory point to the album, were it not for the one that did become its first single. And in many ways, “Beat Of My Drum” could only ever have been Nicola’s first solo release. Originally titled “Baby In The Corner” it was one of several tracks for the album she worked on with Dimitri Tikovoi and Maya Von Doll, and was inspired in part by Major Lazer’s left-of-centre 2009 floorfiller “Pon De Floor” (also sampled around the same time by Beyoncé for her single “Run The World (Girls)”).

She knew that only one man could get the specific sound she wanted, and so she duly contacted Diplo, who had produced “Pon De Floor”. “I could hear what I wanted for the track and I knew that he could do it. So I asked him if he’d have a look at it for me. I rang him and it was 9am in LA … And then he did, he sent the track, and I was scared to listen to it. And I sent him an email and said ‘Dude, you have seriously saved my life at the eleventh hour. I can’t thank you enough!’ And then I emailed the label – let’s go, we’ve got it. It’s the first single.”

It’s such a bold statement of intent as all good first singles are, but it’s the fact it’s a little bit undone as well, the slightly off the wall synths and reverbs and vinyl scratches giving way to softly spoken sort of rapped verses: “Once upon a time, I pressed rewind / Two left I had no beat … Graduation, take a bow / See how strong you’ve made me now”.

The bridge then gives way to the almost cheerleader-esque chant that acts as the chorus and which was ours – and that of her affectionately named solo fanbase, #TeamGinge – constant soundtrack for much of the summer of 2011: “L-O-V-E / Dance to the beat of my drum! / Dance to the beat of my drum!” In one song, it said: Nicola has landed as a solo artist, and she’s come into her own with it.

And yet the single works in the wider context and storyboard of the album. Yes, there are a couple of songs about first love and the agony of being in a relationship where you don’t know if you’re coming or going, which were the topics of follow-up singles “Lucky Day” and “Yo-Yo”, and also “Porcelain Heart”. But on the whole, it’s an album where music is explored as a fantasy world. It’s an album of self empowerment and self discovery, something that the beautiful artwork shot for the cover by Frederike Helwig perfectly realises, with Nicola sat atop a sink of dirty dishes in a pair of what she called ‘the modern day glass slippers’ that she collaborated on with shoe designer Atalanta Weller, whilst ornate china models of birds and other woodland creatures flock around her like something out of Snow White.

A track like “I” works particularly well in that respect. A collaboration with Joseph Mount from Metronomy, it’s a bizarre yet brilliant, almost funereal half-speed march, on which Nicola delivers a stream-of-consciousness poem to music on her likes and dislikes, ranging from “I don’t like druggies, don’t like bad men, don’t like bitchy girls / I don’t think it’s healthy holding grudges that won’t save the world” and “I’m scared of ghosts / I’m scared of the unknown” to “I don’t like the people that leave comments on the internet / They preach their perfect while they’re killing you with intellect”, and on a more reflective, hopeful note: “I hope that one day we stop striving for perfection / I hope that everybody loves my new direction”.

But there’s two songs on the tail end of the album which encompass these themes, as well as seeing Nicola gain her voice after years of quite rotten treatment and abuse by certain sections of the media. On the magnificently feisty “Take A Bite”, there’s a rap referencing how as a “shy girl from Halton Brook” that “wrote all my dreams down in my storybook”, was then, upon getting into the band and moving to London: “Had the press on my case / Cause I didn’t walk round with a smile on my face / Called me a rude ginger bitch / They say I bought bigger tits / They’re gonna eat all their words / They’re talking absolute shit”.

And yet this bravado is contrasted with the devastatingly moving and captivating “Sticks + Stones”, which chronicles a moment in time and the pain she doubtless felt, being in the spotlight at 17 and essentially being reviled, and yet is told in a way that can hopefully inspire others who have gone through the same situation in their own lives: “Too young to buy my own bottle of vodka / So I begged the driver ‘Please, I need another’ / Funny how I was too young for so many things / Yet you thought I’d cope with being told I’m ugly”.

Upon its release in September 2011, Cinderella’s Eyes was both critically acclaimed and a top 20 success, and it quickly became my soundtrack of my final year of uni. It was also my favourite of the solo releases to come from Girls Aloud and it still remains so to this day. Aside from being a brilliant and fully realised record, it was incredibly inspirational to see Nicola being uncompromising and creative in her vision and having the drive and determination to make it come to life, and as a fellow creative (in my case as a writer) who’s most passionate about taking things outside the box, I found so much to love and obsess over with the album, and I am still finding things to love and discover about the songs and the concepts of it over a decade on.

And the new reissue on vinyl of the album this week through the brilliant boutique label Plastic Pop Records has allowed such an opportunity, as not only has the original artwork been reimagined in a beautiful painted depiction by the artist Bryony Fripp, but it has also been bolstered by a new bonus disc called Behind Cinderella’s Eyes, bringing together a series of further unreleased tracks, early demos and B-Sides from the album sessions, including tracks she worked on with Richard X and Biff Stannard that, whilst they didn’t make the final cut, really illustrate both the journey as well as the thought, care and dedication that went into making such a special record that is hard to imagine being made in the same way today.

At the time of its release, Nicola said: “I didn’t want to make a record for anyone else, I wanted to make it for myself. And then I know, in a few years time, if that’s the only record I ever get to make, I know I made the record for me, and not for anybody else. And I can’t regret anything.” Revisiting Nicola’s world through Cinderella’s Eyes ten years on, she can safely say her mission was accompolished.

Nicola’s reissued Cinderella’s Eyes / Behind Cinderella’s Eyes album is available now from Plastic Pop Records on CD, coloured vinyl and cassettes. Twitter: @NicolaRoberts / @plasticpoprecs

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