Cheryl Cole Ssssh. Don’t tell anybody. But Cheryl Cole is very nervous. ‘Terrified, to be honest,’ she confides, with a sharp intake of breath. As the first member of Girls Aloud – Britain’s definitive, state-of-the-art and state-of-the-nation noughties pop empire – to complete a solo record, she is, to paraphrase a bit of the parlance she has become used to, well out of her comfort zone. ‘The other four girls have been my cushion for almost the entire decade. We’ve all been cushions for each another.’ It was with some trepidation, then, that she spotted the video for her debut single, the delightful baroque pop tune Fight For This Love, come onto a TV screen backstage at the Girls recent support slot for Coldplay. (Chris Martin had put in the request himself, natch).
Women love Cheryl Cole. Each generation needs a pop woman whom women empathise with and obsess over in equal measure. She is an absolute master-class in self-improvement. Cheryl Cole is an emblem for us all that even from the lowliest of beginnings there is no shame in reaching for the stars. Because sometimes you get there.
Cheryl is aspiration’s newest icon. Not that she’ll hear a word of it. ‘Shut up!’ is the most common response you’ll get from Cheryl every time you attempt to offer her a compliment or distil her position in culture. She never forgets where she’s coming from, this one. Born into the North Eastern council estates of Thatcher’s decaying country, she followed the modern dream and found an outlet on reality TV, all the better apprenticeship for her becoming a key figure in the medium last year. The end result of her talent show triumph – and let’s not forget the actual ‘talent’ bit here: captivating a nation in song – as the member of Girls Aloud you simply couldn’t take your eyes off, was a string of peerless, platinum plated songs, crafted from the heart and the street, that is unrivalled in the Noughties pop sphere. All the better education for her now she comes to unleash her own one-woman show.
Her inveterately down-to-earth manner, absolute ability to tell it like it is, her charm, her humility, her anti-snobbishness and, let’s be frank here, her eye-popping beauty, has not passed men by, either. Quite the contrary. The 21st century British music industry has not thrown up two more individual, powerful and polar-opposite totems of success as Simon Cowell and Chris Martin, both of whom have been openly beguiled by Cheryl Cole and lent her their hefty patronage.
Surely those nerves should be calmed a little, given all this? Well, not quite. It took the instant approval of the man who can reasonably be adjudicated the hottest pop producer in the world right now, Black Eyed Peas hitmaker Will.I.Am, to get the solo locomotion steaming. ‘This is how it all began,’ says Cheryl, in classic fairytale mode, of her solo journey. ‘Last year we made a TV show called The Passions of Girls Aloud. We all went off and did something that we were interested in and I decided I wanted to have a go at street-dance. The reward at the end of the show was a guest appearance in a Will.I.Am video, for his single Heartbreaker.’ As tends to happen with Cheryl, Mr I.Am was so entranced by the major performance chops she’d learned from all that strutting, he asked her to have a go at the hook in the vocal booth.
‘I just totally fell in love with the song,’ says Cheryl, ‘and we instantly clicked. When he was in Britain we’d go out for a night out. We became friends and he said he was interested in working with me again.’ From such a powerhouse producer, these were no small props. ‘I didn’t even take it on board. It was a massive compliment but I didn’t even register it, really. I was working hard with the Girls. They were my complete focus.’
When they were promoting their last and most successful album Out Of Control, between picking up the Best British Single Brit for The Promise and preparing for their largest, most lavish tour yet, the Girls decided it was right to take a year off from the band. ‘The last show of the tour was on 6th June, in Newcastle. You can imagine how emotional that was for me. All my family were there.’ It was a neat counterpoint to where she had come from and where she was going. ‘After the last night all the other girls went off on holiday, took a bit of time out. I barely had time to have me roots done before I was flying off to Glasgow to start filming the new series of The X Factor. Filming started on the 7th. But that’s the way my life is and I like it like that. I’ll start worrying when it becomes a bit more… normal.’
Her turn as star panellist on The X Factor may have blindsided the nation, but with nowhere near as much shock as it came to Cheryl herself. ‘When I walked in that room I didn’t know a single person, cast or crew, apart from the girl doing my hair, who I loved and Louis, which was another story altogether.’ She began to feel a change in herself by sitting in the judge’s hotseat. ‘I just became more confident. It all became slightly crazy and I think it could’ve done me head in if I’d allowed it to but for me this was about conquering a new fear of doing something by myself. I don’t even know where I found the nerve to do it. When I waltzed into that room for the first time I was honestly thinking ‘what am I doing here?’’
An independent idea began germinating from her new found confidence and a feeling started being passed around her world. Record company folk began asking if she was interested in Will.I.Am’s offer and she took some time out to work with him in the studio. Then the nerves really kicked in. ‘The way we work with Girls Aloud is that we’ll go into the vocal booth and do our lines on a track that’s already almost completed. With Will I was seeing music being made right from the ground up. He’d ask my opinion on the beats and the words. He’d send me off to write hooks and I’d come back dying with embarrassment. What am I doing here? Why does he want to work with me? I can’t sing like Fergie. I didn’t feel worthy. And he is not a man to mince his words.’
As it turned out, he liked what he was hearing. And so did Cheryl. ‘Right from the start with this I knew what I wouldn’t sing. If I heard a thumping dance beat or a phrase I wouldn’t use, it’d go. If I was going to make a solo record it had to be a record that I’d play in the house. I love what the Girls do. I love the quirkiness and I love that it is our sound. But this time it had to be personal.’
The recording process gathered momentum after Will and Cheryl had alighted on the gob-stopping robo-pop R&B duet 3 Words that will form the centrepiece of Cheryl Cole, solo. ‘I still can’t quite believe that that song is mine,’ says Cheryl now, justifiably chuffed with the results; a lean sound that straddles an imaginary dancefloor somewhere between Ibiza and South Beach, Miami and welds it to a lyric that sounds as if it were crafted from the finer end of a Geordie text message. A pop dynamism that bore no relation to what Girls Aloud do, that sounded like Cheryl’s own. The bouncing set piece Heaven sounds fresh, modern, unique and perfect for the current vogue-ish collision of r&b and dance music cross-fertilizing over the airwaves.
“The head of my record label kept telling me about a producer called Syience. As soon as I heard the last thing he’d worked on was Beyonce’s Sweet Dreams I was on the first plane to LA.’ Cheryl has a huge girl-crush on Beyonce. ‘I cannot explain how much I love her. When she turned up to sing with Alexandra at The X Factor last year me and Alex were crying from 9am in the morning at the graciousness of that woman.’. The collaboration with Syience is the alt-R&B ballad Parachute.
‘I just felt completely liberated by the studio experience. By being a part of the music being made. I could sing whatever I wanted. This was the music I’d listen to at home.’ The personal bent of the lyrics on Fight For This Love written by Andre Merritt, Steve Kipner and Wayne Wilkins touched a direct chord with her. ‘I connected 100% with the lyric. It’s positive, with this motto about whatever obstacles you face, just keep on going. It’s such a positive song with the message that quitting is out of the question. That’s just me.’
Cheryl Cole is in no way complacent about what her solo career might mean. ‘I have to think that if it doesn’t work then it wasn’t meant to be, but I have had the most amazing experience putting it together. I couldn’t be happier with the work that I have done on the record. I can take away happy, positive memories of this whatever happens. I’ve watched geniuses at work. I’ve worked with them!’
So yes, she’s terrified. But she wouldn’t have it any other way. ‘By the last album with the Girls we weren’t terrified any more and that was why we felt like we needed the break. This has put the fear of God up us again. And that, honestly, is the buzz of it all.’