Ten years is a long time in the world of pop. Ten years ago, Justin Bieber and Harry Styles had both just turned nine years of age, their dreams of global superstardom yet to be realised; Rihanna was still in high school in Barbados; 13-year-old Taylor Swift was taking her first steps into the music business, all notions of musical pot-shots at her ex-boyfriends far from her adolescent mind.
Nicola Roberts is well aware that a decade is a long time, especially when you've lived it in the public eye – but, as she says herself, it's not like she or her bandmates knew any different. When Girls Aloud were formed on Popstars: The Rivals in late 2002 – Roberts, the youngest member, was 17 and straight out of school. A pop career with longevity was a nice idea, sure – but who remembers their male counterparts One True Voice?
"I do remember those days fondly, but it does seem like we're looking at different people," says the Scouse singer affectionately nicknamed "Ginge" by her bandmates. "In rehearsals, we've been looking on YouTube to try and remember our original routines for the show, because over the years, they've chopped and changed. It's crazy looking at Top of the Pops from eight years ago, and looking at who we were as people and how young we were. Looking at us, and thinking 'God, we had no idea what was to come'."
Since they’ve hit the milestone that many of their one-time peers failed to reach, a 10-year anniversary tour was a no-brainer. “Maybe it’s because we’re women, and we’re quite sentimental,” she says of the decision to reconvene after a three-year hiatus.
There was a period, however, when it looked like the group would not be coming back together. Four of the five (Roberts, Cheryl Cole, Nadine Coyle and Kimberley Walsh) have pursued solo singing careers, while Walsh and Sarah Harding have both done acting and presenting work. But tabloid rumours about in-fighting didn't help to quell the notion of a rift between the five.
"It's not like that at all," she protests. "We've known each other for 10 years, and I think people forget that, just because you haven't seen us working as a group for three years, it doesn't mean that we haven't all been sat around Kimberley's living room watching I'm a Celebrity... or it doesn't mean that we haven't been shopping together, or whatever.
“We constantly see each other all the time, outside of work commitments. I mean, I do understand why people come to that conclusion because you haven’t seen us as a band for a few years – but behind everything else, we’re always in contact. The band dynamic has never changed over the last 10 years. There was never any rift.”
Still, there is no question that some of their solo projects have been more successful than others. Roberts’ own record was inventive and exciting, which is more than could be said for Coyle’s humdrum effort in 2010, and even much of Cole’s by-the-numbers output. Was it difficult to return to the group-think after the freedom of writing her own material?
"It's just different," she admits. "Obviously when it's just you, and you're writing for yourself – or even other people – you're the person in control. Whereas with the group, we have a team that we've worked with since the very beginning called Xenomania. Brian Higgins and Miranda Cooper very much are the sound of Girls Aloud, and you would never begrudge them that for the sake of wanting to be in creative control. The partnership between us and that songwriting team is what has made such great records, like Sound of the Underground and The Promise ; all of those fan-favourite tracks that we'll be playing on tour, they're responsible for. But I think what's been nice this time around is that we didn't just work with Xenomania – I wrote On the Metro with DJ Fresh, and that made the record. And I was aware of a young writer called MayDay, who wrote Beautiful 'Cause You Love Me , and I pushed for that to be on the record. The other two new songs were Xenomania tracks – so it was kind of a happy balance, this time."
Indeed, Roberts is the only member of the band to have a co-write credit on any of the new materia on their recent Greatest Hits album Ten .
"It's always music with me, everything is music,” she says. “I’m just obsessed with being in the studio; it’s just where I'm the absolute happiest, just writing and learning, and working on new sounds and with new producers, and seeing what they do. I like to learn and move fast – so even if I’m obsessing with a particular sound, a few months later I'm over it and looking for the next. Last year, I wrote a song for Little Mix and they put it on their record, and that was an amazing feeling – to have a credit on someone else’s album.”
Such talk might lead one to deduce that Roberts – and her bandmates, if rumour is to be believed – is preparing to take a step back from performing after the current anniversary tour winds down. The absence of a new album has further led to speculation that Girls Aloud are preparing to gracefully resign and allow the younger generation their time in the spotlight. So is this tour our last opportunity to see Girls Aloud on a stage?
“We never decide on anything – we just let it roll,” she says. “We’ve never planned anything. I don’t know why, but we just never have; it’s probably down to how we were formed. It’s always been about whether people want it. You only put a show on if people want to see it; you only make a record if you think people are gonna want to hear it. So we haven’t planned for after the tour at all, but that doesn’t mean anything.”
But when the curtain does eventually come down on Girls Aloud . . .
“It’ll never come down,” she firmly replies, cutting me off mid-sentence. “There’ll never be a curtain on Girls Aloud."
Okay, let me rephrase the question. As Girls Aloud continue as a group, whether it’s on a full-time or part-time basis, what do you hope your legacy says about you?
"Just that we had the balls to do something different," she says. "Our songs aren't conventional tracks; every track is different. From the very beginning, the first A&R we ever had, Colin Barlow, said the goal from the outset was to take risks – and that was right up my street. If people look back on our music, I want them to think that we tried to do something different, that we didn't just follow the call. We did our own thing and had our own way."
yyy Girls Aloud play Dublin's O2 on March 16th and 17th. Ten is out now