There is practically no one better placed to predict who the next big, BIG pop stars will be than an artist who is already a pop star in her own right and who also does a lot of songwriting for and sits in on recording sessions with up-and-coming acts.
Yep, as you'll have already figured out from the headline, the pop star we've chosen to hit us up with her tips for future toppers of the pops is Nicola Roberts - easily our favourite Girl Aloud and, in her capacity as a solo artist, the person responsible for one of The 405's favourite pop records of 2011. More on that later.
We asked Nicola to share some of her current musical loves and predictions as to who is likely to break the mainstream in 2016. There are quite a few. Because she goes into sessions with different producers and writers all the time, Nicola is constantly privy to the creation of fresh cuts and gets played new music months before the rest of the world might get to hear it. "I'm really lucky in a sense", she tells us, "because I get a real insight into what's happening."
Here's some of that insight.
"There's something really great about the music industry at the moment, it's come with the internet and how people are just able to get their stuff out there."
OK, Nicola, let's start with your first recommendation.
There's a young artist I've been working with called Tayá and our work together came about because her A&R wanted a song that I had written about 18 months ago and at the time I didn't want to give it, I was keeping the song for myself. But I think her voice is incredible and I really wanted to get involved.
What happened to that song?
Well, that song has actually now gone for another artist, which I felt bad about, because I didn't want to give it away. It was somebody brilliant who I couldn't really say no to. I believe her record is dropping very soon but I don't know if I'm allowed to say anything yet. I was super-flattered that she wanted to cut the song. When you give a song away it becomes that person's song and I don't want to speak on her behalf in relation to it, if you know what I mean.
Did you work with anyone else on the stuff for Tayá?
Yes, I have done a lot of work with her and a guy called Diztortion. His real name is Perry. He's responsible for a lot of the Lethal Bizzle stuff like Fester Skank and he's another person who's on my list. He's a Dutch producer, who is signed to Polydor as an artist, and he's basically now starting to work on his own thing. His awareness of beats and what is necessary for a hard-hitting record is just so on the money and I have a lot of love and respect for him. On a personal level, he's amazing as a person but on a professional level as well, I just admire him and his awareness of music. We've written quite a bit together, like cute pop-reggae stuff for a young female artist and then R'n'B for Tayá to then something for a rap artist. He's really universal.
Who else are you excited about at the moment?
There's a girl called Kehlani. I don't know a lot about her but I think she already has a massive following. A lot of the writers I've worked with have all said they'd love to work with her so I went and had a listen for myself. There's a track she does with Chance The Rapper called 'The Way', which I really, really like.
Then there's Kiko Bun, who is signed to Island. I was working with a guy called Cadenza, who is a producer, and he was playing me Kiko's EP and I just fell in love with it. There's something really great about the music industry at the moment, it's come with the internet and how people are just able to get their stuff out there and be seen and be heard. Anybody can write and record music at home and just put it out there online and that can lead to A&Rs and publishers discovering it. The industry seems flooded with artists. A lot of music out there feels very authentic because people are making it themselves, it is just an extension of themselves, really.
I also love WSTRN - I was in a session with Tayá and with WSTRN's producer and they were playing me all of their future stuff that they've got coming out and it's just really, really good.
Have you heard of a guy called J Hus? He's signed to [Sony imprint] Black Butter. I think I heard one of his tracks, 'Lean and Bop', late one night on Radio 1. It goes something like "if you're feeling the vibe, make your woolly hat lean to the side." I love that he walks into the industry and just brings such a feel-good vibe as his introduction - I thought it was brilliant.
"When I look back at that collection of words I can see very clearly where I was at. I also recognise how far away I am from that now..."
When you're listening to music for pleasure rather than as part of your work, what's the most important element for you - the beats and production, the melody or the lyrics?
It changes. I do lean more towards a mellow vibe but I like everything. I don't know what it is. That's what makes music so hard to judge. It's so personal. Like, we are all wired in different ways and different things that we relate to. And it relates to the mood as well. If I am in a happy mood I don't necessarily want to listen to a slow jam, I might put on a cute little reggae track to get me dancing around the house, or if I wake up and I am not in the best of moods or if I am having a miserable day I might lean towards something else.
There isn't anything specific that I look for, it just has to be good. It has to connect to me in some way, where I might go: wow the production is seamless. You know, where a producer has managed to fit into the groove of the beat or maybe it is the message of the song, like the lyrics are lyrics that I connect with, like, oh this is so true. That can make me love the whole song. It just depends on the particular song.
And when you listen back to your solo album, Cinderella's Eyes now, what element stands out most to you?
Lyrics over production, I would say. I felt that Cinderella's Eyes, lyrically, was a representation of most things that happened prior to that record. It was like a diary of some of the things that I had wanted to say and a representation of where I was at the time. One of the things that does stick out to me is how things change, as well. That record captures a moment of time of who I was and where I was in my life, the things I was thinking and that I had felt in the past. And, you know, now when I look back at that collection of words I can see very clearly where I was at. I also recognise how far away I am from that now, if that makes sense.
Yes, it does, especially as quite a long time has passed since you were working on the album.
Definitely. Actually, it feels even longer. It feels like it was ten years ago. It doesn't feel like it was four year ago. It's a long time and there's been a lot of change in those years. A lot of growing up. I mean, I was 23 when I started that record and I'm now 30. It's a long time. You go from a confused 'am-I-a-girl-am-I-a-woman' to very much 'you are a woman! You are 30 years old'. It's very different.
"I went from Girls Aloud to my own record then back to Girls Aloud and it was just... I have needed a few years to just grow, I think, and come out of the bubble."
Going back to the lyrics, as a pop record I think that Cinderella's Eyes rather successfully fused the mainstream production with lyrics which were often very personal.
But I think there was a confusion... Like, I come from a girl group that was very mainstream but the record didn't necessarily cross over to the mainstream. It was a bit of a confusion, I think. I would say, production-wise the things that still hold true to me are the songs with Metronomy. Like, the Joseph Mount tracks - 'I' and 'Fish Out Of Water'. Production-wise and lyrically those two songs still hold very strong for me. Songs like 'Gladiator' and 'Cinderella's Eyes' - although I can look back and appreciate how adventurous they were in terms of singing in that style, saying those things and the production being so flamboyant - I think that maybe now I wouldn't do that. I don't think I'd make a record like that now. I know I wouldn't.
Would you now consider yourself more of a songwriter than a singer or are you planning to make another Nicola Roberts solo record?
For the past two years all that I've been doing is writing. And it was really just coming out of the Girls Aloud 10th birthday celebration thing and the tour and never really stopping for a second. Like, I went from Girls Aloud to my own record then back to Girls Aloud and it was just... I have needed a few years to just grow, I think, and come out of the bubble. Writing for other artists has helped me do that. I've had quite a quiet couple of years where I would just go to sessions, see friends and have quite a normal life, which wasn't as hectic as before. And I have definitely needed that time.
When I write for other artists I go into it with a different outlook. I never write from an emotional place when I go into a session for another artist. I know it's going to be too hard for me to let them take the song. The only time I did that was with the track I mentioned earlier that I ended up giving to someone else. Strangely, a couple of weeks after I gave it to her, I was listening to it and I thought - actually I don't think I want to do that anymore. It's like I set it free. Maybe when I start going into sessions again with more of an emotional starting base then that is perhaps when my own stuff will start coming together.
Great, so you're not saying never to another solo project.
I'm definitely not saying never. And it's interesting because there's always only so much creativity you can give to another artist's session because there will always be a brief for that session. There will be an outline of what they need. Like, what does this artist's fan-base expect from this artist, what would they say and what would they not say? You can be in a session where the artist would say to you - 'oh, I wouldn't really say that myself'. Then it stunts your own release of creativity. So there is definitely a big portion of me that needs to create and so when that starts to become intolerable then I would have to let that out.
When I feel that I no longer want to confine myself to these lines of making a song anymore and when I want to express myself in a particular way then that is when it will become a need. But, you know, I've learned a lot from writing for other people. Like, what makes a catchy hook or what does a typical pop chorus need to look like. The dynamics and outlines of melodies and lyrical content for a pop track are quite specific. I've learned how to make things less weird for a mainstream act, if that makes sense.
There are some incredible writers and producers in the industry and, actually, one thing that annoys me a little bit is - you know how when they play a song on the radio they always say who it was produced by but, ok, who wrote it? The producer, rightly so, gets credit but they never say who wrote the song. I don't know why they never say it.
"For my own knowledge and interest, I would like to know who has written a particular track that comes on the radio."
It's like directors usually being mentioned in the context of a film but the screenwriters rarely get a nod.
Exactly, this is it - and there would be no film if the screenplay was never written!
Just thinking out loud here, but do you reckon that it might have something to do with the fact that with some pop songs there are quite a few different writers credited? I mean, take some Xenomania songs, for example - sometimes there were up to about 8 different writers credited.
Yeah. But I actually think it probably falls down to that producer having already produced something else that has also been played on the radio and it is easier to then link to that name. Like, take a Sia song - if Sia writes a song for a pop star they might say 'oh this is written by Sia', then people would react to that information because it's something they've heard of before. But still, for my own knowledge and interest, I would like to know who has written a particular track that comes on the radio.
Which other fellow songwriters are you a fan of?
There's loads. There's a good selection of people who are very talented out there at the moment. There's a guy called Tom Havelock, who does a lot with PREP. They had that track 'Cheapest Flight'. And there's Diztortion, of course, he's an amazing writer. There's a Scottish lady called Dot Allison [from One Dove] - she used to do stuff with Massive Attack. She's really old-school and really funny. But, you know, I'm with lots of different writers all the time and I learn from each and every one of them.
Check out The 405 for expanded posts on Nicola's faves, which we'll be running all this week, along with our own picks (coming this Friday).
Links to Artists in this Feature: