Hello! Do you remember, you interviewed us right at the start in the Popstars: The Rivals house?
Yes. How’s the last ten years been for you?
If you were to draw a graph of the last ten years, how would it look?
Like this? (Waves arm around)
Would it be gradually going up or gradually going down?
It depends what aspect of my life you’re talking about. But it’s been crazy.
So the point of our chat today is to have a talk about your music.
Because you’ve got an album out, so a lot of people who are interviewing you will just use that as an excuse to get in a room with you then ask you about other stuff. They’ll try and ask you stuff and you’ll just do that face…
(Does ‘that face’) Yes.
So we’re just going to talk about your music today. Imagine people reading those words on the internet page containing this interview. How many people do you think have just fucked off to the Daily Mail website?
I think if you’re going on to Popjustice, you’re going on to hear about music and not to hear about shite.
Well quite. To the people who are still reading, do you have a message?
Good. So: what was the first email or phonecall or text or whatever that led to this album happening?
The first phonecall was from Seth [Friedman, co-manager], who said: “Let’s go to New York and work with these new guys, the Beemer Boys.” They’re young producers. I made it clear I wanted to work with new producers with fresh ears and exciting newness.
Why was newness important?
It’s always amazing to have experience there but I like giving people a shot when I believe they’re talented. They have more fire in their belly. They’re more excited to make new sounds. They’re excited for a hit — the possibility that their talent’s going to be heard. After all these years you need that.
With a bigger producer can you tell when they’ve just got a song out of the bottom draw, or they’ve just gone, “have this track”?
You can feel it.
So with new producers, you’ll get their best stuff.
Whereas — like a lot of people from the UK — if you go off to Dr Luke he’s already given his best stuff to Katy.
And you don’t just want to sound the same as everybody else. You want newness! You want to sound like you!
Apart from sounding ‘new’ what does sounding like you sound like?
Was there a brief that went out to writers and producers?
It’s more what you feel when you hear something. It’s not that technically it needs to sound like A, B or C, it’s just how I feel when I hear it. Like when I heard ‘Call My Name’. When you hear the “do-do-do-do-do-do” [this bit] it gives you that… Well, it makes you feel like you want to dance.
When you first heard it, apart from thinking ‘this is quite good’, did you also think, ‘this sounds a bit like Rihanna’?
I didn’t. And I don’t think it does!
(Having none of it) No!
Not in a bad way necessarily. Like a brother or a sister, perhaps…
Well that’s going to be natural because it’s Calvin. They’re both Calvin-produced songs. So naturally you’re going to think that. But if you play them side by side they don’t sound the same. Although you might naturally think that, because it’s the same producer. It’s not a bad thing. The thing is, dance music and dance sounds are the new pop. Pop these days isn’t how S Club 7 used to sound. It’s now dance beats. DJs of the world — David Guetta, Calvin Harris, will.i.am — that’s all pop.
So with the album did you want to fit in with pop as it currently is? So not causing a nuisance but just fitting in with pop in terms of what’s already there? Or…
Well I like to cause a little bit of a nuisance. I’ve got a lot of dub on there. Which some people consider as noise! Some people don’t like dub at all! But (looks conspiratorial) I like those bits…
Some of it is a racket though. But chuck it in the middle of a pop song and it’s fine.
That’s one of the best things about pop — it just takes the best bits of all the other genres and does what it wants with them.
Very true, that’s a good way of putting it.
But still, some dubstep is a racket.
I like it! I wanted to make a feelgood record though. The fans have been waiting a long time for it, so…
But some of it’s quite sad. Also, surprisingly perhaps, the average tempo of the album is a lot more downbeat than you might expect.
It’s a lot more mid-tempo than crazy dance, yes. I like that feeling. Not crazy, not a ballad.
Regarding the lyrics on the album, the point you seem to have made in interviews elsewhere is something along the lines of: “Don’t question me about the lyrics on the album relating to my personal life, because I didn’t write them so they can’t.”
Which is an amazing response, really.
It’s the truth!
Most popstars spend half their careers trying to pretend they do write their lyrics when they don’t. And you’re just going: “Nothing to do with me! Not my fault!”
But how does that work? You obviously have a connection to these lyrics. Or at least in order to be able to have a connection with your music, you must tell yourself a story about how a song makes sense to you?
Well what I do is, I get loads of records sent. Sometimes I get just a beat. That you can just fall in love with. Or just a hook. And I’ll write the verses, or I’ll say, “can someone please write the verses to this”… Sometimes it takes a lifetime to master your craft. To be an amazing lyricist doesn’t mean you’re a good performer. There are some people out there who write the best songs in the world and their idea of hell is going on stage and singing those songs. But to collaborate with someone like that, and to create a pop song out of it, is amazing, and I’m not afraid of that. I don’t care that I didn’t write it, I just appreciate other people’s talents. I didn’t grow up listening to songs thinking, “well they didn’t write it”. I loved those songs because they were great songs, and that’s still how I feel when I’m making my music.
Loads of amazing songs haven’t been written by the people who made them famous, but in terms of a ‘pop moment’ a lot of them still fit in with where the singer is in life and what they’re going through…
Oh you’ve got to connect to a song, yes. You can’t sing a song you feel nothing for.
So when the email goes out from your A&R… Who A&Rd the album?
Ferdy [Unger-Hamilton, Polydor bigwig].
So when Ferdy sends out the email like a Bat Signal going ‘CHERYL ALBUM UNDERWAY, SEND IN YOUR SONGS’…
Well that’s a lie actually, it’s a collaboration between me, Ferdy and Will. Ferdy will send me a lot of tracks, I found some, Will listens to them and goes “yes, no, I like that, I don’t like that”.
Who has the final say?
Me. It’s my record, it’s up to me.
Is there anything you had to fight for to stay on the album?
Actually I had a lot of fights on this record. There was stuff they didn’t want and that I wanted, and that they wanted and I didn’t want. I recorded so much material that I had to give my head a wobble and realise that they do what they do because they’re amazing at their job, and if they’re saying “this song’s better for the record” you have to put your trust in their hands. And that’s why we’ve had a relationship for ten years: because they know what they’re doing. I don’t want to become a control freak!
Some people would say: “I’ve been doing this ten years. I’m the popstar, do what I say.”
I get the final say, absolutely, but for example I wanted to put 25 songs on the record and they just wouldn’t have it. With things like that I have to trust in them.
Do you trust these people though? You must see other artists — we all see them — with their terrible videos, and their crap albums, and everything’s wrong. And you think, “someone at their label has made the decision that all this is the right thing to do”. So you wonder, really, if you can trust people just because they have that job…
Only if you’re an up-and-coming artist, I think. Initially, in the beginning, you’re still learning so it’s important that you take direction from people who’ve been in the industry a long time. That’s where some artists go wrong — they come up with their first record, they try to make demands, they try doing things that are out of their depth and they’re not experienced enough yet to be making those decisions.
When was the last time you saw that happen?
It happens often. You’re just not always made fully aware of it because they don’t make enough of an impact. You don’t see them come, so you don’t see them go.
What do you think the expectation is of this album, based on the last album?
I think expectation is always going to be there, but I don’t feel pressure.
But what do you think people are going to be expecting? Do you think, based on the last album, that people will think this new one is going to be good? Or alright? Or bad?
Well you know, I had great success with both albums so the expectation’s definitely there.
The expectation that your album will be successful, or that it will be good?
Well it’s a good album. In my opinion it’s the best album out of the three. Whichever way it’s received, it’s my best work — it’s the one I’m happiest with.
It does feel like it’s supposed to be an album, rather than just some stuff chucked together.
It took us a long time!
Have you taken it more seriously this time?
I’ve always taken the album process seriously. The first album was scary. The odds were against us, being from a girlgroup anyway — people already had the idea of someone coming from a girlgroup, statistically. And I never anticipated how much I’d miss being around the girls in every aspect: being in the studio, being on the stage. To actually be there without them was terrifying. So my first experience was daunting, scary, amazing. Second album: I was really sick with the malaria. They said to me at one point, “I’m going to pull the record until next year”. I was terrified because I just wanted to make the record. I probably should have given myself a little more time to become well, but I didn’t, I wanted to go to the studio. That’s why I only put two records out from that album.
It didn’t feel like it was bursting with singles.
No. I was so excited that I was… Well, that I was alive, and able to do the record… Well anyway with this one I haven’t had any X Factor drama, I haven’t had anything to distract me from it, it’s just been the music. I’ve enjoyed the process, and I think when you feel that the fans do too.
Can you explain the lyrics from the chorus of ‘Call My Name’?
You’ll have to ask Calvin.
What do they mean to you?
Just fun! It’s a pop song.
Do you wonder what they mean?
They don’t feel deep to me. But if you ask me what half Girls Aloud songs mean, I’d say the same thing! They don’t have a meaning, they have a feeling. I think it’s quite a sexy lyric? Um… It’s really not that deep. We’re not saving the world with lyrics or anything.
Would you like to save the world with a lyric?
No, I’d like to just feel good.
You said you wanted 25 songs on the album. How many did you record?
Which was the best song of the 50, and which was the worst?
I didn’t really have any bad ones. I had good memories attached to all of them.
Are there any that just didn’t fit in?
Yes, a lot of them didn’t make the album because they just didn’t fit. Some were too pop, one was too dancey. There was a very very soulful one. In the beginning we went everywhere. Narrowing it down to an album that sounded good as a package was the hard bit.
Going back to what we almost talked about earlier — that point when the initial emails go out saying, “CHERYL ALBUM AHOY, SEND US YOUR SONGS” or whatever: who do you think people were writing those songs for? It must be tempting as a writer to just base it on what you’ve seen, which will be what’s in the media…
Some of the songs already exist. They send you songs that already exist. And a lot of the people I worked with are from America, so they don’t have that crap in their heads.
The question is whether the songs end up being a caricature because they’ll only know a few things about you…
(Interrupting) Have you HEARD the album?
Do you think it feels like that?
There’s the danger of that — for instance you’ll listen to a Kylie album and it feels like people have just written a load of songs about Kylie going out dancing because that’s what Kylie’s ‘supposed to do’. I wonder if there’s a danger that people will just see the stuff that’s in the tabloids, then write about that.
I don’t read them. Like I say, I worked a lot on this record in New York and LA, and they don’t have tabloids there — they don’t have a preconceived idea of who you are. They just write good music! The thing here [in the UK] is that a lot of stuff is over-analysed, when it’s just meant to be a song.
How do you introduce yourself to these people when nobody knows who you are?
I LOVE it! It’s amazing. Like I say, they don’t have a preconceived idea. They don’t care. I just say, “I’m Cheryl, nice to meet you”.
Let’s talk ‘Sexy Den A Mutha’.
It was the last song that came in for the record.
It’s got a funny title.
That I’m going to blame solely on Jim Beanz. He’s from Philadelphia. I was trying to say, “sexy than“. The song is actually called “Sexy [as in sexier] Than A Motherfucker”. But we obviously censored the track. I told him to call it ‘The Sexy Song’ but it’s his song so I respected that.
Why was it important to censor ‘fuck’ on that and a few of the other songs on the album?
Hm… It was completely up to me whether I wanted to leave them on and I’m old enough and ugly enough to say “fucking hell” if I want to. But I have a lot of younger fans too. I thought it would be nice for them to hear the songs without the swear words. Some parents freak out when you put a ‘censored’ label on a CD. Some of them are 12, 13! They’ve been waiting over a year for an album and I didn’t want to push them out. Adults get the message, I think.
Do you think this album’s going to gain you any new fans?
Do you think it could win the Mercury Music Prize?
Wow. That’s up to them. I’m very proud of it.
Is there any reason it shouldn’t be regarded alongside whoever gets nominated for these things — your PJ Harveys or whoever?
Er… You know what, I never think of myself collecting awards. That’s just an added bonus. If you’re lucky enough to get things like that, that’s fantastic.
Do you find singing easy?
I don’t, no. I don’t think singing is supposed to be easy. It’s supposed to come from your emotions.
How do you make it come from your emotions when, like you’ve said, you don’t have an emotional connection with the lyrics?
I didn’t say that. I never said that.
Alright then: when you don’t know what the lyrics mean.
You connect with a song. That’s why you sing a song.
Without trying to start an argument, you did say you don’t know — for example — what ‘Call My Name’ is about.
That’s a feel-good song. It’s not to be over-analysed, it’s just a good pop song.
So the feel-bad songs…
Some of them are quite sad.
‘Mechanics Of The Heart’ is sad.
That’s about a guy who’s… You always hear about a woman having her heart broken on songs. ‘Mechanics Of The Heart’ is about a guy who’s had his heart broken by a girl, and she’s saying to him, “if you don’t believe that this is meant to be, how am I supposed to mend your heart?” I think that’s quite a nice way of looking at something. Rather than just saying, “oh my heart’s so broken”.
Shall we quickly bang through what each of the songs is about? A sentence or two on each?
‘Under The Sun’.
It’s a really fun song. It’s about a guy telling you anything you want to hear to get his way, and you saying, “actually, normally I wouldn’t, but today I might”. The sun just makes you feel good.
‘Call My Name’: who knows.
This is a song me and Will wrote about having an argument — the things you say to each other sometimes in a relationship, all the hurtful things, all the amazing things. Sometimes it can be crazy because you go from saying, “I love you”, to “I hate you”, from “you mean the world” to “fuck you”.
‘Girl In The Mirror’.
Love that song — it’s about girls giving themselves too much of a hard time, and sometimes you just need to chill. It’s hard being a girl.
‘A Million Lights’.
This started off as an indie-sounding song. I just loved it. It feels nice to sing, too. Like when I did ‘Set The Fire To The Third Bar’ with Snow Patrol, it felt like that when I recorded ‘A Million Lights’.
This was written for me, because I went into the studio with every intention of recording a different song. I was hungover from a party I’d been to the night before…
Which is a bit unprofessional.
I know, and it’s the first and last time it’s happened. But they were like, “let’s use the studio time anyway”. And that’s what they wrote in that time — I think the inspiration was that someone had tweeted a picture of me giving the middle finger, and that’s what inspired them.
I love how the beat makes you feel. “Why do I love you so much when you’re a love killer” — you kill the buzz of love. I love you, you’re a buzz killer.
This was written by Lana and I LOVED the demo.
Was this one of various songs that were floating around? She’s been writing for ages hasn’t she.
She’s been writing for ages but I was getting loads of songs sent over where they were going “this is amazing”, and then I’d play it and I’d be like, “hm, it’s not for me”. Then I got a really blasé message with this song, going “listen to this, you might like it, you might not”. And I loved it! I called Ferdy, I was like, “who is this girl?”. And he said, “it’s funny you should ask that, she’s another artist who’s coming out soon with a song called ‘Video Games’, she’s called Lana Del Rey”. I just loved the song. You could hear that she was a bit more than a demo singer. You know what I mean? You could feel that it was real.
‘Mechanics Of The Heart’ we’ve talked about…
I did this with Taio Cruz and there was a guy singing originally so we flipped it.
‘All Is Fair’.
It’s one for my Soldiers. Just being there and supporting us through everything. As soon as I heard the chorus “this is war” I knew I was meant to sing it.
You talked earlier about songwriters and producers having these songs sitting around and sending them to you… If you’d said no to them, who do you think the songs would have gone to next?
I’ve no idea.
Do you ever wonder if anyone’s been offered songs before they get to you?
I mean I get offered songs that I then hear someone else sing, but it’s a personal thing isn’t it — it’s whether it connects with you or not. I don’t really know who else is doing that dubby sound at the moment.
Are there any songs that you think are… Well, that you think you’re lucky to have got? That you think, “fucking hell, I’m glad I got my hands on this before someone else came along”? Like do you feel there’s a difference in quality between the songs you might get, and people who are on their first album or whatever?
Erm… (Pause to consider barrage of questions) I hadn’t really thought of it like that.
One imagines you would get sent better songs than Pixie Lott, for instance. Or they’d be sent to you, and if you say no, then they go to her. One imagines. In the same way that Rihanna might get first choice and you get second?
Rihanna has a team that works for her specifically and they all go in different rooms — writing camps. That’s amazing. That’s brilliant. And those are super-talented people. I mean writers have people in mind when they’re writing — they might think ‘oh this song is for Rihanna’, and then she doesn’t want it, and they just kind of put it away and you hear it years later with a different beat to make it current. Girls Aloud once did a song that Kylie sang a bit of later, for example.
The Xenomania house works a lot like a writing camp, doesn’t it, with the different rooms?
Yes. It creates a buzz and it’s exciting. Personally I think this is all down to how someone interprets a song. A song I might sing, might not suit Pixie Lott, and vice versa.
Is that a bongo on ‘All Is Fair’?
It sounds like a bongo.
It’s a helicopter.
There’s no judgement here. There’s no “oh bongos in pop are bad” argument, or even “bongos in pop are good”. It was just important to establish whether or not there were in fact bongos on that song. And you say no.
It’s a fine line between a helictopter and a bongo.
There’s a helicopter, there’s no bongo.
How did you know when the album was finished? Was there a deadline or did you just go, “right that’s it — finished now”?
Oh I could have kept going.
So who decided?
Will and I had a three-hour meeting. It wasn’t supposed to be three hours — I was just supposed to play him some songs I liked. But I played him so many, and he was like, “you have more than enough here”. When he said that I felt comfort in that…
He seems to have a surprising level of input — when it was first announced that he’d be involved it seemed like it would be one of those things where someone else does all the work. But he’s been pretty hands on?
It was actually him that convinced me to do a solo record. I never would have done a solo record without him.
Are you sure?
I’m positive. Yes.
Well what would you have done instead?
Well at the time, I would have had a family. At the time I was still married! But it was actually Will saying to us, “you know you’re going to do a solo record, right?”, and I was saying, “I don’t want to, not yet”. And he was like, “I think you should. You need to”. He said, “I’m excited, I want to be involved with it”. So he was involved from day one. I recorded my first-ever solo song with Will.
So your life has gone [at this point we move our hands apart to signify a life splitting in two] because of his encouragement? If he hadn’t encouraged you, you could have a family now?
It would have been a possibility. I hadn’t sat down and thought, “when we take this hiatus I’m going to do a solo record”. So naturally the thing would have been that, yes.
You probably would have felt the itch, though, to make music?
Honesty, it was him. I was happy to be in a group!
So if the one year off — the ‘one year off’ — had happened as it had, and Nadine went off to do her solo thing, and Kimberley did her Shrek and everything…
Well Kimberley didn’t intend to go and do Shrek — the intention wasn’t to be in Shrek.
Well yes, but the question is, imagine there’s a three year period where nothing’s happening, surely you would have felt the urge to make music?
Well Will always says I should write more for other artists, I probably would have did writing.
Wouldn’t you have missed fronting music though?
It was only supposed to be a year! That wasn’t long in our lives, and by the time we came to take a break, we came to take a break. But I probably would have missed performing. But I don’t know, because it didn’t go like that. And I haven’t had a break from it, so I haven’t had that feeling.
It just seems really surprising that you wouldn’t have felt the need to…
…to make a solo record?
Because quite apart from what you wanted, surely there would have been a lot of other people who wanted you to?
Make a solo record? Not at the time. Actually, I think the label were a bit dubious at the time when Will suggested it. I think they were like, “statistically it doesn’t work”. I was married, I was sorted! It was Will who said, “come in and write”. And the first thing I wrote was ‘Heaven’. And yes, he doesn’t manage me day to day, he’s a superstar, but he oversees everything and his management are my management. So we’re a family. He doesn’t arrange my diary though. But he says things like “I like this record, I like that record, that artwork’s not great”… He tried to make me a cover for my record actually. That same day, in that three-hour meeting. I said, “I think I’m going to call it this”, and he went, “come here!”. And he got an image off the internet and mocked up a cover of the album in front of me.
Was it any good?
(Pulls unimpressed face) He started to shade bits out and it looked like I was just a head floating in space.
That’s a strong look.
‘Call My Name’ is out on June 10; ‘A Million Lights’ follows on June 18. Click here for pre-order links.