Girls Aloud is Britain's most celebrated pop group, and Nadine Coyle is their de facto lead vocalist -- the group's Beyoncé, a powerful vocalist with big solo ambitions and a charming, if slightly guarded, public persona. In the United Kingdom and her native Northern Ireland, she is a celebrity, a fixture in the tabloids and on the red carpet. Here in America, where she now lives, she would be recognized only by die-hard pop enthusiasts and Anglophiles -- myself included.
To me, this stateside obscurity is unnerving, given that Nadine is the most vital fifth of Girls Aloud, a pop band that has received unprecedented commercial and critical acclaim. (As The Times put simply, "Not since Abba and Michael Jackson has pure pop been so unanimously praised.") Formed on the English reality series Popstars: The Rivals in 2002, Girls Aloud initially looked like just another insipid manufactured pop outfit, a response to the public's insatiable appetite for giddy female-empowerment-pop in the space left by girl groups like Spice Girls and All Saints. But the group defied expectations for the better part of a decade: Their single "Biology" was hailed by The Guardian as "the best pop single of the last decade"; they count celebrity fans like Bono, Chris Martin, and Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys; even indie tastemaker Pitchfork lauded their "songs stuffed to the gills with two, three, sometimes four different choruses, sounding like patchwork assemblages of the best bits of a hundred fantasy pop songs," awarding their greatest hits compilation an 8.5 rating. (These are critical heights typically reserved only for more credible fare by artists like Radiohead or Bon Iver, as I've crowed incessantly to my hipster friends in an effort to sell them on the brilliance of Girls Aloud).
But Girls Aloud was also a machine in the truest sense of the word. Their production team, Xenomania, is known in the industry for experimental, innovative pop that blends influences as disparate as surf rock, Motown, skiffle, punk, and bluegrass, always glazed with a dance-pop sheen. In collaboration with Xenomania, the girls cranked out 20 consecutive Top 10 hit singles (a Guinness World Record). And though each member of the group was allowed a certain innocuous individuality -- Nadine was strong and technically gifted, whereas bandmate Cheryl Cole emerged as the sweetheart of the group and Nicola Roberts remained the likably awkward one -- their solo selves always seemed secondary to the needs of the band. With Girls Aloud, the effect -- blazingly provocative pop music in a radio-friendly package -- was greater than the sum of its parts, even if that genius required subordinating each girl's individual identity.
So when Girls Aloud announced its hiatus in 2009, expectations ran high for their respective solo efforts. Cheryl launched a solo career with an album executive-produced by Black Eyed Peas super-hyphenate will.i.am and a string of singles that nimbly topped the English charts. (Cheryl, while well-liked, has never been known for her technical talents; her husky voice is pleasant but thin, and is easily dwarfed by Nadine's tangy vocals.)
Given years of press speculation over a rivalry between Cheryl and Nadine, it stood to reason that with Cheryl's high-profile solo launch, Nadine would, too, launch a solo career with a major label. Her eventual decision to begin her own label, Black Pen Records, and release her album independently, came as a shock to the public who was expecting something very different.
"There were so many labels," Nadine explained to me when we spoke after her performance on Fire Island last weekend. For the set, she had dressed in an outrageous bondage-inspired red corset, a mountain of blond hair down her shoulders and a dainty leather cap nestled right at the top of our head -- but despite the theatricality of the outfit, she was forthright and congenial, her speech curled by a thick Irish accent. "So which one do I go with? Do I go with the label, Universal, we'd been with for eight years? Or do I go for EMI, who -- I love their publishing side, and I love their ideas? Or do I go with Sony, someone I'd never worked with? And then the opportunity came up to open my own label and do a direct distribution deal and I thought, 'This is interesting.'"
Instead, Nadine signed a distribution deal with the supermarket chain Tesco to release the album exclusively through their stores, and recorded the record, titled Insatiable, herself. "I wrote every song on Insatiable," she told me, with the help of hitmakers like Guy Chambers, Toby Gad, and William Orbit -- although, she concedes, she didn't realize what an undertaking it would be. "It was a massive, massive challenge," Nadine said. "Record labels have so many people working for them for a reason."
Her first solo single, "Insatiable," a soaring horns-and-synths confection, peaked at #26 on the UK Singles Chart, which critics were quick to label a flop. Nadine insisted that, as an independent artist, this was itself a feat. "How much can you stress yourself out? I went to the max. I tried to do everything. So when the single charted in the UK at, I think it was #26 from one store -- I was over the moon. I was like, are you joking me? We have done this. Sitting in our bathrobes, talking about doing it. It's surreal. Being in a market where there's huge labels, and the machine I had been a part of -- which I loved, this was just a different way. And now, this is a different way again."
Nadine's next solo campaign has centered around a song called "Sweetest High," which is a marked departure from her first effort: a metallic dancefloor stampede without any of the R&B influences that characterized her earlier work. The song opens with a hummed vocal that, Nadine said, she recorded as a voice memo and sent to producers Vito Fun and Damian Major, who she told, "I don't know if there's anything you can do with this, but I think this would make a good dance song." A few days later, they recorded it, and pushed it out to iTunes.
At first listen, "Sweetest High" struck me as surprisingly unselfconscious in its retracing of 90s house, but it's also a very canny new direction; the single is palatable to American listeners in a way that Girls Aloud, with its distinctly English everything-but-the-kitchen-sink madness, never was. A week after I spoke with her on Fire Island, I saw Nadine take the stage at the notorious Chelsea gay club Splash, and -- in another audaciously drag outfit -- she pushed all the right buttons for the crowd, who seemed electrified by the performance. Even without the resources of a label infrastructure to hang onto, the power of a gay fanbase can be enough to buoy an artist into the mainstream: Kylie Minogue, an international sensation and domestic obscurity, continues to play American shows based largely on the strength of a gay following, and Lady GaGa is the first to admit that her widespread notoriety all began with the passion of her gay fans.
"But Girls Aloud started that way in the UK, too," Nadine said. "We were able to do G-A-Y and all the big gay clubs before we could do any of the straight clubs. So it's a really good way to get experience, to get a very responsive crowd. You get an instant like-it don't-like-it you're-amazing we-hate-it reaction."
And for an artist with history like Nadine, that kind of immediate feedback is refreshing -- even necessary -- in building an individual identity that isn't weighted by the sonic or aesthetic baggage of four other members. "I want to do more intimate shows after this. Get back to an acoustic set where I get the band -- here in New York, and in different cities around the states. Just to have a whole new challenge, a whole new audience." She smiled. "I love going somewhere and no one knows what you've done or where you come from."
So it was with a flush of embarrassment that I pulled out my Girls Aloud Singles Collection box set, all 21 of Girls Aloud's CD-singles housed in a sturdy metal flight case, for Nadine to autograph. I had lugged it out to The Pines from Manhattan, across Long Island and on a ferry, a water taxi, and down the beach -- it had seemed like a good idea at the beginning of the weekend -- and realized, suddenly, that I didn't have a copy of her solo album for her to sign. All I had brought was this big, heavy memento of the very thing from which she is forging a separate career.
But, of course, she smiled graciously and signed it anyway.