Her name is Nicole. You already know her as The Pussycat Dolls’ lead singer, the one positioned way out front tempting listeners to loosen up her buttons. She was key to the group’s success, selling upwards of seven million albums, touring the world, appearing as a guest vocalist on tracks by the likes of P. Diddy and Busta Rhymes, all accomplished in under three years and without missing a beat. Her name is Nicole Scherzinger.
What you may not know is her story, which has its start in her birth state of Hawaii, a middle act in Kentucky, where she grew up, and the third (but far from last) chapter taking center stage as a true solo artist. Nicole’s debut album may seem like an after-thought to the Dolls, but in fact, it’s what she’s been working towards all her life. Whether through her previous all-girl outfit, Eden’s Crush, who were born out of the reality TV series “Popstars,” or as the background singer for multi-platinum late ’90s rock group Days of the New, the part-Russian, part-Filipino, part-Hawaiian Nicole, whose nickname growing up was Hula, had her sights set on solo stardom for as long as she can remember. “Some people’s glasses can only be filled so high but I always knew there was never a limit to mine. I always knew what I wanted,” Nicole declares. “People just see me as that girl from The Pussycat Dolls; I hear it all the time. They know ‘Don’t Cha,’ which is amazing because it gets the attention and recognition, but as an artist, you need more to feed your soul, fill your glass. You need the music and that’s what this album is all about… the music.”
All told, almost 100 songs were demoed or recorded for Her Name Is Nicole. “I had to try everything to find the music that would introduce and reflect me as a solo artist. Music I was passionate about that would show the many different sides to my personality.” For her first effort, Nicole enlisted the help of old friends (will.i.am, Polow Da Don, Sean Garrett, Kara Dioguardi and Timbaland) and some new ones (Akon, Ne-Yo, Pharrell Williams, Macy Gray and Sting). “I love collaborating with a lot of different artists,” she explains. “I’ve been writing for the past 10 years but it’s a different caliber when you’ve sold millions of albums and you’re working with A-list writers and producers. I don’t have the ego or confidence to be like, ‘Yeah, I’m one of those.’ And at the end of the day, I care most about the song. ”
“I recorded and wrote everywhere. I was obsessed with my album.” The end result of her diligence, ambition and unbridled determination is the very definition of pop: music for the masses, but with a message and plenty of raw emotion. Take the deliciously addictive lead single, “Baby Love,” for example. “The song wasn’t about a beat, it’s about real melodies that came from the heart,” Nicole says of the track written with will.i.am and Kara Dioguardi. “Kara and Will are geniuses and we wrote it in no more than 20 minutes. “I love the Hawaiian slack key, pedal steel in this song. It’s just another element that reflects my background. I wanted to make sure I tried new things and sounds in the album that would separate it from other pop albums.
“Supervillain,” whose disco-inspired synth-heavy melody binds Nicole’s five-octave range to another undeniable hook. “It brought out the playful, fun, soulful side of me,” she says. “It felt like Motown! I love Diana Ross, Roberta Flack and Dionne Warwick and when I first heard the song, which was produced by Madd Scientist, and written by Rock City, I thought, ‘Man, this is like modern day Diana Ross!'”
Taking the drama up another notch is “Physical.” Produced by Timbaland, it brings out Nicole’s rock roots, honed during her time on the road with Days of the New. “I just had to have that song,” she declares. “The drums were so edgy and had so many unique sounds. I think it brings out another cool, wicked character that’s in me. It’s hot, a little theatrical with a rock-n-roll edge!”
On the flip side is “Just Say Yes,” written by Gary Lightbody, lead singer of Snow Patrol. It is one of the five ballads on Her Name Is Nicole. The message of undying love resonated strongly with Nicole. “Even though I didn’t write the song, it felt like it came from me,” she says. “It did more than speak to me, it lives in me. Anyone who’s ever experienced love or a relationship understands things pulling in different directions, but this song is about succumbing, opening up and giving yourself over to love. It’s such an honest moment and is one of the most vulnerable songs I sang but I did it not caring what anyone else would think.”
On the same tip, “Save Me From Myself,” written by Ne-Yo, also hit close to home. “When Ne-Yo brought it to me, he hadn’t written the bridge yet,” she remembers. “And I felt the song so much — Tears don’t stop the rain / Rain don’t hide the tears / The tears I’ve cried / I’ve felt my share of pain, my share of fears / But through it all, I’m not afraid — Everybody can relate to that feeling of being in a dark hour, where they need a little help. I asked Ne-Yo if he’d allow me to finish the song as I heard it in my head. And he did.”
Ne-Yo’s second writing credit comes by way of the much buzzed about track “Happily Never After,” another emotional ballad that brought Nicole to tears. “I had that same story in my life,” she explains. “I had been in a relationship where I didn’t know my self-worth, my self-dignity, and I didn’t know how to get out. Then when I left, I realized that I am better than this and that I have to love myself before I can love anybody else. As simple as that sounds, it’s so true. So when I heard the song, I said I have to sing it. It’s important for me to get this empowering message out there for all the young girls so they can say I deserve better, I’m not going to settle, not in this relationship or in my life. I think they need to hear that.”
Other music luminaries lending their skills to Her Name Is Nicole include Akon, who co-wrote “When You’re Falling,” T.I., who appears on the club hit “Whatever U Like,” and Sting, who took time out from The Police reunion tour to record “Power’s Out” while on a stop in Boston. “Sting’s part of the Interscope family, but I couldn’t believe it when I was in the same studio with him. I tried to play it off like, it’s cool, but I was literally shaking,” she confesses. “We took a picture together, and I’ve taken a million pictures but standing there next to Sting, it’s a little different. It’s like you’re taking a picture for the very first time.”
Another first for this already proven pop star: using the name of a Hawaiian flower, Puakenikeni (pronounced poo-wah-kin-ee-kin-ee), as both a catch phrase and a chorus. “I’m proud of my background and heritage,” she says. “Puakenikeni is one of my favorite flowers because it has the sweetest, most fragrant smells, so Akon and I came up with this fun, kitschy line, ‘Don’t you wanna pick my puakenikeni?’ It’s my shout out to my family and the islands! “Hey, I get ‘um!”
It was a long road to travel for Nicole, whose parents couldn’t afford acting or vocal lessons for their daughter while she was in her teens. To get around it, she enrolled in a performing arts high school and then paid her own way through college where she majored in theatre and acting and studied dance extensively. “Singing,” she adds, “was innate from the start. It was almost like my first means of communication.” But where “Popstars” or Days of the New could easily have been her last shot, Nicole saw every audition and career move as a stepping-stone. “I remember the first time I was put up in a hotel on the Sunset Strip, jumping on the bed and thinking, ‘I’m a huge star.’ It was my first big break, going on tour with Days of the New, but I was always recording, working with friends who had studios and knowing that one day, I was going to make it on my own. I was always working towards this moment.”
In fact, when Nicole first tried out for The Pussycat Dolls, and was quickly cast based on her raw talent and experience, she negotiated a solo deal then and there. “When they asked me to join the group I knew that was the window of opportunity I had been waiting for my entire life so I said ‘You have to give me a solo contract as well. I knew I would earn my stripes in time and, well, here I am talking about Her Name Is Nicole.”
It’s that tenacity which lies at the core of Nicole’s entire being, and has been there ever since she was a child. “When I think about it, I have a crazy story,” she bemuses. “Coming from little money and zero connections… I could have stopped with The Pussycat Dolls, selling seven million albums, but this is a mountain I have been determined to climb. The song ‘March’ that I wrote best explains it…’If you can see it and believe it and put in the work, well then it’s only just a matter of time!'”
So what IS success to Nicole Scherzinger, the solo artist? “People connecting to my music. If it reminds them of something, or if it makes them feel good, emotional, or if it just makes them want to dance or sing out, that’s all I can ask for! This music comes from my heart and when people hear it, they will get to know me.”