Miranda Cooper

I Wrote That: Miranda Cooper on 20 years of Girls Aloud's Sound of the Underground

The Xenomania songwriter tells M about her storied songwriting career, 'revolutionising pop music' and her foray into theatre.

Eleanor Philpot
  • By Eleanor Philpot
  • 21 Nov 2023
  • min read

From Girls Aloud to Sugababes, the early ‘00s was a golden age for UK girl bands. Behind their multitude of hits sat one production house in particular that shook up the pop game one killer hook at a time.

‘The vision was to revolutionise pop music,’ Miranda Cooper, who formed the songwriting and production team Xenomania with producer Brian Higgins in the late ‘90s, tells M. ‘We felt like pop could push the boundaries more and had been quite safe up until then.’

Miranda and Brian’s professional relationship started several years prior through working on Miranda’s solo project Moonbaby. But after she was dropped by her label, Brian took matters into his own hands and created his own production company where the two could continue to work together by creating songs for other artists.

Feeling like underdogs at the beginning, Miranda says, motivated the duo to succeed. ‘We were in our own little place in the country, while the rest of the music industry was in London,’ she recalls. ‘We felt like outsiders and wanted to get in somehow. We wanted to win and prove ourselves, and the music sounded like that. There was such raw ambition, which made it quite abrasive and angular.’

Success finally arrived in 2002 as they scored two number one hits within four months: The Sugababes’ Round Round and Girls Aloud’s Sound of The Underground. The latter was the girl band’s first single after they triumphed on the TV talent show Popstars: The Rivals, but the song, Miranda affirms, hadn’t initially been intended for the group. Instead, it grew from the team’s obsession with a particular genre.

‘In every single room of the house we worked in we’d have a musician making music, and we were very into drum’n’bass,’ she explains. ‘So we did a big push on lots of banging drum’n’bass tracks, and one of those ending up being the basis of Sound of The Underground. But the precise song I wrote at my house with Niara Scarlett [another Xenomania member]. We set up a MiniDisc recorder and a tiny mic, and wrote in a stream of consciousness style.’

Although the industry norm was to set aside a day or two to turn out a song, Xenomania differed in their approach. Days, weeks and sometimes years were usually spent trying to perfect a work, meaning they could pour their heart and soul into every project. But what was unusual with Sound of The Underground was how quickly it came together.

‘We really took our time with writing melodies,’ Miranda says. ‘Usually we’d have several different pre-choruses, choruses and verses to choose from, but this time we only had one of each — it just came out as a fully-formed song. The idea for the song title came from a notebook I kept that was stuffed full of lyric ideas and phrases, [inspired by] things I’d heard or seen. It had written in it: Sound of The Underground. Very quickly we knew that was the title.’

Miranda and Niara revisited the song a few days later to write the lyrics and quickly realised they had something special. They quickly got a demo to Brian, who was just as impressed, and the song found its way to Polydor, who felt the track would be a great fit for Girls Aloud’s debut single. Sound of The Underground became an instant hit, signalling the beginning of a fruitful collaboration between Xenomania and Girls Aloud that would span a decade’s worth of pop gems including Biology, Love Machine, Something Kinda Ooooh and BRIT Award-winning The Promise.

While Miranda had an incredible run with Xenomania, going on to work with household names such as Kylie Minogue, Pet Shop Boys and Britney Spears, her impressive pop songwriting catalogue extends way beyond the ‘00s. More recently, her work with Maisie Peters has led to Miranda scoring viral hits in the form of There It Goes and John Hughes Movie.

‘With Maisie, it’s not about having a number one single or radio play, it’s about a community that she’s creating: she speaks for a generation of young women,’ Miranda says about the Sussex singer/songwriter. ‘There’s nothing cunningly premeditated about it, and her fans receive it so gratefully because it’s real.’

Miranda explains how a large part of writing with Maisie is ‘hearing her stories and stepping into her shoes,’ meaning that she has to leave her own songwriting ‘ego’ at the door. ‘So much is already pouring out of her [that] it’s about guiding her,’ she continues. ‘As a writer I used to base the success of my songs on how much I’d actually written. If I hadn’t written the chorus, my ego would be telling me that it hadn’t be a successful session. But the joy as I’m getting older is playing a different role in the sessions with Maisie.’

Having carved out an enviable career in pop songwriting over the past 25 years, Miranda has recently been focusing on writing musicals. Her desire to shake things up, though, still lives on from her Xenomania days.

‘I’m interested in songs from musicals that can sit alongside those from the pop industry,’ she explains. ‘Writing for musicals has a lot in common with the way I used to work at Xenomania: getting to know the story, the characters and creating a bespoke musical palette. As I’m getting older, though, I’m really gravitating towards projects that might impact change.’

Having already worked on the hugely inspiring Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World — a family-friendly musical that celebrates the stories of trailblazing women from Frida Kahlo to Marie Curie Miranda plans to go even deeper in exploring feminist issues on stage, writing a one-woman play about the struggles of motherhood. The project is being produced by her new theatre company Tilted, which was co-founded with friend and theatre director Sam Hodges, who she previously worked with on the musical adaptation of David Walliams’ Billionaire Boy. It has the capacity to open a conversation around women’s roles in parenting, something that hasn’t been done in musical theatre before.

‘It started off as something quite surface-level and quite funny. But then writing it over lockdown, through homeschooling my kids and not being able to write, a lot of anger got distilled into it,’ Miranda tells M. ‘When you become a mother you can lose your identity; the mental load is overwhelming. You can feel isolated, like life is passing you by.’

Having seen the power of honesty in Maisie Peters’ work, though, Miranda has felt empowered to do the same. ‘At first I was circling the fact that it was autobiographical, but now I’m thinking that’s where I need to go with it: to be brave and write from the heart,’ she says. ‘It’s scary, but I think as a writer it’s really good to push yourself to places that make you feel uncomfortable.’

To see Miranda still have that same creative fire as when she started out over 25 years ago is truly inspiring. But how has she managed to keep that passion alive through decades of change in the industry?

‘Do what you love,’ she advises. ‘Don’t get your head turned by what’s hot at the time and chase after that. Work with people who you love, who inspire and challenge you.’