After years in pop group Steps, Claire Richards is breaking out on her own with the release of her debut solo record, My Wildest Dreams. She talks to Lucy Mapstone about her fears about going it alone, why now is the right time for her, and why she is so proud of the music that made her famous.

CLAIRE RICHARDS - or "Claire from Steps" as she's known to millions - is a little bit freaked out to be finally taking the plunge with her debut solo album.

The singer, whose voice is instantly recognisable as one of the strongest of the five-piece group, is gearing up to drop her record My Wildest Dreams, more than 20 years after starting her career in the pop juggernaut.

"I'm not a risk-taker at all," she confesses through a nervous smile.

"I like to know that I have done something well, and that it's not gonna fail. So this, for me, is quite a big risk. That world of the unknown is a bit scary."

And it must be scary for someone who rose to fame at the age of 19 in 1997, safely bolstered as one-fifth of one of British pop music's greatest acts.

Steps were rather untouchable with their string of catchy dance-pop hits, step-by-step dance routines, Top Of The Pops appearances and fun videos.

Comprised of Richards, Lee Latchford-Evans, Lisa Scott-Lee, Ian "H" Watkins and Faye Tozer, the group had a satisfyingly successful first run, nabbing a Brit Award, two number one UK singles, 14 consecutive top fives and a chart-topping album, with more than 20 million records sold globally.

After splitting in 2001, and via the short-lived duo of Richards and Watkins called H & Claire, the band reunited in 2011.

But their most successful reunion took place last year, with a sell-out arena tour and number two comeback album Tears On The Dancefloor.

All of this, Richards says, is largely what inspired her to go it alone after years of wanting and wishing. That, and finally discovering who she is as a person.

"I do believe everything happens for a reason, and this feels like that. It just feels so right."

With a knowing smile, she adds: "And I'm glad. I know it sounds like a cliche, but actually I'm really glad that it hasn't happened before now."

After taking a step back from spotlight following the breakdown of Steps and then H & Claire, Richards says there was a "long period of time where I didn't really sing at all", but getting back into it with the group has reconfirmed that she loves to do it, and that she can.

"This last tour we did, I sang completely live for two hours every single night, which was a worry and something I'd never thought I could really do, but I did, and I came out thinking, 'You know what, I've definitely got this'," she reveals.

There have also been huge changes in her personal life since she was that starry-eyed teenager signing her first Steps record contract all those years ago.

Richards, now 41, has been through a divorce, a second marriage and is a mother-of-two.

"I feel like I didn't really start figuring out who I was until I got to my 30s," she admits.

"And it's only the last couple of years that I really feel like I know exactly who I am, I know exactly what I want. It's taken a long time to get to that point."

Does she feel vulnerable, not only coming back into the music fray after such a big life upheaval, but going it alone for the first time?

She shakes her head.

"I don't know if vulnerable is the word ... I mean, I've never really performed on my own. I've done the odd little thing, but I certainly haven't carried an entire show by myself before," she explains.

"It's the whole 'it's all on my shoulders' thing ... It does freak me out a little bit, I'm not going to lie."

She thinks she "probably won't be able to cope very well" if her bandmates turn up to watch her in action when she hits the road later this year.

"It's weird. Normally we're on stage together, and I know that if I caught one of their eyes at the wrong moment I'll be a mess - I'll be crying on stage, which won't be good for anybody!"

There was also the task of coming up with her own musical style, after years belting out dance hits such as Tragedy, 5, 6, 7, 8 and One For Sorrow.

"I was always a bit wary. I was never really sure what my lane was going to be because Steps has such a specific type of pop music - I was never going to do that," she says.

"But where do you go? You try to do the country thing, and at one point I wanted to be the female Michael Buble, and it all just got a little bit weird," she recalls with a chuckle.

They got there in the end, Richards and her songwriting team, and she describes her sound as "definitely pop but, lyrically, it's much more thoughtful and more reflective", with similarities to Kelly Clarkson and Celine Dion.

"There are influences from lots of different people. I don't think it necessarily sounds like anybody. I think if you try to be a poor imitation of someone that's doing it really well, you're going to struggle."

Richards is refreshingly unfussed about chart success or streaming hits, too.

"It's a dangerous path to go down," she says, of chasing chart highs. "It takes the love of the music out of it."

"I love to sing, and I can now say that I've got an album's worth of songs that I think are great, and everybody working on it thinks we've done a really good job. It has to be not about trying to get to number one."

Neither is she bothered about how she might be perceived by some, as part of what music snobs have for years written off as a novelty act; a pointless pop parody of cheesy songs with no real depth.

In fact, she's really rather enjoying the chance to prove people wrong.

"I do think people still think that Steps, as a whole, are not really very talented, and none of us can sing, blah blah blah," she says with a sigh.

"It always makes me feel good when people are surprised that I actually can sing, so I'd like more people to realise that we're not just a throwaway poppy band, that we actually have something to back it up."

She continues: "The misconception about Steps is because people mostly judge us for 5, 6, 7, 8 - but the fact is we've sold way over 20 million records and we've sold concert tickets to millions of people over the years.

"That says something about an artist, and not everybody realises that. If we're not their thing that's fine, but it would be nice to get a little bit of respect and recognition.

"I mean, there are not many British artists that have achieved what we have."

My Wildest Dreams by Claire Richards is available from November 2, before she tours across the UK in December.