It's a brave musician who swaps relative anonymity as a bass player in a successful band to go it alone and step into the spotlight.
Yet that's exactly what Michele Stodart has done. You might know 29-year-old Stodart from The Magic Numbers, a band she formed in 2001 with her brother Romeo and another set of siblings, Angela and Sean Gannon (they're still going, incidentally, and hope to have new material out next year). But her previous guise allowed her to hide away in the shadows a little. Not so anymore, as she has replaced the bass with a guitar and ventured out, playing shows across the country and celebrating the release of her first solo album, Wide-Eyed Crossing.
"It has been a long time coming in my head. I've been writing songs since I was 15 years old, since before I joined The Magic Numbers," she says, in a pub garden in north London. "It has always been something that I wanted to do: singing and playing acoustic guitar. Just like every teenager, you have a picture of how it's going to be, but then I joined the band, started playing the bass – which I'd never played before and fell in love with it – and that was it. But I never stopped writing songs."
Her solo work is not a million miles away from The Magic Numbers, although there's a far stronger country influence on Wide-Eyed Crossing. It was the music that defined her childhood. "From a really young age we grew up on country music, and our uncle would play it around the house and my mum would sing along, and it was always there – there was no getting away from it," she recalls. "I remember hearing Patsy Cline and that was it. Emmylou Harris and Hank Williams too."
She was born in Trinidad, and her parents ran a small publishing business. But her mother was also a professional opera singer with a penchant for performing Burt Bacharach songs. They moved around a lot. From Trinidad they went to New York before coming over to London when Michele was 10 years old. "Because we were living all over the place, the main thing that unified everything – no matter what our surroundings were – was music".
She recalls an eclectic mix of instruments lying around the house: guitars, banjos, ukuleles, but eventually picked up the guitar because her brother had started to play. "Our bond together was through music so he taught me a few chords and I was hooked. We started writing music and we would do little gigs at home together." As well as producing the record, she plays every instrument as well, even the double bass, which she learnt especially for the record.
One of the perks of mainstream success was that The Magic Numbers could afford to build a studio in London ("it's the dream for any band. Some people get houses; we got a studio"), which is where Stodart went about recording the album, working at her own pace. "I was able to go in there and do it without feeling forced," she says.
Phil Brown did some of the engineering. "I always liked a lot of the records that Brown has been involved with. He has worked with Joni Mitchell, Laura Marling, and he has always been known to be great with acoustics and vocals. Because I recorded the whole thing live, I needed someone to get the separation and Phil was great."
Another collaborator was Conor O'Brien of Villagers who duets on "Invitation to the Blues" and whom she supported on tour last year. While she might have enjoyed having more autonomy in the recording studio, how has she found going on stage on her own, without anybody else to hide behind? After all, she's the first to admit that she's naturally shy.
"The first solo gig was a while ago now. I played three songs at an open-mic night to feel how it would be to do it," she giggles. "I'm not used to it yet; you probably noticed already I'm not really great at talking so I mumble. I do find it quite hard, definitely.
"In terms of playing the songs, the first gigs we played were on tour with Villagers, which we were thrown into doing. I was asked by them and I said yes – I never turn down a gig if I can do it – and that was when it hit home that we were going to release the record. The strangest thing really is to see the guys from the band in the audience watching me."
Although she contributed to songwriting duties for The Magic Numbers, her brother Romeo was mainly responsible for the group's output. She has found sharing her own music rewarding. "With The Magic Numbers I learnt a lot about focusing on your own experiences, to have them come from inside of you on to paper. Then to see someone sing it back to you is just amazing."
Much like her heroine, Joni Mitchell, the songs focus on heartbreak and the various relationships that have marked her life. "It's so personal but I found the whole thing very therapeutic," she smiles. "With songs like 'Foolish Love' and 'Here's to Somehow', I thought I said exactly how I felt in that moment. I could picture myself standing there with the other person going, 'Right, this is it'."
Watching her play at the pub later that evening, you can see the emotion she puts into her performance. The disappointment and sadness she sings about is palpable.
After the gig she will help load up the van with her equipment. Gone are the days of roadies and giant dressing rooms; it's very much a beginner's operation. Does she miss the perks of being in a platinum-selling band?
"I really like it. Starting all over again; it's so cool," she says sincerely. "You know, not having a tour manager and hiking all the gear... I'm sort of seeing it from a different side. It's refreshing and it's an eye-opener to do it again. I want to do all the rough bits. It's the only way to do it, to get the people behind you. It's how everyone starts out, right?"
Michele Stodart's solo debut, 'Wide-Eyed Crossing', is out now
- More about:
- Country Music
- Joni Mitchell
- Live Music
- Us Folk Rock 60's And 70's