As the English pop-rockers return with a new album, we chat to the band’s songwriter about life as an outsider
When The Magic Numbers burst onto the scene in 2005 attention all too often focussed on the group’s family dynamic – formed of two pairs of siblings: Romeo and Michele Stodart, with Sean and Angela Gannon – or the fact that they didn’t have the conventional look deigned essential for bands of that period. Those who delved a little deeper commented on the close harmonies and seemingly effortless charm of early singles Forever Lost and Love Me Like You. Yet, as beautiful as those two tracks were, to stop there was to miss out on an album of significant artistry.
From the very outset they presented a rich variety of music, combining classic song craft with an obvious wealth of influences such as indie, country, folk and soul. Though very much a unit, it’s Romeo’s songwriting that has always underpinned the band’s output. Never wishing to just repeat the formula of that hugely successful debut, subsequent albums Those The Brokes, The Runaway and Alias continued to showcase his ability to span genres whilst remaining true to the group’s core.
All of which makes Outsiders an entirely appropriate name for their new album, their first since 2014. Once again, it’s a record which displays a rich spectrum of inspiration and ideas, with songs ranging from the epic rock of lead single Sweet Divide to the gentler country sway of Wayward. If there’s any justice then this collection of songs should once again place The Magic Numbers at the summit of the UK music scene.
We recently had the chance to chat with Romeo about the new album and discuss his life as an outsider…
How much has being an outsider shaped your songwriting?
“I think it’s definitely helped in the sense of the loneliness and withdrawing from life in some ways. I was 8 or 9 when I realised that I wanted to do this, and I’ve always felt like a bit of a loner throughout, so that works well because you’re a lot more reflective, you’re turning inward. All throughout my teens I just wanted to learn how to play. Music was the main drive for me so I spent a lot of time on my own writing and developing and feeling like I needed to create something of my own, which I think is really important as well. It’s obviously helped within my life, sitting here still having that place to go to when things are too much. It’s finding solace within music and songwriting.”
Is that something you’ve always embraced?
“Music has definitely been something that I draw confidence from. I’m probably most confident when I’m holding a guitar and making something. In terms of where we are now, calling the record Outsiders, I guess there’s more of a realisation that we’ve never really fit in with any particular scene or tried to chase something and adapt to the current sound. We’ve just been on our own path and we’re now loving that and embracing it even more. Lyrical themes of this record were inspired by knowing that there’s a lot of people like that in their lives, especially in this time of the internet, having to box yourself in and say, ‘This is who I am,’ I find that kind of bizarre.”
Did the title lead you to the songs or what it the other way round?
“The overarching theme of the lyrics led to the title. I was trying to write a lot more character-based songs as well. There’s a song on the album called Ride Against The Wind which is about a motorcycle gang. There are four different women who are at different stages in their lives and they decide to take to the road and leave it all behind and not conform. That song inspired things. Runaways is another one, it’s about misfits who have messed up their lives and can identify with other similar people and find the romance within that.
“With the last couple of records things were a lot more introspective and I was in a much darker place personally. So this time I found a vehicle to steer it somewhere else, the spirit of it anyway. Outsiders feels like closure and also reflects how the four of us are as a band and individuals.”
Do you find it freeing to write in character?
“It is like a new way really of approaching the core of what it is that you’re trying to say, coming at it from a different angle. I’ve always loved writers like Tom Waits that create a world, but for me in the past it was much more unconscious songwriting. I’ll just start playing and there’ll be a melody and I’ll sing whatever it is and just have voice memos or a Dictaphone and it’s a stream of consciousness kind of thing. I’ll then pluck things from the feeling of what I’m trying to say and then I’ll chisel it out, but I’ve been conscious of looking at different ways of getting the feeling of the song.”
How much do you have the other three in mind during that initial writing stage?
“I don’t really think of that at all, even in terms of what the production is going to be like or the arrangement. I just try to tap into that honesty and pluck things out, letting it happen. I find that’s best for me, to be in that space. Every day I pick up the guitar or go to the piano and I’m always playing stuff. Some days I might be thinking too much and be second guessing things and I might then play the same chord sequence a few days later but all of a sudden I’m not thinking too much and a melody will turn up. I’m never thinking about what it’s going to be in the end and I find that a really liberating thing for me.
“Sometimes well we’ve had that chat of, ‘I don’t see how that’s going to fit on this record,’ but I kind of like that. I like those different sides to us. This album is probably more guitar driven, but then there’s a song like Power Lines on there which is more like a soul tune. We’ve always done that, even on the first record. People’s perception of the band who may have heard the singles would think of us as an indie thing but then you’ve got songs like Love’s A Game or Try that are more folky. I think the song arrives out of thin air in the mood that you’re in, you shape it a little bit but it dictates what it needs to be.
“I know we’re a band but I have the songs and then the next part is bringing the song to them. Then the lyric can be coming from a dark place but when we start playing it as a band, because we have a way of playing together and arranging things, I feel like it shifts a little bit and becomes more up and hooky.”
So you’ll play them the basic track and then flesh it out together?
“Yeah, but then sometimes I do it differently. There’s a song on the third album called Throwing My Heart Away which I wrote on the piano and I instantly thought Angela in the band should sing that song, I just felt like it would be perfect. So that was actually halfway through coming up with the song that I thought it would be great for her. So it depends. It’s not the main way, there’s no set thing I guess. Nowadays I do so many other projects that when I’m writing I might think, ‘This will be great for that,’ or sometimes I just sit there and make things up for fun. If I’ve got a couple of hours I I’ll just write things and make up a project, with made-up band names, albums and song titles.
Does it also work the other way, in that the side projects bleed into The Magic Numbers?
“Outside of The Magic Numbers I’ve done lots of little bits of co-writing and lots of playing with different people as a musician and production stuff. But the main one for me that’s been a real game changer is that I met a singer songwriter from Manchester called Ren Harvieu and she’s got the most incredible voice. I actually first saw her on [Later… With Jools Holland] a few years ago and her voice reminded me of Linda Ronstadt. Over the break between Magic Numbers albums, me and her have been writing and we’ve just finished making her next record, which I’ve been producing as well. During that time I was writing really big emotional songs, more ballad-esque, and I think when hooking back up with the band it was almost like not wanting to do that kind of thing, going against it and being like, ‘Let’s approach it in a different mindset,’ and in some ways it’s a lot more fun, just not in a sunshiny way. In short, doing other projects and then coming back to the band, it has really informed things.”
As chief songwriter do you ever feel a responsibility to the other members of the group, almost as if you have to keep doing it for their sake?
“No, it’s more of a love of what it is that everyone brings to it. It’s my outlet of writing and everything. It is great to do other things, Michele has done solo records and everyone does stuff, but we gravitate towards that moment of itching to get back together. As soon as we have that first rehearsal or jam it’s apparent that we’ve really got something. Sometimes we’ve played the odd show, we’ll have been doing loads of things and then this one show comes in and we play that gig and look at each other and go, ‘Bloody hell!’ We take it for granted but we’ve got something and we love this and it’s that unit, that gang thing. It’s an interesting one with us because we’re two families that get together. I couldn’t imagine myself being in a band with a bunch of guys. There’s something about me and my sister and Sean and his sister, there’s something quite protective within it and something instinctive and it’s quite powerful. I may have amazing moments by myself where I’m playing different kinds of music but that’s what pulls us back, that feeling of having something special together.”
It’s a different dynamic to the sparring siblings in bands like Oasis or The Kinks…
“It really is, just in terms of how we are. I remember when we started, when I first moved to London the Gannons were my first friends. I went to see Sean in a band and we started playing music together. We had been playing together for 10 years and our little sisters would come to those gigs and they were growing up. So all throughout that time different members would come and go and then we were sort of like, ‘Well should we get Michele and Angela in because we’re singing together at home and it’s sounding great?’ Michele could play guitar so maybe she could play bass and then it was just this thing that was natural and the best. Straightaway things started happening for us. But when it did we felt like we had to look after ourselves so we kept working away in the corners of the room and then as you get older you get more accepting of yourself as a person and as musicians and you’re like, ‘Let’s do this’ and you end up in the centre of the room going, ‘Come on!’”
Lastly, what do you hope for when releasing a new album these days?
“I’m still as ambitious as before in terms of hoping for success but the meaning of success has now changed in my mind. Before it was those experiences, like getting on the radio for the first time or the cover of the magazine and all these things that you imagined. Don’t get me wrong, amazing things have happened but success really is the creating, making something and feeling that you’ve made this thing which captures where you are at a certain time. The album is coming out in May and we’re putting some shows together and it’s exciting, as well as nerve-racking because you want the music to get out there to people. You still want to get on the radio and television, all these things that are really out of your control, but they always were. But it’s different now in terms of in my mind, it’s not going to destroy me. In the past if something wasn’t as successful and you’d put your heart and soul into it, it kind of does destroy you a little bit, but now I’ve awoken to the fact that I’ve just got to make things, I’ve just to create and get it out and push myself. And as a band we’ve got to not take four years between records, that’s insane. As I’m getting older I’m like, ‘Let’s start the next one, let’s do this.’ The most rewarding thing is going out playing live and hearing people sing your songs and feeling like it affected them, you can see it in the moment and then it transcends into this other thing. So I would love that to happen with the new songs.”
Interview: Duncan Haskell
Outsiders comes out on 11 May. For all the latest news, head to facebook.com/TheMagicNumbers