“There was never a plan to start making solo records,” begins Michele Stodart as she reclines into the seat of a Soho caff and stirs the froth into her cappuccino. “But then something happens. The songs you’ve been writing just for yourself, whilst playing in a completely different band, take on a life of their own. Before you know it, you’re walking onto a stage where there’s just one mic stand, one monitor and no drums. And you’ve no clear recollection of what got you there!”
Not for the first time, Michele ends an utterance with a laugh that suggests she’s as interested to hear what she’s about to say as the person asking her the question. Over a decade since The Magic Numbers landed in the top ten with their double-platinum-selling debut album, Michele has taken temporary leave of the band she formed with her brother Romeo, to release her second solo album. Released four years after her solo debut, ‘Wide-Eyed Crossing’, the nine songs that comprise ‘Pieces’ confirm that, almost by stealth, Michele has turned into an artist whose work bears strong comparison to some of the touchstone songwriters that helped shape her outlook.
“With your first album,” she explains, “It’s very much a matter of planting your flag in the ground, assembling the best songs you’ve got, and saying, ‘Here I am.’ With this one though, I could start thinking about putting together something that felt more narrated and focus on the storytelling a bit more.” For Michele, it was a matter of getting tone and texture right rather than rushing into anything. One of the earliest songs to take shape on the record was ‘Something About You’. In doing so, it set the emotional temperature for much of what followed. It’s impossible to miss the aching vulnerability in Michele’s delivery, as she tells her younger self that “life waits for no girl/Who fears the dance of letting go” over a breathtakingly ornate string arrangement. “I think surrendering to an emotion, letting go of reservations and morality, to really feel something intensely, is actually a strength,” Michele argues.
Here and elsewhere, the bedrock of Michele’s writing is a reliance on rock-solid melodies that always stop short of outstaying their welcome. Keen to ensure that the tunes earned their place on the record, Michele wrote most of the songs on ‘Pieces’ away from her guitar – only setting them to chord sequences when they refused to leave her head. That would certainly explain the southern soul languor of opener ‘Come Back Home’ and the similarly tender ‘Oh By and By’. As Michele explains, the latter song is a good example of the unexpectedly fruitful restrictions that parenthood places on the creative process. “That was written when my daughter Maisie was still a baby. I was putting her to sleep and sitting next to her writing this song, which obviously I had to do almost silently. But actually, that’s not a bad way to write. Because if a song can sound good without even a hint of amplification, you know it’ll sound good whatever you do with it.”
Michele’s daughter also happened to be with her when one of the defining songs of ‘Pieces’ unexpectedly descended upon her. Recalling the socially conscious vignettes of John Prine and Iris DeMent, ‘Once In A While’ came together when Michele and Maisie were rushing from their West London home to catch a train into town. “The last thing on my mind was music,” she recalls, “I was walking down the steps of the station with my little girl and we saw a homeless guy just sitting there. He had suffered some sort of extensive burns – and my first reaction was to hide my daughter from that pain and hurt. I remember standing there, unable to do anything other than cry, then just gave him whatever change I had in my pockets and we moved on. For a while, the whole thing stayed fixed in my mind and the song grew out of it, in this case into a parallel universe where I could somehow make everything better. It’s not about tidying away difficult emotions, though: for me, a song can be about holding on to those for longer than would normally be comfortable.”
Having experienced toxic relationships and intensely loving ones, Michele feels well placed to hold forth on both scenarios. ‘When Is It Over?’ parlays sentiments that will be immediately recognisable to many women who have ended an abusive relationship only to realise that the underlying insecurities which propelled them there in the first place are harder to shake. “I wrote that one in a hotel room in Belgium,” she recalls. “You find yourself in a place where you keep repeating the same mistakes and you keep telling yourself it’s ok to do that. I used to seek out darkness, perhaps thinking that I would write better songs as a result of it. But really, you don’t have to seek it. It’s all around us.”
All of which brings us to the “trade off” to which Michele refers when describing one of the songs on ‘Pieces’ which concern loving relationships: the more precious the love you find, the greater the fear and awareness of the forces that conspire to take it away. ‘Just Anyone Won’t Do’, the song in question, is another example of the increasingly assured narrative voice that Michele is bringing to her songs these days. In this tenderly turned study of loss, we’re reminded that the longer and more loving the relationship is, then the greater the grief that follows it: “There’s a place to the left of you/Still cold and unlaid in/The bed’s all made up,” she sings. Even if she makes it to the chorus in one piece, you may fare less well.
The album concludes exquisitely with ‘Over the Hill’. “It took me a long time to write,” she says, “because I didn’t want to be too specific. I wanted it to be about life weathering adversity, into old age and maybe beyond.” Perhaps fittingly, given its place on the album, ‘Over the Hill’ is a dramatic marker of the progress that Michele has made since we first saw her plucking at the bass guitar that, as a 15-year-old, she only ever picked up at her brother’s behest. To hear her hushed invocations of “follow the sound” giving way to the song’s modal acoustic coda is akin to seeing morning reveal the extent of a frantically inspired night’s work. Michele Stodart has learned from the best, and in the clear light of day, it absolutely shows.