Do you believe in magic?

The true Trini roots of UK pop sensation the Magic Numbers

The Magic Numbers: (from left) Angela and Sean Gannon and Romeo and Michelle Stodart. Photograph courtesy 9PR

Caribbean musicians often find it hard to break into the global mainstream. Last summer in Britain, however, a debut album with Trinidadian roots crashed the charts. The Magic Numbers arrived with little fanfare, a refreshing absence of “bling”, and a live-gig approach to advertising, where word of mouth, unheard of in an era of ubiquitous advertising, catapulted their eponymous album to number seven.

 

With a folksy, West Coast guitar sound, a distinctly un-pop-star-like appearance, lovelorn lyrics full of emotion, and a bit of fun, you’d be forgiven for thinking this foursome grew up hanging out in California, kicking back, watching waves, and musing on life and love. You’d be wrong: this is a sound distilled through the discographies of Trinidad, New York, and London.

The Magic Numbers are two sets of siblings, Romeo and Michelle Stodart and Angela and Sean Gannon. Drummer Sean and sister Angela on percussion were born in London. Frontman Romeo and sister Michelle, who plays bass and provides additional vocals, were born in Trinidad. Their mother Juliet appeared on the local TV show Scouting For Talent. “Our mum used to sing — opera, Burt Bacharach, Jimmy Webb — so we grew up with her singing around the house,” reminisces Romeo of their upbringing in Trinidad, where they listened to steel pan, calypso, soul, and a little country.

But when Romeo was eleven and Michelle was six, they left for New York. “Muslims took over Trinidad and there was a curfew,” he says, referring (somewhat inaccurately) to the attempted coup in 1990, when a small Afro-Islamist group tried unsuccessfully to topple the government. “My parents got bored of that pretty quickly, going to bed at seven o’clock . . . Prior to that, they’d always had intentions of leaving, but turning on the TV and seeing the same newsreader I’d seen from being really young, sort of presenting almost with a gun to her head, that was a bit much!”

The Stoddarts headed for Queens to live with their uncle in a cramped three-bedroom apartment. “New York was like walking into a movie, from this tiny island,” explains Romeo. “As soon as you stepped outside, there was a weird chemistry around, a lush feeling that you can do it all,” adds Michelle.

Do they feel being born and brought up in a small place like Trinidad was a hindrance?

“I think it was inspiring, because it was hard to get hold of music,” says Romeo. “It was either Caribbean folk music, or steel pan calypso. So when I first heard a band like Guns ‘N’ Roses, or another band from somewhere else, it was always like, ‘Wow’. So then you’re aware of there being more music to be found, and you go out and find it — which then leads to you being selective about it, simply because there is so much out there.”

In the end, New York didn’t work out. “My dad’s dad is Scottish, so we moved here,” says Romeo. “Here” is Hanwell in west London. “When me and Michelle came to England the Gannons were our first friends.”

When asked what he remembers of Trinidad, Romeo pauses and grins. “Hanging out on the beach. A lot. Loads of Trini slang too — like liming or scrunting.”

“That’s the favourite at the moment. It means you’re skint,” Angela chips in, proving Trini spirit to be alive and well among the foursome. “When they argue,” she continues, “Romeo’s Trini accent comes out and he starts talking in patois, whereas Michelle is much more New York.”

The songwriting talents of Romeo are an essential part of the Magic Numbers’s success. “Usually I write when I’m melancholy,” says Romeo. “Most of the songs come from failed relationships. It’s about dealing with loss for me. Trying to find some way of coping and lifting yourself up.”

His explanation stands out. Growing up in different countries and moving from place to place is also about loss, about finding ways to cope and smile as you leave behind what you called home.

“When I was growing up in Trinidad, I was trying to find music outside of Trinidad,” says Romeo. “And then moving to New York affected just the possibility aspect of it all. You felt like you could achieve anything. But the most important factor has been moving here, really. Trying to settle in and feel at home. Because our upbringing has just been so scattered.”

When you listen to their album, good times feel really good, bad times refreshingly meaningful, and you realise why the Magic Numbers’s easy pop sound is proving such a winner. This isn’t a manufactured pop band with lyrics and production designed to maximise sales. Home for the Stodarts, whether in Trinidad, New York, or London, has always been music and family.