Ryan MacGrath doesn't do anything half-assed.
The night he released his EP, In My Own Company, he transformed the Seahorse into an opera house---heavy curtains hugged the stage, lanterns shone over mini-mirror balls hung like hot-air balloons and little white lights twinkled behind textured backdrops.
The magical surroundings were mere accents, as he pulled out all the stops---an ensemble of nearly a dozen musicians clad in all black, with pink floral broaches pinned to their chests. But it was the Harmony Barbershop Quartet that nearly stole the show.
"I found them on Kijiji," says MacGrath, over herbal tea. "They are incredible. It was the first time they've ever backed anyone. It certainly was the first time I've ever had a barbershop quartet back me up.
"Putting this CD release show together almost felt like a wedding---it was my wedding, in a way. I see why brides get so stressed."
Instead of sending out invitations, MacGrath spent four weeks embossing 200 copies of In My Own Company by hand. He even had small bottles of his own fragrance available for purchase at the show. "I like to produce a show that's more exciting for the audience. Perhaps a touch indulgent, over the top and theatrical," he says.
At 30 years old, the Guysborough County-native is no stranger to the spotlight. In recent years he's kicked around town as Ryan MacGrath and thewoodenhouse. A couple of lineup and name changes later the project settled on The Missing City Starlight.
Throughout it all, MacGrath was honing his craft and gathering up confidence to cultivate the more orchestral pop he's harvested in his solo material. This past June he arrived at Don MacKay's Spaces Between Studios on North Street with skeletal versions of In My Own Company. The recording process was a voyage in itself.
"We would consciously look for descriptive terms where we thought the song should go from a production and engineering standpoint," says MacKay, co-producer, sound engineer and multi-instrumental session musician. "We both had the skills to be able to find what it was that we were after.
"From our conversations and our prior musical experiences, we both have a dedication for songs, poetry and imagery, and sound. We have a deep love for creation, learning and exploration. This makes for fabulous linguistic and musical conversations."
Drawing on the theatrical, MacGrath and MacKay created their own narrative to orchestrate their creative ideas. When MacGrath wanted the opening track, "Bell Boy," to sound like a buoy floating in the water, MacKay took that image and built on it. "Cinderella" aptly grew from the original Walt Disney connotation, as MacKay improvised a Disney-feel with a shovel and bucket of dirt for a sharp bass drum.
It's hard not to create parallels with Rufus Wainwright's cabaret style and Hawksley Workman's robust vocal range, but In the Dead of Winter Festival co-organizer and songwriter Amelia Curran nailed it at MacGrath's CD release. "He sounds like a young Roy Orbison," she says. Perhaps, with more jazz flourishes, heavy-handed romanticism and dramatics akin to Parisian love stories.
"People ask me to come up with my own term for my music," says MacGrath, who is playing Thursday night at the festival. "It's like old parlour music. Imagine a group of old ladies and gentlemen dressed up. There are vases with big flowers. Someone is playing old-world music in the parlour."
MacGrath indulges in his imagination; he's boldly romantic and highly idealistic. His sexuality comes secondary. "I don't sensor myself in my lyrics. I've been out for 10 years. I'm really comfortable. I hope the songs are strong enough to translate to anyone," he says. "Sure, I'm a guy singing about another guy, but I hope that desensitizes. I want my music to transcend. I'm not RuPaul or a club boy."
Ryan MacGrath (8pm) w/Andrea Romolo (7pm), Alexandra Ribera (9pm) and Heather Kelday (10pm) at In the Dead of Winter, Thursday, January 29 at Eyelevel Gallery, 2063 Gottingen, $10, inthedeadofwinter.com.
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