Ryan MacGrath isn’t pleased with his first recording. “It’s too repetitive, it’s too sparse,” he tells his co-producer Don MacKay, pulling up a set of bongos and starting to play a beat over top.
MacGrath and MacKay are nestled in the shed-turned-recording-studio called Between Spaces, in Halifax’s North End. MacGrath sits on a chair with his guitar and headphones in a room dimly lit by a red-tinted light bulb. MacKay sits at a computer in the back room, fiddling with levels and sound.
“Sounds good to me man,” MacKay answers. But MacGrath is already off on a creative tangent, set out to add dimension to the sixth and last song on his solo EP, In My Own Company.
The small-town Nova Scotia native had the typical childhood love affair with music. He remembers being three years old, pressing his ear against his parents’ big wooden eight track, listening to Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Dolly Parton. MacGrath was always encouraged to go into biology and physics after high school, and left his home outside of Antigonish, NS to take a science degree at Acadia University in Wolfville, NS. After an art history course re-awakened his creativity, he switched after his first year to the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) and completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 2002.
During his first year at NSCAD, MacGrath used his student loan to buy a guitar. He could hear arrangements in his head, and without any musical training started writing songs and performing at open mics. In 2005, he formed Ryan MacGrath and thewoodenhouse for which he was the primary songwriter and arranger. A couple of name and musician changes later, they settled on The Missing City Starlight, so that MacGrath the solo artist and MacGrath the band man wouldn’t get confused.
In My Own Company will be a series of six songs all written by the 29-year-old MacGrath in the last year. Set to be released in September, most of the songs reflect MacGrath’s fantasies, whether it be the small town boy trying to escape Nova Scotia in his track Way West and Big City or the hopeless romantic wanting to be swept away by his shining knight in Featherweight.
Though he doesn’t label himself as a queer artist, his songs explicitly reference male lovers and he participates in Halifax’s gay community. He doesn’t label himself as one genre either, describing his voice as folk and the music as pop. MacGrath plays guitar on all the tracks and features friends and band mates singing and playing instruments such as the violin, drums, synth and sitar. He dubs the resulting sound “parlour pop.”
Whether MacGrath is painting or making music, his approach is always hands on. In the recording studio, he’s either playing the xylophone while listening to his tracks, coming up with another melody, or humming harmonies on top, creating a layered texture to his water-smooth voice. “Ryan sees things most people don’t,” MacKay says. “He’s got this incredible creative energy.”
Whatever he’s doing, MacGrath exerts a calm control. He speaks like a man who knows what he wants, but has faith things will happen organically. His attitude about the release of his EP, which he hopes will open doors for him as a solo artist in the Halifax music community, is much the same. “It feels like good timing,” he says, with one foot against the red door of the shed, smoking a cigarette before a long night of recording. “Even if nothing comes of it, I’ll still make music. It’s in me.”
Check out more on Ryan MacGrath and his music on his Facebook page: