Andrew Darley talks to Ryan MacGrath about the inspiration for his EP The Pink Lark, and what it means to be a queer singer-songwriter.
Sometimes life can throw you a rope, but more often than not you have to make your own way out of difficult situations. After filing for bankruptcy in the aftermath of a long-term relationship, the Canadian singer-songwriter Ryan MacGrath packed up and left for Austria to follow his new love, whom he had only known for six months.
With nothing left to lose and hopes for a new beginning on European soil, he quickly sobered up, realising he had no source of income, could not speak the native language and had put miles between himself and his close friends and family back home. To get through this unsettled period, he began work on new material in his new home of the mountain-guarded valley of Innsbruck in Austria. The songs took a more stripped-down, introspective approach compared to the showmanship of his debut solo album, Cooper Hatch Paris.
The Pink Lark, released on March 4th 2013, documents the emotions and experiences of this time and reminds us that sometimes we just have to follow what we love, even if we don’t know where it may take us. I sat down with Ryan to speak about the new music, his inspirations and plans for the future.
To get started, could you a give a quick introduction for Polari readers who may not be familiar with your work?
My name is Ryan MacGrath. I’m a singer-songwriter and recording artist from Nova Scotia in Canada. I have been living in Innsbruk, Austria for just over a year now. I make what I call “parlour pop” music, which is my way of describing the sound. It’s sort of an intimate, personal way of writing but I use a pop navigation for the songs.
I’ve been listening to your new EP constantly for the past two weeks. It seems that its main theme is starting over new and the joys and the struggles that come with it. Could you talk about the inspiration behind it?
When I moved to Austria, I had this idea in my head that I would be the new thing in town and that it would be much easier to get shows, meet people in the music business and to make new fans. But I think that was my optimism getting the best of me. When I first got here, I put out some feelers out and I quickly realised that I was going to have to put in a lot of work and planning, more than I had imagined so that was a real eye-opener. I decided to focus on writing songs, because that’s what I know I can do, and to rely on myself.
The songs on the EP were written between the first three weeks that I moved here up until the end of summer of 2012. They ended up being mostly about my relationship with my boyfriend and the struggles we were facing together during the move and being in a new country, with a new language and how that affected us. I didn’t set out to write this EP about that, it was when I looked back putting the songs together I could see that theme there.
Can you tell me about the recording process and how these songs came together?
I met this guy called Chris Vano here in Innsbruck one night at a music show and we thought that we should try work together sometime. It wasn’t until he contacted a few months later and I said “let’s go for a beer”. At that time, I was looking for someone to record with here, because I wasn’t sure of the music scene here in terms of engineering, recording studios. I told him I was looking to make an EP that was very simplified. I wanted to create songs acoustically as a test for myself to see if the songs could stand up on their own, without all the background stuff going on.
We met in the studio and I had given him a song to mess around with on the piano. Within thirty seconds of him playing I knew he had a really cool energy and instinctive talent. Right away I knew I wanted to work with him. We recorded in his home-studio in Götzens, which is a beautiful mountside-side village just outside of Innsbruck. We kept it very simple; there were times when we had drum loops and synthesizers and after taking those mixes home I realised that the sound was for a different record. We stripped everything back which was difficult because I love layering, counter-melodies and experimenting and push all that away to keep it direct.
Visual art and visual representation is obviously very important to your work and can be clearly seen in the self-portrait on The Pink Lark. How did the cover come about?
I hadn’t painted in a while as I was focused on the music. When it came to choosing a cover, I wanted to make it myself. My last record was a very stylised photograph and because the new music is very simple and more focused on the essence of the song, I wanted to keep everything surrounding it in that vein. The self-portrait for the cover felt like the most organic thing to do.
Did you learn anything from the release of your first album Cooper Hatch Paris?
Yes! (Laughs) I learned so much. With the first record, there was really no holding back with the musicians I worked with, my engineer and co-producer. It was very much whatever we thought of, we said “Let’s fucking record it!” so the process took a very long time. Just when we thought we were finished, there was something else to do. It ended up being quite stressful because of the pressure I put on myself. After creating a big record, there was a lot of work I had to do to get it heard and it felt a bit too big for me.
Now I realise you can make a lot with much less. A good song doesn’t need a cello and a string section or shakers. I thought my sound was going be very orchestral because my inspirations had so much going on in their records. After that album, I understood you could make something much more immediate if you let go of the notions of what you feel you need to make. That’s why The Pink Lark sounds the way it does, it’s like taking a breath.
What do you think about the recognition of queer artists in music today? Have you ever faced any difficulties being a queer artist in the music business?
Yes. But not necessarily to my face. I’ve never had anyone say “No you’re gay, you’re singing about gay love, this doesn’t suit our venue”. But I know I have missed out on oppurtunities because of the content of my music and the way I’m presenting it as an openly gay artist. I’ve not gotten some chances because some audiences are not into that. Especially if you’re trying to make a living in playing your music, you need to play a lot. Sometimes shows are bigger than others and then some are in small community theatres. Community shows can be amazing with a lot of support and open-mindedness and sometimes they’re not.
I remember performing at a show with a female artist and I was standing at the sidelines waiting to go on. I heard a woman ask her husband in the audience “We’re here to see this person, who is this Ryan MacGrath playing with her?” and he replied “Oh I don’t know but I hear he’s a little weird”. The way he said it had a very negative connotation.
You just have to accept that and hope that the music transcends any of those notions, particularly if you’re playing to people who haven’t been exposed to gay culture. I’ve found that has happened a lot which I’m very grateful for. For any musician, I think the music should always come first before any message of being gay or being a queer artist. That way the music will speak for itself.
What has been the most memorable moment of your career so far?
The best shows and most memorable are the ones when people come up to me afterwards and tell me that the song I just sang touched them personally or reminded them of someone they love. When I realise I can connect with someone, those are the moments that stand out. There was one time in particular that has been going around in my head lately. I was playing a small community theatre in Canada and a gentleman came up to me when I was packing up. He shook my hand and told me I did a great job and then said “Now let go!”. It was just the way he looked at me and said it, I wasn’t sure exactly what he was referencing but it struck me. What I thought and wanted him to mean was to let go creatively and my feelings surrounding the music. I bet he never thought that I would be using his words as a mantra. And that’s what happened with The Pink Lark, I let go of some of the control I usually hold that would have shaped the songs into more pop or commercial for radio.
On that note, have you thought about the sound of your next album?
Yes and I have ideas of who I want to work with. I feel if I say what it is, it will end up being something completely different. I do want it to be more band-oriented, midway between the acoustic, minimalist vibe and the more orchestrated sound. Something with more energy and more balls. I’m hoping to record at the end of the summer and I’ll see if I’m still feeling that way.
What your plans for the next couple of months?
I’m playing shows for the EP release and will have my first UK performance in Manchester on March 1st. Then I’m touring all over Europe including Switzerland, Belgium, Germany and The Netherlands in June. In July, I’m doing a full tour of the UK with shows in London, Wales, Cardiff and Scotland which should take me through summer and then back to Canada for some more shows. Lots of touring and back to the studio at the end of summer.
I’ve one final question: What does The Pink Lark symbolise for you?
That’s a title I’ve had in my head for a couple of years and I wasn’t sure how or if I was going to use it. When it started I thought the words were cool together. I saw a sign called ‘Pink Larkin & Associates’, it was a lawyer’s office. I thought it was a strange sounding and feeling words when put together so I shortened it. The Pink Lark to me symbolises that freedom and letting go I’ve felt. For me it’s not necessarily a bird which people may first think of, it’s more about trusting in something and following your instinct.
The Pink Lark will be released on March 4th and can be purchased at ryanmacgrathmusic.bandcamp.com
Ryan will have a special EP release performance in The Richmond Tea Rooms, Manchester on March 1st. He will also have a full UK tour in July which show dates can be found on his website ryanmacgrath.com