While Castle Macfarlane is a physical place — mossy ruins of the 15th century stronghold remain in the Scottish Highlands — it is also a creative homecoming for Winnipeg musician Matt Macfarlane, who has adopted the moniker for his debut as a solo artist.
After more than a decade playing in local pubs and fronting underground rock bands, Macfarlane, 33, has taken the pandemic as an opportunity to step out on his own. Last month, he released Cosmic Wine, a 10-track album that reads like a bohemian rock opera carried along by his sweeping vocals.
"I wanted to make a moody solo album that was less about loud instruments and more about piano-driven music and a more theatrical approach," he says.
The singer has had a penchant for theatrics long before becoming Castle Macfarlane.
Born in Whitehorse, his family moved to southern Manitoba and settled in Winnipeg when he was 10 years old. He started teaching himself piano as a teenager and joined the choir program in high school; mostly for the class trip to the Canadian Rocky Mountain Festival at the Banff Centre.
"It just sounded like a really fun trip to do and it was an easy credit," Macfarlane says with a chuckle. "I had no experience at all, so I think that was the beginning of (my interest in)... learning music and the choir teacher teaching us Beatles and Beach Boys; a lot of that music I discovered through that course."
It was an introduction that opened the doors to a whole new world of music punctuated by charismatic performers, many of whom have influenced Macfarlane’s extravagant singing style.
"All of the rock and roll I got into when I was a teenager, everything had that theatrical quality because it was David Bowie and Alice Cooper and Rocky Horror Picture Show and Phantom of the Paradise," he says. "That rock opera style, that ‘70s sort of sound, it’s just locked in whether I like it or not."
Macfarlane joined his first band, Dark Town Tango, after graduation and started dabbling in songwriting; an intimidating hobby at first, but one that’s become a rewarding outlet for self-reflection.
Costumes made their way into performances with his next group, Dick Lizard and the Komodos, which, prior to splitting up, had started bridging the gap between the pub scene and the festival circuit, playing at events such as the Hoot Owl and Pride Winnipeg festivals — the latter was a highlight for Macfarlane, who is a member of the LGBTTQ+ community.
Audiences can expect more velvet capes and full-on travelling circus-vibes from Castle Macfarlane.
"With this new reincarnation I really... want to put on a show," he says.
Life outside music also revolves around the stage. After years of studying psychology part-time, Macfarlane has thrown himself into acting classes at university. He hopes to work in arts administration one day, but is using his studies to fine-tune his act in the meantime.
"Everything translates to singing on stage, it shares the same bed," he says. "Whether it’s awareness or breathing or being in your body and improving on your voice, it’s all related."
Cosmic Wine was recorded over the last year with longtime bandmate and collaborator Travis MacLean — son of Gary MacLean, one half of Winnipeg’s raunchy musical comedy duo MacLean & MacLean. The pair tapped their network for backup vocalists and musicians who sent in homemade recordings that were assembled in the studio, "It really was an album by correspondence," Macfarlane says.
For someone who thrives as a live performer, he says he’s found it frustrating to launch his first solo album without an audience. Until pandemic restrictions allow for live concerts, Macfarlane is working on creating a virtual album experience complete with stage dressing and costumes.
Cosmic Wine is available at castlemacfarlane.hearnow.com and most major streaming services.
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.