Colorado Music Spotlight and Interview: King Cardinal

Colorado Music Spotlight and Interview: King Cardinal

Denver’s King Cardinal has been making some of the best Americana of the past couple of years in Colorado, combining a Midwest aesthetic with the raw feel of Colorado twang. Their new song “Bluebird Day” uses the band’s atmospherics to elevate the emotion of a good day with hope on the horizon. 

We caught up with lead singer Brennan Mackey to talk about the new song, sounds his band is pursuing, and what’s on the band’s personal horizon. 

The Colorado Sound: How are you doing in this year we are calling 2020?

Brennan Mackey: I’m actually doing pretty well all things considered. I’m fortunate to have another gig that is considered “essential,” so I haven’t been hit as hard as some of my friends that rely solely on music.

What has the band been up to during the quarantine period?

We had planned to release six singles this year, but the quarantine put a stop to that. Luckily, we were able to eke out a few recordings before the quarantine hit. There’s a whole bunch of partially-recorded songs that we’ll be able to start putting the final touches on soon. 

We are down a few members these days. Scott Roush (drummer) and Texanna Dennie (singer) moved to Nashville and Alabama respectively. It was probably good timing since we can’t really play shows these days. Most of our music creation has become sending tracks back and forth to each other. Everyone has some ability to record, which makes it easier.

Have been able to play live anywhere?

I actually just played a house show in Larkspur over the weekend with Paul Dehaven. It was an outdoor show with each group having their own little designated space six feet away from each other. It was simultaneously an absolute blast and extremely awkward. Performing is definitely not like riding a bike. It takes a few attempts to get everything feeling smooth. But it felt great!

King Cardinal at FoCoMX in 2019

Your new song “Bluebird Day” seems like a reference to some better times. Was that the intention?

Absolutely! It’s a song about hoping for better times when things just aren’t going right. It’s about a year and a half old, so it’s not about COVID. It sure feels apropos to what’s going on right now though.

The song could easily make you think of bluebird skies, which we have a lot of here. What’s the best bluebird sky you have seen in Colorado?

Oh man, that’s a tough one. I rented a cabin for a week in Fairplay a few years ago to write. No running water, no electricity, no modern comforts. I’m not much of an outdoors guy, so it was the first time for me to do something like melt snow to wash the dishes. Towards the end of the trip, I was feeling pretty down on myself. The songs weren’t coming and it was getting pretty lonely.

I went for a long walk through the woods and came to a clearing on top of a hill that opened up to a field and two mountain peaks. I’m usually not the type of person to be awed by nature, but something hit me in that moment. I had an overwhelming sense that everything would be alright. 

You’ve been doing Tunes For A Tuesday on Facebook that seems to take on different themes each week. How did that idea come about, and do you think it will continue for a while?

I had actually planned on doing it for a while, it was just a random coincidence that I started it during the “Livestream Rush” of March 2020. My plan was to do it for exactly a year and see how it grows. It’s become one of my favorite things to do every week. There’s not a huge attendance, but there’s a dedicated following. There’s a guy, Renzo, from Peru, that tunes in every week and always comes with requests. The best part is just being able to interact with our fans.

You don’t get to chat with people while you’re playing a typical show. The live streams are super casual. We get to chat in between songs, people make requests, and I get to bumble new songs with no fear. I’m starting to switch it up and bring in some guests though. Sawmill Joe and David Burchfield dropped in to play a few songs. Ben (Waligoske, the band’s pedal steel player) came on and gave a little pedal steel class – something he has to do after every show for uninformed pedal steel attendees.

The pedal steel plays a central role in the King Cardinal sound.

The pedal steel plays a big role in King Cardinal’s sound. What kind does Ben play, and what’s the one secret to making a pedal steel sound so good?

Brennan: Well, on our records Ben rarely plays pedal steel the way it’s traditionally played. I think the song “Abraham” off our EP Once a Giant is the only song that has a pedal steel doing pedal steel things. (Jamie Mitchell played steel on that tune.)

Normally, people think of fast picking and super twangy. Ben tends to opt for a more spacious and ethereal sound. Lots of effects and atmosphere. “Bluebird Day” has pedal steel and two electric guitars. I think most people would be hard-pressed to even pick it out of the mix. It’s an instrument that can do so much more than what people are used to hearing.

Ben: I like and play old guitars, a 1970 Emmons Push-Pull, a 1973 Shobud, and a 1978 Shobud. Honestly, the biggest factor of good sound is all the hands though – good right hand and bar technique is essential, and a loud, clean amp helps too.

Is there a new album coming with the release of the new song?

I’m honestly not sure. We’ve got about six or seven songs that are partially recorded (with “Long Goodbye” being finished and released back in January). The idea was to record every song and treat them as a singular idea. Each one has such a different feel that I don’t think they would mesh together as a record. Once they’re all out, we may group them together as an EP or something. Just so the songs from this year are tethered together rather than floating around by themselves online.

However, we are starting to plan on the second full length with a batch of new songs. I’ve been sending some stuff back and forth with Eric Tate (who produced “Bluebird Day” and the upcoming single “Damn This Old Machine”). We’re trying to figure out what direction we want to go and what songs make sense.

“Bluebird Day” was just a throwaway demo until Eric pulled it out of a batch of 20-some odd ideas. It wouldn’t exist without him.

Long story short, there is an album coming but “Bluebird Day” won’t be a part of it.

Finally, what’s the one lesson being a musician right now that will help you forever moving forward?
I think this is really proving that you need to be flexible as a musician, and just in life in general. If you can’t play shows, play live streams or drive-in movie theaters or driveways. If you can’t get together to practice, get on the computer and trade tracks.
It’s easy to get stuck lamenting that we can’t keep doing things the way it’s always been done. Now is the chance to try different things. It’ll be interesting to see where music is when we get out of this. This year will definitely have a lasting effect on what we do.