"I moved to Denver on a whim," says King Cardinal founder Brennan Mackey. "I'd been living in Chicago, working a finance job that I didn't love, and I knew exactly what the rest of my life would look like if I stayed there. I decided I wanted to throw everything up in the air and see where it landed."
It makes sense, then, that the cover of King Cardinal's stellar debut album, 'Great Lakes,' depicts a man catapulting himself headlong into the unknown, trading safety and security for adventure and excitement as he leaps over a protective railing. If the record is any indication, Mackey's own bold leaps have paid off in spades. Pushing raw roots rock into lush, sonically daring territory with hints of cosmic country and delicate folk, 'Great Lakes' showcases the five-piece group's exceptional musicianship and the powerful emotional depth of the vocal interplay between Mackey and fellow singer Texanna Dennie.
In its earliest form, though, King Cardinal was a far lonelier enterprise. Ever a self- starter, Mackey adopted the King Cardinal moniker to record his self-titled first EP as a mostly-solo project, and after relocating to Denver, built up a fanbase using Reddit to crowdsource a network of house concerts.
"I didn't know a lot of people at first and it was difficult trying to put together a band, so I decided I would just do it on my own," he explains. "Once I made that decision, everything started to click."
Those early songs were sparse, acoustic, and poetic, inspired by the likes of Steve Earle and Ryan Adams, and they earned Mackey an invitation to perform at the prestigious Telluride Bluegrass Festival alongside stars like Punch Brothers, Brett Dennen, Lake Street Dive, and more. Perhaps most importantly, though, the music attracted a crew of kindred musical souls who would go on to help Mackey flesh out King Cardinal's follow-up EP, 'Once A Giant,' into a full band affair. Marquee Magazine hailed that collection as "excellently crafted Americana," while Westword praised the band's "raw, gut-wrenching emotion," and Scene called the EP "elegant and blissful" while applauding Mackey's transformation "from solo singer-songwriter to confident and earnest frontman." Dates with Ben Sollee, Sam Outlaw, Darlingside, and more followed, as the band expanded its reach beyond Colorado for the first time with national touring.
Mackey also found that with a steady lineup, King Cardinal's songs could evolve in new and exciting ways.
"This was the first opportunity we had to sit with songs as a group before any recording happened," reflects Mackey, "so everybody in the band was able to imprint their own personality. The song 'Chicago,' for instance, got totally reimagined when our drummer, Scout Roush, put a new beat behind it, and 'Seventeen' morphed into this grooving, upbeat track when Andrew Porter came up with his bass line. It's nice to have other people that can guide your songs in directions you'd never imagined."
When it came time to record 'Great Lakes,' Mackey took yet another leap of faith and sent the band's music to GRAMMY-winning producer and engineer Ted Young (Israel Nash, Banditos). Young fell for the songs immediately and invited King Cardinal down to Texas to record at the famed Sonic Ranch studio, which has played host to everyone from Conor Oberst and Karen O to the Black Angels and Beach House.
"Being outside of Denver meant we could eat, sleep, and breathe the record," says Mackey. "There were none of the distractions that come from being around our own homes, just an amazing studio with unreal gear. That setup really suited us because we wanted to focus on getting great sounds without overproducing anything."
Where King Cardinal's previous, homemade EPs took roughly a year each to track and mix, 'Great Lakes' was recorded in a brisk seven days. Consisting primarily of live performances captured without embellishment or ornamentation, the album is direct, raw, and loose, with a palpable sense of camaraderie and musical kinship.
"There's something special about having four or five people in a room all totally focused on one single creative goal," says pedal steel player Ben Waligoske. "Most of my favorite albums were recorded that way, and that's the way Ted likes to work, too. I think that's part of what makes the record so exciting."
The album opens with "Holy," a gently hypnotic, fingerpicked tune which finds Mackey alternating between his deeply soulful singing voice and a falsetto that calls to mind Bon Iver's Justin Vernon. "What you want / Ain't really what you need," he sings at the song's conclusion, succinctly capturing one of the record's central themes. On the twangy "Seventeen," Mackey looks back on the rudderless years between childhood and adulthood with both nostalgia and unease, while "Gasoline" finds him asking "Where you going, Who you gonna be?" over swirling pedal steel, and "Trouble" intentionally courts heartbreak and disaster in a quest for meaning and independence.
"When you're a kid, you have this freedom you don't even know you have," reflects Mackey. "Once you've grown up, you can look back and recognize it, but by that time, you're deep into the responsibilities of adulthood. Sometimes you just start longing for some chaos, for something wild to help you break free of your rut."
As the album progresses, though, Mackey finds that the grass isn't always greener, that there are limits to the kind of trouble we ought to seek. The narrator of "Better" struggles with his vices, as Mackey sings, "What seems like fun in the day time / At night it's just a shame," while "Boulder recollects a party that goes downhill fast, and "Standing Down" captures the poignant pain of a breakup.
"That song came from a notebook I found on a park bench," remembers Mackey. "It turned out to be the diary of a girl who was planning to write something new in it every day about her relationship with this guy she'd just started dating, and then she was going to give it to him at the end as a gift. Instead, it chronicled their crumbling relationship from happy beginning to untimely demise, and it ended with the guy moving away."
Perhaps that ending is ultimately what attracted Mackey to the story. There's no resolution, no clear answers about what ever happened to the mysterious main character. All we know is that he leapt from the security of a relationship into the chaos of the unknown, that he traded confinement in the pages of a notebook for limitless adventure in the wide-open world. It's precisely the kind of leap Mackey took when he left Chicago and started King Cardinal. There were no guarantees then, no safety nets to protect him, but with an album as good as 'Great Lakes,' it's clear Mackey landed right where belongs.