“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.