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Davis, California

Saturday, March 2, 2024

Student Sounds: Introducing Cardinal


Duo boasts rich acoustics, hypnotizing harmonies and a lyricism that presents the mundane as poetic

“You know, that one song with the weird chord,” says Ashley West, first-year music and sociology major at UC Davis. With intricacy — and what appears to be a legitimate imitation of a “weird chord” — she strums an air-guitar toward her good friend and bandmate Nathen Gong. At first he faces me and laughs (now imitating her strumming), until his eyes light up, responding with “Oh yeah, that one with the weird chord,” in both English and air guitar.

But they communicate by more than just imaginary fretting, of course; with West studying at UC Davis and Gong residing in Santa Rosa (their shared hometown), efficient communication is a necessity for their indie folk band, Cardinal. And, with Gong attending Cal Arts in the fall, this skill will not be squandered. The two have mastered other ways of keeping their musical long distance relationship alive, often finding themselves jotting down chords and lyrics on their shared Google Doc until they can bring them to life at their next meeting.

Giving life to the ordinary, however, has never been an issue for this duo. Their lyrics, with a melancholic depth I could only resolve by the consistent replay of their 5-track EP, are not indicative of their upbeat and bubbly personalities. Within the first five minutes of our meeting, I was in no way surprised to discover that fate only played a minor role in their introduction. Rather, high school physics and Gong’s “Donut Hole Thursday” ritual chanced their meeting.

Having attended Santa Rosa High School and participated in its renowned Art Quest program, it wasn’t long before the two began jamming after school with fellow classmates. But both picked up music and art at a much earlier age.

West found music in many outlets — family, friends and church — and admitted through laughter that she basically “grew up jamming with old people.” She explored other facets as well, dabbling in piano, ukulele and later, guitar. Though her current studies lie in music, she remained a part of the Art Quest dance program throughout her high school career. Also a member of her high school choral program, her time at Davis has also been spent with the Davis Chamber Choir.

Gong entered their project with a different background; playing drums since the fifth grade, he didn’t begin singing outside of the casual family car ride until pairing with West within the past year. The quality of his voice, especially on their track “Spin,” is best described as a pleasant surprise. Their harmonies, sounding more like a performance by The Head and The Heart than a group who met only a few years ago, merely adds to their deserved recognition. Though West picks up guitar in some tracks, Gong is in charge of most guitar responsibilities.

Their array of talents, synthesized by a mutual contribution to Cardinal’s sound, has carried them through the successes of small, local performances and even an Open Mic night at the CoHo. The most tangible sign of their hard work, however, was the official release of their EP, “Crossed Wires” (available for both listening and purchase here) this past December. Having designed and organized the project themselves, West notes that “self-producing is not for the faint of heart.”

Their hearts prove anything but faint. The first songs on their EP are brimming with emotion and catchy melodies, only enhanced by West’s simple, beautiful vocals. Their stripped-down acoustics, paired with simple harmonies, are reminiscent of musicians like Hozier, Iron and Wine and even Fleet Foxes. The EP concludes on a strong note, with their track “Hold My Heart” beginning with West’s soft, haunting vocals. It only takes a few seconds for Gong’s flavorful chords to infuse the track with charm and personality, increasing curiosity such that you can’t untangle the left ear bud from the right one quite fast enough.

Cardinal’s most striking feature, however, is not their contagious energy, but their fluency; though proficient in English and air guitar, they best communicate through something more profound and permeable: making good music.

WRITTEN BY: Ally Overbay – arts@theaggie.org


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