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How Cliff Cardinal found his inner rock star

iPhoto caption: Cliff Cardinal plays a gig at Mahtay Cafe in St. Catharines, ON. Photo by Dahlia Katz.
/Written by / Mar 13, 2024

Content warning: this article contains mention of suicide and residential schools.

As someone who writes about theatre artists in Canada for a living, I’ve encountered plenty of memorable personalities. 

But only one interview subject has told me to call him at “any time except rock o’clock” without offering further context. Only one has caught me off guard by peppering a talkback for a Daniel MacIvor workshop with obscure Sarah Kane quotes. Only one has asked me to review their band with the disclaimer, “even if you said really bad things about us, we’d be stoked.”

Yes, there’s only one Cliff Cardinal.

While the Governor General’s Award-winning playwright and performer has made a name for himself with solo shows like Huff and As You Like It, A Radical Retelling, he’s also a gifted songwriter and the frontman of Cliff Cardinal and the Sky-Larks, whose sound wanders between reggae, rock, and ska. Cardinal’s lyrics are instantly recognizable as his – they’re frank, funny, and a little bratty – and the playful whine of his voice translates well to bluesy songs about family, substance abuse, and the futility of everyday life.

Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Cliff Cardinal and the Sky-Larks just wrapped up a tour across Ontario and Quebec, including the intimate set at St. Catharines’ Mahtay Cafe that I saw on February 26. The group’s a total blast: there’s no doubt the guys onstage are having just as much fun as the small-but-mighty crowds on the floor. Instrumentalists Patrick Ferrigan and Justin McWilliams, along with Cardinal, never feel uptight or self-important as they soundtrack Cardinal’s lamentations on suicide and the meaning of life. Instead, they lean into the carefree sound afforded by gentle drumbeats and guitar licks – as Cardinal intones in “Gonna Be Fine,” everything’s, well, gonna be fine. “It might not be that great,” sings Cardinal, “but it’s gonna be fine.”

There are no frills to Cliff Cardinal and the Sky-Larks. They’re not note-perfect, and as far as their recorded music is concerned, there’s nothing particularly revolutionary about the way the songs have been arranged or produced.

But at the heart of Cliff Cardinal and the Sky-Larks rests the poetic sensibilities that have launched Cardinal to icon status in Canadian theatre time and time again. You don’t fall in love with Cliff Cardinal and the Sky-Larks for their aesthetic trimmings – there aren’t many. You fall instead for their criminally under-streamed songs, bops like “Bipolar Coke Addict” and moody autobiographies like “My Sisters and Me,” both of which claim fewer than 1,000 streams on Spotify.

Photo by Dahlia Katz.

With a little help from the Sky-Larks, Cardinal’s re-defining what it means to be a rock star. You don’t need huge venues, or intricate costumes, or overpowering synths to wail away on a guitar (and look damn cool while doing so). 

No: in the Cliff Cardinal school of rock, all you need is confidence – and anyone familiar with his work knows he has swagger to spare.

‘I just want a great moment right now’: On As You Like It, snakeskin suits, and the origin of the Sky-Larks

The day I interviewed Cardinal, “rock o’clock” turned out to be 8 p.m.

“I have to be honest with you, because you’re a journalist, but we didn’t draw very big crowds in Niagara,” he said, reflecting on the previous night’s set. When I saw Cliff Cardinal and the Sky-Larks myself, that gig, too, hadn’t had a huge audience, maybe 20 people. 

“But people have a really good time on this tour,” he continued. “I’m having a really great time, too.”

Cardinal got his start in music busking outside liquor stores. Eventually friend and Indigenous composer Dave DeLeary introduced him to Ferrigan, who invited Cardinal to record a few songs at his place.

“It was like I’d been invited to Dr. Dre’s house,” said Cardinal.

“Cliff Cardinal and the Sky-Larks has been in development for a few years,” he continued. “We’re really happy with where we’re at today. These guys are great – they’ve been playing together since they were 15 years old, and with a wide variety of artists. They can do anything.”

Meet the Sky-Larks: Justin McWilliams (top) and Patrick Ferrigan (bottom).

You can hear the band’s influences in the work they produce – the angst of Post Malone, the rhythmic freedom of Bob Marley, the soul of Nina Simone – but at the centre is Cardinal, and those strong, strong roots in the world of theatre.

“I’m a student of the form in each thing I do,” he said, musing on his ability to quickly switch between music, theatre, and poetry. “As a multidisciplinary artist, and as someone who comes from different communities and Indigenous communities, growing up in Toronto, I moved between disciplines and friend groups.

“I’m the guy in the middle of all the steps,” he continued. “And I’m giving you a perspective. Generally, I’m going into controversial places or dark places, and I’m speaking personally about it.”

It’s been a busy year for Cardinal, with back-to-back tours of As You Like It and Huff, as well as a new show, (Everyone I Love Has) A Terrible Fate (Befall Them) with Crow’s and VideoCabaret last year. As You Like It, co-conceived by Cardinal and Crow’s artistic director Chris Abraham, even had its international premiere at Under the Radar Festival in New York, a big step for a show whose premise has been imbued with secrecy and controversy since its premiere in 2021. (“It just so happens that my trickster is a white man,” joked Cardinal, remembering early conversations about the play with Abraham.)

Responses to As You Like It in New York were mixed, says Cardinal, but each night a group of audience members were left who understood the intent behind the play, which helped soothe more barbed responses from theatregoers unimpressed by the piece’s premise.

“I’m grateful for the time and I learned a lot,” he said. “I made some good friends down there”¦I hoped everyone would adore me, and that didn’t happen, but I’m grateful to be able to bring my work there.” 

At concerts with the Sky-Larks, audience response has been much more personal.

“I feel the connection with them,” said Cardinal. “It’s just a beautiful experience. It speaks to me artistically, in terms of my dark, edgy perspective – if someone comes to hear my songs, or one of my stories, or even reads this interview, my name becomes part of the fabric of their lives. That means the world to me.”

Photo by Dahlia Katz.

It’s not the first time “edgy” has been used to describe Cardinal’s work. Huff opens with Cardinal attempting to asphyxiate himself with a plastic bag; As You Like It describes residential schools, or “rape camps,” in uncomfortable detail. Cardinal’s writing is consistently subversive, yet equally soaked in self-deprecating humour.

“When I started writing, I got really into fiction. I love Hubert Selby Jr. – it’s just so dark, with such pain,” he said. “He left blood on the page every time he wrote, and I was very moved by that. I wanted to go into that area, and tell stories about the underbelly. And that happened because of who I am.

“And what else I’m finding out through the beauty of music,” continued Cardinal, “is that there are things we can’t talk about. But through our relationship with a rock star, we can experience those things in a more real way. We can experience them communally. I mean, we don’t even have to talk about them. But I’m having my relationship with that person. We’re humans, and we’re part of this magical space.”

So what, then, would musical success look like to Cardinal?

“I want to see Dave DeLeary talking about me in an interview, wearing a snakeskin suit, on a couch, on a yacht, saying, ‘I hate that motherfucker,’” he said. 

“I’m joking, of course, but for us, music is about bringing people together to feel. It’s not about what you get from it. We get some breaks now and then, we get invited to this or that. Every time we get a break, it feels really great, and for me, that’s everything, right? I just want a great moment right now.”

Aisling Murphy

Aisling Murphy

Aisling is Intermission's senior editor and an award-winning arts journalist with bylines including the Toronto Star, NEXT Magazine, CTV News Toronto, and Maclean's. She likes British playwright Sarah Kane, most songs by Taylor Swift, and her cats, Fig and June.



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