Out of more than 2,000 entries for the Mountain Stage New-Song contest, Jackson-bred and New Orleans-based trio Cardinal Sons rose to the top. The band of three brothers—lead vocalist and guitarist John Shirley, keyboardist and vocalist Joe Shirley, and drummer and vocalist Dave Shirley—traveled to New York City in October for the competition and became the grand-prize winner.
As the Mountain Stage NewSong winner, the band will have several high-profile performances, including at New York City's Lincoln Center, Utah's Sundance ASCAP Music Cafe and on National Public Radio's Mountain Stage show. By February, the band will record and mix a new EP with producer, musician and songwriter Charlie Sexton.
Cardinal Sons will be in town Nov. 27 to continue its tradition of performing at Martin's Lounge before Thanksgiving.
I spoke with John, the oldest brother, by phone about the band's direction.
How did you find out about and get involved with the Mountain Stage NewSong Contest?
I think I may have come across an artist who had won it in years previous. (We just) kind of went through the steps and sent in our video for "October Rolls." A couple months later, I got a bunch of phone calls and emails (in May) saying we were early-bird finalists. I didn't really think much of it for a while, and then they were telling us that we needed to be in New York City in October.
What was the competition like?
The competition took place in this big atrium of the Lincoln Center. It was very singer-songwriter. One person would go up, and they would be playing an acoustic guitar, and everyone would be quiet. They would sing a song, and everyone would clap. That's very different from the environment that I'm used to, so I was totally freaked out. It was not a show; it was very much like a coffee shop singer-songwriter vibe.
The winner is chosen based on both songwriting and performance skills. What do you think it was about yours that blew the judges away?
I think what set us apart was the fact that we were a band. Everyone else in the competition was a single man or woman. So I think that was pretty attractive to them. And then I think our songs were more unique, I guess. This was a song competition, and most of the people that entered were like singer-songwriters, and that's not our vibe at all. Because of that (and) because of our kind of quirky, interesting songs, we were immediately differentiated from the rest.
How do y'all approach songwriting?
The initial idea for a song will be me coming up with a melody and then working that melody into a couple different parts. And then after all that's done, (we) put lyrics to it, and Dave will come in and we'll work out the arrangement and instrumentation on it. So it kind of starts with a really simple idea, and then it evolves once we all get our hands on it. It's a collective effort though.
What about the lyrics?
I recently discovered a lot of my songs have to deal with feeling guilty about something. I think that's a very Catholic thing that I, for whatever reason, have in my blood. It's definitely about certain memories and certain feelings—kind of trying to put something out there and, at the same time, be a little vague so it's not always just cut and dry or uncreative. I prefer to be a little ambiguous with lyrics.
How do you and your brothers' musical background influence how you write and perform?
Well, just being brothers, we want to emphasize vocal harmonies. We think it's something that is kind of unique, and I think we do harmonies pretty well because we're brothers.
How do being from Jackson and living in New Orleans affects your music?
I think that in both places we've gotten ourselves in trouble, and that helps with coming up with something to write about. Also just being in the deep south, I think it's kind of hard to escape the native music of both places, whether it's Jackson or New Orleans. I think rhythmically especially, the native music of both places have influenced our music. That's the best way to describe it. The rhythmic nature of blues or funk or jazz definitely plays a part in the chords that we use and the instrument placement that we use. There's definitely some vibes in there.
(But) we don't play your standard Mississippi music or standard New Orleans music. We're influenced by many different types of music from all over the country.
When you first started the band, why did you decide to create the music video and record the EP before ever playing a live show together?
I guess because we wanted to have something to show people before telling them to come see us live. ... A lot of bands that I hear start playing shows right out of the gate and evolve and develop and then finally develop something.
(We want to be) a recorded band before a live band. ... There are a lot of bands that are hugely successful and don't sell a lot of records but bring thousands of people to their shows. That's not us. What we're striving for is to make really good records, and that's kind of why we did the recording first, because that's what we'd like to be known for.
Do you think that your performances or recording best represents your sound?
Before we did anything ever, we made that four-song EP. We had no idea what we sounded like. I can't even say that is a great representation of (us). I think we're growing into our sound, and (that) has to do with us playing live a good bit.
I think we're kind of figuring out the core of our sound right now and getting closer to it.
Cardinal Sons plays after Rooster Blues at 10 p.m. Nov. 27 at Martin's Lounge (214 S. State St., 601-354-9712). Visit cardinalsons.com to download "Make an EP."
This interview was edited for space.