In 2000, songwriter Richard Davies traveled halfway across the world, from his adopted home of Massachusetts to Kalgoorlie, in his native Australia. He was visiting his father, who was near death. Soon after, Davies wrote the song “Kal” about the experience, but it remained a work in progress. Something was missing.
For the song’s bridge, Davies wrote chords that would ideally carry an orchestral arrangement, one that he describes as “very focused and passionate and had a real rise and fall of emotion in it rather than, say, ‘Oh, someone knows how to play a violin in tune.’ [It would be] using those orchestral instruments to really squeeze out of me what I felt about my father passing away, about having to go across the world to see him.”
In other words, it called for the kind of arrangement written by Eric Matthews, Davies’s onetime collaborator — emphasis on one time. In 1994, the duo had teamed up, called themselves Cardinal and released a self-titled album featuring classic pop songwriting and elegant arrangements that recalled the careful craft of such ’60s acts as the Beach Boys and the Left Banke. It was an out-of-nowhere baroque masterpiece, a graceful gem in the middle of the grunge era. The album was a critical hit and helped reintroduce strings and brass instruments to an underground rock environment that had become almost exclusively the realm of the electric guitar.
There was no follow-up album, though. Davies and Matthews each pursued solo careers and drifted out of touch, until many years later, when Davies asked Matthews for help with “Kal” and a couple of other songs.
“It went well — he really liked my arrangements. It started to feel like Cardinal a little bit,” Matthews says of the reunion. “So he started sending me songs, and before we knew it, we were sort of working on an album.”
“Hymns,” the duo’s unlikely, nearly-two-decades-later second album, was released this year. It maintains the hallmarks of their beloved debut and is filled with songs that are particularly pristine for a musical partnership that is often a bit tense. For example: Davies’s version of their reconnection differs some from that of Matthews’s.
“I had to say, ‘Mate, this is not happening. This is a load of [expletive], go back and do it again!’ ” Davies says of the first arrangement Matthews sent his way. “But he did go back, and what we ended up with was precisely what I was hoping for. And he did that to me, too. There was more than one occasion when he said, ‘This is a waste of time. What are you doing to me?’ And that candid and quite brutal and vicious element to our relationship is actually a very positive thing.”
Matthews himself has never been one to believe that bands work best as democracies.
“The truth of it is that it is a bit of a struggle having a band such as Cardinal when you’ve got two distinctly different musical styles,” he says. “We blend wonderfully when we come together, but it’s not so much a blend or a collaboration as much as it is Richard writing the songs and me interpreting them and arranging them. We sort of have our own individual sides of the room.”
The pair’s differences are neatly reflected in how their lives diverged after making their first album. Both used their newfound status to launch solo careers (which ended up being more successful in garnering critical acclaim than fame and fortune), but by the early 2000s, they were on starkly different paths. Matthews had released two stellar albums on indie giant Sub Pop Records but then found himself in a musical purgatory, searching for a label to release his next album. Until he did, in 2005, he says he got to collaborate with other artists he respected, and he even considered less artistically fulfilling offers in moments of financial distress.
“There was a lot of money on the table for me to write some Clay Aiken songs,” Matthews says of the former “American Idol” runner-up while relaxing in the recording studio of his Portland, Ore., home. “It was tempting, and I actually did sit down once and try to do something . . . but I just couldn’t do it.”
On a call to Davies the next day, the setting is much different: A female voice answers “Hawthorne Law Office,” the Pembroke, Mass., firm where he is a trial lawyer, a career detour he took just over a decade ago.
“Every time I played a show, whether it was playing a Cardinal song or playing my own stuff, I would be listening very carefully to the musicians I was playing with, because I really did see it as a pilgrimage,” Davies says of performing in the ’90s. “And then I got to the point where I thought, ‘I’ve learned enough for the moment about music. The pilgrimage can rest for a while.’ ”
He wanted a career far removed from the entertainment industry and decided to go to law school. Davies says that he loves the law as much as music, describing them as “a holiday from each other.”
“When the music escapades become somewhat trying, I’ll go, ‘You know what, I think I’ll write a motion.’ And when some other attorney gets on my nerves and makes me want to start swearing and shouting, I’ll calm myself down and write a song.”
Davies says he’s bringing business cards with him to hand out to audience members on the Cardinal tour. But there’s one thing he won’t be bringing: his collaborator. Yes, the first-ever Cardinal tour will feature Davies and backing musicians, but not Matthews, who has a long-standing distaste for touring. This was a foregone conclusion from the first time the idea of taking the album on the road was brought up.
“I had to give him the courtesy of going through the ceremony of asking him,” Davies says. “But I already had it solidly in my mind that I was going to be [Beach Boys de facto frontman] Mike Love, and he was going to be Brian Wilson,” he says.
“It’s hard for me to contemplate a live version that doesn’t involve eight of me running around playing multiple instruments,” Matthews said in a statement that accompanied an announcement of the band’s tour. He’ll be there in spirit, though, providing pre-produced tracks featuring his vocals and performances on strings, woodwinds and brass.
For a band known for its perfect arrangements, this might not be the most ideal one for its first tour. But it’s still more Cardinal than anyone could have expected to hear a year ago.
With Kuschty Rye Ergot and Cigarette on Tuesday at 9 p.m. at the Velvet Lounge,
915 U St. NW. 202-462-3213. www.velvetloungedc.
For a sampling of Cardinal’s music, check out:
“Love Like Rain”
“If You Believe in Christmas Trees”