Celeigh Cardinal is Living Her Dreams

Celeigh Cardinal is Living Her Dreams

By D.T. Baker

For a prairie girl like Celeigh Cardinal, it probably seemed like a long way to get from Grande Prairie to a stage with a full symphony orchestra as your accompanist. So, the fact that she is living that dream is a testament to her drive and determination.

Ms. Cardinal will present her own symphonic show with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra on April 26 & 27. “Lucas Waldin contacted me and told me he wanted to put this show together with me,” says Cardinal, speaking of the former ESO Resident Conductor, who is now a symphonic conductor and arranger. “We’ve actually done it before; we did it with the Regina Symphony Orchestra, and then in December, I performed just a couple of songs with the ESO for three performances.”

“I’ve always wanted to be Bette Midler, from the movie Beaches, at the very end of the movie when she’s singing ‘The Glory of Love’ with an orchestra. And so, it’s like one of my biggest dreams come true,” she adds.

Celeigh Cardinal was born in Beaverlodge, Alberta, and grew up in Grande Prairie before making Edmonton home. There was always music, she says. “It's part of my family on both sides, both my Cree-Métis side and my Scottish side – singers. Everybody loved to sing, loved music. I first started singing a melody – the same melody repeated over and over, when I was three years old. And when I was four, it was the first time I sang on stage. And it was in church. I grew up singing in church, performing on my own as a very shy child, but feeling comfortable on stage – because it always felt like my calling.”

From there, songwriting naturally followed. “I started writing songs when I was 11, 12 years old, but they were kids’ songs. But when I was 19, I started playing in a band, and really quickly, we were getting a lot of gigs, and that’s when I started songwriting. Slowly, very insecurely – it took some time for me to get more comfortable with it – but by the time I was 23, that’s when I really started writing music. I had my son then, and I had a lot more quiet time, more time on my own with him.”

Lots of gigs, and a couple of albums later, Celeigh Cardinal has already made quite a name for herself. She has been recognized with awards and nominations from prestigious organizations such as the JUNO Awards, CBC Music Awards, and Western Canadian Music Awards. She has so far released two albums, and her ESO performance will feature a few songs from her upcoming third album, set for a June 2024 release.

Cardinal admits that a symphony orchestra is different – and a wee bit intimidating – from her regular backup band. “It was for me,” she confesses, then laughs. “It wasn’t for my band, because they all have [music-related] degrees. It was mostly nerves, but I can become very efficient about things; I develop habits really quickly. After we had done a couple of rehearsals, I felt really good about everything. It’s different for me for sure, but it keeps me on my toes, and it’s using a different part of my brain, which I appreciate.”

A couple of Cardinal’s songs from her albums had already featured string arrangements, and one very quickly gets the sense that the singer/songwriter, quiet and thoughtful as she is, relishes each new challenge in her career. In the beginning, for example, it was her innate shyness.

“Part of my shyness and my introverted-ness – some of it’s inherent, but some of it comes from, like, being the person I was and the background that I had,” she says. “When I grew up, I was part of two native families in a very white community, so identity has always been an issue with me. There are a lot of things that contributed to me not really feeling like I could use my voice fully – or even knowing what my voice was. I definitely feel like (my onstage presence) is a bit of a persona, but it’s almost like I have two parts, and I’m just stepping into this other side of myself.”

Celeigh Cardinal’s music is probably not what one would expect, from a “judging book covers” perspective. “I feel like when I first started playing music, there was definitely an assumption that, because I was Indigenous, I played or sang traditional indigenous music,” she admits. “But that’s changed significantly over the last 10 years, for sure. There was a time when I would actually have to vet the person who was booking me – that they knew what kind of music I played before I took the booking. There were a couple of unfortunate circumstances in which I was booked for something, and they were quite surprised when I showed up with an acoustic guitar, and not a hand drum.”

Soul is probably the music that Cardinal’s own idiom slides into the most readily. But she draws on whatever she can. And in her early years, that was a bit narrow. “I did listen to a lot of pop music, but it was a pretty strict Christian upbringing that I had, so the type of music I could listen to was sort of limited,” Cardinal recalls. “I listened to a lot of early Beatles – I love the Beatles – but we were only allowed to listen to the earlier stuff. Ella Fitzgerald, big band music – all over the map, stuff my parents had. They also had different lives before they came together and became Christian, so they allowed some of their previous influences to sprinkle in.”

When finding her own voice as a songwriter, Cardinal is quick to credit one other artist. “One of the first artists that really helped me find my voice or made me feel really connected to myself was Fiona Apple,” Cardinal says. “Listening to her sing her truth and talk about these internal things that I never really thought I could write about, because it doesn’t seem like it’s fully relatable to everybody. She was like the person who liberated me, or first gave me permission to do something different than I had always done.”

An orchestral show certainly fits the bill of something different for Celeigh Cardinal. Having debuted with the Regina Symphony, and honing and adjusting for her upcoming ESO gig, the talented performer is hoping that orchestras across Canada will make her feel just as at home as she already feels at the Winspear Centre.

“I’m fully myself when I’m on stage,” says Cardinal. “I laugh at myself, I tell stupid jokes – and I hear groans from the audience from time to time, and I enjoy it! I’m not wildly flamboyant, I’m still this person – just a little bit louder. I’ve sung on the Winspear stage a few times now, and I love it – it is a joy to sing on that stage. I’m really just excited now. I have less nerves than I probably should!”

Don’t miss Celeigh Cardinal with the ESO on April 26 & 27, 2024, at 7:30 PM. For more information or to purchase tickets, click here.