Chasing Demons with Michael and Margo Timmins
Interview by Doug Heselgrave
The release of Demons, the second installment inthe Cowboy Junkie’s Nomad Series has already been well-covered in Nodepression, so rather than trod over the same ground again, I decided to contact Michael and Margo Timmins for some background about how the album came together. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.
Doug: What strikes me about your last two CDs in the ‘Nomad’ series – Remnin Park and now ‘Demons’ – is that they’re both projects that might have difficulty in finding a record label through conventional means. They both sound like labours of love and projects that fit outside of the mainstream – if I can use that term – of most of your other works. Is there a conscious distinction that determines the difference between a conventional CJ release and one that finds its way into the Nomad series?
Michael: Not consciously. But the reason we came up with the idea of the Nomad Series (4 albums in 18 months) was that we didn’t know which direction to go for our next recording project. We had too many ideas and for some reason we didn’t just want to produce a new “mainstream” album. So the Nomad Series was a way for us to explore these various ideas and concepts.
Doug: Is the Nomad series part of a strategy for artistic longevity? You’ve both been doing this for a long time. Might we see solo albums from either of you fitting into the series, or is that something you’ve never considered? A sub part of that question is – have you Michael or you Margo ever written ‘good songs or music’ that hasn’t seen the light of day because you haven’t found the right venue for it yet? Do you sometimes write music that falls outside of the Cowboy Junkies envelope? Or, when you create music, do you each always hear each other’s contributions before they’re even recorded or sung?
Margo: The Nomad Series is definitely a Cowboy Junkies project so it won’t ever include a solo album. I have done some solo work which is posted on our site (Margo’s Corner) and I’ve done some singing with other artists and Michael has done a lot of outside producing and has done some film scores. The problem with properly releasing a solo album is that you need to put time and effort into the promotion of it and that would take time and possibly promotional space away from Cowboy Junkies. We never really stop for any extended period of time so solo albums are out of the picture until the four of us decide to take an extended break.
Michael: Look for our solo albums around 2025….maybe.
Doug: Going back to ‘Demons’, can you give me a little insight into how you came into contact with Vic Chestnutt’s music. Extending from that of course is the more interesting question – what is it about these songs that touched you so much and brought this CD into being?
Margo: My husband was given ‘West of Rome’ back in the mid nineties by someone at SXSW and he passed it on to us. We all fell in love with it.
Michael: Whenever we worked with Vic we were always bowled over by his honesty as a performer. He always left his heart bleeding on the stage. That honesty extended in to his songs. They are so unique and so specific to him, his life, his experiences and his insight, but at the same time they resonate on a very spiritual and unnervingly deep level with those who admire his work. The uniqueness of his songs made this project such a great challenge.
Doug: Do you have favourites among the performances? I’d love to hear more about the songs you chose and why you chose them.
Margo: My favourite singing performances are Flirted With You All My Life and Wrong Piano’.
Michael: I love Wrong Piano from a performance and production point of view…Margo’s performance on that song is really inspired. And I love Joby Baker’s organ playing on ‘Betty Lonely’.
Margo: The way we chose the material was that everyone went away with Vic’s catalogue and chose their favourites and/or the songs that they wanted to tackle. From there we whittled things down as we worked on the songs. We wanted to make sure that his entire catalogue was touched upon and that Vic’s different styles were represented.
Doug: Speaking more generally of cover songs –you’ve spent much of your careers recording some of the most interesting versions of people’s songs I’ve ever heard – how do you choose them, and what do you try to bring to the table when interpreting someone else’s songs. I Loved the version of the Stones’ Moonlight Mile you played last time out in Vancouver.
Michael: There are so many reasons that go into choosing a song to cover. Ultimately it comes down to, “can we find our own way in to the song, can we bring a fresh perspective to it”. Sometimes we don’t succeed and those songs never get out of our studio and if they do they don’t live for very long.
Margo: In some ways I’m always “covering” someone elses material, whether it is a song written by Neil Young or by Michael Timmins. Sometimes it helps me if I’m not overly familiar with the song. The key is for me to just make the song my own, no matter who wrote it.
Doug: You’ve collaborated with lots of different musicians over the years – John Prine, Townes, Mary Gauthier – and I wonder whether or not there are any other artists you’d like to create a tribute album for. Are there any artists who you admire, but would never dream of covering?
Margo: I don’t know if there are any that we feel shouldn’t be covered. Covering someone’s song is the biggest compliment that one musician can give to another. Oddly enough we have never covered Leonard Cohen who is a huge influence on our lives – being Montreal natives.
Michael: As far as creating a tribute album for someone…there are still a lot of Townes songs, Springsteen songs, Dylan songs and even Stones songs that we haven’t touched.
Doug: I touched on the question of artistic longevity earlier on. I think we’re all about the same age and we’ve seen so much change in the music industry in our adult lives and I’m wondering how it’s all affected you. You can take this in any direction you want from – declining album sales, the effects of downloading and the singles driven industry, the renewed importance of touring to make a living….. you know what I’m talking about. Does it ever make you want to throw in the towel or conversely has the whole DIY thing with music given you extra freedom you never dreamed was possible in the old industry?
Michael: It is definitely a very tough industry to make a living in these days (especially if you are divvying up the profits between four people). It is a conversation that me and my friends in the business (musicians, writers, managers, agents, promoters, accountants) have on a daily basis and I’m not quite sure what the end game is and what and who will be left standing when all is said and done (perhaps we’ll all be working for Apple and providing content for itunes). I’ve been in this biz for too long to throw in the towel. I like my job too much and with 30 years of experience, I happen to be really good at it too. So I ain’t giving up. We didn’t start playing music with any expectation on the business side of things…we worked really hard and got really lucky. But I love where we are at from a creative point of view these days…we are very energized and really enjoying making music…and we feel very blessed that we have an audience that still is interested in what create.
This interview also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot
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