Cowboy Junkies – Cold grey light of dawn
By all accounts, this is a time of rebirth for the Cowboy Junkies: new album, new label, new phase to a 15-year career. So given the fresh beginning, it might seem like an odd time to release an album that’s obsessed with the ultimate ending.
Open, the band’s eighth studio release (out May 15 via Rounder Records and their own Latent imprint) is a record haunted by the spectre of death. Seated at the back of a bustling Italian cafe in their hometown of Toronto, guitarist and songwriter Michael Timmins sighs as he ponders the album’s weighty themes.
“With this one, it comes down to getting old,” he says hesitantly, a statement that draws a burst of laughter from his sister, Cowboy Junkies singer Margo Timmins. “I laughed because I just did my first interview [for Open] the other day, and I was asked that question,” she explains. “I had to start thinking about it and putting it into words. And I said the same thing: Getting old. It’s not the nicest thing to admit.”
“I am 41 now,” Michael continues. “Around that age, things change. People around you start to die or are going to die. You have kids, or the people around you have kids. Your career is at a certain point. You suddenly, really begin to realize that — not just intellectually, but in your gut — you realize you are going to die.”
From the smoldering feedback of the album’s opener, the domestic murder scenario “I Did It All For You”, to the murky aquatic mystery of “Draggin’ Hooks”, through the trippy “Dark Hole Again”, Open is one of the most surprising and accomplished albums of the group’s career. It’s also a forcefully delivered meditation on mortality.
“This album, more than any other we have ever written, some of the characters, I don’t think are going to make it,” says Margo. “On other records, there was always a bit of hope, always another day, always a belief in something bigger and better. This one, it is pretty dark.”
The trick with making Open was to stare down that oppressive sense of doom and move on. “There is hope,” Margo assures. “It is obviously infused into the writing,” Michael adds. “There is a real searching quality to Open: people trying to find something. It’s just looking around going, ‘Fuck, this is all going to end soon.'”
Here’s how the story begins. There are six Timmins siblings who spent their formative years in Toronto, where dad worked in the aviation industry. Michael is two years older than Margo. Sister Carolyn (Cali) has gone on to a career acting in soap operas, TV dramas and films, but Michael says the Timmins clan was not a particularly showbiz-oriented bunch. When they were kids, eldest brother John introduced into the house albums by the Velvet Underground, the Doors, the Beatles, and songwriters David Wiffen and Jerry Jeff Walker.
“I remember my sister and I, in the girls room,” recalls Margo. “Next to Burl Ives was the White Album. And we could sing both equally well.”
Around 1979, inspired by the wave of post-Sex Pistols punk bands, Michael and a friend, future Junkies’ bassist Alan Anton, recruited drummer Geoff Railton and singer Liza Dawson-Whisker to form the Siouxsie & the Banshees-influenced Hunger Project. After gigging around Toronto, Michael and Anton relocated to New York and then England, just in time for the rise of the dreaded New Romantic movement.
“We were disgusted by the whole thing. We didn’t want to get into any scene,” says Michael (“You didn’t have the right hair,” jokes Margo). In reaction to the vacuous pop then dominating England, Michael and Anton hooked up with sax player Richard O’Callahan and began to explore the outer fringe of freeform jazz, gigging and recording as Germinal.
While working at a London record store, Michael was introduced to blues music and fell under the spell of Lightnin’ Hopkins, who “could say more with two notes than Cecil Taylor could say with a whole run,” he says. Upon their return to Toronto in 1985, Anton and Michael rented a house at 547 Crawford Street in the city’s Portuguese neighborhood, insulated the tiny garage, and, with younger brother Pete Timmins sitting in on drums, began exploring a new musical direction. The improvisation they drew from Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane records was applied to the primitive blues of Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Bukka White and Robert Johnson.
Margo, meanwhile, had sung a bit in school productions, but was studying social work when the band was forming. Eldest brother John had joined the garage jam sessions, but would leave before the group got going in earnest. Margo was drafted to join.
“I was contemplating going on to graduate school, staying in school. That was safe. I never wanted to be a musician or be onstage,” she says. “It started to come together. Michael began to hear something in what they were jamming. He wanted a prettier kind of female voice.” Says Michael: “I thought if you had this female voice on top of it, you could do anything you wanted.”