Cowboy Junkies – California Dreaming
You never know quite what to expect from the Canadian alternative country/blues/folk/rock band, Cowboy Junkies. And I mean that in the best possible way. Few bands have the capacity to keep fans guessing when it comes to both recording and performances as does the Canadian quartet. One night, they might be eking out an atmospheric wash of contemplative music in a historic church, while the next they could be unleashing a torrent of psychedelia in a rock club.
On their forthcoming tour of southern California for instance, their shows will range from performances in intimate listening rooms like Los Angeles’s famed Largo at the Coronet to San Diego’s Belly Up, while in San Francisco they will devote an entire evening to their lauded 1988 album, The Trinity Session.
Formed in 1985 after the dissolution of Michael Timmins and Alan Anton’s band Hunger Project, the pair recruited Timmins’s siblings, Margo and Peter, and randomly christened the new ensemble Cowboy Junkies just prior to its first performance. Almost three decades — and over twenty albums — later, the band’s unique blending of blues, country, folk, and rock has seen it flirt with mainstream success all the while instilling itself as one of Canada’s most respected musical entities. Their most recent release was a four-album series titled Nomad Series which not only saw them push the boundaries of the traditional album release, but also explore their urge for musical dexterity. As the collective prepares for a string of southern Californian performances, the band’s guitarist and songwriter, Michael Timmins, recently told me that fans might not know exactly what to look forward to in terms of musical performances in such a diverse array of musical venues, but they can expect one thing: the unexpected.
Brett Leigh Dicks: I see that in San Francisco you are devoting a night to The Trinity Session. What is about that album that allows you to devote an entire show to it twenty something years after it was released?
Michael Timmins: That’s something we started to do recently. We throw in one or two of those shows on any leg of the tour. That record has a very special place in a lot of people’s heart. It’s one of those things where it’s legacy is so great that twenty-five years after it was released it still resonates with people as an entire album. These days it’s hard to get people to listen to a whole album so it’s nice to be able to look back on something in its entirety. I don’t know why it still resonates with people. It did back then and it still does today and I think that’s pretty great. For any band to have one record in their catalog that has that longevity is a pretty great achievement.
A couple of years ago you of course recorded Trinity Revisited. What was it like to return to the church in which you recorded the original album all those years later with a bunch of friends and revisit those songs?
That was really fun. We did that on the 20th anniversary of the album which I guess was about 2007 and did it with Ryan Adams and Natalie Merchant and Vic Chesnutt and that was the first time any of us had been in that place since the day we recorded the original album. It was so funny because after plugging in playing those first notes to check out the instruments everybody stopped and went “alright, this place!” There’s something about that church that’s so beautiful sounding. It is so perfectly designed that it holds music so nicely. It was really nice to have people like Natalie and Ryan and Vic with us, people who were affected by that record way back when. That was kind of cool too. The whole idea was to bring people to the recording who were affected by the album, so it was really amazing and a great day.
You mentioned the sound of the church. Cowboy Junkies can be a poignantly atmospheric band so I am wondering how that might affect you when you are out on the road. Especially since acoustically, some of the venues you play in must be the polar opposite to that particular church in Toronto …
Over the years we have learned to adjust our live sound depending on where we are. We can do something like The Trinity Session show which has an extremely quiet and beautiful edge to it just by the atmosphere and tension of having so many holes in the music. But we can also turn it up as well and have a real psychedelic edge to what we do if we find ourselves in a club setting or playing a festival and need to cut through and reach the people in the back. The room influences us a lot on how we’re going to approach the night. We have thirty years of experience on the road so in that time we have pretty much seen and played it all.
Your most recent recorded release was a suite of albums titled Nomad Series. Tell me a little about the inspiration for approaching the release as a series of recordings as opposed to the more traditional album cycle where you write, record, and back it up on the road until your fingers bleed.
We started thinking about that release in 2010. We had completed the Trinity Revisited record and our last studio album was At the End of Paths Taken so we started kicking around ideas for the next project. By that time we had also been slowly digressing ourselves of every recording contract we had and finally found ourselves with no contract and as a consequence of that no one really to answer to. So we realized that for the first time in many, many years we had an opportunity to do whatever we want. Whatever we did was going to be funded and released by us and the idea of writing a ten song album, for whatever reason, didn’t inspire me or anybody else. And these days you can’t just release good music if you want to get it noticed, there has to be something else attached to it. So we threw around ideas, a double album, a triple album, then we thought why confine ourselves to stereo type?. Let’s do four records and make them in a very short period of time to give the project immediacy and an interesting hook. So we came up with the idea of the four records before we knew what the four records were going to be.
How did the themes for the four albums then come about?
We knew that the first record, Renmin Park, was going to be one that was influenced by the trip I made in China and we also knew that the last one, The Wilderness, would be based on some of the songs I had already began to write and we had been playing live, but the other two were wide open. One we wanted to be an album of covers and then Vic Chesnutt died so it became obvious that we should make Demons as a tribute record to him. For the third record, Sing in My Meadow, we wanted to explore a part of what we do on stage, the psychedelic side of things when we turn up a little bit. As it turned out these four albums are reflective of all four sides of what we think we are as a band, the experimental side, the covers, psychedelic side, and finally the folk driven side.
It was very difficult. Even when I talk about it now, it still breaks me up a bit. It was very intense. And in all honesty, we didn’t know if we could pull it off because we announced it before we had even started it. Vic was a very particular person. His style and what he does is very, well, Vic, there’s no one else who could do things the way he did it. So we knew we couldn’t copy him and we also knew there would be people who are so into Vic that no matter what you did they were going to not like it because it wasn’t him. My biggest fear, and Margo’s biggest fear as well, was how she would approach the songs. They are very odd songs lyrically and the humor and the phrasing and the melodies and Margo was really nervous about it, but she quickly found a way into the songs. And that was a relief. I think recording the vocals was the most emotional time. Listening to the words and her putting her emotions into them and bringing them to life, that was pretty intense. But it was a great experience and an album we’re really happy with. No matter what anyone else thinks about it, it’s our tribute to someone who was a great friend and that’s all we care about.
Cowboy Junkies is no stranger to covering other people’s material. Your first album, Whites Off Earth Now!! was essentially all covers and you have released various EPs of covers across the years. What do you look for in a song to cover?
It’s very hard to know. You mentioned Whites Off Earth Now!! and in the earlier days when we were doing a cover it was because it’s all we had, we didn’t have any originals. So we wanted to take hold of a blues song and reinterpret it and bring it forward. We didn’t want to be a traditional 12 bar blues band, but we loved the lyrics and loved the atmosphere and edge of those songs and wanted to interpret them through the experiences of a bunch of white kids. Rather than doing what Eric Clapton did, we wanted to show people how we play with the emotion of the song and give a nod back to the original. Then we began to use covers to reflect our originals, we wanted them to be complimentary. We wanted them to point a finger at where we were coming from, but also reflect what we were about at the time. But now, more and more, we do a cover because there’s a reason like a Neil Young tribute show or something like that. And often, if we really like what we did, we will work it into our concert repertoire. Sometimes it’s the lyrics that draws us to a song and sometimes it’s a melody we like. Often it’s a song that had meaning to us and sometimes it’s just a cool or interesting song that we want to see what we can do with it.
The other side of the coin is your original material. You write all of the songs for the band, but they’re sung by Margo. You talked about Margo having to find a way into Vic’s songs for Demons. Is there some of that with the material you write too? Are you conscious that the songs are ultimately going to be handed off to her and factor that in when writing?
When I’m writing I try not to let that impact me and try and pretend a song is just for me. I don’t even want to think in terms that other people are going to hear them! That’s when you start to second guess and project so I just try and satisfy my own creative urge and be content with that. But I can’t completely divorce myself from the knowledge that Margo is going to sing these songs so there are times when that creeps in. There are times when I really like a song, but think Margo is not going to be able to sing it so I quickly try to get rid of that idea and just concentrate on the song. Because when I do think that, more often than not, that’s when I give her the song she does something totally unexpected with it and takes somewhere better. Then there have been songs that I thought were perfect for her and she had a difficulty finding a way into it. So I try not to second guess myself because I have been proven wrong too many times.