The CultureMap Interview
The Cowboy Junkies made quite a splash when they released their understated second album, The Trinity Sessions, in 1988. Recorded live to tape at the Holy Trinity church in Toronto over the course of one long late fall night, the record is a masterpiece of understated grandeur.
Showcasing the gorgeous voice of Margo Timmins and anchored by the subtle and spare guitar lines of her brother Michael — along with accordion, pedal steel, and harmonica embellishments — the band blended traditional country, blues and folk with the slow, subdued, morning-after haze of the Velvet Underground. In fact, the most celebrated track on the record was a watershed cover of VU's "Sweet Jane," which the Underground's Lou Reed declared "the best and most authentic version I have ever heard."
In the 20-plus years since the release of that landmark record, the Cowboy Junkies haven't lost a step. With a handful of studio and live albums under their belt, the band has remained relevant and shockingly consistent.
The formula perfected on The Trinity Sessions has remained intact, even as the band experimented with different sounds and styles over the course of its long and fruitful career. You know that whenever a new record hits the shelves you'll be treated to Margo's sublime voice and the inventive playing of her fellow Junkies behind her.
The band stops at the House of Blues on Tuesday night in support of its latest effort, Remnin Park. CultureMap recently corresponded via email with guitarist and principal songwriter Michael Timmins about the Junkies past, present and future.
CultureMap: Renmin Park is your first studio album to be released on your own label. Why did you decide to establish Latent Recordings?
Michael Timmins: We (Alan and myself) actually established Latent in 1980 (before we established Cowboy Junkies). In recent times (since 2000) we have been releasing albums on Latent, but doing license deals with various companies (Rounder in the USA). For this release we decided that we would forgo the license and go straight to a distribution deal. It all comes down to a reality which is dictated by economics.
CM: Renmin Park is billed as the first in the four part Nomad series? Why did you decide to release thematically-connected albums and what's the common thread?
MT: The only thread at the moment is the fact that all four albums will be released within a fixed time period (18 months). The mere act of working on that much music in such a short period of time will create a thread ... but we’ll need to wait to see what thread develops.
CM: This is not the first time you've experimented with continuity between distinct pieces of work. "The River Song Trilogy," for instance, was recorded as separate songs over several years. What draws you to this type of storytelling?
MT: I always think in conceptual terms. Even when an album doesn’t appear to have a concept linking the songs, it usually does (at least in my mind). I guess it’s just how I’m wired.
CM: The new record has a grittier sound. Is that something that you aimed for with Renmin Park or did it just happen naturally?
MT: Hard to say. We usually let things develop as we record ... but, even so, there are conscience decisions along the way in which you push a certain idea or sound.
CM: Will the other albums in the series share the same overall sonic aesthetic?
MT: We plan to use different mixers and different musicians along the way so the sonic side of things will probably change. But I feel that all of our albums share a certain sonic quality....
CM: Before going into the studio, do you usually have a sense of how a record will unfold sonically?
MT: We generally go into a project with a sense of how we want to approach the album from a recording point of view (i.e. live off the floor, lots of overdubs, amount of extra musicians, outside mixers, etc) this tends to push the sonic side of things.
CM: The second volume, a collection of Vic Chesnutt covers, is particularly intriguing. What first drew you to Vic's music and how did you approach re-interpreting his work?
MT: We are in the middle of recording this album, so it is still unfolding. We are approaching his songs like we do all of our covers. We always try and find the elements that intrigue us and then try and focus on them and highlight them. Vic’s songs are intriguing because there are so many sides to what he does, ranging from comic to deathly serious (sometimes in the same verse). So it has been a challenge and a delight.
CM: Speaking of covers, you've become masters at putting your own spin on other people's songs, covering a wide array of artists from Lou Reed and Hank Williams to The Cure and Talking Heads. How do you choose which covers you're going to tackle? I imagine there must be a lot of arm twisting between the band members.
MT: There is no rhyme nor reason for our covers. Often we’ll become involved in a project and that will add a cover or two to our list. For example we were recently asked to contribute to a Rolling Stones tribute album, so we now have "Moonlight Mile" and "No Expectation" in our repertoire.
CM: The core band has been together for over 25 years now. How do you account for your longevity? How do you keep the experience fresh and exciting?
MT: Family and friends and lots of respect for each others space.
CM: The Trinity Sessions, essentially your first record, was met with overwhelming critical praise. How did the band adjust to being the "next big thing"?
MT: We basically ignored it (we probably didn’t enjoy the experience as much as we should have) and just did what we always had done: tour and record.
CM: After that immediate success, were there expectations from your record label to record the Trinity Sessions II, III, IV etc. or were you given the freedom to move on from that record?
MT: We were very lucky that we had great support at RCA/BMG (Jim Powers, Heinz Henn, Bob Buziak) and they gave us a lot of space. Once they left the company things started to go sour and that's when we left.
CM: There seems to be a rich history of Canadian musicians (Neil Young, The Band, Kathleen Edwards, Blue Rodeo, The Be Good Tanyas) identifying with musical idioms from the American South. Why do think this is?
MT: Hard to say ... there is a lot of great musical tradition in the American South ... so why not dig in to it ... the Southern U.S. is a very exotic place for a Canadian. Its traditions, history, culture and values make it intriguing for us Northerners.
CM: The Cowboy Junkies are road warriors, and you've released several live albums over the course of your career. Do you approach the live experience in a different way than the studio experience?
MT: Yes, its a completely different approach. The “live” experience is immediate, intense and ephemeral. The studio experience is meant to last ... its your legacy. The “live” album is a bit of a mutt.
CM: Do you find performing live in a front of an audience to be a more comfortable environment than the studio?
MT: We are pretty comfortable in both environments these days.
CM: Being a Houston-based site, we're particularly proud of our connection to Townes Van Zandt. How were you first exposed to Townes and what about his music connected with you so strongly?
MT: A friend of mine made a mix tape of his music for me in the early '80s (long live the mix tape and its modern incarnations). His voice, his lyrics and his melodies connected immediately and have never left me.
CM: Back in 1990 you invited Townes to tour with you. What was that experience like for you?
MT: It was one of the highlights of our careers.
CM: You mentioned that before Vic's tragic death you had been talking to him about a collaboration. Are there any other musicians you'd like to do a full-scale collaboration with?
MT: Many .... I love to collaborate ... there is always something new to learn and discover ...