Thursday, August 16, 2001
After 11 albums, thousands of gigs and a handful of record labels, Cowboy Junkies have earned a reputation as one of rock's true survivors. With the nucleus of siblings Margo, Michael and Peter Timmins (on vocals, guitar and drums respectively) and bassist Alan Anton still intact, the band has struggled with everything from stage fright to indifferent record companies and come out on top.
The Junkies caused a minor splash with the release of their 1988 major label debut, "The Trinity Session," which featured the quartet performing in an abandoned church, captured by a single microphone. Perhaps it was the setting ? or Michael Timmins' haunted songs ? but "Trinity" gave the band a reputation for darkness and shadow that has stuck with it ever since.
The band's sophomore effort, "The Caution Horses," continued in suit, and the Junkies hit a musical peak on 1992's masterful "Black Eyed Man." Though the group had built a faithful audience through regular touring and always sold a respectable number of records, the Junkies were unceremoniously dropped by RCA Records in the 1997 convergence of several major labels. The Junkies quickly signed to Geffen Records, which dumped the band after only one record, 1998's "Miles From Our Home."
Rather than shuffle its feet, the band persevered, releasing a couple of independent records and staying on the road a good part of every year. Currently, the group remains independent, though it has a distribution deal with Rounder Records.
The quartet's newest album, "Open," finds the Junkies turning up the distortion a bit and letting the songs breathe. As with every one of the band's records, Timmins' evocative voice serves as musical center of gravity, wrapping the songs in a blanket of hope and heartache.
The singer phones from her Toronto home one morning. Surrounded by plants, animals, friends and family, there's no place she'd rather be. "When I'm on the tour bus and I'm traveling around, it's great," Timmins laughs. "Then when I go home, it's like 'How can I leave?' I like it here too much."
One strategy for making the road bearable are her preshow rituals, which help Timmins mentally prepare for the stage.
"Before a show I always iron my dress," she says. "When I'm doing that, I usually have the set list in front of me, so I'm sort of staring at it, getting a feel for what it's like. The other thing I do right before the show is I arrange my flowers, which are always on the stage. In the early days it was a nervous habit ? I was so scared to get onstage. It sort of focused me. Now, it's just what I do. It's sort of almost a sign that we're ready. I'm still a little bit nervous but it's not the same kind of nervousness as it was when we were younger."
Q: How did you overcome that?
A: "Just experience. I also think it's a bit of age. I think that the hardest thing about singing onstage in the early days was I was so worried about being accepted and whether people were going to be entertained and whether they're going to like it or that sort of stuff. I still work hard at that ? those things are still important to me ? but I also realize a lot of it also relies on the audience, too. I can't make everybody like the show. I think that's just age ? coming to grips that you can't control everything, so just relax and enjoy it."
Q: The Junkies were signed to two major labels and dropped by two major labels. Was there any animosity in either case?
A: "The end of RCA, that contract was almost to me like a love affair ending. It was sort of like, 'OK, you don't like me and I don't like you, so let's just separate.' It was mutual. And, like the end of a love affair, we then had to divide our record collection ? like who gets the couch. So, at the end of that, we owed them a few things but we walked away clean. The end of Geffen was more of the real disappointment and a real heartache and a feeling of being betrayed and all that crap. I always relate these things to relationships. It was a falling out and it was very disappointing, and I think that's what led us to realize that we just don't want to get mixed up with this major-label stuff right now. We might go back to it if things change, but the way things are in the majors right now, it's just not a place for a band like us. If I was Britney Spears, it would be great but I'm not."
Q: In 1996, RCA put out a "best of" album called "Studio." I noticed they're also putting out an album called "Greatest Hits" later this year.
A: "Are they? God, it's so embarrassing. We've never even had ONE hit, how can we have several? Call it something else! 'Studio' was part of our separation agreement. That's the one, of all the records, I sort of wish wasn't out there. Not that I have any embarrassment, I think it's a fine record but I just feel ... I don't know. The live album ? '200 More Miles' ? was also part of our separation agreement. I don't mind that one so much because we were at that point where we had a lot of live material and it was time to put one out. We put that whole thing together and worked really hard on making it our record. But, I think the 'Studio' thing sort of bugged me because it was supposed to be a greatest hits and we said, 'We can't call it greatest hits. It's stupid, we don't have a hit.' So, they allowed us to call it 'Studio' so that it wasn't too embarrassing. But, I don't know. I always find that stuff kind of cheap."
Q: Other than "Studio," are you happy with the records?
A: "We've been really lucky in recording. We've never been coerced by record companies to put anything on an album that we didn't want to do. Not that they didn't try (laughs), but we always fought that battle. Our albums are really the last stand for us. We never compromised on that. So, I can really happily say there isn't anything I wish, 'Oh God, why did we let them do that? They ruined this or I hate that song, I always hated it. Why did I say yes?' And that's a really nice thing to say, because a lot of musicians really can't say that. So, we've been really lucky that way. I think a lot of it was that 'The Trinity Session' came out, and it gave us sort of this weird artistic integrity kind of respect thing that happened right away. (laughs) So, we sort of stuck to it and made people believe."
Q: Do you have a favorite?
A: "I have favorites for different reasons. It's more than just sitting down listening to it. Each album also had tours that followed it, and some tours are better than other tours ? because of the people you were with. Or just what's going on at home ? your husband was happy so you're happy, you weren't fighting on the phone every night or whatever. (laughs) So, there's a lot to it. But, for me, I think musically the album I really love the most is 'Caution Horses,' and it has been for a long time. I love 'Lay it Down.' I love it musically, but I also love the whole writing of it. The band was in a really good place. I love going to Athens. We rented a house together to record it, in Athens ? we lived together. When we were writing it we rented an island, like this little cabin on an island. So, we spent a lot of time together, just the foursome, which was very similar to our early, early days ? when we had no wives and husbands and family. So, I love that about 'Lay it Down.' It brings me back to some ... you know just nice times that we spent together. Not just recording but sitting around watching the hockey game together. And this album is happening now so I can't really judge it, but I think it might rank up there, again just as a nice period in our life."
Q: How so?
A: "The last one we recorded, which was 'Miles From Our Home,' was very intricate. We had a big hotshot producer and it was pretty much done layer by layer, like the way albums are done today. We've always mostly done a lot right off the floor. This album was done totally off the floor, like the seven pieces playing together. Even backup vocals were done at the same time that I was doing my vocals. So, it was pretty relaxed. We went into a very inexpensive studio, which is just down the street from where we all live. There wasn't that 'Oh my God, every minute costs $400 so we better do something.' We'd write the songs, go on the road and sort of work them out live in front of people ? not necessarily working out the parts but just sort of getting used to them. By the time we got home and went into the studio, we'd be so familiar with these songs. We'd literally go right into the studio, set up and play. If we caught the song, great. If we didn't, well too bad, we'd do it another time. So, it was very relaxed. It was very easy. We never really felt like we were recording a record because there was no pressure on us. By the end of it, I remember Mike saying 'I think we've got the record,' and I didn't even realize we'd started."
Q: Have you ever considered getting more involved in the songwriting?
A: "No. Michael's always wanting me to write; I just don't like writing. I don't get any satisfaction out of it. I don't think I'm a very good writer. I think I'm a good singer, but I think to be a good singer I need a good song. And I always think 'Well, if I'm not a good songwriter, why don't I go to Leonard Cohen or Neil Young or Michael Timmins.' There's so many beautiful songs out in the world. I just don't think mine rank on that level and that's the kind of song I want to sing. And I do think my brother Michael writes at that level. I think his songs are as good as any of those great songwriters. So it just doesn't make sense to me ? to write. Occasionally I'll write a song and I think, 'Well, this isn't a bad song' and I hand it over to Mike. And they usually end up on b-sides, which is fine. That's kind of where I want to put them. And again, I don't feel that they're good enough ? hang on, I have very hot dogs outside; I have to let them in. They're standing there like, 'Open the door.' (To the dogs) Come on; let's go. That's it. ? so yeah, that's sort of where I'm at when I sing, I sing from a very personal place. When I'm singing Mike's songs or Neil Young songs, they're not my words. When I sing some of my own songs, I feel like I'm reading my diary and I don't like that feeling. It's one person removed when I sing someone else's. It's not as exposing."