Feb/March 1992

By Dan Hughes

A Quiet Storm

No wonder Margo Timmins looks worried. On the eve of the release of the band’s fourth album – black eyed man – it would appear that Toronto’s Cowboy Junkies has the weight of the world resting on its shoulders. “There’s a Cowboy Junkie machine,” says Timmins. “There’s more money involved in this record, so we want to sell it and we have to depend on it. We have a crew, sidemen, managers and accountants and everyone wants their share. Our lifestyle is now structured around Cowboy Junkies, so if it comes apart it means big changes to a lot of people.”

From the sounds of the new album, there’s little chance of a Cowboy Junkies break-up. black eyed man is the group’s most commercially appealing release to date, combining white gospel, country and rock ‘n’ roll with new verve and precision. Just as The Caution Horses cocooned Margo’s voice within an unswerving mine of melancholy, the new record grants it an elastic, luxurious dimension. Alan Anton’s deep blue bass and Peter Timmins’ drums roll more buoyantly and Michael Timmins has written strong, narrative songs which, with the right promotion south of the border, could be the perfect heartland sell. Still, the overriding impression is that 1992 is going to be a make-or-break year for the Cowboy Junkies.

The first the world heard of this band was an album recorded in one day four years ago at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto at a cost of about $150. And we all know the end result. The Trinity Session, captured with a single microphone in much the same way as early blues recordings by Bessie Smith, sold a million copies worldwide, finished near the top of most 1988 year-end critics’ polls and was voted album of the year by the Los Angeles Times. Canada was enchanted with Cowboy Junkies in a way that it rarely gets enchanted. The band performed on the nationally televised Juno Awards and toured across the country, including a show at Toronto’s venerable Massey Hall. How’s that for a fantasy story?

“With The Trinity Session we were tentative because we weren’t sure what we were doing,” says Margo. Shy, remarkably wistful and thirtysomething, she embarks on each sentence in soft, bashful tones. “We were only doing for ourselves because we didn’t know if anyone would ever hear it or like it. So there was a whole different attitude about our music in those days.”

But with the third album, The Caution Horses (the band’s first release Whites Off Earth Now! was recorded in Michael’s garage) circumstances had changed. This time the band realized that in order to sustain pubic interest it would have to expand its horizons. The Caution Horses shed a little more musical light than The Trinity Session, showcased the considerable talent of sideman Jeff Bird – whose mandolin blows gently across the record like tumbleweed on a prairie – and gave up its biggest selling single, “Sun Comes Up, It’s Tuesday Morning”, but the albums 130,000 units sold worldwide were no match for Trinity’s one million units sold.

“There was a lot of pressure on The Caution Horses,” admits Margo. “There’s always that situation where the same critics who built you up tear you apart and say you’re not going to last. We just tried to ignore the pressure and do our best and I think that’s what The Caution Horses is to me. It’s our survival. It says that we made it through that awful period of adolescence.”

Perhaps the failure of The Caution Horses to repeat the success of The Trinity Session conceals an important lesson – that there will be a lot of Cowboy Junkies’ albums and some will be better than others.

Michael dismisses the notion of the “long shadow” cast by The Trinity Session. “I don’t think there’s any pressure to live up to anything,” he says. “The way we approach it, the focus is on the songs themselves and I think they stand on their own.”

While Michael, understandably, likes to concentrate on the music (he is the group’s principal songwriter as well as producer of black eyed man), the media tends to hone in on Margo’s hyper-wholesome good looks. In 1989, she became a pop star all her own, her petite, possessing features turning heads on the Tonight Show and gracing the pages of both Esquire and People magazine. Although this kind of singular attention can cause strife in some groups, Michael – aware that beauty like Margo’s had always played a role in the marketing of pop groups – isn’t bothered. In fact, he and the band pushed for it.

“Back when we were an independent group, we decided that Margo would be the front-person in the group. We’re fairly boring visually, so it just seemed to make sense. We wanted Margo to do the bulk of the interviews, especially the TV interviews. It allows me to lay back in the shadows, which I prefer. I’ve got enough work without doing all that.

“Let’s face it, the music industry is built on hype. There are tons of really good bands out there you or I have never heard of because they don’t have the hype. When Margo started getting all the press attention it was good for the band. It’s the way we wanted it. She’s a good-looking girl.”

So how does it feel to be chosen by People magazine as one of the world’s “Fifty Most Beautiful People”?

Margo screws up her features and laughs. “On a really strange level, it’s amusing. When they call up and ask if I want to be one of the ‘Fifty Most Beautiful People,’ I do it because…why not? I mean it’s really strange and it makes me laugh.

“I hate that picture, though [in People]. It was a horrible, horrible situation. I was going to a ball, my first New York ball, and I arranged for the photo session to be over at a certain time. This guy came in and he wanted to do my photo nude, just holding flowers up. There are certain things I don’t want to do and I’m not good at saying no. I know he’s a photographer and he’s come with a vision and I want him to get the picture he’s come to get. But on the other hand, there’s only so much I can do. I’m not a model and I’m uncomfortable in that situation.”

As Margo tells it, the scene became even more embarrassing when the record company stepped in on here behalf. “There were big arguments and the whole thing was very embarrassing,” she says suppressing a smirk. “I felt like the little prima donna in the corner- just because I wouldn’t take my shirt off.”

Not that she is complaining too loudly. Timmins takes it all in stride, aware that gimmicks like the monochrome portrait of her shot by photographer Herb Ritts for GAP clothing "Individuals With Style" campaign is one way to draw listeners into the music.

“It’s weird to see your face very time you walk down the street,” she says of the GAP ads. “I guess if it starts to wear at me and I think I have to go out looking like the girl in the poster or living up to the girl in the poster, then I guess I’m losing control. But I’ve never felt that way, because my personal life is still very personal and it’s still my own.”

Control. You can hear it in the ringing solace of The Trinity Session, sense it in the recording company’s warning that Michael and Margo do not do interviews together and Alan and Peter do not do interviews at all. You feel it when Michael responds to a charge made by an unhappy former sideman that the Cowboy Junkies is a penny-pinching employer.

“We’ve dealt with so many musicians and we’ve only ever had one complaint,” he maintains. “If you look at how much we pay in relation to other groups, I think you’d find that we’re right at the top of the list. I stand by the record we have as a band, rather than the opinion of one individual, who frankly I think is unstable.”

Of course, exercising some degree of control over your art isn’t a bad idea. Margo is genuinely shocked to learn that Louisiana neo-Nazi David Duke used Bryan Adams song in his campaign for governor. “Sometimes all this stuff happens outside the music and there’s not a lot you can do about it.” she says.

One thing she can control, though, is how she feels about herself at the end of the day. “When this whole thing started with The Trinity Session and all this attention, it was a little overwhelming,” she says as a thread of worry enters her voice. “I knew I had to find a philosophy of how to deal with it all.

“I went to see Emmylou Harris and it struck me – here’s this woman who’s been doing this for 100 years and she’s still beautiful and gracious and she’s just being herself. I thought, ‘That’s what I’ll be. I’ll just be myself and not worry about it.’ When I go home, I’m still Margo.”

Latent Aspirations

“Getting distribution is one of the biggest problems faced by independent band,” says guitarist Michael Timmins – and, as the man who managed Cowboy Junkies in the early days, he ought to know.

Know that the band is a heavyweight in the Canadian music arena, Timmins has used his clout to help out young indie bands on the rise. Latent, the tiny record label Timmins started up to put out Cowboy Junkies’ first release, Whites Off Earth Now!, has signed a promotion and distribution deal with corporate giant BMG.
“The label is a good deal for bands that otherwise wouldn’t have any industry looking at them” says Timmins, who – in little more than a year – has signed on underground acts the Corndogs, John Bottomley and Pat Temple and The High Lonesome Players.

Given that Cowboy Junkies is now big business, Timmins has a more selfish reason for running Latent. “It keeps me in touch with the street and the great new music that’s being made”, he says.

What does Timmins, the record executive, look for in artists? “Songwriting is always first”, he says. “If you don’t have good songs, you don’t have anything.”

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