Ride a White Stallion:
Cowboy Junkies' Caution Horses at Work

By Karen Woods

Cash Box Magazine
March 31, 1990

OUT OF ALL LAST YEAR’S musical success stories, there was probably only one album in the higher echelon of salesdom that appealed across the board, to critics and fans alike, to people from all walks of life. That record is The Trinity Session, from Toronto’s Cowboy Junkies. It’s a quiet, brooding collection of songs that defies technology as much as it defies categorization.

The Trinity Session is literally just that; Cowboy Junkies recorded the album in one day at Trinity Church in Toronto, playing live to a digital two-track and using what’s called the CalRec Soundfield Ambisonic microphone. The result is a record filled with as much space as music; something that breathes, where most studio albums do not. The Trinity Session was originally released independently, then picked up and re-released by RCA in late 1988.

This year’s The Caution Horses both picks up where The Trinity Session left off, and expands on it as well. The airiness is still there, although the arrangements have been fleshed from the first record’s sparse guitar/drums/bass/vocals with the addition of instruments such as harmonica, violin, mandolin, peddle and lap steel and accordion. Lyrically, Cowboy Junkies have also grown; where Trinity Session’s originals and covers depict innocence and the loss thereof, Caution Horses is more a series of stories on the state of life and love, the highs and the lows, the extremes and the middle ground in between.

Guitarist and songwriter Michael Timmins says this sense of lyrical cohesion is deliberate, “especially on this record. Every song should be a separate little story and the record should hold together from song to song. The idea behind this record is that every song is about a relationship, whether it’s between two people, or between a person and themselves, or a person and the surroundings. So you have ten little vignettes, and they all sort of relate from a relationship point of view, how each person in the song is dealing with the relationship they find themselves in.

“On this album, out of the eight songs that are originals [they cover Neil Young’s Powderfinger and Mary Margaret O’Hara’s You Will Be Loved Again], I wrote music and words on all of them except for ‘Witches,’ which was co-written by [vocalist/sister] Margo [Timmins] and I,” he adds. “She wrote the lyrics and I wrote the music. [But] there has to be some element in every song that is personal. It doesn’t have to be the situation, or the facts of the narrative, but there’s usually an emotional element in it that’s really the reason for writing the song, something that I can identify with or want to analyze. That’s the personal side of it. Then I make up the narrative and the characters. That’s the fun side of it, the fictional side, being able to create characters and situations which reflect the emotion that you’re trying to express. It’s very satisfying, when you finish it and realize you’ve actually captured something that is so abstract, captured it and written a story to explain it.”

The other two members of Cowboy Junkies are bassist Alan Anton and drummer Peter Timmins, another sibling. The new album has three additional musicians as well: Jeff Bird, Jaro Czerwinec, and Kim Deschamps, who joined the band on its 1989 word tour.

“We’ve been working with these musicians since The Trinity Session in all the live shows,” Timmins explains, “so we used the live shows to hone all the new material and all the arrangements. That was the idea when we went to record this one – to capture what we were doing live, the lushness of the sound. We didn’t want that ethereal sound Trinity Session had. We wanted it more immediate and rootsy.”

Cowboy Junkies is, however, still the three Timminses and Anton. “The band is still technically the four of us. [Bird, Czerwinec and Deschamps] are basically hired musicians. We pay them per gig. That’s the way it works, because the four of us work the songs, and not until they are in the finished stages do we actually take them to [the other musicians]. They sort of embellish what we do, sort of paint the structure, so to speak. Certainly, from a musical point of view, they’re a part of the band – we don’t do anything without them. It’s worked out well, and the new songs were written with them in mind, [with] those instruments and their playing in mind.

“It won’t necessarily remain that way for the rest of our career. I have a feeling that on the next record we’ll begin to change a bit. The next one, we’re already beginning to work on it, and already we can hear a shift in style. A very slight shift – we do things gradually – but where we might want to bring in different instruments and different musicians.”

Caution Horses also represents the next step in Cowboy Junkies’ unique recording technique. The band is again working with producer Peter Moore and the CalRec mike. This time, however, they recorded in a 24-track studio, rather than in a church. “We went into a regular 24-track studio, and used the single mike for the rhythm section. The bass guitar, the drums, the percussion and the rhythm guitar were set up around the CalRec, as well as being miked individually,” Timmins explains. “Everyone else was isolated, in the same room, but baffled. Then we played live, all together as one unit again. It gave us enough separation that we could manipulate a little bit in the mixing, and using the CalRec on the rhythm section gave it that warmth. If you isolate everything, I think it sounds very sterile. Everything sounds very compartmentalized. This way, I think we maintained that blend, and that feeling of a live performance is still there.”

Timmins says that although he is the principal songwriter for the band, he’s not into building up a huge catalog of potential material. Instead, he prefers to work song by song, developing an idea from start to finish before moving on to something else. “I don’t present a lot to the band,” he says. “I might write a lot personally, but by the time I present something to the band, it’s gone through a lot of my own editing, so if it’s not good enough, I just don’t bring it up. But by the time we do get to doing a song, it take us a long time to work it from the point where I introduce it to the time it actually gets to a recording session. It goes through a lot of very slow processes, a lot of natural evolution of beginning to understand…first there’s just the structure, then the actual groove of it, the actual dynamics. There’s a lot of subtle stuff in there that you can’t press. You just have to let it evolve naturally. We’re trying now to work up at least five or six new songs to bring on the road with us this time, just to give them that breathing room and let them develop.”

Of Caution Horses, he says “About half this stuff was written between the time Trinity Session was released independently and Trinity Session was released by RCA. There was a bout a six-month period where the band was playing a lot, but mainly around Toronto.

“As soon as we record a record, we tend to immediately begin to work on the next one, because there’s usually a lot of time before the release.” he continues. “So, [we work on ] one song a month or so, just a matter of whenever we have time. That’s one thing we’re having to learn how to do, is discipline ourselves so when we do get a week, we use it productively. Otherwise, it’s like, ‘Hey, you guys, it’s time to record a record,’ and we have to write all new material in a month, and then you end up with a poor record. Time gives you a certain amount of objectivity. Every song sound great for the first week., but after a year you can look at it a bit more objectively. So we weren’t pressed at all for [Caution Horses]. ‘Rock and Bird’ was written specifically for the record about a month before and ‘You Will Be Loved Again’ was worked out in that time, but everything else was pretty much on the road with us. We had a lot of time to think about the approach to the songs.”

Singer Margo spends as much time and energy working on how her brother’s songs are going to be presented as he does writing the, Timmins says. “It seems to be working out that I’m getting more into songwriting, and enjoying it more, and Margo is just wanting to develop her vocal style more. She really enjoys the challenge of taking someone else’s words and stories and making them her own, interpreting them on her own level. So I think as long as we’re both happy doing that, we’ll continue this way. She doesn’t particularly like writing. Occasionally she comes up with an idea she wants to express, but most of the time she prefers to concentrate on her singing. It’s almost like playing a character, almost like an acting role for her, you know? She has this little script that she has to identify with and recreate, and she does it really well.”

As far as expectations for their second major-label release, Timmins says Cowboy Junkies really don’t have any. “We’re pretty confident about it. We’re pretty happy with the end result, so we’ll see how it goes. We’re interested in seeing how other people react.” They never expected the success of the last album, he adds, so they can’t really predict what’s going to happen with the current one. “It was amazing. The good thing about [the way Trinity Session snowballed] was that we were on the road when all that happened, so it didn’t give us a chance to really think about it, and every show we just continued to do our thing. I think that really helped us a lot, that we were able to continue to play while everyone else was doing their bit. We were just doing what we always did.”

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