only cowboys sing the blues
My first memory of the Cowboy Junkies is laying in the grass at Torontoís old Ontario Place forum, amidst a crowd of spontaneous dwellers, peering high up at the collage or orange and red hues whisking throughout a darkening mid-summer sky, and Margo Timminsí sultry voice spinning me into a groovy state of hypnotic emotion.
The Cowboy Junkies first formed in 1985. Now ten years in the making, the band has released seven CDs to date, their latest Miles From Our Home. Much of this new album draws on the Junkiesí signature sound Ė hushed vocals, minimal instrumentation and a deep fluid groove Ė but several tracks take that sound into previously unexplored territory.
The Junkies is a family band with one adoptee added to the mix. Lead guitarist Michael Timmins established the group with the efforts of brother Peter Timmins at the drums and friend Alan Anton on bass. Shortly thereafter, Michael discovered the need for a vocalist and included sister Margo Timmins, then a singing novice. Today, the band has etched its mark as an extraordinary Canadian group whose unique sound blends the elements of jazz, blues and swing into a mood of reflective optimism.
EFTF: What would you say has been the most difficult part of being together as a group since you first began?
MT: Probably dealing with record companies and keeping the integrity of our music. We donít believe record companies are the evil people trying to take control of everything; we want them to sell records. But thereís this weird sort of dance that goes on between this is our record and the record company wanting to sell their hit single. Thereís a lot of discussion that goes on between the four of us in the band to make sure weíre always making the right decisions.
EFTF: What is the secret to keeping the positive relationships within the group?
MT: I think part of the thing is that weíre family, so weíve grown up with each other and weíve had years and years of experience of being able to communicate within our family, outside of the band. When we were kids, my parents let us deal with our own problems. They never really interfered. I guess maybe as kids we always had to work it out ourselves and so now as adults we can. When weíre irritated with each other, we talk it out; we donít let it sit and stew and create something worse than the original problem. I guess sometimes where things get sort of heated up is when youíre constantly together on the tour bus and youíre always underneath each other and sometimes you just bug each other. Itís like anyone living together, like a husband and wife, or kids in a family, or roommates. Thatís when we have words. We talk it out. You know, weíll say, It bugs me when you do this. Usually it ends there. I think within our family we have very quick recovery time. We can be angry one second and then, weíre like, Letís watch the hockey game! All of us have it. I think it comes from our childhood.
EFTF: So do you think itís easier that you are family? Does it make for an easier setting within the business relationship and within the environment?
MT: Definitely. I think itís easier for me. Iíve never been in another band without my brothers, so I canít compare. I think the success of a band is communication and being able to really talk because youíre together so much. There are a lot of discussions on money, which is a difficult thing, and people have different values about money. In the group, we all the same value: none of us cares about having 17 houses and limousines, so our decisions arenít made in that direction. I think it is easier, but thatís within the context of my family and also within the context of the three out of the six of us that are working together. I donít know if it would be the same if I was working with my other brother or my other sisters. The three of us sort of have a balance. Pete and I are very laid back and very easy going. My brother Mike is definitely the leader of the band and thatís fine wit us. My ego isnít put out of joint and neither is Peteís. Weíve been together for 15 years. Actually, we were having a conversation a couple of months ago with some friends and we ere trying to think of bands who started in the Ď80s and were still together in their original form and hadnít changed their drummer, changed somebody. We could only come up with us and U2. I think being in a band is difficult. You are living with these people and youíre working on something that means a lot to you, your music, so itís ripe for argument. You start off as a band and just play music for the sake of playing music and thatís all great, but once money comes in, even in marriages, finances are the number one cause of divorce. We donít really have that problem.
EFTF: Do you prepare your mind before performing?
MT: I do two things. One is I iron my dress and I post the set list on the wall and stare at it to get a sense of the flow of the songs. After that, I arrange my flowers. I always have flowers on stage. Once theyíre arranged, I hand them to my crew guy to put on stage and thatís the cue that weíre about to start. Arranging my flowers is my meditation. I focus on the flowers and think about nothing. I have no problems being on the stage nowadays. But itís still difficult for me to get from the side of the stage to the microphone. Just that initial walking out is hard. I have my tea. I always bring my tea out with me because I think itís an anchor, itís something to carry, something to do with my hands. I stand on the side of the stage drinking my tea before I go out. Thatís my nervous time. I go out, I say hi, and we go into a song. Within that song, I calm down, catch my breath and relax. Then itís like, Yeah, I like it up here. I forgot how much I like it up here.
EFTF: As a group, do you have a lot of input into the making of your music videos?
MT: We do, but none of us like videos. With this album, we were hoping to get away without doing one. We came close but were obviously not successful; weíre not fans of this medium. Our kind of music doesnít lend itself to a video because the whole point of our songs is to use your own life experiences, your own vision and your own imagination. When you do a video, itís someone elseís vision. Interpretation is what music and poetry are about. A music video sometimes can take that away.
EFTF: When you were young, did you ever think about a musical career?
MT: Never, ever, ever. It wasnít even in the forefront of my brain when I started in the Cowboy Junkies. Iím one of six kids, the one who did the dished and the laundry. When I was young, I had thoughts of growing up, getting married and having seven children. But Iíve always loved music, as have all my siblings. Then when I got older and my brother Michael started a band, I was certainly very much involved in the music scene, but just as a watcher, a listener. My personality was never to be up there, front and center.
EFTF: How did you trip into it?
MT: I always used to sing around the house and in school plays, and Michael knew I had a melodic voice. So when he was jamming in Toronto with three other guys Ė at that point my oldest brother John was in the band Ė he wanted to add a vocalist. He thought a melodic voice would work and asked me to sing. This was really weird because I was at social work school.
EFTF: What have been the bandís major influences?
MT: All of us are avid music listeners, and not just rockín roll, but jazz, swing and blues. We are each now in our late thirties, so when I listened to music, punk rock was part of my youth, bands like the Pistols, and Joy Division, those sort of rebellious years. The person to which I would beg, borrow and steal to get a concert ticket is Bruce Springsteen.
EFTF: How do you find that your age or maturity has influenced your music?
MT: We are quite a different band than when we started. The biggest influence of age has been my confidence. Now Iím much more comfortable with who I am and even more comfortable on stage too. I used to get freaked out on stage. Now I love being up there. Itís the greatest place for me to be.
EFTF: Where do you see the group going now?
MT: Our goal as a band is to stay together; longevity has always been our objective. When we get together and it is just the four of us, weíre living together, hanging out and enjoying each otherís company. We have no in-band ego bull. This is not to say that we donít bug each other, but weíre just a general group. The one thing that never changes is when we get together to start writing a new album, itís still really fun.
EFTF: Youíve released another new CD, Miles From Our Home. What was the influence behind this one?
MT: A number of things. Mike [Junkies band member] is the main writer. For me, I donít really like to write; itís not my forte. But Mike gets his ideas from a lot of different places, such as while weíre touring, the people we meet and the stories they tell us. Mike also reads a lot and different things trigger his brain. We wrote this CD in Warkworth, Ontario, in a rural setting. None of us in the band grew up with cottages or anything like tat. So much of our experiences for this album included living in the country, in Warkworth, waking up in the morning, going for long walks along country lanes, hearing the birds singing and enjoying nature. All of that imagery was the emphasis behind the album.
EFTF: And youíve just finished a special compilation CD as well?
MT: Yeah. Well, we started a website [www.cowboyjunkies.com] and we knew the people coming to it would be real Cowboy Junkiesí fans. We wanted to offer them something new and something new and something different that they couldnít get anywhere else. So we put this CD together, called B-Side, Rarities and Slow Sad Waltzes. You canít get it in the stores, only on our website or at our shows. It was a lot of fun to do and weíre going to continue to do these sort of small projects that are just meant to be sold on our website or at our shows. Itís recorded on our own label, which is called Latent. Iíd like to do an album of lullabyes for kids or an all-Bruce Springsteen cover or something. Just fun things that arenít necessarily meant to pay the rent by, for our true Junkie fans.
EFTF: What specifically would you like to be remembered for in your music?
MT: Hmm. The Junkies are respected as being true to the music; thatís our main focus. We have integrity and have never sold out. Our collection of songs is true to who the Junkies are. Itís the honesty that has been so important to me.
EFTF: What do you think about when you have time alone?
MT: Oh God Ė when to do the laundry. For nine months youíre in buses or taxis, and record representatives have been driving you around. So these little things like laundry give you control.
EFTF: If you could choose something other than music, what would it be?
MT: Iíd be a mother and raise children. Thatís a very creative, exhausting, time consuming and overall difficult job. I would do it if I didnít have to run off every year for several months.
EFTF: Is there anything else you want to say to your listeners, including all of those adoring men out there who love to watch you sing?
MT: Just ďThank youĒ. Iím always overwhelmed by the fact that people come to a show and buy our records.
Christopher Reeles is a freelance writer living in Toronto
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