Globe and Mail Newspaper
May 31, 2004
By Guy Dixon, photo by J.P. Moczulski

Where soul searchers find solace

The Cowboy Junkies are about to go on tour to promote a new album, but their Toronto Clubhouse is the place they regroup

Down a back alley in Toronto's Little Italy, a block or two north of busy College Street, the Cowboy Junkies have a little hideaway, a nondescript concrete bunker filled with recording equipment, artwork and trinkets accumulated from their years of touring. They call it the Clubhouse -- their rehearsal space for the past five years -- as credited on the liner notes of their new album. Brimming with the same Americana-Canadiana vibe the band emotes, it's where they recorded most of the new release, One Soul Now.

In many ways, it's a return to where they started, yet almost as if they never really left. Nearly two decades ago, they were the same band of siblings, with friend Alan Anton on bass, rehearsing and recording in the garage of a rented house in the same neighbourhood. Mattresses and carpets were used to try to soundproof the room. Singer Margo Timmins jokes that being surrounded by neighbours was why the band has always played so quietly.

Now, after all these years in music, the band is in a similar, if more expensively equipped, backyard bunker, rehearsing songs from their now lengthy repertoire, as they prepare for their album's release on June 8 and a European and North American summer tour.

The Clubhouse is an ideally comfortable setup for a group that exudes comfort, even as their music, typically played in a mid-tempo, end-of-a-dance-marathon shuffle, has always viewed the world with great weariness. The new album is no different and continues where their previous record of new material, 2001's Open, left off, dealing with the highs and lows of aging adult life. There are some exceptions, such as the joyous The Stars of Our Stars, an album highlight written partly by the band's songwriter and guitarist Michael Timmins's then-five-year-old daughter.

"A lot of these songs are about getting to a certain point in one's life where one felt that the world would be better understood. Life would be better understood. One's relationship to family and friends, job, career would be more secure and stable," he says. "And all of a sudden you realize it's . . ."

"It's not!" Margo interjects with a laugh.

"It's not. It's actually worse!" Michael says. Not the career part, he seems to be saying, but coming to terms with oneself, lifelong relationships and the outside world -- your habitual Cowboy Junkies' type of soul searching.

It seems to make sense then, at this point in life, at this time in the band's career, to maintain close ranks, delve deeper into their trademark sound and do as much of the business side themselves. For the past few years, they have tried to take back as much control as they can, by recording albums themselves and effectively licensing them to their record label. They've also caringly attended to their website, writing detailed tour notes and insightful descriptions on how the albums came to be.

Similarly, they've put together a new CD-ROM, Anatomy of an Album, with even more information on Michael's writing process, the choice of material and demo versions of songs from One Soul Now.

"We've always tried to break down walls," says Margo, who will invite audiences to meet the band in the lobby after their performances, to nurture that degree of intimacy and unassuming casualness. The Clubhouse seems the ideal place to lay that mood to tape.

The first room, through the double doors used to keep in the sound, is small and serves as Margo's vocal booth, as a place to meet and eat, and as a makeshift memorabilia gallery. Hanging in a place of pride is a fan's painting of the band. Another wall has hand-painted posters from their early Toronto gigs.

The second of the two rooms is more intimate, about the size of a living room and darkly lit. The band's most diehard fans -- "the llamas" as they've dubbed themselves in on-line forums -- would probably consider it to be verging on the sacred. A set of long, painted canvases hang on one wall, evoking a kind of codified Native American-meets-Depression-era imagery, as if Edward Hopper had designed the U.S. $1 bill. They are entrancing. Another wall has some posters from performances abroad. Overhead hangs a string of white Christmas lights with little origami pieces covering the bulbs. There's an organ in the corner, amplifiers tucked to the sidewall, Peter Timmins's unobtrusive drum kit, Michael's various electric and acoustic guitars lined up in a touring case.

While rehearsing, Michael sits bent over his guitar, strumming simple chords as long-time collaborator Jeff Bird plays many of the lead passages on harmonica or on an amped and electronically sustained mandolin. But Michael is clearly the leader, albeit a benign one. He suggests which songs the band should run through. Peter comes in on drums, Alan on bass, Margo through a microphone from the adjacent room, and Jaro Czerwinec, another long-time collaborator, adds touches of ethereally Old World accordion. The song sounds effortless and is played nearly record-perfect.

The band members sit in their separate corners, playing dutifully, with little obvious interaction between them other than through the music. Michael insists that sometimes they do break out into jams; Margo jokes that that's when she goes to make tea. During the songs, the odd in-joke seems interwoven with their playing. But it's hard to imagine things ever getting too rowdy in the Clubhouse. Instead, it's about as meditative and settled a feeling as a rock band can get, maintaining the sound they have stayed faithful to for all these years.

"The band has always focused on whatever is happening in our lives. So certainly when we hit our 40s, it's a huge moment in everybody's life, not necessarily a nervous-breakdown moment, but a moment of huge reflection. And I think Open [their previous release] is an album all about that, this moment of being 40," says Margo, who is 43.

"The first thought," Michael says, "is, I'm 45 and I'm in a rock band! I gotta do this for another 20 years, otherwise what am I going to do? And the second thought is, I'm 45 and in a rock band! It's amazing. I've been living off of this for 20 years."

But, Margo adds: "Now with kids, we try and plan it so it's not as disruptive to our families. We're always taking that into consideration. And as they get older, that changes too. It's hard to juggle both lives." It must help enormously, as musicians, particularly as the Cowboy Junkies, to have a quiet, intimate space in which to create. When the mood is right and the music is flowing, the Clubhouse must provide great solace. Many their age could easily become a little envious.

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