Seeping Into The Pop Fabric
The changes in the Cowboy Junkies’ sound on Lay It down, their sixth album, are subtle rather than radical, but the Toronto quartet clearly vies it as an important career step. Lay It Down is their debut for Geffen, and the fact that that label would consider a major investment in a 10-year-old band that remains faithful to its idiosyncratic take on roots music clearly augurs well for the group’s next decade.
To Junkies guitarist/songwriter Michael Timmins, that is reassuring. “In this day and age, everyone is after the new thing. With Geffen, there was respect for what we’d done. We had a nice run with [former label] BMG, but both sides were getting used to each other. We asked to go, and Geffen was our choice.”
The band’s commercial fortunes have been flagging; in 1993 singer Margo Timmins admitted that no Junkies album had come close to the success of their 1988 breakthrough, The Trinity Session. But with Lay It Down, the band has produced its most consistently strong album of the decade. They relocated to the musical mecca of Athens, Georgia, to record with John Keane (Indigo Girls, R.E.M.). “We knew we wanted to work with someone on a co-production basis,” recalls Michael. “We knew John from his work with songwriters – then sound of the last Vic Chestnutt and Grant MacLennan records clinched it for us.”
Despite their proximity to a lively music scene, the band didn’t do much nightclubbing. “We only went out once, to see Vic Chestnutt,” Margo explains. “I like to focus on the recording – get plenty of sleep, eat well and work.” Such a regimen – and sessions with a voice coach – paid off with a stellar vocal performance by Margo on Lay It Down. “Not that you can expect me to sing opera, but I’m more comfortable about what I can do with my voice,” she explains. “Before, I’d be really anxious about my performance, whether I’d hit certain notes. Now I find other things to get stressed about.”
The Junkies’ debut to American roots musics-country, blues, folk – is overt, but it is their somehow quintessentially Canadian take on the music that has transformed it into something valuable and lasting. In turn, Cowboy Junkies have had an influence on American bands like Mazzy Star. With typical modesty, Margo claims, “I can’t really comment on bands that people say sound close to us. I can’t really hear it.”
The band can take credit for being one of the first domestic independent acts to make waves in the mid-80’s. They released Whites Off Earth Now! on their own label, Latent, in 1986 “before it was sensible to do that,” as Michael explains. “Alan [Anton] and I took our lead from the English indie scene, and later worked there as musicians [Hunger Project, Germinal]. That’s where our DIY ethic came from. It seemed impossible in Canada then, but the industry is so vital here now. I don’t really see any direction connection, but I’d like to think our success as an independent band may have encouraged people to follow that path.”
It’s not easy to get the soft-spoken songwriter to discuss it, but the observation that the Junkies have been undervalued by the Canadian industry strikes a nerve. “There’s a strange relationship between us and the Canadian music industry,” he says. “It may be our seeming disregard for the industry here, which I don’t necessarily agree with. We’ve just apportioned our time to the market where we sell the most – the U.S. and Europe. We don’t hang out or do a lot of the glad-handing, we’re not there for the photo opportunities. At times it’s frustrating, but it’s usually a joke.”
A few years back, there were almost too many photo opportunities. Margo was listed by People as one of the world’s most beautiful women, and Gap ads and fashion spreads followed. She never appeared comfortable with that role, and admits now that she enjoys living in Toronto, with “that Canadian habit of not bothering ‘celebrities’.”
Cowboy Junkies have worked with many of their musical heroes, including John Prine and Townes Van Zandt, which Michael sees as “the ultimate compliment. Last year we were asked by Neil Young to perform ‘Helpless’ at the Governor General’s Awards. These are people I grew up listening to. To not just meet them but have them say something decent about what you’re doing is the ultimate.”
Given the success they’ve had covering the material of others, it’s a surprise that Lay It Down features only originals. “Funnily enough, we worked on more covers for this album than ever before, but none quite fit,” explains Michael. Those included Talking Heads’ “Heaven”, Leonard Cohen’s “That’s No Way To Say Goodbye”, Patti Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot” and Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me” – which will likely appear as B-sides.
In turn, Michael would love his songs to be covered by others. “That’s one of those peaks I hope will happen, no matter who did it. If they become better known, maybe they’ll keep some. It takes a while for songs to seep into the pop fabric.”
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