Recorded live in a Church in Toronto for 200 dollars, Cowboy Junkies' 'The Trinity Session' is one of the most beautiful records made. The group's unique sound has drawn comparisons with the romantic desolation of Gram Parsons, Tim Buckley as well as the mesmeric spell of the Velvet Underground. Allan Jones met them in America on the eve of their UK debut.
Tomorrow, it snows. A Blizzard will sweep this coast, a freezing white obliteration that puts us under drifts three- and four-feet deep. Right now, we are just beginning to feel the weather turn. The night is already bitter. From where we are sitting, we can see the snow clouds rushing in from Canada, ill-tempered, tumultuous on the horizon. The wind is starting to kick up its heels, making a fuss. Great lacerating gusts come off the bay, strafing the spruce modern campus of West Washington University Bellingham, an obscure outpost in the far northwest, somewhere between Seattle and Vancouver.
We are backstage at the University's Viking Union Hall, where Michael and Margo Timmins will be appearing later with their band, Cowboy Junkies. Michael is lean, unshaven, raw-boned; a distant cousin, maybe, of the young John Cale. He is bug-eyed with the kind of intensity you sometimes meet in people who have battled hard to make their mark and know their time has finally come. Margo is here, but not here; a kind of absence, if you want to be fanciful about it. She's on of those frail beauties that break hearts in existential French movie, hair tumbling down over a fine, delicate face.
As you join us, we are talking about Cowboy Junkies, which was a dream that Michael had originally, and which he subsequently invited his sister to join. The first voice you hear is Michael's. He is talking about the group's name, which seemed a convenient place to start.
"We didn't want the name to convey anything at all, really", he says. "When we sat down to pick a name, when that became an inevitable decision we had to make, we didn't want something that supposedly defined our music, the kind of name people hear and go, 'Oh, yeah, well we know what they're going to sound like…'. First of all, we didn't even want to have a name. We only ever considered ourselves four people, then seven, who played music. But in the pop worlds, if you're a band, it seems you've got to have a name, however stupid.
"So we thought if we had to have a name, we'd go for something that drew as much attention to ourselves as possible. We were an independent band, starting out in a city with 300 other bands. We needed something that made us stand out. We needed a gimmick. And we figured Cowboy Junkies was a name that would turn people's heads. They wouldn't know what the name meant, or what we were about, and they'd either hate it or love it. Either way, they'd remember it and listen to us."
"It really was that simple. It was a gimmick. And it worked. What more can I say? People always comment on the name, they all ask us about it. It works. And we're not ashamed of that, because I think names are stupid, and if you're gonna have to call yourself something, you should make sure it's something that actually works for you."
"Now, of course, we read these reviews and people have started to analyze the name. And some people, I have to say, have come up with some pretty interesting theories. Things we never even though of. Some New York critic was writing about us and he came up with this idea about the cowboy and the junkie as two lone figures in the American landscape. One from the rural landscape and one from the urban landscape. I thought that wasn't bad at all. Even though we didn't consciously set out to make those particular connections, I guess we are trying to bring together elements of the rural and the urban. It is country music played with a twist, the past brought up to date. We're looking at a whole history of music that seems recently to have been overlooked. It's been too long since people actually listened to this kind of music. For too long, everything's just been this big noise. I think maybe it's time for a little silence…
Tom Wolfe calls it the drinker's hour; that hour when the dead of night comes alive and the room is full of ghosts and whispering dread and you wake up in the dark, heart hammering against your chest, sucked out of sleep by a vague, rising panic. There is no end to it then, this haunting, these crashing anxieties, the small, creeping fears that soon have you twitching, wide-eyed, shipwrecked and abandoned.
You will know if you've ever been there that some music seems to have been recorded specifically for the illumination of these moments of desperate longing. I'm thinking of the sad, aching drift of Tim Buckley's "Blue Afternoon":, "Astral Weeks", the third Velvet Underground album, Nico's " Desertshore", Lou Reed's "Berlin", virtually anything by Gram Parsons, "Blood On The Tracks", parts of Costello's "Almost Blue", John Cale's "Music For A New Society", Neil Young's "On The Beach", a lot of Nick Drake, some of Syd Barrett.
And now, of course, there's Cowboy Junkies and "The Trinity Session", a record that creates a rare and startling beauty of out sadness and grief and desolation. Hear this: "The Trinity Session" is a murmuring in an eternal twilight, pain made exquisite. Listen to the long, drawn-out lovelorn anguish of their versions of Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and Patsy Cline's "Walking After Midnight ". Listen, also, to their tender embrace of Lou Reed's "Sweet Jane" - the best Velvets' cover ever - whose trembling vulnerability is echoed by the group's own songs, the blue reflections of "200 more miles" and "To Love Is To Bury", the almost unbearable yearning of "Misguided Angel"
This much is true, whatever anyone else will tell you: "The Trinity Session" is flawless, one of the most perfect records ever made. It's also one of the most unlikely successes of the decade. Recorded live in one 14-hour session at Toronto's Church Of The Holy Trinity for a cost of 200 dollars, the LP was originally released on the group's own label, Latent. It was subsequently picked up in America by RCA. Sales were not initially spectacular, though reviews were often ecstatic. The group toured continuously, people began to listen. And what they heard was spellbinding.
"The Trinity Session" rarely raises its voice beyond a whisper. It's possibly one of the quietest records you'll ever hear. Guitar, accordion, pedal steel, drums, bass, fiddle, mandolin and harmonica are a spectral orchestra, a slow unwinding of melodic possibilities. And then there's Margo's voice like something you might hear at the end of your dreams, coming to you from a world you can't even imagine, a voice like time melting.
Listening to "The Trinity Session", I began to realize the extent to which rock has howled itself out. The white noise supremacists championed so regularly in these pages seem suddenly to have lost the initiative. By not going far enough, they have perhaps gone as far as they can go.
Which means that maybe what is most valuable about "The Trinity Session", which at last count had sold more than 300,000 copies on its way into the American Top 30, is that it provides us with the beginning of something new, another adventure, quiet and intimacy and beauty replacing bluster, holler and chaos.
It all started for Michael Timmins in Toronto in 1979 and a band called Hunger Project, which also included Alan Anton, Cowboy Junkies' bassist and longtime friend and musical accomplice. Michael at the time was obsessed with Joy Division and Siouxsie & The Banshees. He was 18.
"You're pretty impressionable at that age," he recalls. "You get hit hard by things, and Joy Division just devastated me, like I think they did lots of people. They were a real serious influence for a long time."
In 1980, lured by an idea of the city as a capital of the music business, the hub of a happening empire, Hunger Project moved to New York. They found a tiny apartment on Avenue B on the Lower East Side, four of them living in one room. They drilled a hole in the floor which gave them access to the basement, which they turned into a rehearsal room.
"That's where we learned to play," Michael Timmins continues. "I mean, we were just young kids who'd picked up guitars. So we spent nearly a year trying to figure out how these tings worked, how to turn an amplifier on, genuinely elementary stuff."
By the end of 1980, Hunger Project had realized there was no future for them in New York. The club scene was closing down. Only CBGBs was left open to them, which meant one gig a month there and virtually nowhere else to play. Hunger Project decided to move to London. Two months after they arrived, they split up.
"I think what happened," Timmins says, "is that what we were doing that seemed so unique in North America was basically what every kid in London was doing. Plus, we'd brought things to a certain point and didn't know where to take it next. We were really disillusioned with what we were doing. Also, the music scene we'd fallen into wasn't happening.
"I guess this was around 1981-82, and things were really falling apart in London, musically. A lot of the music was beginning to die. There was really only The Birthday Party who were doing anything that interested me. They were going around destroying what was left of the punk scene, razing everything to the ground. It was like, 'This is it, folks, you're never gonna see anything like this again…' And they were probably right."
Partly inspired by The Birthday Party's cacophonous assaults, Timmins and Anton formed an experimental instrumental group called Germinal and for three years explored the outer limits of what Michael describes as improvised noise and which sounds potentially horrendous, a kind of industrial free jazz overload.
"It was like some strange experiment that I haven't yet figured out," he says. "Three of four times a week, we'd get together to blow our brains out. It was an exercise in… God knows, I have no idea… I think we wanted to play the most intense thing we possibly could. And to do that, we got rid of all structures. We didn't want it to have any reference points with pop music or country music or even what anyone else might have recognized as jazz, free or otherwise. Basically, we didn't want it to have any reference points at all. I suppose you could describe it as a cathartic experience… whatever, after three years, I was relieved to have gotten it out of my system and I came home to Toronto. "So how did Michael Timmins, extreme noise terrorist, make a connection with the kind of musics that would eventually inspire the hushed devotional obsessions of "The Trinity Session". Simple. He discovered the blues and realized that turning up every amp in the house to max wasn't the only way of frightening the neighbors. You could tune in, for instance, to the sort of low voodoo moan that Robert Johnson dug out of the dank Delta earth, and that would be enough on its own to get the owls hooting like Satan himself was finally free from the chains of hell and walking the backstreets again.
"Back in Toronto," he explains, "I started playing with my brothers Peter and John, and that was the start really of Cowboy Junkies. We'd just get together and jam, playing with these weird blues structures, and the music just started to happen. This was sort of my re-entry into pop music after Germinal and all that noise and improvisation."
What turned you around?
"I dunno…I guess I suddenly heard the human element to it. What had happened, I think, was that I was listening to all that English music and it was becoming more and more mechanical and more and more synthesized and it was becoming too perfect. And at that pint, the human element went out of it. And I was just bored with it. Nothing caught my ear anymore. So when someone finally turned me onto the blues, which I knew existed but hadn't really listened to seriously, I just thought, 'Yeah, people playing instruments and singing, how strange…"
This early incarnation of Cowboy Junkies featured Michael and John Timmins on guitar, the ever-reliable Alan Anton on bass, and Peter Timmins, who's still with the group, on drums. What they needed now was a singer. Michael decided to invite his sister Margo to join. She had a job as a social worker at the time, but was anxious to be involved. Maybe she just thought her brother was a more suitable case for treatment than anyone else on her books.
"I'd never sung in a group before," Margo recalls haltingly, her voice hanging like a mist between us. "It had never entered my head, not even in my wildest fantasies. I needed a lot of encouragement. At first I was really nervous and wouldn't even look at the audience. I really didn't consider myself a singer for a year after our first gig. What happened was, we released our first album ("Whites Off Earth Now", virtually unobtainable), and we toured with that for nearly a year, all over Canada and the States. We were playing every night, practically, and slowly I started to get more control over my voice, and I began to understand what the band was about, and what my role was in the band. And it just started to make a lot of sense to me."
It was during the long months of touring America with the "Whites Off Earth Now" album that Cowboy Junkies made the second connection with the traditional musics that inform the sound of "The Trinity Session". In the Deep South, they discovered country music. It was a Big Moment.
"Basically," Michael say, "it was a revelation. I wasn't prepared for the intensity of the music. Something in it just related to what we were doing. And at the time, we were hitting a dead end with style we were playing on 'Whites Off Earth Now'. I knew we hadn't finished what we wanted to do and that this band had a lot more to say, it was just a matter of finding a new direction. So for four months after that tour, we just played every single night in our garage back home in Toronto, just going over new ideas, working with country structures, listening to a lot of country music, and letting it get into our bones and then bringing it through our own systems and experiences and letting it all back out."
During these months of intensive rehearsal, Cowboy Junkies set about re-defining their entire repertoire. Margo and Michael wrote songs like "Misguided Angel", "I Don't Get It", "200 More Miles", "To Love Is to Bury" and "Postcard Blues". They also worked up their unique covers of "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and "Walking After Midnight". They also began work on their classic version of "Sweet Jane".
"As odd as it seems, I really wanted to do a Velvet Underground number", Michael explains. "My brother introduced me to the Velvets when I was 11 or 12, and they've always been a very, very strong group for me. And in every band I've been in, they've always been there. So this was like our nod to them. And we picked 'Sweet Jane' because it's such a famous song. We figured it had been covered so many times and so badly by so many people that we should do it right. Of all the covers we do, it's probably the straightest. Because we went back to the live version on '1969'. Not so many people know that version. Most people know the song through 'Loaded' or 'Rock N Roll Animal'. But we wanted to get back to maybe what Lou Reed has originally heard."
Most people have been struck by the extraordinary vulnerability you bring to your version.
"That vulnerability was always there," Michael insists. "It has just been overlooked. Even the version on 'Loaded', it was re-edited after Lou Reed left the band. So it's not really the song that Lou Reed originally wrote, which is what we wanted to get back to. It really is the most beautiful song, and the rock versions just take one aspect of it and make it pretty straightforward. We felt it needed someone to do it justice after all this time."
By the end of November, 1987, Cowboy Junkies were ready to record their second album. By now, they had expanded to a seven-piece and had enlisted the talents of Jeff Bird (fiddle, mandolin, harmonica), Kim Deschamps (pedal steel and dobro) and Jaro Czerwinec (accordion).
"Over the months we were working on the new songs", Michael says, "we began to realize the limitations of the four-piece. It wasn't working on the new material. We really needed more texture, more beauty, more of an orchestral feel to some of the songs. So we began to think in terms of other instrumentation, and decided that pedal steel, violin and accordion would be the instruments that would complement what we were doing and paint the music in the right colours."
Next, the group approached Peter Moore, who'd produced "Whites Off Earth Now". It was at Moore's inspired suggestion that they decided as an experiment to record some tracks at The Church Of The Holy Trinity where Moore had just been doing some work with a symphony orchestra.
"Peter was determined to bring out the space in the music," Michael says. "And he thought the church would be perfect, acoustically. It only cost us 200 bucks to rent it for a day, so if it didn't work out we wouldn't have lost a lot of money. So we went in, and it just happened. We recorded the whole of the album in one long session. And what was amazing was this was the first time we'd really played together as a seven-piece. We'd never even met Jaro. We'd talked to him a lot on the phone, but he'd never been able to make it down to Toronto. So we met him for the first time that day. He just walked in, unpacked his accordion and we played 'Misguided Angel' for the first time as an ensemble, and that's the version you hear on the record. The first take, the first time we met."
It's this kind of spontaneity, the intuitive, almost telepathic interplay between the musicians and the natural acoustic setting that makes "The Trinity Session" such a remarkable listening experience.
"We just couldn't have got the same sound or atmosphere in a regular recording studio. You can't duplicate an atmosphere like we had with technology. I guess you could punch the church reverb button on your console, but you'd never get the same feel. You know, there's points on the record where the music swells and Margo's voice comes up and it takes off. And you can't get the same effect if you're not playing all together, live. And in the church, the music, it would leave the guitar and go way yonder down to the end of the church and come back, and you'd have this beautiful, most amazing reverberation. Same thing happened with Margo's voice. You've got these beautiful natural acoustics. No studio's ever gonna give you that."
"I think what recording in the church did," Margo adds, "was inspire us all. I started to sing things I'd never sung in rehearsal. But in the church that day, because of what I was hearing around me, it just took me somewhere else."
"It had everything to do with the dynamics of the moment", Michael says, "We were playing live, and because we'd never played together before, we had to be very intuitive, really listen to each other. It gave the music a natural grace that studio techniques have just about wiped out."
Tomorrow, it snows. Blizzards sweep this coast. Cowboy Junkies drive north to Vancouver. I catch a Greyhound back to Seattle. One last comment from Michael Timmins before we hear from Cowboy Junkies when they make their London debut on March 23, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.
"You were asking us earlier," he says, "whether we were drawn to people like Robert Johnson and Hank Williams and Patsy Cline because of the tragic lives they led. And the answer really has to be no. People who've lived like that , years down the line, there's this myth surrounding them, so you're maybe gonna be kind of attracted to their music initially because of that.
"At the same time, I'm not drawn particularly to this kind of music because these people died tragically. It's not some kind of morbid preoccupation with the music of the dead. It's just music that really moves me. Which I guess is the reason we chose to cover their songs. I mean, 'I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry' has probably the most beautiful lyrics ever written. It's overwhelming.
"And sad songs are the prettiest, I find. But pretty is a bad word in pop music these days. And it shouldn't be. If something's pretty, it doesn't have to be trite or fluffy.
"To give beauty back to music."
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