Melody Maker Magazine, London

February 24, 1990

By Chris Roberts, Pictures by Andrew Catlin



"MOST of the songs, there’s a grain of hope in there. The characters are always striving for something else. They’re in a situation which is not necessarily good, but they’re not saying this is the end of it and I’m gonna kill myself now".

It’s very close though.
"Yes, it’s close."

CANADA. If we believe the most stylish adverts on British television it is the home of everything beautiful set to ethereal yet rhythmic music. So you arrive there and the man at immigration delays you for 40 minutes because he is telling you about "Chicago’s greatest hits". Having admitted you’ve heard this band because you thought he’d wave you through quicker if you had, you are now listening with not very great interest to the reasons for his devotion to the group. They’re not too this and not too that. This is why he loves them. You decide there and then, as he drones on, that from this moment forth you will only like music that is too something. Too loud. Too quiet. Too slow. Too fast. Too simple. Too complicated. If music isn’t too something, it’s not music, is it?
"Keep rockin’, kid," says the immigration man.
"Keep rockin’? Kid?? Yeah, right.
Cowboy Junkies are too melancholy, too restrained, too precious, and altogether too much. Canada. Where the Mountie always gets his man. But the singer of the love song doesn’t get hers.

IS singing the great love of Margo Timmins’ life?
"It wasn’t always. I never knew it’s become this intense and important."

When did you first sing?

"When the band started, Michael asked me to and I was quite shocked because I wasn’t a singer. I sang around the house, always have since I was a kid. I loved singing harmony to the radio. But in those days, when I was little, I always wanted to be … one of those go-go girls in cages."
This was unexpected. This was like Mother Theresa saying she always wanted to be Poison Ivy.
"Yeah. Well, it passed by the time I was older. Then, the idea of being front and centre was terrifying. But I think Michael knew that although I’ve always been a quiet, shy, introspective person, I was really a show-off at heart. That I could do it if I got over the fear. And he knew I had a voice. I guess, when I was doing the dishes and singing, he was listening. So when he asked me I was freaked out, but I said ‘Okay, so long as if I don’t do a good job you fire me’ I didn’t want to hurt his music, because his music is so important to him."
"In those early days, I wouldn’t turn around to face the audience. But nobody forced me and I slowly turned around and I slowly opened my eyes and I slowly began to say hello. And now they can’t shut me up! I see Mike looking at me as I tell a story that has no relevance whatsoever and I lose track…"

COWBOY Junkies have enjoyed cast global success since the release last year of their distinctly undanceable, un-radio-friendly, unearthly album, "The Trinity Session", recorded in a Toronto church. The "cream of the international press" (ho ho) are gathered at their showcase night in the small Toronto bar where the group first found their bearings. They perform dryly and well night impeccably. Sitting next to us, one Mary Margaret O’Hara outwardly applauds (inwardly grimaces?) as they uncertainly reinvent her "You Will Be Loved Again". This will be the climax (if music so weary, so forlorn, can have a climax) of their new album, "The Caution Horses".
What’s it like, this follow-up to one of the strangest surprises of last year? What do you think it’s like? It’s miserable as hell. It’s tears on the pavement. It’s sadder than sad. It’s gorgeous. Apart from Neil Young’s "Powderfinger" and the O’Hara jewel, the album is entirely written by Michael Timmins, also guitarist. He is rapidly – no, gently – becoming one of the most skillful contemporary lyricist. His sister Margo is given lines to sing which express immense longing and loss with discreet, finely-judged decorum. Beneath and around this, there brood existentially calm columns of country and western as cinéma vérité.

IN the penthouse suite of the Toronto Hilton (they’re coming on like stars, bless’em) Michael and Margo are alternating between coyness and bravado and conducting separate interviews. We are allocated 30 minutes with each, which basically means you just keep going until the nervy American PR’s been in four times to ask you to stop. Outside the umpteenth floor window, colourless, coldness wirls around the city’s towers and skyscrapers. Margo focuses on this while she offers her half-rehearsed, half-spontaneous answers. Margo is very charming, but her unaffectedness is self-aware, slightly practiced. The thing to remember is: when she laughs at her nose, she means "thank goodness the rest of me is so pretty". When she points out a fault in her vocal technique, she means "this is where you, as a responsible journalist, are given the cue to argue with my modesty when you come to write this up". Cowboy Junkies have swiftly learned to master the game of publicity and PR in American. It’s a miracle for which we should be grateful then, that their music remains so desperately pure and authentic and transcendent. It allows you to believe that they will let nothing compromise the beauty of what they do. They don’t let anything interfere with the haunted magic. Michael is less smoothly fluent, less ritualistically affable, but, by the same token, less quote worthy, using the stresses and repetitions of the indisputably sincere. He’s thought about this music a lot. He was surprised at the success of "The Trinity Session", but is confident about "The Caution Horses". "Nobody expected all that from an album that we just made for ourselves. It was total innocence. We were an independent band; it was our second record, but for all we knew we were the only people who were gonna hear it. This new album, there was tons of pressure, maybe put on by ourselves, just to make sure you’re not changing what you’d do naturally to fit expectations. I think we handled it well. We knew exactly what we wanted."

So is this perfection?
(Quite correctly, he doesn’t deny it.)
"The band’s amazing that way. It just happens naturally now, after touring so much. We don’t have to concentrate. And we wanted to capture that. Because, after this record, we’ll probably be changing. I think you can get a little stagnant, it can become a cliché … yes, your trump card, exactly. It’s more challenging to … the song I’m writing now don’t necessarily share the same lushness that’s on the new album"

I’M intrigued that you were once, shall we say, an art terrorist noise band.
"Well, the sound is always evolving. That’s the only way to keep things fresh and interesting. Otherwise you get bored with yourselves. One of the negative comments we get sometimes is that there’s no edge to our music. But I think anything that’s as extreme as this is an edge. Loud and abrasive is not the only edge there is. Something very sparse and quiet is just as … hard … as something aggressive. Even more so. There’s so many places to fall in one space."

Is music as deliciously painful for you as it is for us?

"Uh… well it is a very dark album, I think. I was surprised, I didn’t think it was gonna be. Then once we’d put it all together and I’d got a bit of distance on it and listened to it, I though, ‘God, this is, funnily enough, even darker than ‘The Trinity Session’."
"Yeah, the characters are at the bottom of it. But most of them have something they’re holding onto, an outlook saying ‘things aren’t very good right now, but they have been in the past, or they will be…’"
That’s not much. Constantly, time after time, the characters in your stories get their hopes mercilessly crushed. Line after line. Cruelly. Remorselessly.
"Yeah, right! Ha!"

Ha! Ha?

" There is that element to it. But they’re striving to find some hope somewhere. And, if you strive, eventually you find."

You reckon?

"That’s why Mary Margaret’s song is a perfect summation for the album. ‘You Will Be Loved Again’. Although the way Margo sings it, you wonder if she will. The intent of the line is that there is some hope."

But you write most of the songs. Take for example ‘Cheap Is How I Feel’. Isn’t that definitively bitter?

"In a way, but it’s also tongue-in-cheek. There’s black humour in the line, especially the way Margo presents it. It wasn’t meant to be taken too seriously. Certain elements, sure. But the way the final line is kinda tossed off, I think it’s like: ‘So what the hell, that’s the way I feel now; tomorrow I won’t feel this way’".

I CAN (just) see the irony in your words, but Margo’s voice is so earnest, so somber..
"That’s her job. She has to interpret it. The presentation, I agree, is fairly earnest. But then if you wanna break it down, lose the voice and read the black and white lyrics, there’s humour in it. Oh, I know I wasn’t anticipating Margo’s presentation as being quite so emotionally powerful, so dark. It’s real frightening sometimes."

Both you and Margo seem unused to my response as if most people go ‘Zippey doo-dah, what a wacky jolly pop record, smashing tunes…’
"Some people don’t like to see it as depressing. I mean, to me it’s not depressing. Okay, certainly melancholy is a fair enough word to use. And sad. But depressing is not. Because as long as it’s evoking some sort of emotion then that to me is inspiring something out of somebody, it’s positive. Certainly there’s room in the world for things which are sad or melancholy. It’s an emotion which people have to deal with all the time. There’s no reason why it can’t be explored. In some art forms, it’s explored frequently. Maybe some people are depressed by it because they don’t know how to deal with it within themselves… it’s like: you’re not supposed to be sad. Everybody’s supposed to be happy all the time."

As if you’re only allowed to acknowledge the existence of pain within the context of some medium. Is that why you do this?
"Yes, you can’t express it in day-to-day life. So you do it in your art, I suppose. Yes, that’s very true. Strange."
Michael looks pleasantly bemused. As if he’s never spelled it out to himself like this before.

Have you ever written throwaway songs?
"Er, I’m sure I’ve started them. And then I’ve thrown them away! Sometimes a lyric comes really fast. Other times you get a basic idea or line which sits there for months until it begins to make sense. As far as Margo singing, I don’t usually take that into consideration. That’s one reason we work so well together; we connect on such a telepathic level. We’re very close in temperament and certainly she knows where the lyrics come from. Knowing I’m gonna have that voice to present it with is great. A line can be totally flat but when she can wring every ounce of emotion and power out of it. Also it gives another dimension to a song. Obviously, I write from a male point of view. She interprets it from a female point of view so you have this strange ambiguity. It flips the whole gender thing around. Our working relationship’s really at a peak now."

IT wasn’t country and western that originally fired Michael Timmins’ imagination. He was ‘just a regular kid’ and it was The Beatles and The Stones. Then jazz. Then Blues. Now, he admires ‘great songwriters, Nanci Griffith, Townes van Zandt’. He’s big on structure. "In my dreams I guess I want to be up there with the greats. To write songs which were really respected", he says. He deserted the overtly avant-garde because "as you grow older different things interest you".
He’s scared by "record company projections" of how "big" Cowboy Junkies are going to be.
" To me this is a successful album because there’s nothing on it I’d change. It reflects the way we are now. If we do become massively popular, I have no problems with that, I don’t think I’d diminish what we do. Am I offended when people say it’s good background music? Well no, y’know? That’s one way of listening to it. Sure, it’s great background music! If you hear it in a restaurant, sure, it’s very nice. That’s just one level."

I hate your genre, but love your records.
"That’s great! I also love it if people’s parents love it! Fifty to 60-year-old-people! maybe they find it inoffensive and pretty – that’s fine, I don’t care how people relate to it. They don’t have to go into the whole thing. I mean, I’d prefer if everyone listened to every word, every arrangement, but if they just wanna hear its prettiness that’s fine."

I should ask you why it’s called ‘The Caution Horses’, but I sense it just evokes and that’s the whole point…
"That’s the thing. Like ‘Cowboy Junkies’, it’s not meant to define. Just the feel of the characters. Truth is we were driving and came up behind these trailers carrying horses, which said ‘Caution: Horses’. I was pretty scared out and wondered what the hell a caution horse was. So it stuck in my head. And it evoked all the characters in the songs, sorta gave an abstract feel to what they’re about. The symbol of horses is something that’s wild at one point, then very domesticated later. Just that dichotomy."

Your approach is similar to many of the contemporary literary chronicles of small town Americana, the Carvers and Fords, Frederick (as opposed to Donald) Barthelme…
"Good, good, The church was the them of ‘Trinity’, everything had ethereal drifting feel to it. With this one, every song is about a relationship, whether it be between two people or a person and a situation or environment. All stories scattered throughout. Actually I just got that Carver book for Christmas, I’m looking forward to it. I read a lot of southern writers, slice of life sorta stuff. And Flannery O’Connor, she’s phenomenal. We’ve been compared to ‘Wings Of Desire’. Wim Wender’s films come up all the time. Always that understated feel. Jim Jarmush. That’s the positive side of popularity. You get all this feedback from all these people you’d never meet otherwise. The negative side, of course, is the business, all your time getting filled. Toronto though has given us space and freedom and the relaxed atmosphere of New York or London. Living in those places I had an outsider’s perspective on everything, so our music was outside, was alien. But this is home."

MICHAEL Timmins, a great songwriter in the mould of Jim Webb ("Wichita Lineman", "McArthur Park"– there is no higher accolade), agrees that "Stand By Your Man" is abhorrent.
"I don’t like love songs that are stereotypes. I mean what’s the point? They’re not talking about anything real. In reality, relationships are very ambiguous, they don’t stick to stereotypes."
Stereotypically Margo Timmins would be a frail flower with token horns. In reality she’s alert and lively and – you’d never have guessed this – very nearly sassy. First of all, she’s saying how scary it was coming to London labeled"the coolest band in the world" and having to live up to it. "What are you doing" You’re doing your ‘Blue Moon’ or whatever and hoping people like it, and they’re saying, ‘Who are these junkies?’"

I tell her confidence has visibly blossomed.
"I’m more relaxed now. I’m better at making people feel welcome. That’s what I perceive my job to be. To be the hostess and make the people feel we’re happy they came. Which we are!"

But the songs are so intense and poignant – yet at the end of each one, everyone cheers with glee. It strikes me everyone should tear their hair out and pray for razor blades… (this breaks some ice).
"Ha! Yeah, I know, I think that’s funny too. Sometimes I’m really sucked into a song, and I’m gone, I’m really not there… and then it’s back to reality, it’s such a contrast, being pulled back."

Is it easy to get into the narrator’s character?
"if everything’s going well, if I can concentrate. I don’t try to make anything sadder, I let the words do the sadness. I don’t try and make myself cry or anything! If I don’t get carried away – and I do know that feeling, it’s like a blankness, almost like fainting – then I don’t fake it. That would be embarrassing and stupid. It’s such a wonderful feeling when it does happen. You don’t force it."

Yours is such a world-weary voice. Full of ennui.
"Aaah, I think it’s 50/50. It’s a matter of interpretation. To me the songs and characters on this album are real, their pain is real, not dramatic. It’s nothing that most of us haven’t experienced."

All the sadder then. (She chooses to ignore this.)
"We’ve all loved and lost or been trapped in bad relationships thinking: what am I doing? It’s nothing that most people can’t relate to. To me, life is like that. But it’s also really good, y’know? I’m not a sad person, I’m a happy person. But I don’t go around with a smile on my face every day, skipping. Y’ know? It’s grey out! Just being real and living is hopeful. Sadness is negative."

But in most of your songs (I’m plugging away) there’s a thread of hope like a tease and then there’s a big BUT. The hammer comes down: THUD!
"Aha! Ah. Yes. Well. I guess. But in ‘Sun Comes Up’ (the new single), she goes back and forth wishywashying all over the place whether she’s happy or not, whether she’s lonely or not, but at the end she’s confident that she likes the extra space in her bed. Hopefully the album is a confirmation of ‘Okay I might miss you but I’m okay Jack’. That sorta thing. ‘Where Are You Tonight’ is a ‘I don’t think I can make it through the night’ sorta thing, but in the last chorus she says ‘Okay, maybe I could, I know that kinda feeling. Okay, I’m not gonna crumble but could we just go to dinner or something one more time … call me?’ Even in ‘Thirty Summers’, which to me is one of the most desperate songs because it’s about that person changing when you’re looking for what you once saw in that person, at the end she’s saying come with me, I’ll give you the strength you need to get back where you were."

ALL the characters want to break free.
"Yeah, they’re all trapped. But again, if you’re in any relationship, there’s an element of that. That’s the hard part; dealing with that trappedness. Because there’s always a desire to be with that person, you have certain needs that have to be fed and fulfilled. But there’s also your desire to be free, to stand on your own. Whether the relationship be mother/daughter or bother/sister or lovers, whatever."

Isn’t it the old cliché ‘Love will set you free’?
"Yeah, that’s the weirdest thing. That to me is the curiosity about people. We desire so much, spend so much time chasing after the perfect love, the perfect relationship – that’s basically what we do with our lives. When you’re in one you work on it as hard as you can until you break. You’re always aspiring to this perfection in something that will never be perfect. It just can’t be. Because just in itself there’s a dichotomy. As a person you want independence and yet to love is to give yourself over to somebody. So, right there, it’s over!"

And if it was ‘perfect’ it’d stagnate…
"Yes, yes! Exactly! You shouldn’t grow. You wouldn’t be feeling each other. So – I guess where Michael and I see the hope is that there’s always another chance. There’s always somebody else. Or there’s always that same person changing, or the situation changing. And that’s what we all do. We hope. Whether we realize it or not. We believe in the future or ourselves or fate. Basically, what it comes down to is: you will arise again. Please. Let’s hope. And you do, you do! You keep going till it’s over."

REAL life. Hmmph. All right. But people don’t usually sing about that.
"Most love songs, the ones which aren’t sad, are totally fantastic and unrealistic and … silly! They are! They’re totally silly! They don’t do anything for me. Except maybe make me tap my foot. But they don’t make me feel anything. I like … even if it makes me cry, to hear somebody sing the blues, it makes me feel good. When I hear a sad song, I don’t feel depressed. I feel better. When you split up with your lover, you go put a sad song on. You don’t put a stupid ditty It’s a reflection of how you feel. I mean don’t you love it when you’re reading something and – aha! – it’s exactly what you were thinking, but you could never put it in your words? I love that."

You tend to develop a tough shell though.
" In our world, in these times which are fast and terrifying, with everything falling apart, and the drug thing and violence… (she really talks like this) … we have to be tough in everyday life. But we often forget our basic human … a lot of us go home and cry. That’s when you let it down and you watch a movie on TV, and you just cry. You need that expression cos it’s not out there in daily life; our lives are hard. It’s very much a me society. Me included! You think of yourself first, always. How does this affect me? And that’s a very weird way of looking at the world."

It’s perfectly natural.
"No, it’s hard and cold. Your best friend gets married and you think: what about me?"

Do you?
" Oh, I might be romanticising,as we do. We always romanticise the past. I think that we needed each other more in the old days, just to live; I mean raising children was more difficult, keeping a house. You didn’t have washers and dryers. And your age group was all getting married and having children – even in my mom’s day – so there was that communal thing. You went over to Nancy’s house with the baby. When my girlfriends have baby now, that’s it they’re gone, because we’re on two difficult planes.. They’ll have their babies now and I’ll have mine in another 10 years or something. And it’s all… off. I think now we’re very isolated. You raise your kids alone and you keep your house alone. You don’t need anybody. You do, but you don’t."

Because we’ve got TV. Loads of TV. TV about TV. More TV by the minute.
" Yeah, before you had to get out. I love TV so I’m gonna put it down! But it’s warped our brains about a lot of things."

It’s bad for your liver too. I have to go out and drink every night to avoid it.
" I hate making videos too. Fortunately we’re a very strong family and I can joke when it gets out of hand. I take a lot of the front, and that’s intentional. In many ways it’s to protect Michael and the boys. Last year in Esquire magazine I was chosen as one of 'The Women We Love To Love’ – and it was great, y’know, Me! But you gotta laugh at it. My brothers do! This video we did the other day, they were all saying: how was your nose? How was it? Did it get in the way of the set? I enjoy being female and I enjoy being pretty, and I take time to be pretty and stuff. But I don’t take that much time, if you know what I mean. It’s not the main concentration of my life. But I’m as vain as the next girl, and so when you’re being filmed, you wanna look nice – cos it’s there, and cos people will see it! So I find that feeling intruding. My desire not to panic and be cool clashing with my panic about how my hair looks. Hopefully someday we’ll get to the point where I don’t have to be in the videos."

HOPEFULLY this, hopefully that. So much goddam hope! Margo reiterates her closeness to Michael.
"We haven’t been Tweedledee and Tweedledum though, we’ve had our different experiences. But now we’re back together and it fits. Success has brought us even tighter. There’s more to protect. There’s more people out there trying to get at it."

Do you ever feel the urge to let fly with your voice, to go off at a tangent from the strict imposed order of a Cowboy Junkies track?
"Uh huh, I used to. When we were a lot looser. I used to do all kinds of weird stuff. I was learning, experimenting to see what I could and couldn’t do. I did a lot of horrible things. Moaning noises. God it’s embarrassing."

Sounds wild!
"But right now, the beauty of structure is what we’re after. On good nights, when we’re really on – sometimes ‘Blue Moon’ gets very obscure now. ‘Sweet Jane’ becomes a jam."

Becomes ‘Sister Ray’?
"Yeah, right."
I don’t think she heard what I said then.

COWBOY Junkies, by sticking to all the rules of classic form or order, are breaking all the rules by discovering a new troubled serenity, a new voice carved from the most timeless materials. Their elusive first album ‘Whites Off Earth Now!’ is essential, as the divine ‘Trinity Session’, as this new blue ocean, ‘The Caution Horses’, already a winged victory. They will be playing here in March and no doubt everything will stay surreally still until, as the observer, you’ve eased back onto your own interpretations, imagination, memories, dreams.

"I’m very proud of this album, really proud of my vocals. I did things that were the results of a year’s hard work. But ‘The Trinity Session’ will always hold a special spot. I don’t care what we go on to create – even if we do become the coolest band in the world – ‘The Trinity Session’ was a moment. It was probably the best day of my life. A wonderful wonderful day. I can still remember my voice floating up to the top of the cathedral and coming back down, and me thinking woah, who’s that? Being inspired by myself. That’s what happened that day. But no egos. No one was the star; we were just a bunch of people."

Was there something (why not) mystical about it?
"Yes. And there will always be. It’s a moment in time. I think a lot of bands have those moments, but the wonderful thing was the tape recorder was on! That’s it! You know? And it’s renewed my faith in people’s taste in music that they could hear that magical quality."

On ‘Witches’, where Margo contributed the lyrics, the heroine answers the witches’ call and goes off to the hills to kiss the flame and dance in the moonbeams. Also to ride the night wind and make love to the darkness and laugh at man’s sins.
"Yeah, smart girl! I’d read a Russian book about a woman who became a witch, she was smashing windows with the joy of liberation. Witches to me are spirits, not black magic or satanism or anything … they’re more … nymphs, y’know? Wood creatures. What kind of fantastical thing. She goes to something different, better, more pure."

"She’s torn through. She would’ve stayed if her love had wrapped his arms around her instead of turning over in bed. He made the wrong move! In reality sometimes it’s as simple as that. Just one word or gesture would change everything. But if it’s not there, it’s not there."
"The funny thing is I wrote that song with women in mind, thinking women could respond to it. But so many men come up to me and say they love witches, and – I think it’s wonderful, but I have to figure out why, why that is…."

Oh it’s probably something to do with the mystique, the implicit glamour of the unknown and therefore exotic enigmatic…
"I hope I was clear earlier… it’s not blatant hope. You don’t walk around in life going: gee, well, tomorrow’s another day, yay! No way. That’s how it is. But it is there. Cos you will get up tomorrow. Well maybe you won’t. Maybe you will stay in bed all day and howl. But – there’s another one! You’re gonna get out of bed one day. And if you don’t they’ll put you in a home and you’re one of those lost people. But most of us have that underlying something that keeps us going. It is there."
"If it isn’t in the song then it’s in the singing of the song."

The following ad appeared in the magazine.

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