The Agony and the Ecstasy
The Cowboy Junkies' songs of pain and despair touched millions the first time around. But can their charisma continue?
Her hazel eyes, peering out from under a cascade of curls, widen ever so slightly; a sign she's about to laugh. "Do I think I'm sexy? Yeah, sometimes," she says, and laughs again. It's good that Margo Timmins is armed with a sense of humour. It's helped her cope with two years of success beyond her wildest dreams. When The Trinity Session became a runaway success for the Cowboy Junkies and sold over a million copies worldwide, the 28 year-old found every aspect of her personality being probed in public. Why did she sing so softly? Were the band members really junkies? Did Sean Penn break down her dressing-room door? And what makes her so, umm, sexy? "When Esquire wanted me for their list of 'Women We Love', I though, 'Why would they want me? Must be some kind of a joke.' We were on tour at the time and it happened that we had a couple of days off, she recalls.
"i'd planed to go to Florida to see my mom and Esquire wanted me to fly to New York for the photo shoot."I really needed the break so I passed on going to New York and forgot about it until they called back and said they'd send the photographer down to Florida, if that was all right with me.
"It wasn't until I saw the finished piece that I realized what an honor it was, but I was still confused as to why they chose me," admits Timmins. "I don't think of myself as a sexy person, but sometimes when a song is going great, I feel very beautiful and attractive."
How did Esquire get wind of the band in the first place? "Their manager, Peter Leak, found out about the story and persuaded us this girl would be perfect in it," says Esquire's picture editor, Temple Smith. "He said things like "She'll give it balance by covering the sensitive, folkie and hot new-thing areas in one package.'
"The promotional photos I saw showed a mix of vulnerability and knowingness. I was intrigued because I didn't think any of the shots I'd seen had done her justice. We wanted to try our hand at uncovering more."
Saturday Night Live talent scout Liz Walsh recalls having a similar reaction to the band, compelling her to put them on the show.
"I went with producer Lorne Michaels, who's a big fan of the band, to see them at The Bottom Line [a club in New York].' remembers Walsh. "Margo was soulful in a very different way. We've had a lot of success putting this sort of earnest band on the show. They come across very well on camera. I think she could have a career in film if she wanted."
How has all this attention and flattery affected Timmins? "As far as dealing with the kind of fame thing that happens when your face appears in major magazines, it hasn't changed my outlook," she says. "I'm taking everything in stride. However, since my face is getting out there I'm taking more control of lights, of my hair and what angles I'm being shot from. That sort of thing. At first I Didn't want to appear vain, so I hung back. Now I won't let anyone else do my makeup."
A steel will is emerging form the woman with the willowy frame and winsome smile. It's a byproduct of her new-found confidence. And she's gone from being merely a singer to being a genuine performer.
"That's been one of the biggest changes: the evolution of our live show. We've gone from playing the songs to focusing on the performance aspect. We haven't become ravers or anything, like that, but I'm a lot less shy now. I used to be absolutely terrified. What critics said was me being 'cool and mysterious' was really me being uncomfortable, concentrating on the singing so hard I couldn't get into performing.
"As confidence in the singing grew, I had the space to look around and see how I could improve the performance," she explains. "it was the same with the guys in the band. We really did go from the garage to Europe so fast it was unreal."
Part of the development process for the group (comprised of Margo, her brothers Michael and Peter, and Alan Anton) was playing for contrary audiences. The ultra-quiet style of the band and Timmins' whispery voice moved a slew of vinyl, but in the flesh many audiences didn't have the patience to listen.
I'm not the kind of front person who will try to dominate an audience verbally. I'm not the type to tell anyone to shut up, let alone from the stage in a club. But I got to where I would come off and ask a noisy table down front to keep it quiet. They always did, which amazed me.
"The toughest audience we ever faced was in Barrie," says Timmins, visibly wincing. "That was the only place anyone ever yelled at me, 'Show us your tits.' As soon as I saw those bikes in front I knew it was going to be a disaster. I stayed in the van until I absolutely had to go in."
That kind of stressful situation is history for the Cowboy Junkies. Now they'll only play theatres and large outdoor venues where stiff ticket prices guarantee a crowd familiar with the music. What is stressful is the pressure of putting out a second album that'll do as well as the first.
"I'm bracing myself inside as the record gets closer to being finished," says Margo, on the eve of the final weekend of recording. "We're resigned to the backlash. Because we were press darlings last time, we know we're up for a thrashing no matter what we do on the new album."
This second LP, The Caution Horses, towers over the Junkies' mindscape like King Kong over Manhattan. It's more than fear of the standard second-album jinx. The success of The Trinity Session was so huge and so out of left field that in order to follow up properly they must practically reinvent the wheel.
"We were looking for this album to have something different, perhaps more song structure," says Jim Campbell, marketing director at BMG Music Canada. "I don't think anyone was interested in a second recording that was the same as the first."
The initial recording session at the Sharon Temple, an all-wood church without so much as a metal nail to interfere with the organic vibe, yielded a set of songs that even by Junkie standards where dark and moody. There was consternation over at the record company and much walking on eggshells.
"We delivered the tapes to the record company and they let us know it wasn't exactly what they'd hoped for," admits Timmins. "But they were very patient with us and basically everyone agreed to live with the material a while before deciding anything."
Campbell explains: "We took the perspective of this being a growth album for the band, with the Sharon sessions being a work-in-progress. This gave them time to reshape the record to everybody's satisfaction."
During their tour of Europe, the band began working the new songs into the set. "Night by night they started to change," says Timmins. "We came back, listened to the Sharon tapes and agreed that wasn't the record we wanted to release. We took the tapes into Eastern Sound studios in Toronto, stripped them down and started tinkering all over again.
We consciously avoided setting an overall mood. Each song stands on its own merits. The songs themselves set the pace. I don't have to push them. We don't rock out, but there are some upbeat tunes on the new album. There are songs on it that can lift people out of whatever mood they're in," say Timmins confidently. "Even the two covers on the record were chosen for the power of their lyrics. Neil Young's "Powderfinger" could be about any war, even the one between lovers, without the lyric losing any of its strength. Mary Margaret O'Hara's "You Will Be Loved Again" is so totally romantic, and my idea of romance borders on the silly. The lines are so filled with hope as to be not believable. It's like this yearning, life-affirming cry from the depths of pain."
Sounds suspiciously like the stuff at the core of previous Cowboy Junkies' music. "We don't think of ourselves as playing 'downer' music, explains Timmins. "We're not obsessed with melancholy but I do believe stronger, better songs come out of sad states rather than happy ones. Different things make different people happy, but the things that make us sad are universal and almost uniform. I can get so far into a sad song that I'll start to cry during it and have to haul myself back saying 'What are you doing, you sentimental fool?'
It' s really embarrassing when it happens on stage. The last time was in Japan and they didn't know what to make of me choking on the words. Probably thought I do it every night.
"Happiness is a rare and fleeting feeling, but sadness seems to last forever. Everyone can relate to the experiences of loneliness, rejection and despair. I feel a song is there to bring me out of myself. When I hear a sad song I don't get sadder. It lifts me out of my mood. I'll think, 'There, she's got a screwed-up love life too.'"
The newly married Timmins laughingly maintains that the last bit is purely metaphorical. She met her husband, an entertainment lawyer named Graham Henderson, after he heard the band's demo tapes and went to see them at Toronto's Rivoli club. Shortly thereafter he was working to get the Junkies their deal with BMG (U.S.). Henderson continues to chart the band's course through legal waters, but their day-to-day management is handled by New York-based Peter Leak, who also manages 10,000 Maniacs.
Why did Leak decide to take them on? "The image was just right, there were gaps in the New Folk market they could fill and the album was such a low-cost production there was no way a company could lose money putting it out in America," he says.
There's lots that could be lost this time around. Or gained. Like larger audiences, the faith of their record company and greater musical credibility. Can they get away with another record of such intense navel gazing? Stay tuned. Stay awake.
Lenny Stoute is an extensively published Toronto freelancer who contributes to the Toronto Star and has recently published a book on the Rolling Stones
Margo Timmins was wearing overalls, raking the leaves on the front lawn of her parents' home in an upscale Toronto neighbourhood. It was 1984. I stopped for a chat and learned she was starting college and doing part-time clerical work for her father. There was no talk of becoming a singer in a hugely successful band with her brothers. No mention at all.
But what really sticks in my mind about that brief meeting was how someone could seem graceful while raking leaves. That was the way Margo always was. Her every movement seemed to flow seamlessly into the next. Nothing went too fast or too slow. Her timing was perfect.
I met Margo in 1976 in my Grade 11 history class after her family moved to Etobicoke from Montreal. A lot of people noticed Margo, mostly guys. She had a knack for wearing these loose-fitting shirts that reminded most of us that girls mature at an earlier age than boys.
I remember her as a quiet person. Not that she kept to herself, but she always talked quietly and seemed very gentle in her approach to life. Not much seemed to faze her or if it did, you'd never know it.
I saw Margo last summer, on the stage of the Ontario Place Forum, singing in front of 15,000 people. She still had that grace, those subtle moves. As she sang, she frequently swept her wave of hair behind her shoulder. Her timing was still perfect.
As I continued to listen, I thought that it wasn't unusual that Margo was so successful. It seemed to suit her. I think it wouldn't have mattered to her if she was typing letters or singing; she was doing it because she wanted to. That's just the way she is. Despite the hypnotic lighting, the haunting music, the ambience of the crowd and her own vocal magic, Margo hasn't changed at all. - Bob Weeks
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