When the Cowboy Junkies play,
mourning becomes electric

Saturday Night
October 1991

By David Macfarlane,
Photographs by Douglas Forster

On the cold bleak morning of November 28, 1987, Barbara Timmins, who is the mother of six children, made an unusual decision. She decided to drop in on her daughter. Mrs. Timmins had gotten up to drive her oldest son to Union Station. He was catching the early train back to Montreal. Visiting Toronto, he’d been up late the night before, playing guitar and doing backup vocals with a band at a recording session at the Church of the Holy Trinity in downtown Toronto. The band consisted of three of Barbara and John Timmins’ children and a childhood friend of the Timmins family. They called themselves the Cowboy Junkies. Threading her red Volkswagen through the morning rush hour, Barbara asked how things had turned out at the church. Her son said he thought the session had gone pretty well.

Barbara Timmins, who still wasn’t used to the idea that two-thirds of her family were members of a rock band, was not in the habit of dropping in unannounced on her daughter. Hard-working and family-oriented, she and her husband live the kind of upper-middle class existence she calls “a straight life” – something they had, on several occasions and without much success, tried to encourage various of their children to adopt – and she wasn’t certain about the hours her offspring kept. It was early. But she was curious about what had happened the day before.

She pulled in to the curb at the train station’s entrance. John Timmins said goodbye to his mother and disappeared into the crowds of hurrying commuters, on his way back to Montreal, to the city where the older half of the Timmins family had done their growing up.

The way Margo Timmins remembers it, she was surprised when her mother arrived at the door that morning. She was just getting up. “It was strange,” Margo says. “Mom dropping round like that. It wasn’t the sort of thing she normally did. But it turned out to be such a special morning, and somehow it was right that she was there.” It was that chill, blank, nowhere time between fall and winter when Toronto seems grey and unadorned. Margo put on the coffee. A little later, her brother Michael arrived. He had the tape they’d made the day before. No-one had heard it. The band’s first independent album had been release in October, 1986, and had sold only a few thousand copies. This was to be their second release.

The recording session hadn’t exactly been big time. It cost $125 to rent the church. The price of a party-size pizza, brought to the session by the wife of Peter Moore, the producer, was the only other expense. The recording session lasted until about 11:30 that night. “I remember because I had to beg the caretaker not to close things up,” Peter Moore recalls. “Captured live at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto, Canada,” is how the liner notes would read. As well as the four principal band members, the tape featured a number of session musicians – John Timmins among them – playing fiddle, mandolin, accordion, pedal steel guitar, Dobro, and harmonica. The would be no overdubbing, no studio wizardry, no second chances. The tape that Michael brought to his sister’s place was pretty much going to be it. “So,” he said, inserting the cassette into the tape deck. “Here goes.”

At Margo Timmins’ place that morning, everyone sat transfixed. It was stunning. The sound was haunting – raw and unadorned on the one hand, luxuriously hushed and eloquent on the other. It had an edge – a twang of country music and the finger-squeaking, bluesy toughness of a garage-band – but an edge that was wrapped smoothly with a slow, dreamy moodiness. In large part, this quality was created by Margo Timmins’ voice: tranquil, slow-paced, hypnotic, but, within its whispery context, wonderfully deep and expressive. Traditional classics such as “Mining for Gold” and “Working on a Building” blended seamlessly with near-perfect covers of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, and Rodgers and Hart’s “Blue Moon”. The Cowboy Junkies version of Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” was, if anything, more velvety, more underground, and more wicked than the Velvet Underground’s original.

For Mrs. Timmins, the song that stood out was “Misguided Angel”, written by Margo and Michael, with John singing backup vocal. Comparable in its narrative to Ian and Sylvia’s “Someday Soon” – a girl’s love for a wild young man – it was the perfect vehicle for Margo’s voice.

The Cowboy Junkies called the recording The Trinity Session and it changed everything. The garage rehearsals, the club dates, the years Michael had put in doggedly pursuing his career as a musician, and his extraordinary hunch that Margo, his younger sister, was the right singer, all paid off in the kind of sudden, meteoric rise of which most bands only dream: the period of their lives Margo calls “this little adventure”. But that morning, Barbara Timmins knew only that something very special had happened. “I couldn’t believe it. The kids couldn’t believe it. We just sat there, completely amazed. It was like a baby being born or something. It’s difficult to describe, but all I know is that when I drove home, I smiled all the way. I wanted to get back and tell my husband that I’d just heard something absolutely, incredibly wonderful.”

In the months that followed, the critics would rave – “A special, quiet record,” said The New York Times, “that challenges traditional music.” “The coolest band on earth,” said another New York critic. The Los Angeles Times crowned The Trinity Session the album of the year. Praise doesn’t come any wilder. Their rendering of “Sweet Jane” was called “the best and most authentic version I have ever heard,” by Lou Reed himself. That achievement, combined with the obvious associates of their name, gave the Junkies an aura of soporific decadence. “Patsy Cline on Valium,” was an oft-repeated, but not precisely accurate, description. The band signed with a major label, BMG/RCA, and the album sold a million copies worldwide. The Cowboy Junkies appeared on “Saturday Night Live.” They jumped, almost overnight, from Toronto’s Queen Street club scene to an extensive world tour. They were acclaimed in Los Angeles, in Europe, in Japan.

Now, waiting nervously for the release of their fourth album – Black Eyed Man – the Cowboy Junkies are anxious to put to rest, once and for all, the notion that The Trinity Session was some kind of fluke. Their strong third album, The Caution Horses, yielded their most successful single, “Sun Comes Up, It’s Tuesday Morning,” but it wasn’t quite the phenomenon that the second album was. Few albums could be: The Trinity Session casts a long shadow. Still the band is wise enough to judge its evolution, more by its creative development than by its record sales. It’s difficult for us to see things with any real perspective,” Michael says. “But I think my writing is better now. The band’s just been playing together that much longer, and that starts to pay off. And I know Margo’s singing is getting better and better all the time.”

Nobody remembers now how came up with the name. Since 1985, the band had been rehearsing in Michael Timmins’s garage in downtown Toronto: Michael on guitar, his younger brother, Peter on drums and their childhood friend Alan Anton playing bass. Alan and Michael had been playing together for years in a band called Hunger Project, eking out livelihoods in New York and in London playing music that was often, as Michael now recalls, “totally unlistenable,” and receiving periodic visits from a worried Mr. Timmins. “We couldn’t help but think,” says Barbara Timmins, whose other two children, both daughters, are a buyer for Holt Renfrew and an actress in New York, “that there was an easier path for these kids to follow.”

The Timmins family had moved to Toronto from Montreal in 1977. Their move coincided with the Parti Quebecois’s ascent to power in Quebec and the first Anglo exodus, but their decision wasn’t a political one. John Timmins, who had spent his professional live working in the sales and marketing divisions of several aviation companies, had been offered a job at de Havilland, and the Timmins family – six children ranging in age from eleven to twenty-one – quickly made Toronto their home. Notably absent among the pros and cons that Mr. and Mrs. Timmins considered while contemplating their move to Toronto was an aspect of the city’s cultural life that would later influence the closely knit family: the blossoming downtown music scene. In Montreal, John Timmins’s musical enthusiasm had rubbed off on Michael, and Michael in turn had passed them on to his younger singling Margo. “He was twelve or so,” she recalls, “when he started getting really serious about music. I listened to whatever he brought home.” And then the home changed. Carting several guitars and Michael Timmins’s extensive collection of jazz and blues records down the 401, the Timmins family happened to arrive in Toronto at the beginning of what one music critic has called “the golden age of Toronto bar bands.”

Michael had always been the single-minded Timmins. Peter’s ambitions were never quite so clear. (“Nobody ever understands Pete,” Margo says.) One day – apparently out of a clear blue sky – Peter decided to rent a drum kit. He had never played before. His practicing was relentless, and he was soon playing with Michael and Alan. Not long after that, the band decided they needed a singer. They didn’t look very far afield. “We just asked Margo if she wanted to sing with us,” Michael recalls. Margo, who by then had almost finished a degree in social work, took the offer seriously; she knew how serious Michael was about his music. “I said I’d give it a try, but I didn’t want them to feel stuck with me. I wanted to make sure they could throw me out if I turned out to be no good.”

Of all the decisions that shaped the band’s success, none was riskier or more uncertain than the one Michael made when he asked his kid sister to sing. She was far from an obvious choice. “I used to sing Carole King songs at camp”,she says, but it had never occurred to her that she could ever sing professionally. She had a pretty enough voice, but was shy and anxious that her own shortcomings might “hold back the boys”. “A little shaky” was how Michael remembers her first attempts behind the microphone.

Work in the garage began in earnest. After a few months, the band had some songs under its belt – mostly oblique, harsh-sounding, avant-garde covers of blues classics such as Bukka White’s “Baby, Please Don’t Go” and Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads”. Michael seemed to have a sense of where the band was going: he had tapes and made the rounds at the clubs. The band had a gig coming up at The Rivoli, a hip venue on Toronto’s Queen Street West. But they still had no name.

“We wanted a name people would remember”, Michael Timmins says. “We wanted a name that would be a little surprising, that would raise some eyebrows, and not categorize our music. We were throwing ideas back and forth, and somebody said ‘Cowboys’ and somebody else said ‘Junkies’ and then somebody else said ‘Cowboy Junkies’. And people have been asking us about it ever since.

Ironically, by the time the band released The Trinity Session the name did categorize the band’s music. It seemed perfectly suited to their sound, and its choice – partly luck, partly intuition, and partly thoughtful practicality – is typical of how the Cowboy Junkies have mapped out their career.

Peter Moore had first encountered the Cowboy Junkies when he used to record independent bands that played at a popular Toronto club called RPM. Their paths crossed again at a dinner party held in Blue Rodeo’s practice space one night in 1986 – “I wouldn’t call it a dinner party, exactly”, Moore says – and not long after that, Michael Timmins called him and said that the Junkies wanted to record an album. Moore proposed a recording technique he had masterminded: using a single “Calrec ambisonic” microphone. Michael was intrigued by the concept: as the band’s business manager, he also took note of one particularly compelling aspect of Moore’s plan: it was extremely cheap. The band’s first independent release, Whites Off Earth Now!! Has been recorded in Michael’s garage.

It was Moore who suggested Trinity Church for the second recording. He had recorded there before – jazz and classical recordings, as well as film soundtracks – and he had long been interested in the possibilities of putting a rock band into “such a large reverb space”. Based on early stereophonic recording techniques, Moore’s system involved setting up the single microphone in the church and positioning the band members in an irregular circle around it. Rather than “mix” the sound later in a studio – adjusting levels and creating balances by playing with the faders on the mixing board – Moore physically mixed the sound by adjusting the band members’ proximity to the mike. “You could call it choreographing the sound,” he says.

“We loaded in at 9:30 in the morning”, Moore remembers. “From about 10:00 until 4:00 in the afternoon I was futzing around with the sound. By about 5:00 in was happening. By 6:00 I knew that we had something.”

Michael Timmins, more than anyone, is the guiding force behind the Junkies. Choosing a name, a producer, what songs to cover – the decisions have never been particularly easy to make, although in retrospect they have an aura of inevitability to them. Even Michael’s steady and determined evolution from an intrigued and curious observer of Peter Moore’s technical wizardry on Whites Off Earth Now!! And The Trinity Session, to co-producer, along with Moore, on The Caution Horses, to the sole producer on the new album, seems part of a carefully plotted plan. “Michael knows how to make things happen”, says Margo.

In the same way that the name, Cowboy Junkies, became, somehow, a perfect description of their music, Margo Timmins voice grew, evolved, shifted, gained its confidence, deepened in its resonance, and came to embody the band’s sound. With each album her voice has blended more perfectly with Michael’s writing. Songs such as “Sun Comes Up, It’s Tuesday Morning” and “’Cause Cheap Is How I Feel” on The Caution Horses were breakthroughs, marking a dramatic shift away from albums built around interpretations of songs by Hank Williams, or Lou Reed, or John Lee Hooker, to albums firmly based on the songs that Michael writes for Margo’s voice. The brother and sister are now, by their fourth album, an extraordinary team. Michael’s love songs, sung by Margo, are sometimes addressed to a main, sometimes to a woman, and there is no apparent confusion in this. Intriguingly, one song from their new album is called “If You Were the Woman, and I Was the Man”. It’s as if the Cowboy Junkies have become more than the sum of their parts.

"There is a huge difference”, Michael says, “between having a good voice and being a good singer”. Margo Timmins thinks a lot about singing, and about what gives pop singers such as Roy Orbision or Emmylou Harris “the edge” that she admires so much. She and Michael share an intensity of focus, and once she had committed herself to singing, her ambition for the band, and the standards that she set for herself, became as high as Michael’s. “Good singers have a sense of melody”, she says. “But they also have phrasing and they have an attitude – a way of approaching their songs. Bob Dylan, for instance, doesn’t have a pretty voice, but the man can sing.”

The band had a voice, and suddenly too, a face, as Margo’s clear, fine features and tumbled mass of hair became the Cowboy Junkies’ most prominent visible characteristic. In part, this was due to a natural compatibility with the camera lens: she is an attractive- and extremely photogenic – woman. But it was also due to the engagingly mysterious low profile that the rest of the band keeps. Margo Timmins became the face of the band because she is almost the only member of it anyone ever sees. Alan Anton and Peter Timmins almost never speak to the press, and remain, in concert, resolutely in the shadows. Michael Timmins, who does talk with journalists, is, in fact, an engaging and energetic conversationalist. But on stage, he is the most reclusive Junkie of all. He sits, his head hung over his face, strumming. Occasionally, he cocks an ear to the monitor.

Like the choice of their name, the decision to let Margo Timmins be the band’s visual symbol just sort of happened – but it turned out to be exactly the right choice. Her beauty has a kind of mystery that suits the band’s haunting music and their evocative, story-like songs. On stage, with one hand draped over the microphone, her hair aught in the light and her eyes closed, she has an almost majestic presence. It’s an image that dissolves into more straightforward friendliness when she’s not in the spotlight or in front of a camera. To her amusement, after the acclaim for The Trinity Session the British press was critical that she isn’t as cool in person as she is on stage or on a recording. “Look,” she says. “I’m the singers. That doesn’t mean that I’m the lover in the love songs. I’m not the lyrics. Michael’s songs are like short stories, and I’m just the storyteller. It’s all about telling stories.”

Warehouses don’t come any emptier. The light filters through the big, dirty windows in a big, dirty way. It’s the sort of light, and the sort of space that implies album-cover photographs, and that’s exactly what’s going on. The photographer who is shooting the back-cover portrait for the Cowboy Junkies’ new album is setting up lights in another room, while Peter Timmins and Alan Anton are killing time by playing catch between the pillars of the old Loblaws storage area. Peter, in baggy shorts and black high tops, is pitching to Alan, who is squatting, and wearing a professional-looking Rawlings catcher’s mitt. The foresight involved in bringing a ball and glove to a photo shoot makes it clear that the Cowboy Junkies have done this kind of thing a few times.

Margo Timmins, whose face graces advertisements in bus shelters and subway stops and magazine pages everywhere, is folded into a rickety-looking chair, beside a table laden with fruit juices and a briefcase of compact discs. She is reading a historical novel called The Duchess of Somerset. Michael Timmins is reading as well, a novel by Richard Ford. The Sony Discman is playing Doc Watson. Now, towards the middle of the afternoon, everybody is wondering what’s become of the Jamaican rotis that they ordered for lunch more than an hour ago.

“So this is the glamorous life of rock stars,” a visitor quips.

Michael looks up from his book and smiles a slightly weary smile. Margo keeps reading. “Full count,” says Alan to Peter, and tosses the ball back.

Apparently the Junkies have heard the joke before, form the dozens of journalists, photographers, and hangers-o they’ve encountered during the past three remarkable years of their lives. Because Margo so embodies the band’s image, glamour has hounded her much more than the other members, a fact of her life with which she has never been completely comfortable. Her tanned, solemn fact, for instance, stares out from one of Herb Ritt’s celebrated black-and-white portraits for the Gap clothing ad campaign, and frequently Margo stares back at it with some amusement. Since that picture is all that thousands of people know about her, she likes to pint out that a friend once objected it to it, saying, “There’s no Margo in it.” But her image – an image the band has put to good use – is certainly in it, and the outsiders she encounters, as she goes about the business of being the face of the Cowboy Junkies, often imagine her and, by intentional association, her fellow band members, to be cooler, more aloof, and more difficult than they are. Outsiders seem to expect four mysterious, ethereal prima donnas to be sitting where, in fact, four rather nice, quiet, level-headed, hard-working musicians are sitting, reading, pitching and catching in an empty warehouse. People always seem to think there should be Dom Perignon where the fruit juice is.

“Yup,” Michael says, “we do a lot of waiting around in this business.” And sure enough, the afternoon stretches on. The band waits – for lunch, for the photographer, for the next question from the visiting journalist –without grumble or complaint. The Cowboy Junkies accept the waiting. And the interviews. And the Gap ads. And the videos. In fact, as their story unfolds, it becomes clear that they accept a lot of what comes their way in a successful band. Down-to-earth, pragmatic, and remarkably unimpressed with their own success and the hoopla that attended it, they have a realistic view of how things work. “The record company lets us do pretty much what we want musically, which is the important thing. So we do what we can to help with the press and promotion and that sort of thing,” Michael says. “It’s just that.”

“We always get asked the same questions,” Margo says, looking up from her book. Her manner is not unfriendly. If anything, it’s apologetic. “And when you get asked a question for the tenth time, you go into automatic pilot.”

The question most frequently put to the Cowboy Junkies is how did they choose the name. When, inevitably, the visitor asks it, Michael groans, rolls his eyes, says “Oh God” the answers, politely. Every member of the band could probably place bets on what questions would follow – What is it like for brothers and sisters to play together? How have they dealt with their success? Do they feel trapped by the enormous popularity of The Trinity Session? – and, the current visitor being no exception to the prevailing journalistic rule, they wouldn’t have lost their money. As the Cowboy Junkies wait for the photographer to set up the lighting, their answers are tolerant but succinct. “We like playing together, Michael says. “Obviously we don, or we wouldn’t do it.”

“There isn’t much Michael doesn’t know about me, and not much I don’t know about Michael,” says Margo. “We’re close.” And indeed, they seem like twins, sitting in the warehouse light, books in their laps, the same quizzical, intelligent expression on their faces; they share a physical resemblance, a lean, quick intensity and an understated confidence. “We communicate well. We share. And that means I often know what to bring to the songs Michael writes, and he knows what songs to write for me. He knows what I need as a singer.”

Peter Timmins has just struck out another imaginary batter. Michael reaches for a juice, and Margo looks down at her book, unsurprised by the next question. It’s the success one.

Certainly they don’t feel trapped by success. Their third album, The Caution Horses, was originally recorded at the Sharon Temple north of Toronto, using the same technology so successful on The Trinity Session. The band toured before the album was released, however, and during the tour they changed so much of their material and wrote so many new songs, they decided to go back into the studio once the tour was complete. Eventually, they re-recorded the entire album, which was then released in 1989. This hiccup seems, two years later, more of a midcourse correction than an error. It realigned the Junkies with what now seems a natural progression towards a greater complexity in both their playing and their recording. The possibilities offered by a studio are almost limitless to a band whose reputation was established by the pressure cooker of a single-day recording session.

The journey from Michael Timmins’ garage to Hamilton’s sophisticated Grant Avenue Studio (where, last winter, the Cowboy Junkies spent weeks recording Black Eyed Man) and to Eastern Sound’s mixing studios in Toronto (where, last spring, the band, in the company of the ebullient Peter Moore, mixed the album) has run parallel to Michael’s development as a writer and Margo as a singer. Black Eyed Man is full of the kind of deft, economic writing that one finds in a carefully crafted short story Margo’s singing includes, for the first time, beautifully overdubbed harmonies. The band has ended up where most recording musicians begin – in a studio, laying down bed tracks, inviting in session men, slowly piecing together a composition as if weaving a complex electronic tapestry. But their journey to the studio has given them, on their arrival, a freshness, a curiosity, and an eagerness to learn.

“Success is something that lets us focus,” Michael says. “We have the opportunity to work at what we want to work at, learn what we want to learn, without too many distractions.

Margo looks up again, about to speak. It’s her face, after all – clear, unadorned, and surrounded with her wild mane of hair – that has become the symbol of the band’s success, wherever it has been featured – in Esquire as one of “The Women We Love”, in People magazine as one of “The Fifty Most Beautiful People in the World”, in Herb Ritt’s oddly distant portrait, or hovering over the storybook images in the Junkies’ starkly beautiful videos. But then the photographer emerges from the other room. “Hey,” he says, “guess what”

Alan Anton stops, his arm cocked in the middle of his throw back to Peter Timmins. Michael rises from his chair and stretches expectantly. Margo closes her book. But the photographer holds up two hands, as if to stop their advance. “The rotis are on the way,” he says. “And we’re almost there with the lights. Everyone okay?”

Collectively the Cowboy Junkies seem to sigh. Michael sits back down. Alan Anton arcs the ball back to Peter. “Two out,” he says. “Bottom of the ninth.” Margo looks from the photographer to the journalist. Her expression is a little puzzled, much like the one she describes having when, on her bicycle on her way to her work-out class, she stops in front of a Gap ad in a bus shelter, and wonders who, exactly, the sultry rock star is who gazes out at her. “Sorry,” she says. “What did you say again?” Sn

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