Words and Music

Society of composers, authors
and music publisher of Canada Summer 2001
Volume 8 Number 2

By Alexander Varty

Open For Business by Alexander Varty

The Cowboy Junkies' latest CD showcases Michael Timmins' new-found sense of musical confidence

All songwriters have their idols, and Cowboy Junkies guitarist Michael Timmins is no different. Asked which of his fellow tunesmiths he admires, he quickly cites Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Steve Earle, Nick Cave and "the obvious gods", Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, as among his favorites. But their influence came second-hand; like most of us, Timmins absorbed those giants of song through exposure to their records and CDs. In Townes Van Zandt, though, Timmins found more than an absent hero. The legendary Texas singer-songwriter was a regular touring guest of the Cowboy Junkies in the years before his death on New Year's Day, 1997, and during that time he became something of a mentor to his younger, Canadian counterpart.

Sitting backstage before a show or on those endless bus journeys that characterize the touring life, the two found plenty of opportunity to talk about music, life, and art. "I used to ask some specific questions [about songwriting], and, depending on his mood, he was generally pretty good at answering those questions," Timmins says, on the line from a London, U.K., hotel. "Townes taught me about taking a subject and coming at it from a completely different angle, so that the listener doesn't necessarily know the specific scene or story that you are writing about, but understands the idea or the meaning that you're trying to get across. He was brilliant at that; you listen to his songs, and you get the feeling there's a story going on. You couldn't necessarily say what the story's about, but you certainly understand the underlying emotion."

Timmins learned Van Zandt's lessons well. The new Cowboy Junkies recording, Open, the band's first release of new material since 1998's Miles From Our Home, is full of brooding, enigmatic songs that defy easy analysis but pack an immediate emotional punch. The best of them borrow imagery from the Bible or the blues to depict a world in which the album's narrator - played with customary aplomb by Timmins' sister, singer Margo Timmins - is either recovering from emotional shock or on the verge of some fateful visitation.

"There's more of a sense of acceptance in those songs that anything else," Timmins contends. "But it isn't necessarily a kind of dark fatalism-it's maybe more of a revelation about the reality of things. In general, the lyrical themes deal with reaching a certain point in one's life," he adds. "Basically it's about looking forwards and backwards and inwards and trying to figure out where you are and where you're going and where you've come from and how the hell you got here in the first place. When you do that, you dig up a lot of stuff, and I think the way we decided to sequence this record was that the first stuff you dig up is a lot of the darkness, and then if you go a little bit deeper, you begin to take note of all the great things around you and start taking them a little less for granted."

One thing Timmins certainly doesn't take for granted is the process of songwriting. "I slave over it," he admits. "I used to write songs all the time, but as life gets more complicated and gets more filled with other things-like children-it becomes more difficult. I have to set aside time to write, but I do keep a notebook with me all the time, just to make sure I jot down any ideas that I get. I don't necessarily write literally what's going on, but I use that as the spark for inspiration, and then go on from there."

This is an effective-and popular-songwriting strategy. But one factore that separates Timmins from his peers is that he rarely, if ever, sings his songs outside the privacy of the Junkies' rehearsal room; elsewhere Margo is his mouthpiece. Does that alter the way he thinks when he's writing? "No," he says. "I never really write for her, you know. Even when I'm writing, I don't really sit down and think, 'Okay, here's a song that Margo's going to sing and therefore I have to write it like this.' I just tend to write for myself. It's more effective this way: she has to find her own way into the song, and so it becomes more personal for her, as opposed to me trying to second-guess what she can or can't do."

Perhaps it's this process that's accountable for the Cowboy Junkies' success. Despite their roots in his personal experience, Timmins' words are often mysterious to the point of opacity; at times, it can seem he's writing in code. But by unscrambling his lines so they make sense to her, Margo might also be making them accessible to a wider audience- although with her drawling contralto, she too, can present a slightly enigmatic air. "She's never been big on enunciation," Timmins says with an affectionate laugh. "She really treats her voice as an instrument, and if part of that is slurring a few syllables here or there, so be it. And we also treat it that way in mixing. We tend not to get her voice too much on top of things. Sometimes it even gets buried a little bit, and that's on purpose. We like it to be part of the music, and not necessarily the dominant element all the time."

In fact the dominant element on Open might be Timmins' own electric guitar. From the roiling, freeform introduction to "I Did It All For You" - mixed unnaturally low, so as to trick listeners into cranking up the volume- to the 20 seconds of feedback that end the disc, he's playing with new-found confidence and abandon.

"I've gradually been bringing my guitar back in over the last three records," he says. "I did a lot of playing in the early days of the band, and then I got a little bit bored with playing lead and really got into playing rhythm, which I enjoy just as much. And as a songwriter and arranger, I kind of enjoyed using other instruments and other people to do the solos. But just over the past three or four years, I've begun to enjoy playing lead a lot more. And that definitely influences the way I write a song, and the way I conceptualize it in terms of the arranging - I'm leaving more space for myself to play."

From the sound of it, Timmins is rising to the challenge. And it's not only a greater degree of six-string skill he's achieved: by the time Open reaches the end of its arc from darkness to light, it's clear he's also found some measure of peace. And why not? With what might be the best album of his career in the stores, a supportive and sensitive vocal interpreter in his sister, a steady band to back him and a growing stock of mid-life maturity at had, the only reason he needs the dark side is to inspire further songs.

The Cowboy Junkies play Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton folk festivals on July 5, July 27-28 and Aug 12, respectively, before touring Canada.

Alex Varty is arts editor for the Georgia Straight. When he's not at the computer keyboard, he plays guitar with the B.C.-based psychedelic-folk-meets-art-rock combo Resin.

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