The Cowboy Junkies’ Addicting Vision : At its best, the band plays country music with a Velvet Underground twang
Michael Timmins, leader of the Cowboy Junkies, smiles when asked how much the enormously promising Canadian band’s “The Trinity Session” album cost to record.
“Two hundred and fifty,” he replies.
Two hundred and fifty thousand? That’s a lot for a major-label debut, but it’s far from unprecedented, the reporter said. Why feel sheepish?
“No, no,” he corrects. “Two hundred and fifty dollars. “
If that is probably an all-time low budget for an album that is attracting widespread critical praise (see Times’ Pop Critics’ Poll), the music itself abounds in original and captivating pop vision.
In its best moments, the Toronto-based band plays country music in the sparse, understated way the Velvet Underground might have if they had a singer as disarming as Emmylou Harris. Timmins’ sister Margo sings in a soft, almost whispered style that gives the music an especially intimate and soulful tone.
Besides compelling versions of songs identified with Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Lou Reed and Waylon Jennings, the Junkies offer an absorbing set of their own tunes.
“Misguided Angel” is a wonderfully gentle and convincing song about trying to explain to a disapproving family one’s choice of a lover, while “200 More Miles” deals with the loneliness and wanderlust appeal of life on the road.
The Junkies’ music isn’t an accidental or overnight sound but a vision that has been nurtured for years. Michael Timmins formed the group only about three years ago, but he was in other bands for years before that.
In those groups, Timmins progressed through a variety of strikingly different styles: the severe intensity of England’s Joy Division, improvisational jazz and, finally, some Delta blues.
Putting together the Junkies, he mixed some of those influences with the sentimental country tradition in a way that represents perhaps the most original and soul-stirring country-rock vision since Gram Parsons started the Flying Burrito Brothers in the late ‘60s.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the Junkies is the purposeful way Michael Timmins, 29, developed the band’s vision--a journey that rejected mainstream pop considerations. Equally remarkable was the way he found in his sister, a singer who perfectly articulated that vision. The interview with Michael and Margo, 27, was conducted on the eve of the group’s local debut at Club Lingerie. The initial questions were directed at Michael:
What was the first album that really touched you?
“Joy Division’s ‘Unknown Pleasures.’ I was 17 or 18 and trying to decide what I wanted to do in my life. That album told me. There was such an honesty and depth of emotion that it was almost frightening. After that, Alan (Junkies bassist Alan Anton) started a band called Hunger Project that was very much patterned after Joy Division. We moved to New York, but then went on to London after about a year because we realized that’s where all the music we listened to came from. . . . bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Cure and so forth.”
What was it like in England?
“It was disillusioning, but also helpful. We had been a bit different in New York, but there were hundreds of bands in England doing the same thing--and lots of them were doing it better. After that, we became very radical and started an improvisational band called Germinal, very much jazz-influenced. It was just me on guitar, Alan on bass plus a drummer and sax player . . . no vocals.
“It was very cathartic because it was totally selfish, self-oriented. We were doing just what we wanted, without any concern for commercial potential. In a way, I guess, we were looking for another way to express the honesty we felt in the bands we liked.”
How did you go from that to the Junkies?
“Before leaving London in 1984, I started to get into blues . . . people like Lightnin’ Hopkins. I loved his style, the straight-forwardness of it. When I got back to Toronto, I got together with my brother, Peter, and we decided to form another band. This time, we wanted a vocalist and I thought of Margo. She hadn’t sung (professionally), but I had heard her sing around the house and in a school play when she was in grade school. I thought she had a phenomenal voice. There was a soul and a spirit there, so it was just a matter of bringing it out of her.”
How did the music evolve?
“We wanted to concentrate on developing our style, so we didn’t spend a lot of time working on lyrics at first. We took old blues songs and we put our own melodies to them. That’s how we spent the first year and a half.”
Where did the country music influence come from?
“We started to tour the States (after the first blues-oriented album came out on the group’s own label) and we heard a lot of country music on the radio down South. I had heard Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers and some other early stuff in London, but I was never really exposed to country music until that trip. I enjoyed the honesty and the sparseness of it.”
What was the attraction of country music for Margo?
Margo: “The important thing for me was country music had a whole group of female singers who could really sing. The one who blew me away was Emmylou Harris. She is so free with her voice. She does what I’d love to be known for: taking a person’s song and giving it a whole new interpretation. I loved the way she sang ‘Pancho and Lefty’ and took what was essentially a male song and put a female touch to it.”
When did you begin writing your own songs?
Michael: “We started writing most of the songs for ‘Trinity Session’ while touring down South. The songs started to come very fast. I had written a lot over the years, not music, just private writings. I like to work with words . . . poetry, a diary . . . but they were separate from my music, so the obvious thing was to combine them. I found in country music an intersection. When Margo comes up with the idea as in ‘Misguided Angel,’ I try to help her (shape the words) so it says what she wants it to. When I write a song, such as ‘200 More Miles,’ the question I ask myself is, ‘Is this honest? Did I really experience this?’
What about the sense of melancholy in the music. Does that reflect your temperaments?
Margo: “One of the things we do is we tune into each other. It’s not just me sort of standing up there singing about despair. For example, on ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,’ we had never done the song like that, but the other musicians were playing it so sad the day we recorded it that it just brought that feeling out of me. All our songs are that way. They change a lot depending on our mood. I don’t look at our songs as only melancholy. There’s also another side of them, the hopeful side.”
Do you think the next album will be in a similar country-ish vein or do you think you’ll make another major shift?
Michael: “It’ll probably be more country and folk, with the blues aspect trailing a bit. The three (musicians) who joined us on the ‘Trinity Session’ (Jaro Czerwinec on accordion, Kim Deschamps on pedal steel guitar and Jeff Bird on harmonica, fiddle and mandolin) added such beautiful textures to the music, I think about those instruments when I’m writing songs now. But that’s only the way it looks at this point. We never want to define our sound so that it (closes) us to change. We always want to let the music lead us.”