Cowboy Junkies - Cold grey light of dawn
By all accounts, this is a time of rebirth for the Cowboy Junkies: new album, new label, new phase to a 15-year career. So given the fresh beginning, it might seem like an odd time to release an album that's obsessed with the ultimate ending. Open, the band's eighth studio release (out May 15 via Rounder Records and their own Latent imprint) is a record haunted by the spectre of death. Seated at the back of a bustling Italian cafe in their hometown of Toronto, guitarist and songwriter Michael Timmins sighs as he ponders the album's weighty themes. "With this one, it comes down to getting old," he says hesitantly, a statement that draws a burst of laughter from his sister, Cowboy Junkies singer Margo Timmins. "I laughed because I just did my first interview [for Open] the other day, and I was asked that question," she explains. "I had to start thinking about it and putting it into words. And I said the same thing: Getting old. It's not the nicest thing to admit." "I am 41 now," Michael continues. "Around that age, things change. People around you start to die or are going to die. You have kids, or the people around you have kids. Your career is at a certain point. You suddenly, really begin to realize that -- not just intellectually, but in your gut -- you realize you are going to die." From the smoldering feedback of the album's opener, the domestic murder scenario "I Did It All For You", to the murky aquatic mystery of "Draggin' Hooks", through the trippy "Dark Hole Again", Open is one of the most surprising and accomplished albums of the group's career. It's also a forcefully delivered meditation on mortality. "This album, more than any other we have ever written, some of the characters, I don't think are going to make it," says Margo. "On other records, there was always a bit of hope, always another day, always a belief in something bigger and better. This one, it is pretty dark." The trick with making Open was to stare down that oppressive sense of doom and move on. "There is hope," Margo assures. "It is obviously infused into the writing," Michael adds. "There is a real searching quality to Open: people trying to find something. It's just looking around going, 'Fuck, this is all going to end soon.'" Here's how the story begins. There are six Timmins siblings who spent their formative years in Toronto, where dad worked in the aviation industry. Michael is two years older than Margo. Sister Carolyn (Cali) has gone on to a career acting in soap operas, TV dramas and films, but Michael says the Timmins clan was not a particularly showbiz-oriented bunch. When they were kids, eldest brother John introduced into the house albums by the Velvet Underground, the Doors, the Beatles, and songwriters David Wiffen and Jerry Jeff Walker. "I remember my sister and I, in the girls room," recalls Margo. "Next to Burl Ives was the White Album. And we could sing both equally well." Around 1979, inspired by the wave of post-Sex Pistols punk bands, Michael and a friend, future Junkies' bassist Alan Anton, recruited drummer Geoff Railton and singer Liza Dawson-Whisker to form the Siouxsie & the Banshees-influenced Hunger Project. After gigging around Toronto, Michael and Anton relocated to New York and then England, just in time for the rise of the dreaded New Romantic movement. "We were disgusted by the whole thing. We didn't want to get into any scene," says Michael ("You didn't have the right hair," jokes Margo). In reaction to the vacuous pop then dominating England, Michael and Anton hooked up with sax player Richard O'Callahan and began to explore the outer fringe of freeform jazz, gigging and recording as Germinal. While working at a London record store, Michael was introduced to blues music and fell under the spell of Lightnin' Hopkins, who "could say more with two notes than Cecil Taylor could say with a whole run," he says. Upon their return to Toronto in 1985, Anton and Michael rented a house at 547 Crawford Street in the city's Portuguese neighborhood, insulated the tiny garage, and, with younger brother Pete Timmins sitting in on drums, began exploring a new musical direction. The improvisation they drew from Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane records was applied to the primitive blues of Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Bukka White and Robert Johnson. Margo, meanwhile, had sung a bit in school productions, but was studying social work when the band was forming. Eldest brother John had joined the garage jam sessions, but would leave before the group got going in earnest. Margo was drafted to join. "I was contemplating going on to graduate school, staying in school. That was safe. I never wanted to be a musician or be onstage," she says. "It started to come together. Michael began to hear something in what they were jamming. He wanted a prettier kind of female voice." Says Michael: "I thought if you had this female voice on top of it, you could do anything you wanted." The languid tempos and whispery tone that would characterize their early work was as much a product of necessity as it was inspiration. Their tiny rehearsal space sat just a few yards behind their house, which was pressed cheek-by-jowl with their neighbors. During their very first jam, the police descended on the troupe; a neighbor complained about the noise. "We realized we had to tone down," says Michael. "One thing fed into the other: Margo began to realize that her singing voice was more effective quiet. We began to realize, if we can get down underneath Margo, the sound will be more effective. Pete picked up brushes -- he was just learning to play drums at that point. Everything sort of came down. We learned to play with less volume." Their first gig as the Cowboy Junkies was in 1986 at the Rivoli, a restaurant on Toronto's Queen Street bar strip with a small performance space in back. In those days, the group would lay down a rhythmic groove while Margo improvised vocal melodies and sang snatches of old blues songs. Often, the entire performance would consist of a single, ever-shifting jam. In the audience at that first show was Peter Moore, a recording enthusiast who had ambitions of becoming a producer. "I was mesmerized by Margo," Moore remembers. "The very first show, people weren't paying attention to them, because they were playing so softly and quietly. Margo had her back to the audience a lot of the time; mind you, she was wearing a stunning dress and looked like this absolute angel. Nobody really got it. "That changed very quickly." Some time after that first gig, Greg Keelor, of the Toronto band Blue Rodeo, threw a fortuitously-timed dinner party. Among the guests were Michael and Margo and Peter Moore. The Cowboy Junkies had talked with recording engineers about capturing the intimate sound of their rehearsal garage, but had been met with blank stares. Moore was a devotee of single-mic recording (and an enthusiastic concert bootlegger) who was looking for an act that was willing to experiment with his theories. Moore's own epiphany about making records came when he listened to Dire Straits' Brothers In Arms and compared it to a 1956 Billie Holiday session. "I was thinking, where the fuck did we go wrong? You could see Billie Holiday, see the sweat," recalls Moore. He had done some recording with punk bands, but over the course of the dinner, he pitched Margo and Michael on recording them in their garage on a single microphone -- an eggbeater-sized Calrec Ambisonic he had just paid $9,000 for and was expecting delivery on soon. "Their eyes were lighting up, and mine were lighting up, too," says Moore. On a hot, sticky June 26, 1986, Moore dragged his gear over to the Crawford Street house, arranged the group around his treasured Calrec, ran cables through the backyard, jerry-rigged a control room in the kitchen, and rolled tape. Aside from a panicked moment when someone sent Moore's microphone crashing to the concrete, everything went smoothly. Moore ran the recording signal through an F1 digital converter and stored the sound onto regular Betamax tapes, which he recently dug out of his archives and played back. Echoing through his studio monitors came the 15-year-old sound of the band feeling their way through take-after-take of Lightnin' Hopkins' "Shining Moon", a reimagining of Bruce Springsteen's "State Trooper" -- and a hesitant stab at the Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane" (something they'd set aside for another day). The tracks break down, and the band members' chatter sounds nervous. The music is haunted, at once ancient and reflective of an utterly contemporary numbness and desolation. And Moore is correct: If you close your eyes, you're in the garage on that sweaty afternoon, as they forge their new sound. "They were very aloof; I was ecstatic," Moore says of the playback session. "This was new from the point of view of the style of music, the whole vibe that was happening. They had a very cool attitude to groove that was missing from music." They pressed up nine tracks as Whites Off Earth Now and issued it on their own Latent Recordings. Their introverted, hushed performances at the Rivoli before a faithful few became crowded with scenemakers eager to catch a piece of what was becoming the most-talked-about band in town. "Because we became the thing to go to, there would be this separation in the room," says Margo. "There was this bubble that encased us and [the hardcore fans]. And then there were people at the back, at the bar, because it was the in-thing. I could totally blank them out." The group hit the road, playing to near-empty clubs in U.S. cities and returning home to find their local fame snowballing. Soon, the swelling crowd would force them out of the Rivoli -- not to a bigger venue to accommodate the bigger audience, but to an off-the-beaten-track bar, where they hoped the hipsters would not follow. "It was a good learning experience, to not let it shake you that the Pong machine or the cash register was louder than you. And there was this intensity, with all these people sitting around you," Margo says. "And then we got to another level where we could ask them to turn all that [noisemaking] stuff off." "Or not serve beer during the show," adds Michael. "Just to piss them off." "As far as noticing who was listening, we really didn't care," says Margo. "We just wanted to play. I don't think I paid attention to the audience and realized that people liked us until after The Trinity Session." Margo covers her eyes and ducks her head. Michael sets his jaw as if bracing for a punch. What they're anticipating is the nine-line summary of the Cowboy Junkies' career in Peter Doggett's recent 562-page history of country-rock, Are You Ready For The Country. When it comes to posterity, it's evident that the Junkies are braced for the worst. "In singer Margo Timmins, [Cowboy Junkies] had a genuinely unsettling figurehead, her voice as barren and cold as the wastes of Northern Canada," Doggett writes. On 1988's The Trinity Session, he contends, Margo "seemed to be reporting from the scene of some vast desolation, as if the nightmares of the Confederate Army had been entombed in ice." It reads like a catalogue of the critical cliches that have dogged the band since The Trinity Session, through all the stylistic development and variation in the intervening years. Jeff Bird, the Junkies' long-serving multi-instrumentalist, who accompanies Margo and Michael at their radio-show promotional chores, has sat in on countless interviews where the band's mope-rock reputation has come up, and comes to this conclusion: Every artist is allowed just one story. "And our story is Trinity Session, and it doesn't matter what else we do or what else we play," says Michael. "I mean, that was 13 years ago. There are aspects of Trinity Session we have brought forward with us, because that is our style. But unless people are willing to listen to the music now, what can you do about it?" So The Trinity Session is the record that launched them around the world, but it has also become a monolith that has cast a shadow over much of what they have accomplished since. "We have had that attitude to battle against, but we wouldn't be mentioned in that book without that record," Michael says philosophically. The Church Of The Holy Trinity is an urban house of worship that was spared in a '70s-era urban renewal project in Toronto. It now sits regally, almost surreally, tucked in amid the future-shock architecture of the Yonge Street retail behemoth Eaton Centre. The building itself is 119 feet long with a 40-foot ceiling. For reasons best known to acoustic sages such as producer Moore, it's an ideal recording space, and he had been using it for various projects around the time the Junkies were planning their sophomore release. When asked how he convinced the proprietors of Trinity to allow a group called the Cowboy Junkies to record in a church, Moore hems and haws and then confesses: "I lied." At 9 a.m. on November 27, 1987, Moore again arranged the group in an acoustically advantageous way around the trusty Calrec, and captured them running through their road-tested set inside the church. This time, alongside covers such as Rodgers & Hart's "Blue Moon", Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry", and the Patsy Cline classic "Walking After Midnight", they took another run at their distinctive arrangement of the Velvets' "Sweet Jane". They also squeezed in impressive originals from Michael's burgeoning songbook -- "200 More Miles" and "Postcard Blues" -- a few memorable collaborations between Michael and Margo: "To Love Is To Bury", "I Don't Get It", and "Misguided Angel". By 11:30 that night, they were done. Moore returned to Trinity a week later to record Margo a cappella chanting the traditional "Mining For Gold". The ambient sound humming behind her voice was a last-minute inspiration: "I went down and turned on the furnace, which was all steampipes," Moore recalls. "It sounded like guys with hammers hitting [rocks]...you hear that 'woosh' and the sound of miners chipping stone in the ground, coming from the rads." The track became the record's opener. For eight months, The Trinity Session, swathed in a cover that echoed the Velvet Underground's third album, was an indie release, but it fortified the group's swelling popularity. "I understood when I first saw them that this was something cool," says Moore. "This was a secret club. But I guess that is the quality that made it go so big. It was a secret that everybody knew all of a sudden." Major labels beckoned, but each came to the same conclusion: The Trinity Session was a good start, but the entire thing needed to be redone in a real studio. "Isn't that phenomenal? It freaked us out," says Michael. "It just showed us these people don't know what they are talking about. The reason they were here [to sign the band] is because of this recording. So it made us wary of signing anything." Eventually, RCA in New York City committed to a straightforward release of The Trinity Session, untouched. Success, by everyone's estimation, would be 80,000 sales. It went on to sell 1.5 million. MTV jumped on videos for "Sweet Jane" and "Misguided Angel", and comely Margo was anointed babe-of-the-moment. For such an introverted, wary bunch, it made for a hell of an adjustment. "I never felt it went to their heads, but my god it made them feel uncomfortable," says Moore. "Margo wasn't craving the limelight. She is a quiet, gentle soul. Which is why people find her endearing. I think it was extremely uncomfortable. Their defenses went up, and people thought they were being cold and standoffish. But they were protecting themselves." Says Michael of that time: "It is the album that allowed us to do everything that has come since. The opportunities that came out of The Trinity Session were amazing." As annoying as the critical cliches can be about the group's sound, The Trinity Session is also justifiably a source of pride. While they downplay its definition of their current sound, Michael is also quick to rally to the record and curious about the fact that it's not better represented in the pantheon of modern music, particularly in the alt-country world. "I mean, it is a seminal record," he says. "It belongs in a list of benchmarks. That was the year of Guns N' Roses and Ratt and Poison, but it managed to turn a lot of heads." He's got a point. Those who date the Year Zero of alt-country to the release of Uncle Tupelo's No Depression in 1990 likely forget that the Junkies were at least two years ahead in mixing the post-punk sensibility with roots music, selling in platinum quantities to boot. "We know we didn't start anything," Michael continues. "Gram Parsons came before us. The Burrito Brothers, Beatles, the Stones did country stuff. Then Willie and Waylon, that stuff is alt-country. We didn't think we stepped into a void and introduced this music scene, or whatever. But then when people talk about the current movement, we would kind of like to get mentioned." A third attempt at bottling Moore's single-mike lightning in 1989 yielded The Sharon Temple Sessions, recorded between tours, in miserable April cold at a spooky worship center north of Toronto. The project was shelved, and the band reconvened with Moore in a proper recording studio for 1990's The Caution Horses. While touring behind that album, they needed to find an opening act, and Michael half-jokingly pitched for Townes Van Zandt. When the Junkies had first started touring, Van Zandt's music was a constant in the tape deck. On their first trip to Atlanta, they scraped together pocket money to see him at a club, then laid low so they could catch the second show for free. To their astonishment, he agreed to open the tour for the band. "The way he puts words together," Michael says wistfully, "his guitar and vocal delivery is so bluesy. Some people just touch you, and his voice and guitar just gets me every time. There are so many of his songs I just loved." Van Zandt's reputation as a troubled soul preceded him. "We had him on our bus, which is a scary thing to do," Margo recalls. "He can be very dynamic, or volatile or whatever you want to call it. But to me, he was a true gentleman. There were some nights where he was in a mood, but he would never let me see it." Sometimes, he would hold court in the back lounge of the bus, playing songs and spinning stories. Other times, he would slip up to Margo at the front of the bus and offer quiet encouragement. "He believed in my voice, undeniably. I had to say to myself: Townes thinks I can sing, so I started to believe in it and let it happen, instead of the doubts I had all the time." Van Zandt wrote the song "Cowboy Junkies Lament", which the Junkies covered on 1992's Black Eyed Man and Van Zandt recorded on his 1995 disc No Deeper Blue. Michael wrote "Townes' Blues" (also on Black Eyed Man) as an homage to his mentor. On New Year's Day 1997, they received word that Van Zant was dead. As a final tribute, Michael wrote the song "Blue Guitar" and incorporated lyrics from an unpublished Van Zandt song: "Goodbye to the highway/Goodbye to the sky/I'm heading out goodbye, goodbye." (It appears on the Junkies' 1998 album Miles From Our Home.) "There was such a weird vibe around him," Michael says. "A very strange spirit thing. A very weird presence. I do believe that is what it was. He was here to channel everything into song. It was like he was declaring: 'I am a tortured soul. That's what I do, and I will express it as best as I can.'" "There's a lot of great songwriters. We meet a lot of them," adds Margo. "But we never met anybody like Townes. Never, ever." After The Caution Horses, the Cowboy Junkies continued to tour and cultivate a hard core of fans with subsequent releases Black Eyed Man (1992) and Pale Sun, Crescent Moon (1993). Michael took over as producer and grew as a songwriter, while the group extended their sound by developing their own sonic palette and introducing a revolving cast of support players, both in the studio and on the road. With 1996's Lay It Down, they jumped from RCA to Geffen. Powered by the driving single "A Common Disaster", Lay It Down sold 600,000 copies. Geffen was juiced about a follow-up and pledged an expanded marketing budget. Based on the label's confidence, the Junkies upgraded their studio habits, more out of a sense of obligation than hubris. They booked time at one of Toronto's top studios and hired producer John Leckie, who had worked with everyone from John Lennon to Pink Floyd to Radiohead. Then they flew to England to record strings and mix the album at EMI's storied Abbey Road studio. By their standards, it was ridiculously lavish. "It was such a crazy thing: 'Let's just go to Abbey Road,'" marvels Margo. "I'm glad we did it. But if we never did it again, I would not miss it. We learned a lot." Whether it was Leckie's tutelage or the inspiration of walking in the footsteps of the Fab Four, the resulting record, Miles From Our Home, was sonically miles ahead of anything else in the group's catalogue. And it had the added benefit of a natural hit single in the title track. With great expectations, the record was released at the end of June 1998. At the beginning of July, the Polygram-Universal label merger went ahead, and the band says their structure at Geffen, which was caught up in the consolidation, collapsed. When the Junkies embarked on the extensive tour that had been booked, Michael says promoters complained they were unable to get posters from the label to advertise the show. The lack of promotion was such that dedicated fans Margo says she met after gigs wondered when the group was going to release a new album, unaware that Miles From Our Home was in stores. "It was frustrating. Maddening. We were just so pissed off," says Michael. "We have done a lot of records before then. Some did well, some did okay. There were fuck-ups and bungles. That is the nature of the record industry. But this was just: The record does not exist." They opted to forge ahead with the tour. Accompanied by long-serving utility man Jeff Bird, keyboardist Linford Detweiler and singer-guitarist Karin Bergquist, the lineup evolved into the strongest touring version of the band yet. In the Geffen aftermath, the Junkies were cut loose. Rather than immediately seek a new label home, they remade their website, then cut a deal with Canadian e-tailer MapleMusic.com to operate their online sales (plus an arrangement in the U.S. with Amazon.com). They kept touring and released, via the web, the compilation Rarities, B-Sides And Slow, Sad Waltzes; a concert album, Waltz Across America; and a video of an October 2000 Toronto gig. (They're also working on a Townes Van Zandt tribute album as a future internet release.) "After their split from Geffen, this band worked their asses off," says Rounder A&R vice president Troy Hansbrough, who signed the group to a U.S. deal for Open. Since the major-label consolidation process began, a number of bands such as the Junkies, who have developed a strong following, have "found themselves estranged from the goals of the majors," who are increasingly interested in "the big score" as opposed to nurturing careers, Hansbrough added. An increasing number of those acts are finding a home at established indie labels such as Rounder. "These last two years have been very educational, and it couldn't come at a better time," Michael says. "It was very invigorating, and gave us a lot of space to rethink things." It also gave the band a chance to become reacquainted with its fans, some of whom now plan their holidays around the band's tour schedule. "I like our fans," says Margo. "I don't know why, but we don't have that psycho element. I mean, they are really into the Junkies, but they are not wanting to marry me; they are into the band." Throughout that extended period of touring, the group was road-testing new material, then returning home to record tracks at Toronto's Chemical Sound or with original producer Peter Moore or even in their rehearsal space. The album that came together as Open was initially, irredeemably bleak. Michael says he had front-loaded the record with more resigned material, so that the record's mood went from grey to black. But late in the game, he says he saw the wisdom of inverting the running order. Now, the album moves from darkness into light, which more closely parallels his own revelation about his place in the world. In its reshuffled form, the 10-song set kicks off with the blood-curdling "I Did It All For You", its darkness undeniable. But the fulcrum of Open is "1,000 Year Prayer", a gorgeously realized lullaby written after the Timmins family's millennium get-together at the dawn of 2000. The song is at once funny, heartbreakingly sad and clear-eyed in its articulation of where life finds its meaning. Margo sings Michael's words to god, cataloguing civilization's ravaging of the natural world, and as the bleak assessment accumulates, the song reaches this elegant redemption: "I've got a girl, thank you lord." By "I'm So Open", Margo is singing about sleepless nights, but it's a restlessness not borne out of existential terror: "I lie awake just counting my blessings." The reshuffled album now concludes with "Close My Eyes", where hope is found in a simple revelation: "I'm going to breathe the air that my children will be breathing." "My favorite song is 'I'm So Open'," says Margo. "You know, you choose. You can have your nervous breakdown and divorce and go out with a 20-year-old girl in a sports car. Or you can realize what you have, and how wonderful it is, and go with it." "[Changing the track listing] did change it, and it makes sense," Michael says. "It does have that sense of being dark, until it gets brighter. 'Close My Eyes' is, in a way, a very positive song to close on. "It is the realization that you have got to recognize what you have. The focus goes back on the minutiae, which, if you are lucky enough, returns the focus on your family or your relationships. That is how you refocus your energy and realize things are pretty good, when you get right down to it. "If there is anything communicated through Open, it is keeping yourself open. To keep going, you have to let things in. There is an element of risk, but it is really the only way to get old." ND Canadian correspondent Paul Cantin is senior reporter with www.jamshowbiz.com. He lives in Toronto, where, as Margo Timmins sings, it gets so cold your spit freezes before it hits the ground.