Although the sound of their debut recording, Whites Off Earth
Now, had little resemblance to the band's namesake, by the time
The Trinity Sessions was released, the Cowboy Junkies
found an instantly recognizable groove to call their own. With a mix
of traditional country, blues, and folk, surrounded by a languid-heroin
chic' timbre, the quartet warped such classics as "Walkin' After
Midnight" and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" into deadpan
murky anthems. However, it would be the cover of Lou Reed's
"Sweet Jane" that would find the band their first national
airplay and set the tone for things to come. Now nearly twenty years
after their inception, the Cowboy Junkies are still crafting their
brand of ethereal hazed opuses and sounding better than ever.
Formed in Ontario, Canada in 1985 by brothers Michael and
Peter Timmins along with bass player Alan Anton, the
Cowboy Junkies are partially credited with launching the alternative
country music movement. Over the years they have influenced not only
the roots artists like Ryan Adams and Chris LeDoux but
also dream pop units like Mazzy Star and The Sundays.
From the very beginning, the band was searching for an indistinguishable
tone, "Our focus was to develop a sound rather than write songs.
So we were essentially a cover band, though you wouldn't necessarily
recognize what we were covering," Michael Timmins explains.
Initially Michael Timmins and Anton were gigging around Toronto with
a group called The Hunger Project, which eventually morphed
into the avant-garde instrumental project Germinal in London.
After the failure of both projects, the two musicians returned to
Toronto to form the Cowboy Junkies. While in the infant stages, the
trio was shopping for a lead vocalist when it dawned on them that
sister Margo Timmins would be perfect. At the time she was
a social worker who had never sang in public, "It took me a long
time to get comfortable. Probably ten years. The first shows, I sang
with my back to the audience. Now, the guys have to start playing
songs because my on-stage monologues go on so long," says Margo.
Her detached and airy vocals meshed perfectly with the lethargic tempos
and tranquil guitars. The band's first record was released on their
own independent label, Latent. Following moderate sales in Canada
and an equally successful tour the Junkies coughed up $250.00 to record
their seminal sophomore effort in 1988. With a buzz surrounding the
group they signed to RCA where they stayed until 1993.
While the Cowboy Junkies most identifiable influence is the legendary
Velvet Underground, the band is a hybrid of many different
styles; though they would be hard to spot even in their earliest work,
"We started this band in our mid-twenties and we've been huge
music fans since the age of twelve so we grew up on the tail end of
the classic rock era and absorbed all of that. Then in 1977 the British
punk bands caught our attention, the Stranglers, the Fall,
Joy Division, the Cure etc... When we started the Cowboy
Junkies we were immersed in American roots music and decided to do
our own take on blues and country," said Michael. The fusion
of pensive lyrics coupled with a perverse approach to Americana roots
music the Cowboy Junkies have been branded as dark and depressing,
"I guess our favorite music to listen to has had that darker
element, which we find more interesting - the depth of expression.
Plus we're not very good at writing or playing happy pop songs."
Over the years Michael's songwriting has become more intense as he
paints narratives of life, death, love, loss and redemption. He has
been called a poet with musical tendencies as he pens abstract metaphors
leaving little or no explanation, "I like for people to interpret
lyrics in their own way," says Michael, "Words usually come
first but if I have an idea for a chord structure or just a basic
groove, I'll work it from that side as well. I read a lot, so words
and phrases are always floating in my head, eventually coming out
in hopefully interesting permutations or just mutations."
Subsequent albums such as The Caution Horses, Black Eyed
Man, and Pale Sun, Crescent Moon would garner the same
critical praise as The Trinity Sessions, yet radio programmers
have chosen to overlook the reviews and not to air much if any of
the material, "I guess we don't fit well into the format game.
We sound a little like rock, a little like folk, etc. and they don't
like to have a lot of their format in the songs they play," said
Michael. Margo continues, "And I've never kissed Madonna
on MTV, either." Despite the lack of exposure they have amassed
a loyal cult following who have purchased over three million albums.
After the 1998 release of Miles from Our Home, the band was
dropped by Geffen. However, they managed to stayed in the public view
by releasing 1999's Rarities, B-sides and Slow, Sad Waltzes
and Waltz Across America [Live] in 2000 on their own label.
In addition RCA released a Best Of collection that same year.
After signing with Zoë, a division of roots label Rounder, they
returned re-energized with Open in 2001. Although the album
was a return to the shadowy sound of The Trinity Sessions it
gave birth to a harder edge featuring distorted guitars, meatier bass
lines and heavier drums, "I think it's been evolutionary more
than a concerted effort to change our sound deliberately," says
On June 8th, the Cowboy Junkies released their ninth studio effort,
One Soul Now. The new disc was engineered and produced solely
by the Junkies themselves, "This is our first time actually making
a record in the studio," explains Michael. "Usually, we
start in the rehearsal space, figuring out a direction for the songs.
This time we had the luxury of recording everything as we worked through
the process of discovery."
"With Open," adds Margo, "the songs came together
while we were on the road. In the studio, I could literally do it
with my eyes closed. I knew them so well. For One Soul Now,
my eyes were definitely open. It means you have to be alive and alert
to where the song is going, and I think you can hear that vibe on
"Lyrically, it would be fair to say Open was a fairly
introverted album. I think this time we are confronting a lot of the
same issues, but taking it out the personal realm into something more
universal. This time the songs deal with relationships over the long
term and how they are affected by inevitable but unforeseen forces
which enter our lives - death, children, divorce, financial worries,
age, sickness and just general fatigue."
Many of the tracks on One Soul Now were recorded live on the
floor of the rehearsal room which gives the new material an intimacy
which connects the listener to the band's process more than ever,
"Getting the songs live in the studio is the best way for us
to capture what we do. We've tried the separate tracking thing in
the past and we found that it's more of a chore for us and a lot less
fun. There's something exciting about capturing a song live, where
we all know that's the one which doesn't happen obviously the other
way," said Michael. As recently as their last project, the band
has employed guest musicians to help them realize their vision. This
time out, Michael, Margo, Peter and Alan were unaccompanied in conceiving
the songs, resulting in the most accessible recording of their career
both in words and music.
As the Cowboy Junkies approach their china anniversary they continue
to grow, while maintaining a distinctive and comfortable sound which
fans have embraced for the better part of two decades, "I think
our musicianship has improved," says Michael, "Peter and
Margo had no experience drumming or singing and Alan and I weren't
exactly Steely Dan. We were all learning how to play and I
think our limitations contributed to our development of our 'sound'.
Today we're able to try different things but we really don't stray
too much from our sound because we still like it."
Cowboy Junkies are currently on tour in Europe. The North American
leg of the tour will begin on July 6th at the Beacon Theatre with
special guest Shawn Colvin.
The Cowboy Junkies
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