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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 Michael.

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 the album."

"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.

-Tony Engelhart

The Cowboy Junkies
www.cowboyjunkies.com

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