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Cowboy Junkies: the Roots Music Canada interview

The Cowboy Junkies will be inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame tonight during a private ceremony at the National Music Centre in Calgary.  Ted Ferris sat down with Michael Timmins of the band last month during the Troubadour Festival in Barrie, ON. As they sat in Muskoka chairs on the lawn at the Heritage Estate Winery & Cidery, they chatted about the Junkies’ latest album, the importance of touring and what comes next for one of Canada’s most famous bands.

Ted: All That Reckoning was released in 2018. I think it’s a phenomenal album, featuring incredible writing that harkens back to The Trinity Session and The Caution Horses era of the band. How would you summarize the response to the album?

Michael: It’s been great. The critical response was fantastic when it came out, so that was exciting. What we normally do in our shows is we have two sets, and the first set we dedicate to new material – whatever we’re pushing at that time. These days we’ve been playing mainly All That Reckoning. It’s sort of a nice way to set it up, because Margo lets the audience know what’s going on so they can sort of relax and just absorb it and not worry about, ‘Oh my God. Am I only gonna hear new stuff?’ – that anxiety of going to a show and wondering if you’re going to hear your favourite song. It’s sort of a nice way of presenting new material ’cause people can kind of just listen to it and then realize the next set they’re going to get the stuff that they’re more familiar with. So it’s been really good. The response has been great.

Ted: Cowboy Junkies has been touring since forming in the mid-80s. While some bands from the same era may have taken extended breaks or elected to focus their efforts on a select few high profile appearances, fortunately for fans like myself, Cowboy Junkies still maintains a fairly robust tour schedule with dates throughout North America and around the world. What is it about touring that has remained clearly so important?

Michael: Playing live is what you do as a band. That’s your core. Especially for our era [of] band, and for us specifically, the live show is what it’s about. The recording is fun, but it’s a very different thing. And it’s something you do every few years. Really, to call yourself a band, you’ve got to be playing shows, and we’ve sort of tailored our touring these days so that it does fit our maturity. We’ll go out and do five shows, go home for a few weeks, then go out and do some more when we can do that. It’s really a matter of keeping ourselves active and keeping ourselves interested and having fun and staying vital. Playing live is really the most vital thing you can do, so that’s why.

Ted: I often hear artists lament the decline in music sales. While I understand your point about the vitality of performing live in front of an audience, how does it relate to the songwriting and recording? Why does it also remain so important to the band?

Michael: We do it ’cause it’s part of our creativity, and it’s part of our vitality of creating new music and seeing if we can create something that’s still vital and that’s important to us. Everything revolves around playing live. It’s more of a creative effort, and in some ways, it always has been. The creative side of it has always been the most important. That still exists.

Ted: As a band with a significant back catalogue, how has the songwriting process evolved in the past three decades?

Michael: It’s changed radically. Initially when the band started, because we were forming a band and looking for a sound and looking for just our musical identity – and also the point we were at in our lives [where] none of us were married and we didn’t have any kid; we had day jobs – our effort and time and our energy was put towards the band. We’d get together every night. We had a band house. We had a little rehearsal space there, and we’d rehearse and play. So a lot of those songs, especially on Whites (Whites Off Earth Now), they came out of that jamming, basically—somebody giving up an idea, somebody throwing in another idea in there, and sort of this evolution of the sound. As the sound was evolving, we were putting these songs together, and that sort of feeds into Trinity a little bit (The Trinity Session). But by the time we hit Trinity, I was getting more interested in actually writing songs.

When we formed the band, I wasn’t interested in songwriting at all at that point. I’d done songwriting in other bands, but I wasn’t interested. I was more interested in jazz and blues. The idea of writing a song didn’t appeal to me, but by the time we came to do Trinity, we were all getting a lot into country music. So the idea of a song came back to me. I sort of got inspired by songs again. I started to actually write. And Margo was doing a bit of writing at that point too, so it became more of a traditional way of writing a song. I’d come in with chord patterns and melody, and we’d all build the arrangement together. That’s generally the way it’s been for the most part of the band’s career. But there have been moments, like with the last record, where Al would come in with bass parts, and then I would build something around that, or people would come with a rhythm and we’d build something around that. So that still exists, but it’s not as much because we don’t have the same relationship as a band anymore. We play live all the time, so we don’t rehearse. The only time we get together is to work on new material or to play live. We all have our own lives and our kids and our families, and we live far apart. It’s a natural evolution of a band. You start very tight, then you kind of go away – and most bands continue to go away, but we’ve just evolved how we relate to each other as far as music goes. So that’s sort of the evolution of it. Ultimately it all comes back to the four of us getting together, and however the song has germinated, it’s then the four of us getting the vibe together, the Junkies vibe. And that’s the four of us playing and Margo singing, and then we tinker with whatever’s been brought in, whether it’s in Al’s bassline or my song or whatever. So that’s a very vital part to the process of creating a Junkies song. It might start over here, but it always comes back to the four of us, which is very similar to what we did in the very beginning.

Ted: The band and the role that each member plays within the band have also evolved. Alan Anton received a production credit on All That Reckoning. Is that an example of the further evolution of the band, and can we expect to see Alan wearing the producer’s hat again in the future?

Michael: Every project is different. We’ve had outside producers. We’ve had co-productions. We’ve had different mixers. It depends on the project. With this one, Al (Alan Anton) had created a lot of the musical ideas that I then wrote songs around. He had some very specific ideas, so it made sense to have him in on the whole production side of it. In the past times, it’s been good for me to take that over. That way I can send it to these guys, and they can give me outside perspective on stuff. It really depends on what you’re trying to do and where the ideas are being generated and if you want to follow them or if you want to just sort of have an idea and then go another direction. Every production speaks for a different way of doing it. So that’s why with this one it made sense to have Al sort of be very involved from step one.

Ted: You’re the principal songwriter for Cowboy Junkies. You’ve produced and mixed the majority of the band’s albums, and you appear to be the default spokesperson. You also run Latent Recordings and The Hangar studio, and [you] produce and mix albums for other bands. As an artist, how do you handle the demands of the business side and still find time to nurture the creative side of your work?

Michael: That can be hard. That’s probably one of the reasons why it took us so long to release this last record. There’s a big gap between the Nomad Series and All That Reckoning, and I think part of that was I probably extended myself too much. It was four albums in two years, and then we did Kennedy Suites, which was a huge production, a strain on me. So I think that part of it was sort of a stepping back from that and [a] focus on other acts like Jerry (Leger) and Lee Harvey Osmond. But that’s a much more singular thing. You’re not writing; you’re just producing and mixing it. That’s very different. So it is a hard balance sometimes, and I have to be careful of that because I tend to just go into it and work until I drop. So I’ve tried to get more sane about that. Especially as you get older, you don’t have that energy. It can be too much sometimes, but it’s just a matter of, again, balancing – balancing tour schedules, balancing recording schedules, balancing expectations. It’s just that. That’s the tricky thing.

Ted: As a fan myself, I’m eager to hear what’s coming down the pipe for one of my favourite bands. So, what’s next for Cowboy Junkies?  

Michael: Well, we’re sort of thinking of doing a rerelease of All That Reckoning with another album enclosed – some of the songs that we were working on at the time of All That Reckoning that didn’t fit the concept. We’ve written some new material as well. So that’s an idea that we’re sort of looking at doing and hopefully, in the new year, we’ll have that out. Again, [we’d keep the project] very small, keep it really fan-based, not try and do necessarily a worldwide release, just have it through our website. We’re not quite sure yet. That part of it still has to be worked out. The release of (All That) Reckoning was really good for us, and it was exciting for us, and the recording part was fun, and we have a lot of ideas still. So keeping along the same way that we created Reckoning, I think we’ll sort of do that same sort of process. We already have new songs written. It’s now a matter of arranging and recording. We’ll see where it goes.

Following our interview, Michael Timmins and Cowboy Junkies headlined the Troubadour Festival’s Heritage Estate Winery & Cidery venue. They started their set with a lingering intro to “Sweet Jane” that concluded with lead singer Margo Timmins effectively holding onto the audience’s anticipation for as long as she could by tilting her head back then lowering it to the mic before releasing the first line of the song. The crowd loved it! 

I’ve seen the Junkies several times in several different settings, and I think this was the most animated I’d ever seen Margo. Usually seated for the majority of those performances, this time she was up and dancing and way more physically expressive than I’d ever seen her. It took the show to a whole other level!

The band closed their set with “Misguided Angel,” a performance that easily motivated several couples to spontaneously slow dance. Then the crowd responded with a standing ovation and overwhelming demands for an encore. The Junkies graciously obliged and returned to the stage to perform their The Trinity Session album version of the Patsy Cline song “Walkin’ After Midnight.” 

It was the best Cowboy Junkies show I’d ever seen!

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