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Cowboy Junkies: a voice in the dark

Stewart Oksenhorn
Toronto quartet the Cowboy Junkies make their Aspen debut Monday, Feb. 27, at the Wheeler Opera House. (Susan King)
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In 1992, in the back of a tour bus, Townes Van Zandt, the late Texas singer-songwriter, serenaded Margo Timmins with an impromptu take on his song, “Flyin’ Shoes.” The song is no sweet pick-me-up. The lyrics speak of escape: “I get so tired of these same old blues, same old song / Baby, it won’t be long ‘fore I be tyin’ on my flyin’ shoes.” On the album version, at least, Van Zandt sings in his dusty, downbeat way that suggests where he may be flying is to his final resting place.”It was the moment of my life,” said Timmins by phone, from her mother’s home in Toronto. “It broke my heart.”Cowboy Junkies, the Canadian quartet in which Timmins is the lead singer, has long had a thing for Van Zandt. Following the release of the band’s 1990 album “The Caution Horses,” Cowboy Junkies and Van Zandt toured together, the occasion for that back-of-the-bus memory. Michael Timmins, Margo’s older brother and founder and guitarist of Cowboy Junkies, co-wrote a song with Van Zandt, “Blue Guitar,” which appeared on the Junkies’ “Miles From Our Home” album. The band contributed an interpretation of “Highway Kind” to “Poet,” a CD tribute to Van Zandt released, in an almost poetic moment, on Sept. 11, 2001. Cowboy Junkies were the only Northerners featured on the tribute, which included mostly Van Zandt’s fellow Lone Star State musicians: Willie Nelson, Guy Clark, Robert Earl Keen.And if the question crossed your mind how a Toronto rock group that came of age in the ’80s got a name like Cowboy Junkies, the answer can be traced to their love for Townes. The name comes from “Cowboy Junkies Lament,” one of Van Zandt’s numerous songs where the singer’s only ray of hope is that he’ll be dead before things get any worse.The 45-year-old Timmins confesses to an appreciation for Gwen Stefani, the platinum-headed pop celebrity singer who shimmies her way through music videos. “I like her. I like to see her move around,” said Timmins. But when it comes to emotional expression, Timmins prefers exposure to the darker corners, in the style of Van Zandt.”I’d rather listen to Leonard Cohen. I’d rather read Cormac McCarthy – something that makes you think and feel and reflect rather than something you skim through,” said Timmins, a dedicated skier who has appeared on the slopes around Aspen, but makes her local stage debut, with Cowboy Junkies, on Monday, Feb. 27, at the Wheeler Opera House.In her music, as well, Timmins favors the downbeat over the uplifting. Since the 1986 release of their debut, “White Off Earth Now!!” Cowboy Junkies – comprising Timmins, her older brother Michael, her younger brotherPete and bassist Alan Anton – have become identified with deliberate rhythms; Margo’s hushed, moody vocals; and weighty tunes like a cover of Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” and their own “A Common Disaster.””It reflects a lot of our personalities,” said Timmins. “None of us are partygoers, or loud people. We’re not moody, but we enjoy the darker side of things – books and movies and music.”Timmins says that she is consistently taken to be as bleak as her voice, and as Cowboy Junkies’ songs, written almost exclusively by Michael. But in a long conversation, she is light and sweet and easy.

“People always ask, who’s the real Margo, the person chatting away here, or the one singing the sad songs?” she said. “I don’t have to come across as dark and moody to put across a moody song. I might tell some stupid story about something I saw, and go into a heartbreaking song.”The polar categories, anyway, of eternally upbeat or hopelessly desperate, don’t define Timmins, she thinks. “I would hope I have more sides to me than happy and sad,” said Timmins, the mother of a 3-year-old. The first emotion that Timmins associated with performing onstage was dread, or at least a terrific fear. The Timmins family included six children, including two girls who wanted to be actresses or models, and the music-obsessed Michael. In the middle was Margo, whose desires lay elsewhere.”I wanted to get married and have six children like my mother. I wanted to be domestic,” said Timmins, who was raised first in Montreal, and moved to Toronto at 15. “I loved music and wanted to see bands. But I didn’t want to be the center of attention, and I didn’t want to be onstage in front of people.”Timmins was supportive of Michael’s ambitions to the point where she could have seen herself as a roadie. And she thought so highly of her brother’s musicianship that when he asked her to sing, “I knew he wouldn’t ask me to do it if he didn’t think I could do it,” said Timmins, who was getting her degree in social work at the time.Margo agreed to give it a go, so long as nobody besides Michael would see or hear her. After three days of singing to Michael’s guitar, recalls Margo, “He said, ‘OK, you can do this. Can you do this in front of the other guys?'”Margo’s voice – soft, shy and untrained – dictated Cowboy Junkies’ direction. (As did the fact that their first studio was the family’s garage, and they were hesitant to disturb anyone with their music.) “My voice isn’t an upbeat, happy pop voice. If I try, it comes out sad anyway,” she said. “I sing naturally soft and quiet. I’m really whispering when I sing.

“Sound men always told me, ‘Sing louder, sing louder.’ I’d try, but lose all the texture. I finally realized, no, you’re the sound man. Figure out how to make people hear me. So the boys (the band is always ‘the boys’ to her) had to turn down their instruments. So they could hear me.”The debut “Whites Off Earth Now!!” released on their own Latent Recordings, fit in perfectly with that philosophy. On almost all cover material – all of the chills-down-spine variety, like Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil” and Springsteen’s “State Trooper” – Margo’s voice is dreamlike, and the band’s rhythms are deep and ghostly. It was, at least, a unique sound – blues, but done with an introspective kind of blues feel and gospel overtones.Margo, however, wasn’t convinced she was on to something until the band was on tour, following the release of “White Off Earth Now!!” One night, while Margo was dropping out of wakefulness, the boys put on a record.”I thought, that’s a really pretty voice. I made a mental note to ask Michael who that was,” she said. The voice belonged to Margo. “I heard my voice for the first time without being judgmental about it. Because I was sleeping.”The next time she was pleased by the sound of her own voice, Timmins was fully awake. For their second album, Cowboy Junkies took over Toronto’s Church of the Holy Trinity – for one 14-hour stretch. In that space, everything sounded heavenly.”I could hear my voice floating up to the top of that church. And I thought, ‘That’s pretty good,'” she said.That opinion resonated with the public. “The Trinity Session,” with covers of Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, the traditional spiritual “Working on a Building” and a hit version of “Sweet Jane,” hits the slow-sad-and-sweet bull’s-eye. Timmins says that the Cowboy Junkies’ style isn’t intended to sell a million records. But “The Trinity Session” did just that.In the early Cowboy Junkies years, Timmins had to guard her style. She figured some formal study might be advisable, but she ended up bolting from her first lesson.”I realized what I was doing was natural,” she said. “I knew it was different. I figured if I took lessons, I would be more susceptible to someone manipulating it, and maybe changing it.”Some years later, wanting to learn only how to care for her voice, Timmins found the ideal teacher in Mitch Seekin. “He knew style is a big part of a voice,” she said. “So he didn’t want to temper my style at all.”

Timmins hasn’t tired of that brand of music, probably because the band has long drawn from so many wells. “Cowboy Junkies has a little bit of blues, a little bit of country. Sometimes the boys make that sound that’s a little bit of jazz,” she said. “I can dabble in all these styles. So I’ve never felt boxed in, because I don’t have to be a purist.”Timmins has done little notable work outside of Cowboy Junkies, but said if she did, it would be a traditional country band. “I’d love to do the old-style country – Louvin Brothers, some bluegrass, Bill Monroe,” she said. “I’d love to get a band like that.”In fact, the Cowboy Junkies music has been loosened somewhat from the austere sound of “The Trinity Sessions.” Over the course of some 15 albums, the lyrics have remained disturbed, Timmins’ voice whispered. But on albums like 1998’s “Miles From Our Home,” guitars occasionally ring out loud, the production is textured and dense, and some songs even have what could be called a beat.The band’s latest recording, however, is a bit of a return. “Early 21st Century Blues” is a collection of mostly cover tunes, loosely or not so loosely addressing the current world state of war and tension. Apart from two songs by Michael Timmins – including the chillingly wonderful “December Skies” – the tunes are almost all obscure works by legendary writers: Bob Dylan’s “License to Kill,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Brothers Under the Bridge” and “You’re Missing,” George Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity.””With the influence of what was going on in the world, Mike came up with the idea of a covers album – but with a focus,” said Timmins. “He said, why don’t we do anti-war-type songs. And maybe not just war, but loss.””Early 21st Century Blues” was not one of what Timmins calls a “business record” – those made for their label, Rounder, and which take more time and money. Made in just six weeks, the CD was intended solely for the band’s own Latent Recordings. But Rounder, the independent roots-music label, which has handled the Cowboy Junkies’ CDs since 2001’s “Open,” liked it well enough to distribute it.”When we’re in between our studio albums, the albums we spend a lot of time writing, that are much more complicated,” said Timmins. “Between those, we put together other records that are for the fun of doing it.”At the top of that list of side projects is an album of all Townes Van Zandt songs. That means a lot of songs about pain, existential horror and death – not most people’s idea of fun, but the sort of thing that attracts Margo Timmins and the rest of Cowboy Junkies.”A Townes’ one would be much more intense” than ‘Early 21st Century Blues,’ ” said Timmins. “We’d have to take more time with it. But the time will come when we feel right about it.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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