It was nearly four decades ago that the Toronto, Canada-based band Cowboy Junkies first captivated listeners with their whispery sound and reflective songwriting. From then to now, the Cowboy Junkies have remained an untouchable force. Their lineup — siblings Michael, Peter and Margo Timmins, and Michael’s friend since kindergarten, Alan Anton — has gone on unchanged. And the sound that first set them apart is as compelling as ever in their new record, Songs of the Recollection, which features their take on songs from nine different artists— from Bob Dylan to the Cure.
Sitting down for an interview with Web Services Coordinator Nora Onanian, lead vocalist Margo Timmins shares wisdom on making covers and staying true to herself. She reminisces on plenty of key moments from the band’s history, too— from hunting down vinyls as kids to getting praise from Lou Reed.
I SAW YOU DID SOME TOURING THIS SUMMER AND HAVE SOME DATES STARTING UP IN A WEEK. SO ARE YOU HOME AT THE MOMENT?
Margo Timmins: I am. I am for the next couple of days.
HOW ARE YOU FEELING ABOUT GETTING BACK TO IT? ARE YOU DOING ANYTHING SPECIAL TO RECHARGE OR GET READY?
MT: (Laughs) I wish I could recharge.
Yeah, I mean, you know, I have to settle my whole house and get things organized, get the dog care organized, pack— do all that.
Before you go, there's a bit of anxiety, you know. And you always feel like you're supposed to— ‘Oh, I should have painted the bathroom.’ It's like all this stuff you haven't done in five years.
But I'm excited. It's a nice part of the world and a beautiful time to be there, so it'll be a nice tour.
LET'S TALK ABOUT YOUR LATEST ALBUM. TOWARDS THE END OF MARCH, COWBOY JUNKIES PUT OUT SONGS OF THE RECOLLECTION, WHICH IS A COLLECTION OF NINE COVERS. AND IN THE PRESS RELEASE, I READ A QUOTE FROM YOUR BROTHER ABOUT HOW IT CAME FROM THE IDEA THAT YOU WERE ALL MUSIC FANS LONG BEFORE BEING MUSICIANS. IS THERE ANYTHING YOU'D LIKE TO ADD THINKING ABOUT WHAT INSPIRED THIS RELEASE?
MT: Well, I think what inspired it is that — like Mike says — before you're a musician, you're a fan. That's what inspires you to start playing music.
And in our early days, right from the beginning, we wanted to cover other people's songs because they meant so much to us. So we did. And then when we started to do that, we realized how much you learn about the song itself.
You enter that song in a different way than when you're just a listener. So that was something new. And also it taught us a lot about musicianship. And for me, about singing and phrasing, by listening to, you know, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen and all these people. Going ‘What are they doing?’ So that was the early days.
We carried that on throughout our career. And [we’ve] done a lot of covers and recorded a lot of them not necessarily for albums, but just because; for various reasons. And we've always had this idea of going back into the archives and digging out the old songs and putting something out. A live album of over the years.
But it's such a huge job. It's kind of like going through your photos, you know. You think you're going to make a photo album, and someday when you're 90, you might do that. But, you know, we've never had the time. And then Covid came and we couldn't play together. So it seemed to be the right time — ‘Okay, let's dig into the archives and see what we have.’ And that's what inspired us.
YEAH, DEFINITELY. AND I WANTED TO TALK ABOUT THE RANGE OF ARTISTS, TOO. THERE'S A HUGE RANGE. THERE'S BOWIE, NEIL YOUNG, ROLLING STONES, BOB DYLAN, THE CURE, JUST TO NAME A FEW. WAS IT TOUGH TO KIND OF NARROW DOWN THAT LIST OR DID THESE ARTISTS REALLY JUMP OUT TO THE GROUP AND FEEL RIGHT?
MT: Well, definitely some [of them] you have to do.
I mean, like we had to put on at least one Neil Young. Wasn’t hard because we have so many.
We wanted, definitely, to do something that pointed to our youth— which, you know, Mike and Alan and I are all in our sixties. So our teen years were late ’70s punk. And we saw all the great punk bands in these small little clubs. We saw the Police in a club that held probably, you know, 150 people. And they drove up in a station wagon. So that's why we put the Cure on there.
So there were certain things we had to do. And then we had to find the right songs.
So, you know, that “17 seconds.” Again, listening to that, I go, ‘Oh, that's pretty good.’
Often, when you do a song, at the time you're listening to it, you go, ‘Oh, that's okay, but we could have done better.’ When you listen to it three decades later… you have a different perspective.
So, yeah, it was a combination of things. It was a combination of pointing to who we are, our favorite players, and also finding the right songs. I mean, we had so many to pick from and then it was easy to eliminate the ones that weren't any good. But it was, it was hard to choose.
LIKE YOU SAID, YOU'VE APPROACHED A TON OF COVERS OVER THE YEARS. “SWEET JANE” IS ONE OF THE MOST NOTABLE. AND I SAW THAT LOU REED WAS QUOTED SAYING THAT YOUR VERSION OF IT WAS HIS FAVORITE COVER, WHICH IS JUST— HOW DOES THAT MAKE YOU FEEL?
MT: Well we were a very young band when that happened. Even if it happened today, it would be incredible to have one of your icons... Even the thought of them listening to your music is— it's very hard to understand that. You’re like, ‘really?’
Even now, it's a very strange thing. So, yes, that was a huge highlight, a huge compliment.
We can never repay, except when we see younger bands. To realize the importance that you have and the influence you have and always make them feel welcome. Always make them feel included. And give them your best. Because it's a pass-it-down, right?
THAT'S GREAT. AND SO I WAS CURIOUS IF YOU'VE HEARD A LOT OF TIMES BACK FROM THE ORIGINAL ARTISTS OF SONGS THAT YOU'VE COVERED OTHER THAN THAT?
MT: I wouldn’t say a lot. Not in writing. I mean, in those days we were a new band. So I think Lou felt he had to do something to help launch us. And certainly his comment did. Especially coming from Reed, because he didn't, you know, pen those things out easily.
But you know, when we bump into artists at a festival or an award show or something like that, they will often comment and say, ‘Oh, I really like what you did to my song,’ or something like that. And that, again, is— you're standing there [and] it never goes away, you know?
Every time [I] meet Neil Young, I still feel like I'm a stupid fan. Like, ‘You’re Neil Young! You’re Neil Young!’ I always lose my cool. (Laughing). And you walk away embarrassed. So when they do say it, it is a huge, huge moment.
YEAH, OF COURSE. AND SO YOU TALKED A LITTLE BIT ABOUT HOW YOU APPROACH COVERS. I'M SURE THERE IS LIKE A BALANCE BETWEEN REINVENTING AND STAYING TRUE TO THE ORIGINAL. SO I WANTED TO JUST GET MORE INTO WHAT THAT PROCESS LOOKS LIKE. AND SO I WAS WONDERING IF YOU COULD FOCUS SPECIFICALLY ON THE GRAM PARSONS SONG ON THE NEW ALBUM, “OOH LAS VEGAS.”
MT: Yeah, that turned out really well.
YEAH, IT DID!
MT: But that had a lot to do with— and I can't remember his name. That song was done for a Gram Parsons tribute album.
And I really wanted to do “Ooh Las Vegas” because I can't stand going to Las Vegas. It freaks me out. There's just too much going on, too much noise, too many people losing money.
So the producer on that song, I think we had an idea of doing it slow. I knew I wanted to approach it from a place of awfulness. Like waking up hungover and ‘What am I doing here?’ But not being able to leave. Sort of that morning-after kind of feeling was my approach.
And the producer took all the parts, and it was his genius that put all the layers in there. So really that song I think is attributed to him, who I cannot remember his name right now, and that's terrible. But yeah, I think that song is in the approach and also in the production.
OKAY. YEAH, I DEFINITELY HEAR A DARKER SOUND TO IT COMPARED TO THE ORIGINAL.
MT: Yeah. And again, you know, you've got to come at these songs from who you are, not who the artist was or what the artist was trying to say. Otherwise, what's the point? You know, there's a difference you know, between doing a cover and reinterpreting. And hopefully ours are more reinterpretations as opposed to just doing it the way it's done. That one, [“Ooh Las Vegas,”] wasn't so hard because I had such a strong feeling about Vegas. I didn't have to go too deep to find it.
YEAH, I LOVE WHAT YOU SAID ABOUT JUST, LIKE, MAKING IT YOUR OWN.
MT: I mean, a lot of songs we do in our studio because we love the song, love the artist. But it comes up kind of the same. And yes, it's good. I mean, my voice sounds nice; the band is playing well and it's all okay. But if it doesn't have— if we don't feel we've gotten into the song in our own way, it doesn't come out of the studio. You know, what's the point? We don't want to be a cover band. So it's important for us to sort of find that kind of back door into the song.
YEAH. AND SHIFTING GEARS A LITTLE BIT, MICHAEL SAID THE RECORD ESSENTIALLY DRAWS BACK FROM TIME SPENT SHOWCASING YOUR RECORD COLLECTIONS WITH ONE ANOTHER. IS THAT KIND OF RIGHT?
MT: Mm hmm. Yeah.
SO I WANTED TO ASK IF YOU REMEMBER WHAT THE FIRST RECORD YOU EVER BOUGHT FOR YOURSELF WAS?
MT: I wish I could.
YEAH, THAT'S HARD.
MT: But I would think it'd probably be a Partridge Family record.
Or a Burl Ives. Even before Partridge Family was Burl Ives. I love Burl Ives. And I could sing all his songs. I also, in my earlier collection, had a Doris Day album. Because I love that “Que Sera, Sera” song. I should cover it some day (laughs). You know, hers is such a (mimics an upbeat singing style). Maybe I should do a dirty, ugly one.
THAT’S YOUR NEXT PROJECT! (LAUGHING)
MT: The next one, yeah (still laughing).
AND STAYING ON THE TOPIC OF PHYSICAL RECORDS, I HAVE A SMALL ANECDOTE THAT MY DAD MENTIONED TO ME THAT'S KIND OF FUNNY.
HE SAID THAT IN 1988 WHEN THE TRINITY SESSIONS CAME OUT, WHICH ESSENTIALLY WAS LIKE YOUR BREAKOUT ALBUM, HE REALLY WANTED A COPY OF YOUR FIRST RECORD, WHITES OFF EARTH NOW!!, BUT HE COULDN'T FIND IT ANYWHERE HERE AROUND BOSTON. AND SO HIS PARENTS JUST SO HAPPENED TO BE TRAVELING TO CANADA. AND SO THEY WERE ABLE TO GET HIM ONE AND HE GOT HIS HANDS ON IT TO KEEP IT.
SO I JUST KIND OF WANTED TO PULL FROM THAT IDEA AND ASK, DO YOU HAVE THOUGHTS ON HOW, LIKE MUSIC ACCESSIBILITY HAS DEVELOPED AND HOW WE'RE IN A MORE DIGITAL AGE RIGHT NOW AND MORE PEOPLE CAN LISTEN?
MT: Well, I mean, I think it's fantastic. There's two sides.
I mean, I think it's great that people can, you know, be watching a movie and hear a soundtrack and go, ‘Oh, who's that?’ And then go find the music. And hopefully buy something and not just download it for free. Even if they do download it for free, maybe go see the concert or buy a t-shirt or something. I always think, just support the artists because, you know, they need to pay their rent. So I do— I love that. And it happens to me all the time. You know, I'll be watching a movie and [I’ll think] ‘That's a beautiful song. Who's that?’
But I also miss — and I think the kids miss because they didn't have it — is that, like your dad, looking for an album and not being able to find it, and then finding it. You know, it was such a thrill.
When we were kids, Mike and I used to go every Saturday morning, get up and head downtown to the record stores. And you'd be searching in the bins and, you know, you'd find a jam and it was so exciting, especially if you found it on sale or in the used bin or something like that. And I think that sort of treasure hunt kind of search is gone.
And to me, and maybe it didn't really matter, but to me, it was such a thrill. And it made the music that much more precious. It certainly made the album more precious. You know, there were certain albums you'd lend and other albums— ‘No, you can't touch that. Don't even look at it. You know, ‘That's mine.’ And I think, you know, I think that was huge.
If somebody did have an album that was rare, you know, we'd make tapes. And you'd make a tape from it and give it to your friends. And it was a lot of that kind of sharing. But that took effort and time and dedication. And, you know, now, with the ease of it, I think we overlook how much work goes into these albums and how much time and money. So I think a lot of it is taken for granted. And that's sad because I don't think music should be taken for granted.
YEAH, DEFINITELY. AND ALSO GOING OFF OF THAT, WE MAYBE TOUCHED ON IT, BUT DO YOU HAVE INTEREST IN REACHING NEW, YOUNGER CROWDS?
MT: Oh, always. When I see young people in the audience, it's great, you know. Especially if they come with their parents, I love that. Because I think sharing anything with your parents as a young person is important, and it's hard to do because you've got two different generations. So I think that if our music has allowed a family to have an outing together, that's just so great.
As a mum, you know, I realize— my son's 19, so it's hard. So we always talk about music and share it all. But I'm not exactly going to go to one of his concerts because they scare me (laughs). Unless I could get a backstage pass and be on the side of the stage— then I’ll go. So I think it's fantastic.
And if I see a kid who's out there, even alone or with a friend… Pre-Covid I always went out after shows and talked to people. And if the kids hung around, I really wanted to find out why they were there.
A lot of them are musicians. A lot of them come to sort of— obviously their parents introduced us. They found us somewhere— Natural Born Killers or something like that. They heard the music. And they're usually musicians. They want to know how we do it and what we do.
I remember though, I'll tell you a quick story. We did a show in Halifax many years ago. Maybe even 15 years ago. So I wasn't as old as I am now. But there was a young journalist there and he came up to me. Really young, like 20 or something like that.
And he [goes] “I didn't realize you were so old.” (Laughing). He seemed very upset by it. (Mimicking how she responded), ‘It happens.’
THAT’S SO FUNNY.
Yeah, he was really disappointed.
I don't know. It was really funny. But he was, he was really upset by it. But anyway.
I think people have an image sometimes of what they're going to see or who they're going to [see]. I think because our songs are dark and brooding and moody, you know, that's what they want to see. But they get me. And yes, I can go there. And it's a huge part of my life. But it's not who I am in between songs.
I am who I am and I'm not going to stand there and pretend I'm moody and brooding when I'm not. I might have some nights where I’m moody and broody, but most of the time, no. So I think that might have disappointed him. I wasn't.
I'm sure the boys are cool enough because they're cool and dark and moody and broody all the time. But I have a feeling I might have disappointed him. I was too much like his mother or something. I don’t know. (Still laughing).
AND THEN LASTLY, I JUST WANTED TO TRANSITION TO WHAT'S UP AND COMING AND IN THE WORKS. COULD YOU TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT WHAT YOU'RE CALLING YOUR LOST ALBUM, SHARON?
MT: Sorry. What was the question about it?
OH, LIKE, COULD YOU JUST TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT IT? MAYBE WHEN IT WAS RECORDED AND WHY IT'S COMING OUT NOW.
MT: Yeah. Well, Sharon's an interesting story. So, first of all, we did Trinity Session. It went kooky— everybody, you know, jumped on it. And now we had to do the next album. And of course, that was a scary album to do. The record companies wanted us to pretty much redo Trinity Session and we kind of didn't really want to do that. Wwe certainly weren't going back into the Trinity Church. But we did think we would record it in the same way that with the one microphone, which meant we had to find another sort of acoustic type room— not necessarily a church, but something that gave us that kind of feel and sound. And Sharon Temple is— it’s really weird. I won't go into the history of it because it's too long. But dig it up. It's a really strange temple.
And it was built with no nails and it was built for sound, for singing and just the vibe. And it's really creepy when you go in. So we went in there and we spent an entire day just trying to find the sound. It was really hard to do it. At one point we actually had to take me out of the room and put me in this little cabin outside Sharon Temple and wire my vocals. And it was crazy.
We got some really good stuff. It wasn't that we didn’t. We liked what we got. But it just didn't feel right. And so we thought, ‘No, you know, this is what the record company wants us to do, but it's not where we are right now.’ We wanted to go into a studio and do this in the studio way. So we buried it. That was that. So we took those songs, the Caution Horses songs, and went into a studio and recorded Caution Horses in a more traditional manner.
And there was Sharon sitting quietly by itself. And it's fun. There's a lot of boys singing on it… So it's different.
And why now? Why not? It's been sitting there for a long time. You know, there was never a reason [like] ‘No, it’s too early’ or ‘too late.’ It just— it seemed like a good time to release it. I guess, before we're all dead or something. I don't know (laughs).
AND IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE IN THE WORKS RIGHT NOW?
MT: We've just finished another album... Yeah, we just mixed it and I think we’re about to master it... So it's finished… And I'm not sure when it will come out, but soon. This year, I hope. And so that's exciting.
THAT’S VERY EXCITING!
MT: Yeah no, it's good. It turned out really good. You know, it was one of those records [where we were] sort of making [it] in bits and pieces again. Through Sharon. Where we could get together and couldn't and then afterwards. And it was a weird process in that I sort of don't even remember making this album because it was [in] such pieces. And [then] we heard all the mixes. Yeah, it came together well. So I'm happy with it.
THAT'S ALL I HAVE FOR QUESTIONS, UNLESS YOU WANTED TO TALK ABOUT ANYTHING ELSE!
MT: No, no, I'm all talked out.
I KNOW, THIS WAS A GREAT CHAT! IT WAS SO NICE TO MEET YOU—
MT: It was great! I had no idea who I was going to meet. It's nice talking to a young person. It's great.
YEAH, I'M ONLY 20. I THINK YOU MENTIONED THE OTHER JOURNALIST [FROM THE STORY EARLIER] WAS 20.
MT: Yeah, well, I'm hoping my age and my non-moodiness doesn’t upset you (laughs).