Interview: Cowboy Junkies in Conversation

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By Phil Jones

Host Phil Jones spoke with Michael Timmins, longtime songwriter for the Canadian group, on their 30+ years as a band, the new album All That Reckoning, and what it means to be a Cowboy. They'll be at the Cabot in Beverly on October 12th.

Phil Jones: How are you! Where are you?

Michael Timmins: I'm in Toronto. We've been here since we got off the road in July, been quiet all of August. It's been nice, it's been really nice.

You guys are 34 this year as a band?

MT: I guess, yeah, we started jamming in '85, so 34.

How long before that were you working as a musician? You had other bands before the Junkies.

MT: Yeah, Alan and I were in a band--Alan, the bass player in Junkies--we started in 1979, so it's been forty years since we had our first band. Whether it was professional or not is another question, but we were touring and trying to make a living of it. All of our energy was going towards it, so that's professional.

Pretty much all the songs, up to and including All That Reckoning, have come out of your head. What's the biggest difference between the person writing in 1979 and in 2019? The muse doesn't seem like it's ever left you, but the topics have changed a lot.

MT: The muse is something that's hard to define. I mean, some people scoff at it and some people believe in it completely. And for me, I'm halfway in between there. It's the way I've always tried to figure myself out through songs or poetry. The written word has always been important to me. The change has been... who I am. That's a long time! You become a very different person from when you're twenty to when you're sixty. Marriage, kids, deaths around me, changes in politics and outlooks on the world: All those things are reflected in the songs I write. On this new record, there's a little more of a combination of the personal, the social, and the political. There's nothing overtly political. I've never been a fan of that kind of songwriting, except for a handful of classics. It starts on a micro level, and if there's an expression of political and social consciousness, it's usually attached to the personal.

As you've gone through these changes internally, your literal mouthpiece in the band is still your sister, Margo. How much time, if any, do you spend thinking about how she interprets it, or do you hand off the lyrics to her and say "take these words and let them take you where they'll take you"? 

MT: I'll give her a demo of the song, since I have to convey the melody, so there's a starting point, but then I try and step back and let her take over and interpret those melodies. The expression of those melodies is what she feels fits, and the band does that too, musically. The demos I come in with are pretty sparse, so there's a lot of room for everybody to express themselves, but especially Margo. If I feel, or if she feels like it's not going in a direction we like, then it's a continuing conversation, but generally, my preference is for her to find her own way into a song and how to best express it. She's got a real instrument, her voice, and even though we've been working together for 30 years, I don't know what she necessarily can and can't do with a particular song. I'd rather discover that and then go from there.

You guys have had many moments in your history as a band that have been defined by places. The early days were defined by the garage that you practiced in, where you had to be really quiet. Margo's voice was the loudest thing, and everything else had to fit in there. What places were in play on the new album?

MT: We have our own studio now, so there's no clock, you know? We're not burning money by being in there for an hour or a day and not getting anything. The place really is that it's our studio and our time and we're not beholden to anybody for how long we want to spend on one idea. Those early albums, Trinity Sessions, we had played out on the road so we didn't really need the luxury of studio time, we needed one day for that record. The physical location was important because we were recording ideas that were already established somewhere else. With this record, it was really a matter of sitting in our studio and having no timetable. Whenever this is ready it's ready. That's how location came into it, not necessarily on the sonics but more on the attitude.

It's almost more playful.

MT: Exactly! On Trinity and even the albums after that, the studios cost a fortune so there's no time for sitting back and creating, all the creation was done beforehand. The goal was to capture it. Now we can say "Bring in that synth, Alan, and we'll sit around for five hours and hit buttons and see what happens." 

I have one more question, and it is a silly question.

MT: Sure!

On the syntax of your name: Are you junkies who are obsessed with cowboys? Or are you cowboys who are junkies?

MT: That's a good one. Well, we're not obsessed with cowboys, and we're not cowboys who are junkies. We're neither? I guess the junkies part is more about playing music. The cowboy part, I guess if you extend the word cowboy and use it in the metaphorical sense of someone experimenting out on the frontier, then sure, we're cowboys! I guess we're cowboys too. I can't choose.

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