Cowboy Junkies' Singer Margo Timmins Talks About the Band's Return to the Road

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The release of Notes Falling Slow, the new box set from Cowboy Junkies, comes as a surprise on at least one level. It’s not the comprehensive career retrospective that one might expect — instead, it focuses on re-mastered editions of three albums that the Canadian band made during the 2000s with Open (2001), One Soul Now (2004) and At The End Of Paths Taken (2007), rounded out with a fourth disc of nine previously unreleased songs which were recorded and demoed during the sessions for those albums. For singer Margo Timmins, it was a chance to revisit a time that for her was personally a bit blurry.

“It’s a period that kind of flew by. Those albums to me are really kind of obscure — I don’t remember writing them. I don’t remember recording them!,” she says with a big laugh during a recent phone conversation. “Also, the mastering of them, we weren’t as happy with it, so it was a chance to sort of go back and revisit them and look at them, re-master them and get another feel for those songs. Definitely, that period was a really big writing period for Mike [Timmins] and there were a lot of songs that we recorded and loved that didn’t make it to those albums. That was always frustrating for me and there’s a couple of songs that didn’t make it that I was really frustrated with. So to be able to sort of bring them back and give them a new home, just sort of made sense at this moment in time.”

Originally recorded during the sessions for At The End of Paths Taken, “Morning Cried” is track that Timmins hopes that they’ill get to perform live during their upcoming shows supporting the new release, hinting that she feels like the song still has room for continued evolution and growth. “That’s a song that I always loved. I love the song and I love the sentiment of the song,” she says. “I still feel I haven’t captured that song, so that’s why I want to do it live, so I can sort of go at it and figure it out as [someone who is] a little bit older.”

“I don’t know how to describe it, but it was a really unique period,” she recalls, offering further reflection about the time when they worked on those albums. “We were all sort of turning 40, which I think is a bigger moment in your life than turning 30 or even 50 didn’t sort of hit me as hard. I think 40 is a moment when you do begin to realize, ‘Hey, maybe I am an adult’ and what that kind of means. You’re not old, but you’re not young like you used to be either and it’s sort of a time of real reflection. It was a time even before I had a child and you know, you’re at that point going, “Okay, if you’re going to have a kid, it’s now!” [Laughs] “You’d better do this!” It’s now or never time for many things. If you’re going to climb Everest, it better be now, because you’re not doing it at 50 or 60. So you know, it was just an interesting period.”

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the birth of the band, who first began playing gigs in the Toronto area in 1985. They put out their first album, Whites Off Earth Now!! the following year and although they’ve been quite prolific in recent years, often recording more material than what ends up on the albums, Timmins is quick to note that wasn’t always the case.

“As a younger band, writing was much harder for us,” she says. “Just putting a song together musically took so much more time than it does now, just because you become better at what you’re doing and you can think something up and then describe it to the band and they can do it right away as opposed to practicing. You know, the story about ‘Sweet Jane’ that’s on The Trinity Session [released in 1988], and it’s a song that was meant for Whites Off Earth Now!!, which is our first album. The reason that it didn’t make it was because that change, you know, from the first part into the ‘heavenly wine and roses’ part, my brother Pete [Timmins], who was a very new drummer, just couldn’t do it! [Laughs] And you know, we practiced it every single night and he just couldn’t do it. He was just too young of a drummer and too new, so it finally ended up on Trinity Session, which thank God it did. Songs are like that and in those early days, writing a song took so much focus and practice. Now, we can write a song in a second and I can say, ‘Put a stop here and then I’m coming in first,’ or ‘Let’s make a change or do this or put a bridge in here.’ It just happens.”

Famously, the group recorded its first two albums using a single microphone, and that’s something that Timmins says came down to one simple thing — it was cheap, which was a good fit for the band, who were struggling financially at that time.

“You know, people were making big, big records in the ‘80s and so these studios were making a lot of money and they cost a lot of money by the hour,” she says. “We went around trying to listen to what they did and listen to what these producers and engineers were up to and we sort of weren’t hearing what we wanted to hear or feeling what we wanted to feel. “What we wanted to feel and what we wanted to hear was in our garage. So when we’d sit down and say, ‘We want this album to sound like we do when we’re playing in the garage at night,’ they would kind of look at you like you were insane. Again, remembering it’s the ‘80s, you know? We didn’t want the big, big drum sound or whatever.”

Band members were frustrated but one night at dinner with fellow Canadian rockers Blue Rodeo, they started talking about their problems.

“They were a young band too at that point,” says Timmins. “At the dinner party, Peter Moore was there, who was a sound engineer, and he had this new microphone, a Calrec Ambisonic Microphone. He was a young guy, just like the young bands, a young engineer, and he’s all excited about it and he had acquired it to record symphonies. But he wanted to try it out on a rock band and see what would happen. That night, we said, ‘Well hey, why don’t you bring your microphone over to our garage and we’ll play.’”

He brought the microphone over and the group recorded Whites Off Earth Now!!.

Then, when it came time to do The Trinity Session, the band knew it wanted to do it the same way but knew it needed a more ambient room for fiddles and harmonicas — “things that we didn’t want to wire up through the speakers and through boards and things like that,” Timmins says.

“So we decided to go into a church, which obviously has a lot of big sound and that’s why we went into Trinity Church and we recorded with the same mic,” she says. “So it was sort of cheaper….definitely cheaper! And also, it was less frustrating, because as I said, the sound that we wanted was the sound we were getting as we were playing, not something we wanted to produce through a board.”

“Sweet Jane” was featured in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers movie in 1994, something that helped to introduce the music of Cowboy Junkies to a whole new audience. The track was released as a single at that time and charted inside the top 10 of the modern rock charts. It remains a staple favorite in the band’s concert setlist and as Timmins reveals, it continues to pop up in interesting places, including an episode of American Horror Story which aired in late October.

“It was played [during the episode], I guess, while some guy was dancing with some psycho killers,” she chuckles. “I don’t know, it sounded very weird. I just laugh and I say, ‘Can’t we just be the soundtrack to little deers running through the woods or something?’ No, it has to be the psycho killers! But yeah, it’s amazing how much that song has been played and used and of course we’re grateful to it, but I’m always surprised.”

The band has had a good amount of success across the years and additional singles that performed well at radio, but Timmins acknowledges that “Sweet Jane” continues to be the one that many people know best and they’re okay with that.

“When you start to feel like that, like, ‘Yeah, we have so many other songs,’ you know, you have to also realize and to be so grateful to have one song that so many people want to play and use in their movies or their TV shows or backdrops to whatever, that in itself is an honor. I mean, to have one album, you know, The Trinity Session has touched so many people and to have a career and have one album do that is amazing, really. So you really can’t complain.”

Fans who are anxious to hear new music from the band besides the unreleased tracks on Notes Falling Slow can rest easy knowing that according to Timmins, it’s in the planning stages for next year.

“Well, I think we’re going to tour this one for this year. We took last year off touring because I moved from the city out into the country and moved my son into a new school and a whole new kind of world and I wanted to sort of be at home to make sure everybody was happy,” she says. “And we are, so this year we’re starting up touring again, and we’re starting to talk about writing another album with totally new material, so I think that’s what will happen next. We’ll just put out a disc of new stuff and what that will sound like will have a lot to do with how we tour and what happens on stage. Because what we experiment with on stage sort of tends to end up on an album. So I have no idea what it will be.”

Cowboy Junkies, 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 19, Music Box Supper Club, 1148 Main St., 216-242-1250. Tickets: Sold Out,
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