Toronto Trailblazers Still Thriving

By Steven Libowitz   |   May 9, 2019
Cowboy Junkies return to Santa Barbara after almost 20 years to play the Lobero on Thursday, May 16

Aside from having one of the great names in pop music history, the Cowboy Junkies also more or less created their own genre, creating almost excruciatingly slow, country-blues based folk-rock that emphasized Michael Timmins’ songs and his sister Margo’s vocals. It was 30 years ago that Cowboy Junkies proved the appeal of such quiet and contemplative music with their now-classic album The Trinity Session, and while no subsequent records sold nearly as well, they’ve maintained an audience (as well as the full original band) right up through the release of 2018’s All That Reckoning. The album just might be their best since Trinity, an even more reflective recording that comes from the perspective of middle age.

If memory serves, it’s been close to 20 years since Cowboy Junkies have performed in Santa Barbara, but that situation will be rectified next Thursday, May 16, when the band plays at the Lobero Theatre. Michael Timmins talked about Reckoning and more over the phone from Toronto. 

Q. What sparked the themes you address on the new album? 

A. At first it was just the band asking me if we were doing another record since it had been six years, and I figured, let me see what comes up. I do my writing in isolation and as things began to flow I realized the personal stuff – where I always start – was amalgamating with the political and social issues and I was liking the duality. I liked the idea that the songs can be looked at from two points of view. I kept that in mind as I was writing, sort of playing that game, making sure there was that duality all through…

It’s about getting older, looking around and trying to figure out where I am versus where I thought I should be. The pillars you thought would be holding up your life are beginning to crumble, and it’s confusing. And to me it seemed like that was reflecting on society as a whole… The title song is very bare to the bones, which I really like, and that’s why it’s on there twice.

Your band has a rare quirk in which you write the songs but don’t sing them. They’re your words, but you are not giving them voice. Does that allow you to be more vulnerable?

Sure, there’s a little bit of a shield to hide behind. But it also allows us to bring things we might not otherwise. I can go places I might be more reluctant to write about if I had to sing them, because people reflect on them more from Margo than me… But I don’t think about that when I’m writing them. Maybe after 30 years I’m just fooling myself, but I write as if it’s just me, in this room, for me and only me. Otherwise, I’d do some self-censoring. Sometimes the songs don’t work because of how I approach it. 

What about vice-versa? Do you learn more about the songs after hearing her sing them?

Yeah, and it’s great when it happens. I can get pretty deeply into what I think a song means. Sometimes years later we’re playing it on stage and it hits me that it really about something else. I think that’s what audiences do, too, so I kind of like it. 

Can we go back to the beginning? What was it like to forge your sound in a climate of mid-’80s rock up in Canada?

I was a big blues fan and I’d also come from a post-punk thing that was in our DNA. Add some folk and Joy Division and you have our sound. It wasn’t anything conscious, and when Margo got involved, she found her voice to work best when the music was really understated and that brought our volume down and had us play so we could sit under her singing. It was all organic… Eventually, it became the core of our sound, what just happens when the four of us get together: playing really slow, with lots of space, nothing filling up the void. We loved the hauntedness of (Bruce Springsteen’s) Nebraska which we listened to all the time when we were getting ready to record The Trinity Sessions. 

Folk-rock is much more popular again now. How has that affected you if at all?

We’ve never ridden that wave, even though maybe we invented it in some ways. Part of it is because we’re up here in Canada and don’t participate in the music business, play the game, go to the parties. Even when Trinity was the big buzz, we weren’t interested in that. We just do our thing. We never had any interest in moving to L.A. We’ve always had a bigger perspective on life. 

When you play touchstones like songs from Trinity, do they still resonate for you? How have the decades shifted your perspective?

We still like those songs, but it’s different now. When you are young, it’s all about you. But now we know concerts are a communal event – you’re passing energy back and forth, which makes for a great show. At the same time, we stay true to what we want to do, which is why we now do “An Evening With….”, with the first set being our new songs and the second catalog, although we mix things up to keep ourselves interested.


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