By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Margo Timmins is blessed with one of Those Voices — an utterly unique and instantly identifiable sound that sharply defines her music and her band, the Cowboy Junkies.
On the Junkies' new disc, "At the End of Paths Taken," that voice pushes typically sublime melodies while the band further relaxes the loose, spooky alt-country sound it's honed for two decades and writhes through some crazy noises, eerie voices and unexpected sounds. The disc has received adoration from critics and fans since its April release — the kind of rapturous reception given to the band's second album, "The Trinity Session," which broke them to a mainstream audience and which celebrates its 20th anniversary later this year with a special edition.
Timmins discussed all this and more when we caught up with her before a show in New York ... somewhere. "We're playing tomorrow night," she cooed over the phone, "but I couldn't tell you where. It doesn't matter. As long as we show up and there's an audience, we have no expectations."
Q. Were the great reviews for the new disc a surprise, or did you feel this one was something special?
A. After so many years, we have no expectations of how an album will be received. When we listened to it after recording it, we were more surprised at how well it turned out. It was an album in which we really had no idea what we were doing. We went through tons of changes. Our only plan was this: totally experiment and play with the songs. We came at it almost backwards from the way we've been doing every other album for 20 years.
Q. How'd that approach come about?
A. It started with Michael writing songs and handing them to me without music, just the words. So I got familiar with the poetry first, on paper. And come to find, he'd written the music in weird guitar keys he's never used before. Some went smoothly. Others were like, "Is this good?" But by the time we got to the end and listened to the whole thing in order, we just laughed and thought, "It worked!" I mean, we can always make it work, but it was good.
Q. What made you think it was good?
A. Well, I played it for my parents. And my aunt and uncle were there, too, for some weird reason. They're of a totally different generation, I thought they wouldn't get it. I thought my aunt and uncle wouldn't even try. But by the end of the album I could tell they'd gotten sucked in. I think that's what this album does. If you give it time, it'll suck you into what I think is a really comfortable place.
Q. On the surface, the record doesn't sound that different, given that the band has such a consistent sound. But it hits you differently, harder. What's happening here that hasn't before?
A. It's certainly a Junkies record. My voice is always the thing people identify as a Junkies record. ... We do have a signature sound, even now after 20 years. I don't fully know what that sound is, I don't know what makes it, but it only happens when the four of us are playing together. When I've sung with other bands, it's not there. ... But the music behind me this time is strange — so many layers and weird sounds. Oddly enough, the only real melody in any of the songs is my vocal. And this otherworldly music just twists and writhes around me.
Q. And that is the result of the experimentation?
A. Oh yeah. In "Mountain" [a truly odd pastiche of spoken-word, tortured music and Margo singing a brief chorus], you can hear me laughing. I'm always laughing in rehearsal — there's a lot of my laughter on tape — and when Mike was mixing the song he dropped some of my laughter in there. It's not as a joke; he uses it as an instrument. It's very subtle. But it's very much part of the "OK, let's throw this in and see if it works" spirit of making this record.
Q. What about the Cowboy Junkies is distinctly Canadian?
A. Hmm. I think we're very Canadian, but what that is I just don't know. [Pause] It's a ... part of it is ... it's being humble. That's a positive thing almost, but there's a negative side to it. We spoke of having no expectations — that's a good way to live, but it's also not good because you don't make demands and you don't get as far as you could have, or should have. You won't be disappointed, but the other side is you don't make things happen. I think that's very Canadian. Pretty much just going with the flow, wherever it might take you — I think Canada as a whole is very much like that. Like, "All right, we'll get into this war if you want to." [Laughs]
Q. What was it about "The Trinity Session" that made such a breakthrough for you back in 1988?
A. That record happened at a time where that kind of sound was just not happening. These big rock bands were all at the top of the charts. Then this quietness emerged from the din — I think that's what got people's attention. ... At the time, there just wasn't anything like it. We had no idea it would catch on like it did. We knew it was special, no doubt. The next morning, we listened to the tapes. Oddly enough, my mom was there, because Mike had run the tapes over to my house around the block. We knew right away it was good and different, but we figured it would be an underground thing, not something that would attract major labels and attention. But my mom turned to me and said, "Your life will never be the same."
Q. Is your mom always present for these first listens?
A. [Laughs] I know, it's crazy, isn't it? I'm 46 and Mom's always around. But I thought she was crazy when she said that, but I remember for years waiting for my life to go back to normal. She knew. I should ask her — I don't know if that statement of hers was a happy thought for her or not.
Q. And did I hear there's a 20th anniversary edition of "Trinity" in the works?
A. Yes, [coming out] this fall. We wanted to do something special to mark the 20th, but we didn't want to take away from "Trinity." We went back to the church [Toronto's Holy Trinity, where the album was recorded], which was scary. I didn't want to muck it up. And we just covered the whole album — the same songs, just 20 years later, and with some guests: Natalie Merchant [doing "To Love Is to Bury"], Vic Chesnutt ["Postcard Blues"] and Ryan Adams ["200 More Miles"]. We filmed it all, of course, because in the era of DVD everything must be documented. We were really nervous, but it came out great. We realized that the reason the record sounded so well is because we picked the right building. The sound is so beautiful in there, and because it's so beautiful it's inspiring. You get in there and hear yourself, and you're like, "OK, I can sing!" The sound floats and comes down and wraps you up. I'd forgotten the feeling of it.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.