By Denise Dunbar
The Cowboy Junkies are an alternative country/blues/rock band with a spare, mellow sound. The Canadian band consists of Timmins siblings Michael, Margo and Peter plus bassist Alan Anton. They will appear at the Birchmere on March 13 and 14, playing their seminal 1988 album “The Trinity Session” — which was recorded on one microphone in a Toronto church — in its entirety the first night and 1992’s “Black Eyed Man” the second. Michael Timmins recently spoke by phone with Times Publisher Denise Dunbar.
You’re about to appear at the Birchmere in Alexandria, but the first time I heard you play, in the late 1980s, you performed at the Lisner Auditorium in D.C. Can you compare what it’s like to play in those venues?
Michael Timmins: The Birchmere is one of the really good listening rooms around the country. It’s set up for the audience and band equally well. You guys are very lucky to have that venue. You do have to approach a show [in a larger arena] differently. It’s a longer reach to the back row if there are balconies. You don’t have the same sense of intimacy. You don’t have to be louder, but you have to be a bit bigger. There’s more of a show involved. Those shows can be very satisfying, but they’re also harder to make satisfying. A show at the Birchmere is really about the audience and the band and that communication.
You’re in the midst of touring for your “Nomad” series of albums. What is this series?
MT: We were fooling around with what to do for our next record, and we had too much material. We had many different influences going on. We were completely free of contracts and realized we could do whatever we wanted. We decided to do four records in 18 months. Once we came up with that we decided we should tie them together through artwork. Our friend Enrique Martinez is a painter in south Florida. He already had a set of paintings that spoke perfectly to the project. We hadn’t named our project yet. His series was called Nomad, and we also chose his title — we thought it was perfect for our project.
Though you’re in the midst of touring for Nomad, a few nights you are playing the entire album “The Trinity Session,” and the second night at the Birchmere you’re doing “Black Eyed Man.” Why are you interspersing those nights in your Nomad tour?
MT: We’re doing two sets each night at the Birchmere. The first set will be dedicated to “Nomad,” and the second set to “Trinity” and “Black Eyed Man.” It’s just another way of presenting our music and getting people interested. It’s a constant battle for a band that’s been around as long as us, to get people to come back. There’s only so much money out there, and if people have to choose between a new young band they’ve never seen and us that you’ve maybe seen once or twice, it’s another way of giving them a reason to come and see us. It’s marketing basically. It’s kind of fun to do a complete album. It’s a different way to do a show.
March 14 at the Birchmere is the only time on your entire tour that you’re doing an album other than “Trinity.” Why “Black Eyed Man”?
MT: We were choosing between “Black Eyed Man” and “Lay It Down.” In our experiences with our audiences, those were the two records they respond to most other than “Trinity.” Hopefully we can do more of this, do all sorts of different records. We’ve never done all of “Black Eyed Man” before — it should be fun. The “Trinity” songs have been in our repertoire for many years. If you’ve seen us, you’ve heard half of those songs. The songs from “Black Eyed Man” come in and out [of our shows] all the time. Hopefully, people will come to both shows.
When I heard you a few years ago, you didn’t play any songs from “Trinity,” even though it’s your best-known work. Why is that?
MT: That’s the tricky side of touring. We got to a point where we had to put those songs to bed for a while. Now they’re starting to re-emerge. Part of that is because we have the “Nomad” series — we have so much new material. From our point of view, it now feels OK to go back and take the more popular songs and play them in the second set because we’ve just exposed [the audience] to a whole bunch of new material. There’s a balance.
Most of your music has been recorded in Toronto, but you recorded 1996’s “Lay It Down” in Athens, Ga., where R.E.M., the B-52s and a number of other bands got their start. What was that like?
MT: It was great. We worked with John Keane, a well-known producer. We were right in Athens, within the walking area of everywhere. We rented a house and were there six weeks or two months. It was great to immerse yourself in a town. The process was a lot of fun. We had been through there on tour and knew its history as a music town.
Your next album, “Miles From Our Home,” has a much bigger sound and was recorded partly in London, right?
MT: Yes, we decided, “We have a decent budget for the first time ever. Let’s use the studio and get a big-time producer.” We recorded a lot of the record in Toronto and then went to Abbey Road. It was an amazing experience recording there; Abbey Road was phenomenal. Producer John Leckie taught us a lot. We were able to make a bigger-sounding record.
Despite the bigger sound of “Miles,” your style is basically always the same, and it comes through on that record as well. It’s a mellow, understated sound.
MT: That’s a characteristic of the personalities of the four of us and the way we play together. None of us are schooled musicians. We approach our instruments very uniquely: We play them the way we play them. You put four of those together, including Margo as the singer. That’s our sound. We can’t really escape it. The underlying character of the band is always there. It’s been a knock on us and also the thing people love about us. To me it’s a very positive thing. It’s very unusual for a band to have a truly unique sound, and that’s what we have.
There seem to be three main elements to the Cowboy Junkies: that mellow sound, Margo’s amazing voice and your songwriting, which is really profound. Is it draining to go so deep with your writing?
MT: In some ways it’s the opposite. Exploring those things and analyzing them and using them as a form of expression and, ultimately, hopefully of art. It’s more liberating and uplifting. My songs are a combination of observation and personal experience. Some are straightly autobiographical, and if you knew me as my siblings do in the band, you would know which ones. Usually there’s some spark of the personal, and then I use what I’ve observed and flip them that way. I create a narrative where the nugget is personal and make them more universal.
How do you go about writing? Is it by inspiration on napkins in restaurants, or is it more of a discipline?
MT: It’s more of a discipline now. My life is so busy, and I have three kids. I used to write all the time when I was younger. Now, I jot ideas down as days and weeks progress and then have to put time aside to do the writing and leave my life for a few days at a time or a period of time. It’s a real discipline — sitting down and writing and getting up the next day and going over it.
You went away to write “Miles From Our Home,” right?
MT: Yes, my wife and I rented a place north of Toronto, before kids. She and I would go back and forth to Toronto, and the band came up every couple of weeks. I’d be writing all the time up there, and the band would come up and we’d work on songs. It was a simpler time.
One of the striking things about the band is that you’re able to write these songs for your sister to sing. Some of them are really from a woman’s perspective. How do you get inside a woman’s head and write these songs that women in your audience can relate to?
MT: Those songs start with a kernel of personal experience. I try to get to the essence of those experiences — those things [that] are universal for a man and a woman. Then I try to create a narrative from a woman’s perspective, which is obviously from observation. Some of those that are from a woman’s perspective, if I flipped the gender and changed a few things, I think they would be just as effective. The underlying emotion and theme are hopefully universal.
How many songs do you collect when making a record?
MT: It depends on the record. For “Lay It Down,” we had well over 20 songs. An album like “Meadow” [from the “Nomad” series], the only songs we had were the ones that ended up there. It depends on what we’re trying to do, or what I want the album to say.
When you’re on stage, Margo is the voice and face of the band. You’re the creative force in the band, and yet you don’t say much up there.
MT: I say nothing (laughing).
We felt from the beginning that we needed one voice to speak for us. The obvious voice is the singer as far as the stage is concerned. People always focus on the singer anyway. Rather than trying to blur those lines, we just leave it. Ego in the band doesn’t exist. We all know what we do and what we contribute. When it comes to the live side of things, we all know our part. We have to focus on what we are individually doing. One of the things that Margo does well is relate to the audience. She’s so good at it.
And yet, if someone is in the audience and they know little about the band, they might not know that they’re your songs she’s singing.
MT: It comes down to ego. I know what Margo brings to my songs. I write a song, and Margo is able to sing it and interpret it and she is able to show it to the world with her voice. I’m very lucky that way. She realizes the other side of it too. She’s a singer that doesn’t have a lot of interest in writing songs. I’m providing her with songs, which she loves to sing. We each know our strengths and play to those.
How does the band work with your family dynamic? You’re one of six siblings, yet three are in the band and three are not.
MT: We’ve been very careful over the years separating the two. The band is the band, and the family is the family. If we have issues within the band, we deal with them quickly and don’t let them bleed into the family. The family is more important than the band. We don’t let the band hurt the family dynamic. We try to solve any issues we have quickly and fairly. As far as the rest of the family goes, we’re just brothers and sisters.
Your older brother played with you at one point, right, but left right before you began recording. Is that difficult now?
MT: My brother had no real interest in it. He didn’t like touring at all. He didn’t really have the personality for it. It was obvious the three of us did enjoy it and he didn’t. It was very amicable. He was fine. If you could leap forward six or seven years, yes, he probably would have stayed in. But life doesn’t work that way. You have to put in those years.
How did the band emerge from your background? Did you grow up in a really creative home?
MT: I don’t think of it as creative, but it was a very open household and we were very supportive of each other. We grew up in the 1960s and 1970s — a crazy time. We were given a lot of freedom and responsibility. We took it and dealt with it.
All of you seem to do a great job balancing the band with your families. You tour for two-and-a-half weeks in March, then take a month off touring, then tour for a month and then not in the summer.
MT: It’s a balancing act, and it’s hard with kids. Family comes into all the decisions.
Your independence as a band is remarkable. You record and produce all of your own songs — and distribute them through your website. You have total creative control, compared to what artists had 20 or 30 years ago.
MT: We sort of set it up that way. At the turn of the century, the record industry was kind of falling apart. We didn’t want to get caught in that, in anything that would keep us from doing what we love to do, which is making records and touring. We started to divest ourselves of contracts. Over the last few years, as contracts came up for renewal, we got rid of them. We’re totally devoid of contracts now, which is great.
The negative side is there’s a ton of work involved in keeping things going. The positive side is we can do something like the “Nomad” series without going to 17 different marketing meetings to get permission. By the late ’90s it wasn’t fun, so much energy was put into dealing with these companies. We were losing steam because of it. It was going to kill us. It would have ended the band if we had to deal with that for a few more years.
Are other bands copying your example?
MT: A lot of older bands that already have a following are moving that way, especially if they have a bit of an audience.
The record you’re playing the second night at the Birchmere, “Black Eyed Man,” seems to have been greatly influenced by the late Townes Van Zandt. How did he impact your work?
MT: We toured with Townes right before “Black Eyed Man,” in the tour for our “Caution Horses” record, and that’s why he’s all over that album. We spent a lot of time with him on the road. He was a hero of ours as far as songwriters go. I loved his poetry, the way he approached a subject from odd angles. He was able to give voice to emotions and thoughts you didn’t even know he was giving voice to. I love that side of what he does. I try to do that in certain songs — I’m always going back to Townes. A lot of the “Wilderness” songs are reflective of him.