Brother Son, Sister Moon
Songs written by a man attempting to capture a woman’s perspective, sung by a woman attempting to interpret a man’s oeuvre. How does it work? For Cowboy Junkies Michael and Margo Timmins, by respecting each other’s vision and right to interpretation.
If you’re searching for a suitable subject for a Portrait Of The Artist As Reluctant Pop Star, you couldn’t do much better than Cowboy Junkies chanteuse Margo Timmins, whose on- and off-stage shyness is legendary. “I’ve never really been a center-of-attention type person, or even very social,” she admits candidly. “I still get sick to my stomach before I go on. I find getting from the side of the stage to the microphone the longest walk. Once I start singing, I find it a lot easier, but every once in a while, in the middle of a show, I’ll realize where I am and have a bit of an anxiety attack.”
Such self-confessed shyness tends to be endearing in someone working within this aggressively self-absorbed industry. Margo’s reticence has sometimes been misinterpreted as aloofness. But there is no trace of that in the attractive young woman who sips cappuccino in a Toronto café and laughs often and easily as she reflects on life as a Cowboy Junkie.
We’re here to discuss Pale Sun, Crescent Moon, the fifth album from the most internationally recognized graduates of the fertile Toronto roots music scene, and Margo’s enthusiasm for the record is quickly apparent.
“You always like your records, or you wouldn’t put them out,” she says. “With this one, though, we were surprised, and that’s a nice feeling. We are so really happy with it.”
With good cause, Pale Sun, Crescent Moon is revealing itself as the strongest Cowboy Junkies album since 1988’s breakthrough work, The Trinity Session. As such, it deserves to arrest and reverse the down stroke on the CJ sales graph, but Margo constantly stresses that such concerns are secondary to this band. When The Trinity Session gathered widespread critical acclaim and healthy sales here and in the U.S. , it surprised virtually everyone, including the Junkies, but their subsequent albums have not equaled that response. 1992’s Black Eyed Man was a change of pace of sorts, with the band tapping the rich veins of American folk and country, and a Southern gothic feel haunting such songs as “Oregon Hill”, “Black Eyed Man” and “Murder, Tonight, In the Trailer Park.” The inclusion of two songs by often bleak Texan singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt typified the record’s somber mood.
If you can judge a record by its covers, then it’s significant that the two on Pale Sun are the bluesy “Hard to Explain” and J. Mascis’ “The Post”. Yes, the enigmatic alternative rock god himself. By Junkies standards, this version is as rocky as they get, and they do it well. The increased input of guitarist Ken Myhr helps account for the tougher guitar sound on the new record, while the bluesier material showcases Margo’s improvement as a singer. That breathy, ethereal voice has always mastered melancholy, but she can now infuse it with passion and conviction.
“Blues is my best style,” she explains. “I love to do it, and it comes the easiest. It just seeps into where I live, so I’m glad we chose some bluesy song.” Quite how an upper-middle-class Canadian white female can articulate this hurtin’ music so eloquently remains a mystery.
As for “The Post”, Margo describes it laughingly as “Cowboy Junkies go grunge. Not what you’d expect! When Michael brought it to the band, I was like, ‘Why this one? There are so many great songs around.’ But trusting Michael’s vision, I thought I’d give it a try, and it turned out really well.
“Michael got to talk to J., and said he was quite interesting. I hope we’ll meet up some day. He’s supposed to be a big TV addict, so we have a lot to talk about.”
Margo’s respect for her brother’s musical vision is a recurring theme, and it spotlights a fascinating sibling relationship. Aside from their signature well-chosen cover material, all other Cowboy Junkies songs flow from Michael Timmins’ fertile pen, and Margo seems almost horrified at the query as to whether she ever edits or modifies his lyrics.
“Never! Michael always writes on his own,” she says. “He brings them to me, and we work out the melodies acoustically. We take them to Pete [the band’s drummer and third Timmins] and start to turn them into songs. Things then just sort of happen – we’ve never really figured out how. But I’d never change Michael’s lyrics. There’s an unspoken trust between us. I figure when he’s writing a song, he’s expressing something he wants to say. When he hands them over, they become my songs. I know he’s giving them away. That’s a wonderful thing. Most people are so possessive about what they do.
“When he’s so generous, who am I to say, ‘Can you shorten this line? it’s difficult to fit into the melody here.’ And he’d never say, ‘You’ve made it really sad, and I didn’t intend it to be sad.’ He’d never tell me how to express it. It’s my interpretation of what he’s written, and it works nicely.”
Even more intriguingly, Michael’s songs often convincingly look at life and love through a woman’s eyes. Margo acknowledges the “weird dichotomy of songs written by a male but read by a female. The way you phrase something can give it a female input. I am interpreting it through the female perspective, and Michael never interferes with that. He’s very sensitive and responsive. I get blown away by some of his thoughts, and that’s a nice feeling. I look forward to what he’ll come up with next.”
The last record’s “If You Were The Woman And I Was The Man” is a perfect example of Michael’s gender empathy, and Pale Sun, Crescent Moon has plenty more. “Hunted” describes the fear women constantly face (“There are trap lines running up and down main street”) while the female hitcher in “Floorboard Blues” is weary yet wary (“I don’t like the way his pinky ring picks up the dashboard light”). In “First Recollection” he writes, “I’ve heard that the son must bear the burdens of the father, but it’s the daughter that is left to clean up the mess.”
Not that Timmins should be viewed as the Alan Alda of roots rock. His much-underrated lyric writing is as spare and muscular as the best crime novelists. Take this example, from “Murder, Tonight, In The Trailer Park”: “Homicide is tying yellow ribbons around her silver Airstream. Red cherries slashing up the night cutting through that cordoned crime scene.”
Michael’s traditional themes of love and loss, dread and death, especially when combined with the sometimes funereal pace of the music and Margo’s haunting voice, have led to Junkies music being unfairly tagged as music to slit your wrists by. Such a rep clearly isn’t going to have mainstream radio and video stations drooling in anticipation of a new Cowboy Junkies record, as Margo realizes. “The business side of music is a drag,” she says. “It’s very frustrating when you put out a record and right away they say, ‘Well, it’s not going to get played on radio.’ You have to keep telling yourself that even though the record company is having trouble selling records, it’s not going to stop us from doing another record or touring, which is what we really love to do. Yes, we’d love to have a big hit, but that’s not going to affect the quality of the records.”
The frenzied hype of a few years back, which included Gap ads and People listing her as one of the world’s most beautiful women, has retreated a little, and Margo sees herself as “better at dealing with it. That fashion thing was totally unexpected and bizarre. I never thought of myself in those terms. But I’m as vain as the next person.”
More substantially, the Junkies’ success has allowed Margo to work with some of her musical heroes. “Last year I got to meet and sing with Neil Young,” she recalls. “It was for Randy Bachman’s record, and we went down to Neil’s ranch to do a video. It was one of those occasions where you wish you could be less of a fan, but the whole day it never wore off.
“And when we worked and traveled with John Prine, that was the best. He’s such a generous, open person, and I learned so much. You get to talk about songs and where they came from, and it gives a whole new vision of music you’ve been listening to for years. When we had Townes Van Zandt open for us, it didn’t sit well, because we’d admired him for so long. But he didn’t mind. He was having the time of his life – on a fancy bus, getting fed, when he’s normally in a van, playing dives.”
Margo’s choices for dream duets also show impeccable taste. “Leonard Cohen,” she says, “but I’d probably be so nervous I’d lose my voice. And Emmylou Harris. When there’s all this negative emphasis on failure because of numbers, you have to remember people like Emmylou.”
Timmins has also sung on records by such lesser lights as the Northern Pikes and Corndogs, and Cowboy Junkies as a whole have always been extremely supportive of Canadian music. They have chosen to record in Ontario with local guest players, even though they could have afforded big-name American producers, sidemen and studios. Michael also boosted the Toronto scene through his own label, Latent, until, in Margo’s words, “it became too much. We were his first priority, and he felt he wasn’t giving his bands enough. Michael doesn’t do anything by half. He works very hard, and I’m amazed at how much new music he can find and take in,” she marvels.
In pre-Junkies days, it was Michael who first became a participant in the burgeoning Toronto punk scene, with Margo going along for the ride.
“I was 19 or 20 in the late 70’s with punk happening, so that was my era. I used to live down here. I still do,” she says, referring to Queen Street West. “Michael and I would go to the clubs and see bands. Before that, he used to write poetry, so he was always writing. I think punk showed him he could do it. When he had Hunger Project [his first punk band], I’d hang out, take the tickets, carry the equipment.
“I always knew his music was important to him, so when he asked me to sing, my main concern was ‘Hey, if you don’t like it, make sure you get rid of me. I don’t want to ruin your music.’ I guess I should have known better. He’d have fired me in a minute if I couldn’t do it,” she laughs.
Both the Cowboy Junkies’ 1986 debut, Whites Off Earth Now!, and, initially, The Trinity Session were released by the band itself. “They were getting good reviews, and selling so well we couldn’t keep up with it out of our living room,” recalls Margo. “Our goal was to get a distributor or an independent label.”
When the band’s lawyer (and now Margo’s husband), Graham Henderson, offered to shop them around, the group’s response was, according to Margo, “If you want to waste your time, go ahead. Suddenly all these major labels came to our show. It was bizarre. One side of me was thinking, ‘This is fun, everyone wants us.’ But we feared a major-label would put me in a min-skirt, and tell us what to write. We vowed that if they did, we’d break up, and we decided to jump in – sink or swim!”
With international sales for Trinity verging on a million, Cowboy Junkies and the winning label, RCA/BMG, came out swimming like Mark Spitz, but Margo confesses they’re flagging a little in the commercial stretch now: “The Caution Horses  was around 600,000, Black Eyed Man around 400,000. Maybe the next one will be 200 [thousand], then 100, and we’ll just disappear.”
She’s joking, Junkie-lovers. “We want it to last,” she says. “We’ve all been very much attuned to each other, and I’m sure there’ll come a time when we want some space. Right now, though, we’re enjoying working together, and we’re in this nice cycle – record, tour, take a break. When it comes to an end, we’ll figure out what else to do.”
For someone with a chronic case of stage fright, Margo Timmins sounds as though she’s become hooked on singing to an audience. “Sometimes we find ourselves doing ‘professional shows’, where everybody is playing their parts, but we’re just doing it.” she says, “That’s a terrible thing. Then you hit one of those nights where it’s such a pure joy. I just feel beautiful – not physically, but with this wonderful feeling. Then it all makes sense.”
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