Rhinestone Cowboys

Venue
Summer 1996

By Kevin Press,
Cover Photo by Andrew MacNaughtan

Margo Timmins has but one regret: she never got to see Elvis. Ten years and half-a-dozen albums into her career as lead vocalist of the COWBOY JUNKIES, it may well be the only thing missing in her life.

She refers to a younger Elvis, of course, but not too young. Pre-Vegas, maybe even pre-karate. Black leather is preferable to white, sideburns are okay just so long as they're not too bushy. Margo wants him tucked away in a small nightclub where there's a comfy stool waiting for her. I ask the obvious: Would she get up on stage? "Are you kidding? I'd be at the other end of the room. You have to know your limitations."

That Margo Timmins is not the most sure-footed starlet in rock and roll comes as a surprise to no one. But imagine shunning the spotlight so wholly that you find yourself hiding in your own daydreams. This is classic Margo, and by extension classic Cowboy Junkies. The band that reads softly and carries a big microphone has turned the music world on its ear, quietly selling three million units along the way. But neither Margo, her brothers Michael and Peter, nor Alan Anton have let any of it go their heads. The only thing left over from their garage-band days may be their garage-band egos.

Margo endures me like she does other journalists, with a quiet guardedness. When one of my questions leans toward her personal life I am told not to go there. She's here to discuss business and nothing more. This is not snobbery; she is patient, attentive and very polite. But I am to understand that there is a line and it is not to be crossed.

The truth is she has come a long way. The first time I met her, ten years ago, my offer of a handshake actually made her step back. Margo acknowledges her past problems with confidence, admitting it wasn't until the band's last tour that she finally grew comfortable with her own singing voice. It turns out that amidst all those adoring fans, in all those cities, she was suffering terribly from stage fright.

"That took a long time," she says. "I think now I can honestly call myself a singer, and feel that I have a place within the industry. I always liked singing live. What was hardest was when I'd have a moment of awareness – there's people staring at me. Getting up on stage can still be a bit difficult. I always get a little sick to my stomach. But once I'm up there, I'm fine."

Margo's brother Michael sits at her side. And despite all the attention heaped on his sister, he is a terrific interview. He can explain the Junkies like no one else, probably because he does most of the writing.

"We're all unskilled musicians. None of us have ever studied at all," he offers. "We play an unconventional way together because we haven't had any formal training. We've just had to learn how to fit into each other's style."

Style is a word that comes up a lot when people talk about the Junkies. If you could feed country, blues and folk music through a fog-machine, you might come close. But the band has never been easy to define. Though music critics try their best to draw comparisons – the current fave being dreampopper Mazzy Star – this way of thinking always falls short with the Cowboy Junkies. Simply put, the Cowboy Junkies are two brothers, a sister and a long-time friend: a tight circle who've found their artistic voice in four-part harmony.

A host of back-up players have come and gone over the years. Michael says it's helped them to stay together; it keeps the juices flowing. Still, all four agree that little has changed among the core group. This became evident working on the latest disc Lay It Down. They found out that being a Cowboy Junkie is just as much fun in 1996 as it was in 1986.

"We still enjoy coming together as much as we always have," says Margo. "It's no different than when we got together in a garage. The only difference is that now we're more experienced. As a band, we can do more. We can try different ideas."

The Junkies' major-label debut, The Trinity Session (1988), was lauded as if it was the zenith of a seasoned band's career. There was no time for easing into the spotlight. It sought them out faster than you can say Sweet Jane. Everyone wanted to know who they were, where they came from and if they had met Lou Reed yet. They went from newsprint fanzines to four-star Rolling Stone reviews, from college radio to Saturday Night Live.

The Trinity Session was so...different. It was so rich, so textured. It was so everywhere. You couldn't turn on the radio or walk into a record shop without hearing it. There was no escape from its gentle, breezy vibe. They were big. As it turns out, the only ones not aware of how big, were the Junkies themselves.

"We were so busy touring," remembers Margo. "I was aware that it was happening but I didn't really know what it meant. All I knew was that the audiences were getting bigger. There were more people staring. I had to deal with so many other things that I didn't really even think about it until it stopped. I went to clean up my basement, all the magazines [that had covered us] were in boxes, and I realized 'My God! Every magazine in the world is down here!' It was mind-blowing, but it was over by then."

The Trinity story has been told before. The band slipped into a downtown Toronto church with producer Peter Moore and a single high-powered microphone. Call it fluke or destiny, their one-day jam produced one of the greatest records in Can Con history. Years later the album's 'Sweet Jane' cover went Hollywood in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers. Margo and Michael still talk about the album with a curious sense of awe. To them it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing that could easily have never happened. Few bands ever jell so beautifully, fewer still have a tape-deck running at the time.

 

"We knew something great had happened," remembers Michael. "We didn't know if anyone else would know, but we didn't care."

"I remember the next morning," says Margo. "We were listening to the tape and my mother was just blown away. She looked at us and said, 'What have you guys done?' I think she realized what she was listening to. She turned to me and said 'You know, I don't think your life will ever be the same.' And it never was."

In retrospect, it may have been too much, too fast. Topping the highs of 1988 and 1989 have proven difficult for the band. Except for a core of diehards, many fans and media folk have greeted subsequent releases with an increasing sense of malaise. The Junkies seemed to croon their way into a musical corner through the early 1990's. Lay It Down was met with a resounding ho-hum by most critics. Rolling Stone didn't even bother reviewing it.

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FUN AND GAMES WITH MARGO TIMMINS: WHEREIN SHE GIVES A LIST OF BEST EVERS.

Best Moment of your life: The Saturday Night Live performance was a moment of greatness. The Royal Albert Hall gig too. I remember standing on that stage and thinking this is a moment I'll never forget. Trinity Session, that was a big day. I remember the thrill once we got the sound. The first part of it was terrible, but the last part was a good day. It was magic, and it lasted.

Best Song You've Ever Written: 'Misguided Angel'

Best thing ever written about the band: I think it was about my hair

Best superhero: Obviously Superman is up there. But I always liked The Hulk, even before the tv show. He was a mystery. I still don't know if he's good or bad.

Best dessert: Apple crisp

Best decade: The 1980's. They were good years

Best pet: Barnabus. He was a great guinea pig.

Best band in Canada: Skydiggers

Best tv talk show: Oprah! Phil's mental.

Best tv show: All My Children. I don't know, I'm not very good at this.
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Those who have dismissed the new album as more of the same aren't paying attention. It's one of those albums you have to spend some time getting to know. Lay It Down marks a definite turning point for the Cowboy Junkies, and not just because it's their first release on Geffen. Margo's singing is stronger, Michael's guitaring more adventurous. What's always made the Junkies great is their sense of atmosphere, and it's the return to those deep, moody textures that make Lay It Down their second best disc so far.

"We definitely wanted to strip down the sound again," says Michael. "The idea was that unless there was an absolute reason to add something more than ourselves, we wouldn't add it. There had to be something missing."

John Keane was invited in as co-producer for the first time. He has worked with U.S. singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt, the Indigo Girls, and REM on Out Of Time and Automatic For The People. Keane managed to recapture the essence of the Cowboy Junkies, something that has slipped a little in past years. The band is back at its dreamy best, and it works.

The new record deal coupled with the revitalized sound of Lay It Down, suggest the band still has a few chapters left to write. They'd been with BMG since 1988, but had grown increasingly frustrated by the disorganization at the company's U.S. headquarters. Cue Fortuna: while the band's lawyers were negotiating a buy-out agreement, Geffen hired an A&R exec by the name of Jim Powers. It was Powers who'd signed the Junkies to their original BMG contract. The opportunity to sign them for a second time proved too much to turn down. For their part, the band was thrilled. Michael says Geffen was at the top of their wish list before they knew Powers was involved.

 

Part of the departure deal with BMG was a double-CD live package – 200 More Miles was released at the end of '95, and a greatest-hits disc is expected this winter.

Michael calls the live release a personal thing. "Our whole attitude was, we wanted to do it so we could each have one on our shelves. We don't care how it gets received. When we started this band, we didn't know how long we were going to last. We always thought in terms of wanting to leave a really strong body of work. And so whenever we approach a project, it's with that in mind. We want to be able to look back and be proud of what we've done, not necessarily the numbers we've sold."
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FUN AND GAMES WITH MICHAEL TIMMINS:

WHEREIN HE AND I PLAY WORD ASSOCIATION.

David Geffen: God.

Oliver Stone: How wide is this magazine's distribution? I liked Natural Born Killers

Margo Timmins: Sister

Media: Entertaining/irritating.

Magazines: Ignore them.

'Angel Mine': Something that's going to come back to haunt me for years and years. I have a feeling it's going to be a hit, and to me it's just a throw-away song.

Beatles: Untouchable

Ticketmaster: Thieves.

Canada: Safe

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Asked to describe the new album in one word, Margo and Michael answer in unison. He says "excellent", she says "isolating". They're both right. Lay It Down is like a room full of estranged characters, each bemoaning love lost or love never found.

"That is the human condition," says Michael. "When you get down to it, we're all disconnected. We spend our lives constantly trying to get connected, whether it's with another person or to a group or a place. That's why people hang out in bars, they want to be part of something. When you strip it all down, no matter how close you are to somebody, you are isolated."

"As strong as that feeling of isolation is through, the other side is just as strong," Margo adds. "In 'Bea's Song' I think what she's missing, what she's lost, is just as strong as the feeling of loss. It's worth hanging on to. When she has been connected, it's been a great connection. It's just that now she's not connected – to experience one, is to experience the other."

I was so pleased with Margo's Elvis invention, that I posed a similar question to Michael.

Me: Describe your fantasy New Year's Eve, 1999

Michael: On the Space Shuttle, just in case. I want to make sure the world is still here. I might see something coming down from outer space.

Margo: You'd be alone out there. Talk about isolation.

Michael: Wow, I saw the end of the earth.

Me: It would make a great song.

Margo: That's 'Major Tom', isn't it? ______________________________________________________________________________

Kevin Press writes for Venue's music section – a lot. He also interviewed Yoko Ono for this issue.

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