Upon Still Water
Ten albums into their career, the Cowboy Junkies have not only managed to survive, but have also somehow succeeded in remaining a vital, invigorating force in modern music as spellbinding masters of poetic musical mystery. In their world, things move a bit slower as their delicate, smoky numbers crawl along. Fragile and relaxed, they slowly forge a bond of intimacy with their audience. And though this connection may seem, at first, unfamiliar and brief, it's one that leaves a lasting impression nonetheless.
The result of a childhood friendship between bassist Alan Anton and guitarist Michael Timmins, The Cowboy Junkies began rather simply. Anton recalls that as eleven-year old boys, he and Timmins already had a musical dimension to their relationship. They were both addicted to records, mostly by bands like the Doors, the Velvet Underground and the Rolling Stones. Amid a spirit of musical innovation, Anton credits the atmosphere of that era for further sparking their interest.
"It [the 1970s] was a great ten years for music. We were lucky to be catching that early stuff and then we were at exactly the right age to absorb punk."
Years later, Timmins and Anton left Toronto and played together in the British group Germinal as well as a band called Hunger Project. When they returned home to Toronto, they began to piece together the Cowboy Junkies from Michael's siblings. Peter Timmins was invited to play drums and Margo Timmins eased into the role of lead vocalist. With a diverse collection of musical influences and individual personalities, the band quickly developed a distinct sound.
Soon after, in 1986, the Cowboy Junkies released their debut album, Whites Off Earth Now!, through their own label, Latent. It was clear even then that something exceptional was happening. For their second, and extremely popular release, The Trinity Sessions, the Junkies began a tumultuous affair with a series of major label record companies. These relationships amounted to a strange saga and for years to follow, the Junkies continued to operate with sincere expression and little concern for major label politics.
Anton laments that "they [major label execs] behave like little kids."
Others in the band have stated publicly that the problem is one of careless miscommunication and greed. Sadly, most major labels are just not willing to nourish career artists like the Cowboy Junkies. After nearly 15 years, the Junkies abandoned the industry giants and resurrected Latent, which is currently distributed in the U.S. by Rounder Records. Their latest album, Open, is the first fruit of their newfound freedom.
In addition, Anton hints that Latent could be a future home for other disillusioned recording artists, though right now they're more concerned with coordinating present and future Cowboy Junkies projects.
One such project project is a proposed collection of Townes Van Zandt covers. The Junkies are well acquainted with the high art of covering other people's songs. Music fans themselves, they have brilliantly interpreted traditional gospel songs, as well as material from artists such as Lou Reed, Bruce Springsteen, Hank Williams, and the Rolling Stones.
Anton admits that in addition to music, the Junkies are also literature fanatics, a fact that is quite evident in their complex lyrics. Like the devices of the most enlightened authors, the Junkies' lyrics use symbols to ultimately go beyond symbols in hopes that revelation will visit the listener and offer wisdom in the face of the complexities of life, death, faith and love.
Furthermore, religious imagery is also scattered throughout the Junkies songbook.
"We read the Bible," says Anton, "and bits of those stories end up everywhere. They always make a good skeleton for a song."
Interestingly, some Tibetan monks of the gelugpa variety were once treated to a musical exchange with Margo as she and her husband sought shelter from a Himalayan snow-storm. Much like the approach of her monastic hosts, the intonation formulas of Margo Timmins are based on the notion that a whisper can convey more than a scream. The careful Cowboy Junkies listener will be rewarded with whispers of asceticism and healing in their songs.
Cowboy Junkies albums are consistently pleasing though dark, and they always receive laudatory reviews. They contain a characteristic tone of depression that is rooted in opportunity and connectedness, not cosmic blankness and isolation. Margo has long maintained that the characters in their songs fight against the depression and are heading somewhere better.
With a wonderfully crafted new record and their major label headaches behind them, it is apparent that, like their songs' characters, the Cowboy Junkies are heading somewhere better too.
The Cowboy Junkies will perform with Tim Easton as part of the "Troubadour Concert Series" on Thursday, August 23rd, 8pm at the Kentucky Theater. Tickets are $26.50. Call 231-6997 for info.