The Cowboy Junkies Are Surprisingly Ferocious

Family sadness and world chaos help lead band members in new directions on their 29th album.
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The Cowboy Junkies are an anomaly in the music world. The original band—siblings Michael (guitar), Margo (vocals), and Peter Timmins (drums), plus Michael’s kindergarten classmate Alan Anton (bass)—has been playing together for more than 35 years. This is not the Davies brothers of The Kinks or the Gallaghers of Oasis.

(From left) Michael Timmins, Margo Timmins, Alan Anton, and Peter Timmins

Photograph by Heather Pollock

The Canadians visit Memorial Hall May 11 (details here) to preview Such Ferocious Beauty, a new album arriving in June. Michael Timmins, the group’s main songwriter, talks about life events that inspired the new songs, including the death of his mother in 2018 and his father’s struggle with dementia before passing away last year.

The micro of losing one’s parents can open the macro to other kinds of loss as well. Whether it’s the natural world or institutions that are under attack, Timmins finds plenty of topics to address.

The Cowboy Junkies have been your career and your family, so that includes your father. How did his illness impact everyone?
I think the illness of a father impacts the children hugely. Our dad was alone for four years, and suffering from dementia was just another element of trying to keep him together. There are six kids in our family, so there’s a lot of shared responsibility, which helps a lot, and being able to share the experience with your siblings is good too. I can’t imagine doing it as an only child.

You used the word “impermanence” to describe the concept behind Such Ferocious Beauty. When did that idea point you in the direction of these songs?
As a younger person, you’re often striving toward something and thinking that, when you get to that spot, things will make sense. Or you will have a feeling of accomplishment or finality or some sort of resolution about whatever it is you’re trying to put together in life. But when you get older and begin to lose people, you realize how unpredictable life can be. You begin to realize there’s no real ending and you can’t really be striving toward something, you just have to appreciate what’s right in front of you. Then that moment goes away. And that’s true impermanence. You just go on and you go, and then you die (laughs).

In addition to the family sadness, you reference the chaos of the world. How do current events pop into your head?
It’s so hard to avoid them, and they’re so relevant. In days past, some things you could ignore, but maybe it’s an age thing too. You think about how the world is changing and how it affects your children.

When I’m writing about impermanence, I’m not just writing about somebody with dementia or one’s wife or one’s parent. I’m thinking of what we thought were permanent institutions or structures or the way one conducts one’s life or conducts relationships with strangers or the way one has conversations. Those things can be very impermanent these days, too, right? Or even something as grand as the weather.

Everything is in flux, we’re in that kind of world right now. For instance, “Hard to Build” on the new record is more about natural things than “What I Lost,” which is about a personal relationship. It’s all in there.

There aren’t a lot of folks who are writing new music for their 29th album. Roger Daltrey was asked if The Who would record an album of new music and he said, “What’s the point?” Obviously that’s not your attitude.
No, no (chuckles). We don’t want to be a nostalgia band, but we do understand that with a 35-year career people have come into the band at certain points along the way and there are certain albums that are more important to people. As far as our direct engagement with our audience in the live show, we try to cover as much of the history as we can. We try to fulfill people’s desires and people’s interpretations of the band in every show, but we have to keep it vital and moving forward for us.

We’re always introducing new material. Our show is usually made up of two sets. The first if kind of made for us, with a lot of new material, and the second set is when we dive into the catalog.

You have revisited a couple of your early albums and have done a number of covers over the years. What is the thinking on those projects?
It’s interesting, you know, if you’ve been around long enough older songs begin to take on a new life. You begin to share them differently, and they might even take on new meanings for you. The musicians in the band go through change and play differently, experiment more. So it’s kind of fun to play your own music and look at it 20, 25, 30 years later. You do that live, but it’s also fun to do it in a recording session too. It’s a fun exercise, and it’s our catalog, so we feel we can do whatever we want (laughs).

The new album has some tracks—“What I Lost,” “Flood,” and “Mike Tyson (Here It Comes)”—that sound louder and have a harder edge that veers from what could be described as the band’s template. Is that a fair observation?
Yeah, I agree with that. That was definitely what we wanted during the recording process, especially “Flood” and “What I Lost.” We wanted a real urgency to it, a drive forward. And in mixing the songs, we wanted to make sure the intensity of what we were feeling was coming through for the listener. It was a conscious decision, something we had done in the past on some songs.

The band played here in 2012 after releasing The Wilderness. At the time, Anton talked about how sick he was of hearing about the group’s “ethereal” sound. But he was excited about a review of that album that referred to “the quiet thunder of the Cowboy Junkies.” Does that strike a chord?
Yeah, there you go. If people aren’t that familiar with us, especially live, they might be taken aback sometimes by our psychedelic explorations outside of what they might be expecting. There are the songs on the new record you mentioned, but there are others like “Blue Skies” and “Circe and Penelope” and “Hell Is Real” that pull you right back again. That’s important to us. It’s rare for us these days to make a record of just one sound. The Trinity Session is one note, you know—it’s a beautiful note, it sits in its space, and that’s what it is. That idea is not what we strive for when we make a record now. We’re going for a much more dynamic feel.

You wouldn’t have had the success you’ve had if you played The Trinity Session for 28 other albums. But it’s interesting that you’ve flown under the radar during the growth of roots music during that time. It seems like you should have received a career achievement award from the Americana Music Association by now.
(Laughs) I couldn’t agree more. We’re completely ignored by that community for some strange reason. It’s like, “You do understand that we were playing that music before the term Americana was even coined, don’t you?” We were there before it. It’s kind of weird. We probably insulted somebody along the way.

You and Anton started chasing the rock and roll dream at an early age, first moving to New York and then to London. Have you encouraged your kids to follow a similar path?
I have three kids, and they’re all in their early 20s. I think when you’re a young person, you do have your eyes closed because you haven’t had them opened yet, right? That’s the beauty of youth. You go forward blindly, and you don’t even know it.

But one thing my dad taught me, a lesson I always took with me, was to find a thing that you’re passionate about and pursue it, whatever it is. Make sure that whatever you pursue, and it can change over the years, is something you care about, something that inspired you, that you enjoy, that you can live day by day with. That’s what work is, and that’s what life is.

That’s something I try to tell my kids, too. You don’t have to be an artist, you don’t have to play music, you don’t have to be a creative—you can be anything. If you’re passionate about numbers, become an accountant. Just make sure you love it.

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