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Saturday, 8 December 2012

Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies on Townes van Zandt, John Leckie and illegal downloads

"What the thing is, is who we are."

Margo Timmins is, by her own admission, "a talker". Which is just as well really. Because if you're on the phone for an hour to someone who lives in Canada it's good to feel you're getting your money's worth.

I got to speak to her because the illustrious Cowboy Junkies will be touring the UK early next year to Manchester, Glasgow, London and, er, Warwick Arts Centre, the last of which is evidently the town's karmic reward for running a great folk festival. Let's hope it stays calm down there.

"We had to cancel a tour to Madrid and Barcelona last month," she said. "There was a lot of rioting going on because of the economy and on the day of our Madrid show they had scheduled one of their demonstrations. We just figured that no one would be coming to the show, that they wouldn't want to come through the town."

So, it was macroeconomics in action. No confidence, no concert?

"Yeah. Well, we don't make a lot of money when we come to Europe and anything that goes wrong could really set us back. We could lose our shirts. The way we tour is that we get a date that will be a paying gig and a strong paying gig and then maybe get some more in the same country that will pay a little less. Spain was going to be four days but Madrid was the paying gig so economically it made more sense not to go at all."

I've loved the Cowboy Junkies more than salt since The Trinity Session, their phenomenally successful second album, which came out the year I left school. Mellow without being melancholic, they were an introduction to the idea that sexy music didn't have to jump up and down in tight trousers. Coolly intelligent and quietly confident, they spoke and played in a language that murmured of big skies, trailer parks, prairies and long, long roads.

When they toured their third album The Caution Horses in the early 90s, they hit those roads with a legendary hell-raiser called Townes Van Zandt, something that has fascinated a lot of people, since at first glance it would appear to have been like mixing oil and water. How did that come about and what was he like?

"We were going to be playing large concert halls, nice venues. And when we were putting together the tour the record company kept making suggestions about who should open for us. But we thought about it and it dawned on us 'Why don't we ask someone we actually want to hear?' And the person we wanted to hear was Townes.

"We'd seen him play in Atlanta in this tiny little club and because of his reputation the record company didn't really like the idea. But we said we didn't really care. It was us who had to listen to him every night.

"So we went to him, almost apologising, and asked him. And, being Townes, he said 'I don't care who opens for who'. His only request was that he got to travel in our bus. And he was fantastic. At that point in his life he was on the wagon, by his own standards. He wasn't drinking all the time. He did still drink but not constantly.

"And when he did go off and get drunk he was very, very polite with me and would avoid being in my presence. He could get kind of nasty. The boys would like to hang out with him. But if he was drunk he would go to the back of the bus. He was very giving with his music, though. We would ask him questions like 'What's Flying Shoes about?' and he'd explain.

"I don't mind drinking. But I don't like it when people get really drunk and mean. It's not what I want to do in life and the boys don't either. I know a lot of bands do, but we don't fight. Townes understood that - he knew he was with a bunch of people who didn't brawl - and he was respectful of that. We would get happy drunk sometimes and that would be fun. But when he got to his demons he would leave. And the demons eventually won. I mean, that's what his songs are about. He knew not to be around me."

This is especially poignant if you watch Van Zandt's rambling explanation (above) of what he thought Flying Shoes was about. And here's Lyle Lovett making superb sense of the same song.

Three out of the four original band members - Margo, Pete and Michael - are siblings, so she was pretty safe on that bus, in case you were worried.

The Cowboy Junkies have been around since before the internet was big. How has that particular upheaval been for them? "I remember when someone explained the internet to me for the first time and it was like someone explaining the automobile to my great-grandfather. We were in New York City and David Bowie had a site up. And we were looking at it and I was wondering 'Who would go to this?' and why would anybody go there? Because at the time not many people did.

"So I said 'Let's put one together'. It was very rudimentary but as our website grew so did we. We knew we had to have a way of reaching people but that's the part of music that's hard. You always think that if more people could hear it, they would love it. But how do they get to hear it?

"Now you have to be constantly reinventing yourself on the web and reaching out with something new to keep the audience coming back. You have to always be creative: it's not just about the music, it's about the music and the video and the book. The whole package.

"But the ability to download music for free has been a terrible thing. Anyone who steals it doesn't really love music and that makes me sad. I hope that as time goes on people might come to understand better. I mean, when you're young you don't always use your brain and think 'This isn't good for an industry that has given me so much. And this band - I'm taking money straight out of their bank accounts really.'

"We used to have a four man crew when we toured, now we have two. And we don't travel as well as we used to. A lot of it is because of that but it's also because of our times: in my own personal home we're downsizing. So what we hope is that even if people do download the music illegally, that they also come to the show or buy a T-shirt. Like I say, you always think that if more people could hear it, they would love it."

Bands these days are not just in competition with each other for sales and downloads, they're in competition with every musician who's ever recorded. 21st-century kids don't just have new bands on their MP3 players, they have things from their parents and grandparents' eras. It's a musical survival of the fittest. Also known as the folk process.

So where do The Cowboy Junkies stand in relation to folk music?

"When I was growing up in Canada we didn't really have country music, we had folk. And to me that term is about your own culture and where you come from. In Canada we have people from all over the world - that's what our country was started on. And they bring their music and they talk about their homeland with their sounds and their instruments.

"I don't think we're a folk band but I think we're very heavily influenced by folk and in particular by the singer songwriter tradition, so Neil Young and John Prine. And we've got the mandolin and the harmonica. But we're also a very modern band. We have very strong punk roots. In the 70s and 80s we spent our time in New York in the punk clubs."

This tickles me as I can't think of a band that's less aggressive than The Cowboy Junkies. They're like the anti punks.

"You're right. There's no aggression in The Cowboy Junkies - it's one of the reasons we're still around after all these years with same four members. But what we learnt from punk was not so much about the aggression - we didn't need it. Those kids they had nothing and nothing to look forward to and we've never lived through that. We're Canadian."


"Yeah. Life's been pretty good to us. What we took from punk was the idea that anyone could do it: just pick up a guitar and form a band. And this feeling has never stopped for us. If it doesn't make money, who cares? We sell the furniture and make a record..."

I hear you worked with the producer John Leckie on an album called Miles From Our Home back in 1998? (I explained that he's just done a couple of albums with Bellowhead. Then I explained who Bellowhead are.)

"Yes. We always produced our own records so it was difficult to hand over the responsibility to someone else. But it reached a point where we couldn't go any further without a teacher. We interviewed a lot of people. Whoever it was had to teach us as we were doing it, so we couldn't have someone with a big ego. John was humble and open. He offered ideas and he was very gentle natured so there was no craziness in the studio.

"He took us to Abbey Road. We didn't need to go there but John wanted to because he knew the studio and thought he could do his best work there. And we were with Geffen at the time and knew we would probably never have such a big budget again. So that was our rock and roll fantasy..."

I've never understood your song Black Eyed Man. What's that about?

"Black Eyed Man is about being deceived. It's a about a woman who tricks the black eyed man and blames him for something in order to get other people to blame him too - the poisoning of the well, though that's not a literal thing. This woman is not a very nice woman and by the end of the song she's starting up doing the same thing all over again with someone else."

Thanks. People are very sentimental about musicians: I'm pretty sentimental about The Cowboy Junkies. Am I right to be?

"No. It's just music is a very intimate art form. You literally go into people's houses. With painting you have to go to a museum, where it's hard to have that intimacy. But we whisper into people's ears through their headphones: I see my son putting on his headphones at night when he goes to bed and I want to know who he's listening to. People connect themselves to a song or an artist because it's gotten them through hard times or changed their lives. We have to be responsible and not break these people. We have a bit of power and we have to be respectful of that power."

At this point something happened at the other end, all the way over the water in Ontario. Timmins's door bell went and then her neighbour came in, asking whether there was any wine. She sounded very elderly and a bit confused. I was slightly grateful for the interlude, though, because earlier I'd had to break off to get a cake out of the oven, which I'd been embarrassed about.

I could hear kind tones at the other end. When Timmins came back she said that her neighbour was Greek and made the most delicious spinach filo pastry dish in the world but that she was becoming quite frail.

So The Cowboy Junkies sound pretty much the same as they always did. Was that a conscious decision? Lots of bands talk about the need to grow and develop and this often seems to involve "departures" of some kind. I haven't detected much of that kind of thinking here.

"Well, what the thing is, is who we are. Our formula, if we have one, is that we've always been honest about who we are and what we do. People have asked us to change. Record companies asked us to become more aggressive and one of them even asked if I would have a nose job. But it's a bit like asking me - us - to change our personality."

A nose job?!

"There was a time when there was a lot of attention on me because I was the only woman in the band.

"I've never been very comfortable having my picture taken and don't really care much about all of that. I have two very beautiful sisters, one who is an actress and another who loves fashion and that's really their thing."

* You can book tickets to hear the Cowboy Junkies doing theirs here.

* If you enjoyed this post you may also be interested in this, about The Civil Wars.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley


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