Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Cowboy Junkies Interview

It would be a mistake to underestimate the influence the Cowboy Junkies have had. Simply put, they were alt-country before that labeled even existed and they have had a huge impact on bands and musicians over the last twenty-some years. Michael, Margo, and Peter Timmins as well as Alan Anton formed the band in Toronto in 1985—releasing their first album in 1986. It was the release of the “Trinity Sessions” in 1987, however, that brought them much wider recognition. Recorded in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto, this album is hugely important, and not only for the band. The band set up in a circle around one central microphone and recorded live onto a two track recorder.

Dynamic Meter: The “Trinity Session” was released around 21 years ago. It’s been such an influential album both in terms of the music and the way it was recorded. When did you first realize the band had produced a record that would have such appeal and staying power?

Michael Timmins: We realized that we had created a very special recording almost immediately. The recoding is “live to 2-track” so we could listen back, immediately, to what was essentially the finished album. What we didn’t know was whether it would connect with other people outside of those who had been involved in the recording. Once we released it on our independent label we began to almost immediately get great reactions from all quarters . . . we had no way of knowing whether it would stand the test of time.

DM: You have released a 20th anniversary edition of “Trinity,” recorded in the same church, in the same way. Why did you decide to re-record? And also, why did you decide to add the guest artists such as Ryan Adams and Vic Chesnutt?
MT: We wanted to celebrate the anniversary of the recording in some manner. When Ryan, Vic and Natalie Merchant agreed to get involved we looked at the whole project as a fun and interesting artistic experiment. We knew that their involvement would give the recording a different intensity and perspective, but we didn’t know how it would turn out. We were very pleased.

DM: The Cowboy Junkies have always been great re-interpreters when if comes to cover songs. "Blue Moon" and "Sweet Jane" are great examples. Is there a different approach to arranging cover songs as opposed to original material?
MT: Yes, because the template for the cover song is in front of you—whether that be the structure, chords, lyrics and/or melody of the original. When you are writing and arranging your own material you start with a blank sheet. With the cover song you look for a way into the song that will make it your own, without completely losing that which made the original special in the first place.

DM: There's so much talk about the future of the music industry. What's the band's relationship with a record label now?
MT: “Trinity Revisited” was our last album released with any sort of contractual commitments outside of publishing. We are currently building a new website which will incorporate both the CJ site and the Latent Recordings (our label) site. It will become the center of all our future releases as well as other artists. We hope to launch it in early March.

DM: How does the band write?
MT: Usually I write the songs on acoustic guitar and then present them to the band as a whole. From there we work on the grooves and aesthetic as a unit.

DM: Cowboy Junkies has such a distinct sonic pallet. How has this evolved over the years?
MT: It has been a very organic and natural evolution. There hasn’t really been a master plan. We tend to have very similar likes and dislikes when it comes to our own music so we go with a group instinct and try not to do too much second guessing.

DM: For me, “Black Eyed Man” is a total time and place album. It came out when I was in college and I'm totally transported back there when I listen. From the side of you that's a music fan, are there any albums that have this affect on you?
MT: There are lots of them, here are two . . . Lou Reed “Transformer:” I broke my leg in Grade 8 and my older brother had to drive me to school every day. “Transformer” had just come out and he played it every day in the car on the way to school. I didn’t really understand it, but I was transfixed by it. Freedy Johnston “Can You Fly:” I was newly married, no kids, no mortgage, the record industry was flush with money because of the CD “revolution”, life was fun and easy and this is a great, great record that came out of the blue.

DM: Your most recent studio album, “At the End of Paths Taken,” really deals a lot with family. Can you please talk about how this came together as a theme for the album?
MT: I sat down with this theme and never digressed. I don’t think I have ever written an album where I have had the theme first. Usually the theme suggests itself as the album progresses. The reason for this theme is because of where I am in my life, the responsibilities and challenges that I, and most people my age face day to day.

DM: Lastly, what are you listening to currently?
MT: I have been in China for the past three months and had the good fortune to befriend someone who is very knowledgeable about the Chinese independent music scene. So I’ve been listening to a lot of Chinese artists. Three of my favorites are Zuo Xiao Zu Zhou, Zhang Chu and He Yong.

Also Noteworthy:
Bands who have had the staying power to still be together and to maintain their influence, often release twentieth anniversary editions of their recordings. The Cowboy Junkies took a different approach. Instead of repackaging the original recording with supplemental materials, they chose to re-record “The Trinity Sessions.” The band was joined by multi-instrumentalist Jeff bird, who played on the original recorded and has been an associate of the band ever sine. In addition, Ryan Adams, Natalie Merchant, and Vic Chesnutt—artists who were all clearly influenced by the band— joined the band. Cowboy Junkies once again recorded the record live, in a circle, at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto. This time however, filmmakers were on hand to capture the music, and a DVD is included with “Trinity Revisited.”
While it’s wonderful to hear all of the tunes again, especially in there updated versions, that’s not what truly makes “Trinity Revisited” shine. The real strength of this twentieth anniversary revisiting is the way you get to hear a band that has matured, lived with its songs, and has still maintained its vitality and importance.


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