Cowboy Junkies – Michael Timmins on Their New Album “Such Ferocious Beauty” | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Sunday, July 14th, 2024  

Cowboy Junkies – Michael Timmins on Their New Album “Such Ferocious Beauty”

Embracing Loss and Impermanence

Jul 19, 2023 Photography by Heather Pollack Web Exclusive
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Cowboy Junkies broke through in 1988 with their epic The Trinity Session LP and have been creating spell-binding music, spearheaded by the unique voice of Margo Timmins, across five decades.

Such Ferocious Beauty is the band’s first release of new material in five years and follows their heralded 2022 collection of covers, Songs of the Recollection. The lo-fi Canadian band consists of siblings Margo, Michael, and Peter Timmins and lifelong friend Alan Anton. Michael Timmins is the chief architect and writer for the Junkies.

Such Ferocious Beauty is their 20th studio album and is a rumination on aging, losing parents, facing mortality, and creating space for one’s life in the midst of the ruin that comes from merely living. As their father seeped further into the maze of dementia, the record captures the profound heartache of losing a parent in this way and the primary feelings of Michael as a son. Michael wrote the majority of the album in a remote northern Ontario location. Finishing touches were given by long-time Junkies engineer Joby Baker. It is co-produced by Michael Timmins and bassist Alan Anton.

Such Ferocious Beauty is out now. Their 1996 album Lay it Down will be released on vinyl for the first time on August 11th.

Lee Campbell (Under the Radar): The new album Such Ferocious Beauty was released last month. Have you heard much feedback about it yet from your fanbase?

Michael Timmins: It’s been really good so far, but it’s so weird releasing an album these days. In the old days there were a few key magazines you wanted to get. There was no such thing as a website or a blog. It was very focused, and if you get those few things [media coverage], it was great. Nowadays it’s so varied, and I don’t really follow it, so I am not as sure as what is relevant and what’s not as relevant. The way I usually weigh them up is if the reviewer has a bit of insight to it, has listened to it, thought about it, and written about it. That to me is a good review, even if it’s positive or negative. I want to see something in the review that means they have given it some time. If they have given it some energy and some focus, then great. It’s all about engagement, right.

Releasing a record is never fun as it’s such a long process. The most fun is the making of it, the creation of it. The waiting and the promotion is usually the least fun, but this time has been rewarding as there’s been so much engagement. This part of the effort has been worth it so far.
In a recent Cowboy Junkies Music is the Drug podcast with Dave Bowler you said it was important to retain the band’s “personality.” How would you describe the personality of Cowboy Junkies?

The sound of Cowboy Junkies is the four of us playing together. That sounds really obvious, but the four of us can really only do what we do. None of us are trained. You could count up on one hand the amount of lessons we have taken. I’ve taken none, Pete’s taken a handful, I don’t think Al has ever taken one, Margo has maybe taken three voice lessons. So, we learned what we do by playing together, really right from the beginning.

Whites Off Earth Now!! was recorded six months into our existence as a band. We connected on this weird level. We found this sound, which has expanded over the years, and changed and shifted, but it’s really just the four of us playing together. Four personalities coming together and making this thing or sound called Cowboy Junkies. I wanna make sure that there’s enough variation on our records, that there’s a re-direction or something different about them, a different way of communicating musically. Our biggest strength is the four of us communicating together as a unit. That’s why early in our career when we recorded The Trinity Session and Whites—we didn’t want to go into a studio because we were afraid of losing that. We didn’t have the money to spend time in the studio, we didn’t have the knowledge of how to get that onto tape and then mix it, and we didn’t have an engineer to trust to do that for us. So, when we ran across Peter Moore and promoted this idea of just doing this with one microphone and just capturing what you do. That was exactly what we wanted to do. We were very fortunate, and I think that’s why “Trinity” was such a success, because for the first time in many years, or certainly in that era, that way of communicating your personality through your music had disappeared. You heard the studio, the newest technique. So we were a bunch of musicians getting together, performing, talking to each other through their instruments.

We have tried to carry that through on all of our records to varying degrees. This latest record took a lot of time in post-production because there’s a lot of thought put into it. We were trying different things, and when the final mix was being done, when me and Al were pretty happy with it, I was afraid, as I was in this process so long now, is it still Cowboy Junkies? I had lost that perspective. But, from what other people have been telling me, the band is still coming through, that vibe is still there. There’s something very basic, primitive and organic about what we do, and it’s easy to lose that in modern technology. I like modern technology but I don’t want it to take away from what music is, and that’s communication.

And what about getting Joby Baker involved in the final mix?

I mixed it twice and I was happy with it, but not in love with it. I mixed it again, and thought it’s just not quite there. At that point, I thought, I have lost it here, so I wanna get someone else in on it. Joby worked on Paths Taken and other records for us, and he had a really good approach to things, to our sound, as far as the elemental things like drum and bass. He’s really good at capturing that stuff. Also, he’s on the west coast where Al lives, so he was able to go into the studio with him. I was able to get another step back from it. It took a little bit of time for him to find it, but once he found it, it just all fell into place. He was the last little peg in the ladder.

“Hard to Build, Easy to Break” is arguably one of the finest tracks on the album. Pete didn’t play on this one. How did that one go down with Pete?

[Laughs] Yeah, he was okay with that. Back when we were working with Joby a lot, Joby actually played drums on a couple of songs on the Nomad Series records. There’s a lot of guitar on previous records that I don’t play. Sometimes I will bring in a guest guitarist, because the style of guitar that I’m looking for isn’t me, that’s not my personality. With this song, Al had created the basic idea with the bass and drum pattern. It was a very complicated drum loop. Pete would have got it after he studied it, but there’s a lot of technical drummers out there that could listen to that and play it immediately. Why pull your teeth out? Let me get someone else in who can get it within half an hour in the studio as opposed to Pete having to sit there for three days. His name is Kyle Sullivan, he’s a guy I work with a lot. He’s in Jerry Leger’s band who we’ve done a lot of records with. He’s a very good drummer and he’s very studied. He’s taken a zillion lessons in his life, and he continues to take them. He loves the mechanics of drumming.

With this song, we wanted this very specific groove. Whatever is best for this song, but we’re gonna be playing this song live for years, so now Pete can do his thing on it. It’s got a nice looping groove that is going to be fun to play live. Some songs you can take right out of the studio and play live easily, but others, like this one, you really have to think and figure out the feel of them. We have to get that feel live, we’re still working on it, but we’re confident when we hit it, it’s gonna be one of those live songs that’s gonna be there for a long time.

Tell me about the inspiration and timing of the writing of the song?

Right at the end of 2020, Al had created the basic structure of the song. I was listening to that and trying to come up with a feel for it, and all of this was happening sociologically and politically. The line “hard to build, easy to break,” I don’t recall if I heard someone say it or a variation of that idea, but once I heard that line, that was the song, and a commentary on society basically. You can go to the micro side of it, relationships too, anything really. Anything that’s worth having, it’s usually difficult to build, difficult to put it together, but really easy to change stuff. Definitely, the January 6th events spurned this idea of democracy and institutions, as flawed as they are, and as much as they need changing, rehabilitating and constantly need intelligent thinking, they’re all made up. There’s nothing to say that they have to remain. It’s easy to destroy them and get rid of them, but there’s going to be this huge vacuum there. Once they are destroyed, they are gone right, and God knows what replaces them! I’m not one that thinks things are perfect, but I do believe there should be intelligence, thought and care put into these things.

“Throw a Match.” You play a brilliant guitar solo on that one. What’s the genesis of that track?

It almost goes back to the “Hard to Build” idea. We create all of these ideas, philosophies and deities, and we just made them all up [laughing]. No-one can say for sure what is true and not true. These moral laws, handed down from God, are created by us. There are some great ones, and others that are not so great. The idea of imposing all of this stuff on people who don’t wanna believe this is kind of crazy. It’s so harmful and causes so much damage. God (if there is a God) doesn’t really care about all of the things we have made up. God isn’t about that. If there is a huge spiritual side to this life, he/she/it/they are not caring about the pettiness of it or our morality. We create all of this grief for what? I am not sure why, in the name of something else.

“Knives” has a very simple feel to it. Tell me more.

It’s also based around Al’s bassline groove. I built my guitar part around it, balancing back & forth with Al’s part. That’s one of the songs that Margo and I worked on just with an acoustic guitar and vocal, then built it up with the bass and drums, and another lead guitar I put in there with James McKie on fiddle. That’s a classic Junkies song. Get a nice groove going, just sit on it and let Margo float through it. Definitely the darkest lyrically I think, along with “Hell is Real.”

How do you continue to be inspired every day?

[Laughs] I definitely don’t get up every day and feel inspired, that’s for sure. When I was younger I would have been more like that, the first ten years of the band. The responsibilities of getting older, the kids, mortgages and paying bills. Those things do crowd in. When it comes the time to write a record, I definitely have to shut it all down and just focus on writing the record. I’ll begin to gather feelings and thoughts of stuff that’s in there that I want to explore, I’ll get out of town. I’ll find a cottage to rent or someone will give me a place to stay for weeks on end. When I’m there, I just write, I read and I think. I get away from my regular life and don’t engage with anyone else, social media or the news. I just focus on interior stuff. I’ve done that now for a long time, probably the last half of the band’s career. The inspiring part that keeps me going is playing live. That keeps me engaged in being a musician and communicating. The writing and recording of the record is a very intense and focused period. The overarching thing is playing live. That’s what we do, we are a live band. That’s how we continue to communicate and keep vibrant. That’s what gives us pleasure.

The record is co-produced with Alan Anton. You’ve known each other for so long, right?

All That Reckoning I also co-produced with Al. He has always been my main sounding board and always been a very relevant part of the band. I’ve known him longer than I’ve known [my youngest brother] Pete because I was friends with Al before Pete was born. Back then, we weren’t making music but we were sharing our record collections. The new Lou Reed record would come out and we would decide who was going to buy it. Whoever bought it, then had to tape it for the other. Our tastes in music literally grew together. Before Cowboy Junkies we were in a couple of bands together. We have always been each other’s main collaborator. With the last two records in particular, Al has brought a lot of musical ideas to the fore. He’s given me a lot of ideas before I’ve even written anything. I’ve written quite a few songs to the ideas that he’s brought, so there’s been a lot more co-writes on the record than in the past. When we recorded and mixed them, he’s also shown a willingness to be involved in that, so I can bounce ideas off him. Every move I make, he’s there to give me feedback. Because of the particularness of his involvement now he has that co-producing credit. He brings a lot of arranging and sonic ideas.

Any views on Artificial Intelligence (AI) in terms of the impact on music?

I don’t have an overly informed opinion about it. I’ve had concerns about computers in recording music for a long time anyways. Things like Pro-Tools have become the creator in many ways, obviously AI is a whole other degree beyond that, to me there has been this artificial intelligence at work in the music industry for a long time. It can create some very interesting things but it also can suck the personality of the band out. You’re not hearing the personality or performer, you’re hearing the computer or the person manipulating the computer. That’s fine, but it’s not what I love about music. Part of that is just old man syndrome. [Laughs]

We had the experience of growing up, going to a gig, coming out and saying my life has just changed, as this has affected me so deeply. Our sound guy during soundcheck the other day said that you are the only band he has worked with that doesn’t now have some sort of computer on stage. [Laughs] We’re already kind of in the past, so I don’t know where it all goes.

You toured recently in the spring and also on the current July tour. Was there a new song that went down particularly well?

Our fans are pretty open to hearing new songs but we’re still figuring it out too. So, I don’t think we’re at a stage yet where I feel we’re really connecting strongly. That’s mostly us, as we haven’t nailed [the songs] yet or have that confidence with them yet. People seemed excited to hear and experience them almost to be the first people to hear them live. It’s hard for me to pick out a song that most impressed, but we’ll get there.

You said in previous interviews that the word “Impermanence” sums up this album. That term reminds me of Ian Curtis [of Joy Division] on the Closer LP and the lyric, “so this is permanence.” Was Ian a big influence on your writing?

Huge, huge, for Al and me especially. We actually were already in a band by the time Joy Division came along, but I’ve always thought that the Junkies have been hugely influenced by them, in terms of the atmosphere and the space. Initially, the band me and Al were in before Joy Division formed were more punky, then the Junkies formed after Joy Division, quite a long time afterwards actually, but we always carried that whole idea of space, not having instruments fill up everything, that sort of intensity. When we played Manchester recently, Al took a road trip to Macclesfield [Ian Curtis’ grave site], his house, and saw the large mural on the side of the building in the town. There’s definitely an element there that’s at our core.

Are there any artists, new or older, that continue to get a regular spin on the turntable?

I still love the ceremony of putting on a vinyl. I love the formality of it. The punk stuff is what got us into playing music. The mid ’70s to late ’70s New York and London scenes were what made Al and I say, “We can do this.” The whole DIY thing right! Let’s pick up a guitar and figure it out,so that’s what we did. I do return to that music occasionally.

I still listen to a lot of early ’50s and ’60s jazz, which I really love. It’s foreign to me and I can’t sit there and analyze it like I can a rock song. The late ’60s, early ’70s, those Neil Young, Rolling Stones records, they still have meaning to me because that’s my 11- or 12- or 13-year-old self, forming me as a person.

My dad was into big-band jazz like Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, all that swing stuff. Six kids in our family, right. He’d come home from work and the first thing he’d do would put on that jazz music and he would just blast it. He had the most amazing system, quarter inch reel to reel tapes, phenomenal sound. He would just crank it getting all his shit from the day out, and the kids, we would just go nuts, running around the house dancing, jumping on the furniture. That was our signal to let it all out. It was a fantastic feeling, right. I really believe that introduction to music, there’s three of us in this band, all of the kids have ended up very into music. My dad introduced us to what music can do for you, how you feel, how you react to it and what it can release. We carried that right through, and 20 years later we were forming a band together.

“What I Lost” and “Shadows 2” could be described as the cornerstones of the record. What’s the dynamic between both songs?

My dad and impermanence is a strong, connecting theme throughout this whole record. My dad suffered from dementia and died before the record was finished, but after the writing was finished. That element of the record is about him devolving into his dementia, disappearing into whatever world he was in, the world of what people with dementia go into. “What I Lost” is really a very straightforward depiction, even quoting a lot of the stuff he would say to me when I visited him. In his younger years he was a pilot and flew around northern Quebec. He would always come back to that, even when he was very lost in that surreal world he fell into, he could remember the flying and bring that back. In many ways that was the greatest part of his life, that adventure, which he did for about ten years. And also music, he could always get back to that, so we’d always talk about music. I would put on some music for him and he would talk about going to 42nd Street in New York and going to see some of these jazz bands play. So that song is really about memories and communication and that disappearing. It’s a double loss—his loss of memory of who he is, and my loss of him.

“Shadows” is more of a reflection towards the very end of his life when the dementia had really taken hold of him. He would just sit and stare out the window and I would visit him. In some ways these were the most peaceful and connected moments that I had with him in the last couple of years of his life. He was so far gone that you didn’t try and engage him in conversation as he didn’t understand and would get frustrated. We just enjoyed the presence of each other, it was really beautiful.It’s me looking at him staring out, imagining what he’s seeing, and then me watching and waiting. It’s two sides. Those are the two most literal songs on the record.

Is “Blue Skies” the classic, hopeful ending for this LP?

I’m glad you see it as a hopeful song, because I see it as a hopeful song too. I had this discussion with Margo on tour when we were playing it live, and she was singing it as a very sad song. I see it as a song of realization, which is a positive thing. That song was written very early in the process. Even though it’s a great ending to the record, at one point I thought it could be a perfect start to the record. When I look at the song now I see it in three sections. The first section is about my dad, the second section is about mom and the third section is about me. It’s about the flipping of perspectives, right. The whole message of that song is to enjoy and absorb the here and now. It was inspired by Horace, a Roman philosopher. The quote went something like, “Those who cross the sea, change the sky, but not their soul.”

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