Written by Jason Gonulsen Wednesday, 05 March 2008 06:45
So no matter what crappy day you've had, or whatever lousy sound system you have to deal with or whatever, you can't not do your best.
Times have changed for Margo Timmins and Cowboy Junkies. Before our phone interview, she had been fussing with her four-year-old, Ed, and his insistence that he did not want to go to school. Timmins, like her siblings in Cowboy Junkies, is now a parent, and that comes first. It's a far cry from the image of a younger band crouched around a single microphone, trying to master Lou Reed's "Sweet Jane," as they did some 20 years ago on their breakthrough album, Trinity Session.
But before you start believing that the Cowboy Junkies are an old hat, covering their musical product with water as the main ingredient, think again. Because there's a lot of whiskey still left in that drink.
2007 was a busy year that featured a new collection of songs, At the End of Paths Taken, an album about parenting, choices, and waking up each day knowing that you'll have to just find a way. And aside from extensively touring, the band from Toronto also decided to film the songs of Trinity Session for a special DVD/CD, Trinity Revisited, with the help of some special guests: Ryan Adams, Natalie Merchant and Vic Chesnutt. While not an attempt to recapture the magic of the original recording, the new Trinity project certainly brings new smiles and moments that prove one thing: The Junkies still have it.
I'll admit it: Margo Timmins has been a special person whom I've gotten to talk to and see perform and grow as a singer over the years. Luckily, I had another chance to talk with her about the band's current projects, and their upcoming performance at The Sheldon in St. Louis on March 26.
How is it these days as a parent and a professional?
It's a challenge to try and do both...manage a kid, manage my career, and manage my personal life. But it's getting better because he's getting older; it's not as complicated as when they're younger, but there are days like today where you're just like, "What is wrong with you? Can you not go and join the circus?" (Laughs)
Was it hard juggling both projects, or was it exciting in its own way?
Well, it was exciting in its own way. We sort of made sure that we knew what each show [on each tour] was about. Whether this was a Trinity show or whether this was a Paths show. And definitely in both we did, like in the End of Paths Taken shows, we did a lot more Trinity than normally we would do. And then in the Trinity shows, they were straight Trinity Session, we would do the whole album from beginning to end in sequence. And we didn't do very many of them; we didn't go out on tour pushing that album—just a few shows here and there. So it wasn't too hard to separate the two; it was kind of fun. I think if we would have gone out and toured Trinity, and we were doing it every night, it would have really lost its spark, because that stuff is really old.
How did you go out and get someone like Ryan Adams or Natalie Merchant to help with the Trinity Revisited project? Did you just ask?
Yeah, we just asked. We asked a whole bunch of different people. We had a certain criteria of why we would ask them—the album had to have meant something to them, for whatever reason. You know, when you're trying to get other musicians, it always comes down to scheduling; everybody's so busy. And when they're not busy they don't want to add any more work! (Laughs) So, Ryan, I think, for him, it was a no-brainer. Trinity...I think he was like 12 when Trinity first came out. A real album for him that sort of rocked his world. So that was great.
And I always wanted to sing with Natalie, right from the beginning; when we were starting off, so were they. I always thought she was such a great pop singer. So this was my chance to get her! (Laughs) And Vic we've played with a lot; we all love him and think he's such a great musician and knew he'd bring his own special touch to this project. And he certainly did.
We didn't want to have too many people because we wanted to give them the freedom to do what they wanted, and definitely give them each song, but we didn't want to turn it into a free-for-all. If you get too many musicians together, it just turns into a big jamboree, and usually everybody thinks it sounds great, but really it doesn't! (Laughs)
And someone like Ryan Adams, did you get along working with him?
Oh yeah, he's great. I mean definitely, he's quirky, or whatever way you want to put it, but no more so than a lot of musicians. And he's so talented, that it makes him so much fun to play with him. But he came in—all of them did—with the right attitude that this was our project that they were playing on; he didn't try to take it over. We wanted them to bring suggestions, and he had great suggestions. But he didn't seem to be too upset if we passed them off.
So, he was great. When we played Royal Albert Hall with him in October of last year, again, he came and realized that this is our stage —and there were tons of his fans out there. And we were begging him—"Take this song, please, sing ‘Cheap Is How I Feel!'" (Laughs) And he would say, "Well, your fans want you to sing." And I said, "Are you kidding, no, they want to hear you!"
So, definitely, I thought he had the right attitude. It was really funny—that show, I'll tell you a story. When we do shows, regardless of the venue, we always dress up. I've always worn a dress, Al has always worn a suit, and Pete and Mike will be in black jeans, but they're in a nice shirt, not a t-shirt. So we've always done that. And people who join us, they don't have to get dressed up, we don't care, it's what we do.
So we do a rehearsal, and there's Ryan in his jeans and his t-shirt, and he says, "So, what are you guys wearing tonight?" So I said, "Well, we always dress up, but feel free to wear whatever you want, there's no code."
And—(Pause, laughs) —sure enough, he comes into the dressing room in the best suit I've ever seen! I go, "What, do you travel with your suit? Did you just send somebody off to Hugo Boss?" It was perfect, he looked so nice. It was really nice, he had perfect shoes...
I know you covered his song "In My Time of Need." What was it like singing that song?
Oh, well it is such a beautiful song. Again, whenever you sing a song in front of the person who wrote it, it's a little nerve-racking because you're wondering if they're sitting there going, "Oh my God, where is this going?" (Laughs) But, it's such a beautiful song, and such a Junkies song, do you know what I mean? And he was very cute when we did it; I loved doing the song. We've sort of added it to our repertoire; it's become part of our show.
Your last album, At the End of Paths Taken, closed with "My Only Guarantee," a song about parenting. Is that a personal song for you? Do you not play that one live?
Well, it was in our repertoire to play live. We didn't pick it up, though; it sort of stayed dormant. But not for any reason, only because we have so many songs. You know, yeah it's personal in that we all have kids. Do you have kids?
No, I don't.
Well, it's an adventure. I think anybody with kids who is honest about being a parent would connect with that song. You spend so much time trying to make the right decision for your children, whether you should go organic or not, or they should go to this school or that school, or take dance or not take dance, sleep in your bed, not sleep in your bed... (Laughs) And, I think that, really, in the end, and I think that we—this generation of parents—are even worse about making these decisions; we're just so worried about our children's psyche all the time. I think in the end, no matter how hard you try, you're going to fuck up your children, because...you just are. Certainly you are more so if you abuse them, but even if you're just trying your hardest, in the end... I'm now in my mid-40s —I don't know anyone who is not normal, I mean, we're all mental! (Laughs)
That song is almost "Do your best," but they're going to be screwed up—not by you, by the world—because you can't make all the right decisions. I mean, you put them in piano, maybe they would have been Jimi Hendrix if you'd have given them a guitar. So, who knows, and I think just give yourself permission to realize you're doing your best, but it's going to be fucked up.
My cousin, who has a little one like you, agrees.
I think as a parent you do...like my sister reacted very...they sort of almost get mad at you, because they don't ever want to think that they're going to screw up their children. And again, it's not like you're going to screw them up so that they're going to become psycho killers, but people are really complicated, and I don't know anyone who doesn't need therapy! (Laughs) Not that we should all go to therapy, but we get all messed up, and you can't control every aspect of your child's life. And most of the time, you don't know what's going on in their heads. Even today, here I am fighting with my son, Ed, to go to school. Maybe something happened at school, maybe it didn't. Who knows?
The parenting theme pops up all over the album. On a song like "Follower 2," it comes up, perhaps in the line, "I can't bear to hear him breathing/ simply knowing what's to come."
Well, totally. That song, I've had people tell me that it's about my father, my father's getting older, you know, I'm watching him get old, and I don't want him to get old and he'll die. And I've also had people say that it's about my son, that here you have this cute little thing, and it's fantastic. But soon it's going to be a teenager, and it's going to tell you to rot in hell! (Laughs) If it even talks to you at all!
So when you start to look at the next step, sometimes there's that fear of what is ahead. But, again, it's life. And Mike [Timmins] has always written from that basic premise of being honest and looking at his own life. He's got young children and aging parents, and it's a very strange place to be, to watch the young ones knowing they're going into this very weird world we've created, and watch our parents step out of it. It's not a nice thing to be thinking, but it's reality. And it's not just Mike's personal world, it's everybody's reality.
I think, of all the albums that Mike has written, I think this one is probably closest to his heart, and therefore the most personal album.
You're going to be playing The Sheldon in St. Louis, which is worlds away from the likes of Mississippi Nights, which is now gone.
Oh, that's good news! (Laughs)
When you know you're going to play a nice place like The Sheldon, how much of a difference does it make on your setlist?
Well, if you're playing a Mississippi Nights, you know people are drinking, and it has hard sightlines, and the quality of the sound system is not all that great; you probably put a lot more "rock songs" into it than otherwise. In a concert hall, where you know the sound is going to be great, and people are sitting, they're there to listen; that's why they paid the bucks. You can sort of do maybe more acoustic, maybe more complicated, quieter songs. Because to do those songs, the quiet ones, we have to be able to really hear each other. And maybe in a club like Mississippi Nights—the monitor system sucks, and I hear the drums, or maybe that's all I'm hearing. So there is more of a choice in a concert hall. And I think as the band gets older, and more experienced as players, concert halls are a better place for us, because we play better. We are more relaxed and we just play.
Now having said that, I wouldn't want to give up the clubs, because they are a lot of fun, and it's a whole different attitude. I like that more casual, intimate feeling, as well. That contact with the audience is something I never want to give up.
I think for our fans, though, a concert hall is sort of where they want to see us, where they are going to enjoy us the most. So if it's the one night out that they've got the babysitter...
Your stage presence is always very focused.
That's out of real respect that there's actually somebody who has come! (Laughs) Even before I had my son, and I had more time to do whatever I do, I always still respected the fact that somebody has chosen that, tonight, they're going to get in their car, leave the house after a long day of work, spend God knows how much money that they probably don't have to really spend, and sit there and listen to us. So no matter what crappy day you've had, or whatever lousy sound system you have to deal with or whatever, you can't not do your best. Because when you do play really well together, you just walk off the stage feeling so great, and that's such a nice feeling. | Jason Gonulsen
at The Sheldon, St. Louis
Wed., Mar. 26, 8 p.m.
$38, 32 all ages
Visit http://www.thesheldon.org/ for ticket info
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