Acclaimed Canadian band touring in support of new album
The Cowboy Junkies will open for John Mellencamp at Mile One Centre in St. John’s this weekend. — Submitted photo
It took longer than the span of most bands’ careers, but after 27 years together the Cowboy Junkies will finally perform in Newfoundland.
The celebrated Toronto-based group, touring in support of the final volume of its four-album “Nomad Series,” will open for John Mellencamp at Mile One Centre July 6 and 7.
The Telegram recently spoke with Junkies songwriter and guitarist Michael Timmins, who co-founded the band in 1985 with siblings Margo (vocals) and Peter (drums) and friend Alan Anton (bass).
They released their debut album a year later, but it was the 1987 sophomore effort “The Trinity Session” that earned the Cowboy Junkies critical acclaim and set them on a path of longevity.
In 2007 they released their 11th and 12th studio recordings, “At the End of Paths Taken” and “Trinity Revisited,” the latter a re-recording of the original “Trinity Session” songs with guest musicians.
In a way, after more than two decades making music, they had come full circle.
But then, as Timmins and the band began thinking ahead to their next project, nothing was immediately evident.
“I had been writing a few songs (and) thinking about the next record ... but I just didn’t hear the statement in them,” he recalls. “I really liked the songs themselves, individually, but I knew the album wasn’t there.”
Timmins moved his family to China for three months, during which time his wife accepted a teaching contract, his three children (two of whom were adopted from China) attended school, and he explored.
“While I was there I met tons of musicians and had a really amazing experience, an eye-opening experience,” he says. “One of those things that travelling is supposed to do — it just sort of opens up your head a bit.”
When Timmins returned it became clear that the Junkies needed to make a series of records.
“Occasionally you need to sort of put something in front of you that sparks your imagination or gets your drive going,” he says.
“We’ve never had a problem with working hard, and this idea ... was a different way for us to approach a recording and a series of recordings. So it was really a challenge to ourselves more than anything else. We also wanted to spark the imagination and the interest of our audience too.”
Inspired in part by the work of Cuban-American visual artist Enrique Martinez Celaya, a friend and fan of the band, the Junkies borrowed the “Nomad Series” title from Celaya’s recent collection of works by the same name.
They also decided to feature a Celaya painting on the cover of each of the four albums.
They dove head-first into the project with no solid ideas beyond the first album and released “Renim Park”, a collection of songs inspired by Timmins’ experiences in China, in June 2010.
“I spent a lot of time recording when I was there, not just of music but street sounds and musicians in the parks and people walking around,” Timmins explains.
“I made the recordings not really knowing where they were gonna head, but when I got back and we began to embark on the journey, I was like, OK, ‘Renim Park’ is the first one, and we basically built the record around these recorded sounds and everything basically came from there,” he continues.
“It was a really backward way of approaching a record, which was kind of interesting for us.”
“Demons,” the second album, is a tribute to late songwriter Vic Chesnutt, who had collaborated with the band on “Trinity Revisited.”
“For the second album ... we wanted a concept around it,” says Timmins. “We didn’t want to do just a series of cover songs. We wanted the album to have a certain theme. And so, unfortunately, Vic died that Christmas ... so it became obvious that it had to be an album dedicated to him and his songs.
“We had been talking to Vic about doing an album anyways, with him writing the songs and us being the band, and he and Margo singing them,” he continues. “So that was a project that we had on the horizon that we were excited about, and this didn’t exactly take its place but, you know, it was an obvious fallback album. It was fairly intense, to go back through all his music.”
Volume three, “Sing in My Meadow,” is an effort to transpose the band’s “acid blues, psychedelic live sound” onto an album, Timmins says.
“I wrote a series of really simple songs, structurally — the idea being that we all gather in our studio over the course of three or four days and I would just introduce the song structure and ... we’d go over it a couple of times and get familiar with it and basically just press record and go. It was a really live, off-the-floor, inspired, really fun album to do.”
After exploring and experimenting in new musical territory for the first three records, the Junkies returned to their songwriter-oriented and folk-based style on “The Wilderness,” the final “Nomad Series” instalment, which was released last March.
“The idea was really to sort of underscore what many people would think of as a classic Junkies sound ... a very quiet, very still record,” says Timmins.
“We sort of see the four records as a way of dividing up the influences and directions into four distinct units, and it was fun,” he continues. “We didn’t set out to do it like that but once we got into the process and it began to take shape, we began to recognize where these albums could go.”
The “Nomad Series” albums are available individually, in a box set, and will soon come embedded in the back of a coffee table art book featuring Celaya’s artwork, some essays on the visual artist and the band, and some notes on the “Nomad” records.
They’ve drawn a new kind of respect for the band, and the only chance to see and hear the new (and old) songs live in the foreseeable future is this weekend when they play a 45-minute set before Mellencamp takes to the stage Friday and Saturday night at Mile One.
As of Monday, the July 6 show was sold out but tickets remained for July 7. Visit www.mileonecentre.com for more info.