I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Margo Timmins a few times, but there was one conversation that really stood out.
It was a few years ago, at The Sheldon in Saint Louis. She and the Cowboy Junkies had just finished their sold-out show. They had played most of Trinity Session, and even covered Neil Young’s “Powderfinger.” You could say I was already pretty much in love.
But, she was out in The Sheldon’s lobby, and, as always, was willing to talk. This time, though, was different. She noticed I had a copy of the book they were selling, a beautiful collection of photographs called XX. We flipped through the book for a few minutes, and she would tell me stories about this photograph and that photograph. I saw her eyes light up, I could feel her mind wander back through the years. It meant the world to me.
And Cowboy Junkies’ music means the world to me. Their latest album, a collection of covers by the late Vic Chesnutt called Demons, is striking. It’s volume two of what they’re calling “The Nomad Series,” and in my book, Demons, and the first volume, Renmin Park, is some of their best work to date.
In our latest interview, Margo Timmins talks about the history behind Demons, her relationship with Vic Chesnutt, Renmin Park, and the challenges of recording cover songs. Enjoy.
|Photo Credit: spaceamoeba|
How are things going?
Well, they are going pretty good. We’re slowly starting up again. We’ve been on holidays since December, so it’s been nice.
Well, the last time we talked, you had just released The End of Paths Taken, and a lot of things have happened since then. Especially with the project ( The Nomad Series) with four albums in the next so many months. And the next one is Demons, the Vic Chesnutt album. What spurred this on? I know you were friends with Vic, and performed with him, and he’s since passed. What were the initial discussions about maybe doing this?
Actually, the initial discussions were with Vic. Vic did Trinity Session Revisited with us, and his voice and my voice really work nicely together, in an odd way. So, after we did that project, we sort of talked about maybe doing another project with us playing his songs and vice versa, just sort of collaborating on each other’s songs. Old songs, but doing them differently, and singing them together, or apart — nothing was sort of concrete — but some sort of project along that line.
And then, as you said, he died last December (2009), and obviously that put an end to that project. Which was really disappointing; not just his death, but not being to work with him further. It was an opportunity really missed. I love his material, and the idea of really getting into it deeper, than just as a listener, it really excited me. I guess we just realized that we didn’t totally have to end the project, we can do his songs, and so we did. And it was a true adventure, that’s for sure.
I would imagine. When I listen to the album, it hits me right away. The second song, “I Flirted With You all My Life,” talks about “Oh death, I’m not ready.” It’s kind of prophetic.
Yeah, well…it’s funny, That’s a really complicated song, like most of his songs are complicated, because he was a really tricky guy, and had strong feelings on both ends. He was very shy, and yet, once you knew him, very social. He was very depressed and wrote these beautiful songs. And “Flirted,” you know, to me, is just a true, true Vic song. He’s singing about death and fighting it off, so obviously it’s haunting him and fighting at him, which is a scary thought, and I know he was always fighting with death. But in the end, he’s victorious. So, it’s a victorious song! (laughs) Which is weird.
It’s similar to a lot of Cowboy Junkies songs. You have to find the positive.
Sometimes, you just have to listen.
I think some songs take a little bit of patience, a little bit more work. And certainly, Vic’s songs are like that — they take a little more work. His style of singing made it even harder for people to appreciate. And then, his physicality really sort of was hard for people, because he was handicapped, and we live in a world where beauty is all that we want to see. So, he made it difficult! (laughs) So, they missed out. Those who don’t get it are missing out.
What was your relationship like with him?
You know, Vic was…on one hand…I don’t want to use the word “shy,” because I don’t like that word — I don’t like that word when it applies to somebody who is not very gregarious or outgoing. He wasn’t sort of somebody who was going to make the effort to talk to you, but if you started to talk to him, he was very open to the conversation. I don’t think he was all that comfortable, like a lot of men, around women. So, we would talk, and I liked him very much, and I think he liked me, but I wouldn’t say we were like he was with my brothers. With me, he was a little more reserved. I think they would have more one-on-one stories in that way than I would. I think maybe because I sort of stood there and stared at him with these googly eyes, because I was such a huge fan! (laughs)
And the last time you sang with him was for the Trinity Revisited album, right?
I think that really came off well.
I was really happy with it. It was a very scary project to do, because we were tampering with Trinity Session, an album that a lot of people have very close ties to, and people don’t like you to mess with what they like. We invested a lot of money in something that could have turned out pretty bad. We didn’t even know how well…I hadn’t really sung with Vic — we didn’t really know what we were going to do, and how we were going to do it. Same with Ryan (Adams) and Natalie (Merchant), and it seemed to work really, really well. You know, it’s funny, because the personalities of Ryan, Vic, and Natalie are all different, and we were wondering how all the egos would work, and it was great.
Since then, Mike has done a lot of writing. The Renmin Park album really intrigued me because that was something that was inspirational to him — going to China with his family, bringing back these songs. Was it hard to relate to some of that material?
Yeah, that album was really difficult for me. One of the things Mike and I have always done as a singer-songwriter team…he’s 18 months older than I am, and we spent our entire lives together. And pretty much, Mike writes from his own life experiences. So, I’m usually in the same zone. When he was getting married, I was getting married, when he was getting old, I was getting old, too, you know? (laughs) We’re always sort of in the same ballpark as to what our life experiences are. And because we’re brother and sister, I think we sort of analyze life pretty much the same, and we like the same artists and the same writers. So, it’s easy for me to sometimes get into his head, and therefore into his songs.
But with Renmin, for the first time, he was handing me material that I had no connection to. And this album was very much about sounds…sounds that he’s heard in China, and smells, and attitudes, and being sort of the only white people in the city that he was in. Even that, I’ve never…I have traveled in the East, and I have been in areas where I’m sort of the only white person I can see in the group, but I’ve never lived — always been there as a tourist. So, I come in to look at everybody, and then leave! (laughs) Where, he was actually living and living with his children, and that’s a whole other thing.
It was a very intense…these songs were very intense and important to him, and I had nothing to grab hold of — it took me a long while to actually find my way into these songs and give them what they needed. It was tricky. At one point I even went down — here in Toronto we have a very huge Chinese community, I think it’s one of the biggest in the world — and at one point I even went down to Chinatown, walking around, as if it didn’t have anything to do with me and China, but maybe this would help! (laughs) Of course, there are tons of English people walking around, so you really don’t feel all that isolated. It was interesting — of course I’ve been to Chinatown many times — but I tried it to view from the perspective of if this was my everyday life — if these were the faces I saw, and these are the foods. If you go into a grocery store, there are all these vegetables, and you go, “What are these? What do you do with this stuff?” (laughs)
Going back to the Demons project, and singing Vic’s songs — I know you’ve covered songs before, but it is difficult for you and the band to interpret someone else’s lyrics and music?
You know, it is. It’s tricky. It’s interesting because when we’re working on one of our own songs, we’re pulling a song out of mid-air, and that is complicated in itself, and I never quite know how that works. But when we’re covering somebody, there is something already there — the words are there, there is some sense of the melody, so there’s a simplicity to that. But the hard part comes in where…you don’t want to just do it again, the way that the original person did it, because what’s the point? Usually you’re doing songs that you’re a fan of, so the song in itself is very important to us, and you don’t want to mess it up! (laughs) And I feel, and I think the boys would agree with me, when you do a cover, it’s a big responsibility, and you have to handle it with care.
A lot of songs that we’ve tried to cover, sure we can play them, and sure they sound okay, because I can sing nicely, and the boys can play. But, what’s the point? You know, we listen back to it, and go, “Okay, so what?” We’ve done nothing to this song, we’ve done nothing new — except we’ve played it like we’re some cover band. Those don’t come out, they stay in our rehearsal room. And what we’ll do though…I remember we did this Bruce Springsteen song…uhhh…it’s this huge famous song….(singing) “The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves…”
Oh yeah, “Thunder Road!” Gosh, thanks. We did that at first, and again, it just sounded like Margo Timmins singing “Thunder Road,” and it was really bad, in the sense that, you know, who cares. So we put it away, and about three years after that, we tried it again, and this time around it seemed to have an intensity to it, a different point of view. You know, I think I was just that much older as a person, and that much older as a singer that I was able to find myself into the song, and that’s how I express doing a cover — you’ve got to find a way into a song. And that’s sometimes tricky.
Oddly enough, the Demons album I thought was going to be really, really difficult. Because Vic’s songs are so dark, way darker than anything we do. I thought it would be really hard, but it wasn’t. I guess my soul is darker than I thought it was! (laughs) I really enjoyed doing these songs…maybe I have some issues I have to deal with! (laughs) I loved every minute of it, I was so into this album.
From the first listen, I got attached to it. And I didn’t know how I was going to feel about it, really.
Maybe it’s because no one has really covered a lot of Vic’s songs.
I think so. I think that’s a part of it. Well, I’m hoping…like we were talking about before, Vic is a very difficult artist in many ways, and I think it takes a real skilled listener to become a Vic Chesnutt fan. And I’m hoping our approach…certainly my voice is easier to listen to that Vic’s is…you know, for the Vic fan, yeah, it will be challenging. Because if you’re a Vic fan, you’re a true fan, and you don’t want anything to tamper with his stuff, and you’re a skilled listener. But, for those who are unsure of whether they like him or not, I’m hoping this will open the door to them listening to his songs and understanding them, and therefore going back to him and going, “Okay, now I get it.” I don’t know, we’ll see. This album will be very mixed as far as people liking it or not, because of that loyalty to Vic.
Is there maybe a fear of people maybe not liking it, or taking the songs the wrong way?
Yeah. Well, maybe not a fear. We’ve been doing records now for so long that, if they like it, great, if they don’t, whatever! (laughs). I hope they do, but if they don’t, I will do another album anyway. I have a feeling some people will be kind of angry or pissed off. I mean, even the song you were talking about — “Flirted” — you know, the way we did it was more anthemic, more victorious, and some people will be really mad that that’s the way we sort of thought. But, that’s okay…I think when people get mad you, that means they really listened to the song. And, you know, so, it didn’t connect with them, and they wanted it this way, and that’s okay. I’ve done it myself. I think Vic would like it, though, and that’s all that counts! (laughs). I really do, I think he would really like this album.
Listen to “West of Rome”
Purchase Demons here.