Margo Timmins of Cowboy Junkies (The Extended Interview, Part Two)

There’s a Cowboy Junkies memory I’ve never been able to erase from my mind: I often think back to the time I heard Margo Timmins sing “Thirty Summers” at The Pageant in the summer of 2001.

I have the bootleg somewhere in my house, and sure, it helps recreate the moment, at least sonically. But, for me, it was more than what I was hearing that night. It was what I saw — Timmins’ face as she sang the words her brother, Michael, wrote:

It’s been thirty summers that I’ve spent with him
and I expect thirty more to pass
he has blessed my life in so many ways
that I could never turn my back.

There is something about Michael Timmins’ words, and the way his sister, Margo, sings them that has always fascinated me.

And this is still the case with their latest offering, The Wilderness, the last volume of the four-part Nomad Series, a collection of albums that has turned out to be some of their best work. Let’s have a quick listen to “Angels in the Wilderness.”

Cowboy Junkies – Angels in the Wilderness

If you enjoyed that taste of The Wilderness, you have the chance to hear more of it live, as Cowboy Junkies will be performing at one of Saint Louis’ best venues, The Sheldon, on Wednesday evening (4/18). All tickets are reserved ($30-35), and the show begins at 8 PM; there is no opener.

We recently had a chance to chat with Margo Timmins, who just happens to be one of our favorite interviews. Once again, she didn’t disappoint.

The last time we talked, you had just released the Demons album, which was Volume Two of The Nomad Series. And now, you’re at the finish line with The Wilderness. How did you pull this off (four albums in eighteen months)?

(laughing) I don’t know! I have to say, you know, when we were doing it, we were just doing it, just trudging along. And then now, you’re right — now that it’s over and I look back, it’s like, “God, how did we do that? It’s crazy!” (laughs)

And also, I knew we wouldn’t release anything I wouldn’t have been proud of; if it doesn’t sound good, you don’t put it out. And if we didn’t make our 18-month mark, well, too bad. You can’t compromise because of a date. But, I am amazed when I look back — there is a lot of material, all of which I’m really proud of, some more than others. But, there is nothing that I’ve done that I’m like, “well, you know, I compromised on that one.” (laughs).

So, I’m amazed. I think I am more amazed with Mike’s abilities than anyone else’s, because he’s the one who went every day to the studio and twiddled knobs — you know, I didn’t have to be there every day! (laughs) My hat’s off to Mike, he’s the one.

A lot of the songs on The Wilderness — some of these are really emotional.

Yeah. My favorite of the three will always be Demons, for many, many reasons. But, I think the last one is a really beautiful record. To me, that’s the one for the fans — The Wilderness album is the one most Junkie, the kind of sound they tend to connect Junkies to. So, I think, that’s our gift.

Where, Sing In My Meadow, is a little (laughs) … even though I know if you’re a Junkies fan, you’ve seen us play that sort of stuff, it’s a hard album to sit through and get into, and the same with Renmin Park — that’s a hard, hard record. So, this one’s an easy one to sort of put on when you’re having one of those long drives! (laughing)

You know, all of this is really challenging for the listener.


It’s what you sort of have done for almost twenty five years.

Yeah, yeah. Well, I think it’s respect.

Absolutely. There’s a song called “Fairytale” on The Wilderness that’s…I think it’s one of the most beautiful songs Mike has ever written. I was listening to it for a while the other day, and I felt something different every time I listened to it.

That’s great.

Which is a great thing about music.

Yeah, totally.

When Mike hands you a song like that, how do you feel?

Well, you know, it’s funny, because that is an amazing song, and when I first got it — you know, again, when I’m handed these songs, and when I get one like “Fairytale,” I go, “oh my God, I have to get this more right than, say, the other ones.” And I agree with you, I know I’ve been given something special. And I knew it also had a lot of references to Townes Van Zandt, which means a lot to Mike and to the band.

So, when I first got that song, which was a while ago, because we were touring, I did it live a couple of times — and I knew I hadn’t gotten it, I hadn’t sort of found the right space for it. And when it was time to record the vocals, oddly enough, I had been spending a lot of time with my young niece, who is in her young twenties, and is sort of in that stage of life where you look at your future, and all you see is a big black void. (laughs) You know? No answers; you don’t know what you’re supposed to do. And I went into the studio, and I think that being with her and sort of re-living those feelings — you know, I went through that, too, in my twenties — we all do, that lost feeling. It helped me find my way back into “Fairytale” in a different way, because what I was doing with it before, was just really singing it sort of, I don’t know … poppy, where the way I recorded it was much more, a little bit dirtier — when you get to the chorus, there is more of a poppier, sort of hopeful sound — but the verses, you know, are kind of really dark! (laughs) It’s like, “Whoa, there’s the black void my niece is in.”

So, anyway, that’s where I found my inspiration for it. But, you’re right — a song like “Fairytale,” when we’re on the road in the coming months, will change — it will change from missing my son, to an argument on the phone I had with my husband, or from a happy day I’ve had on the road. You know, I just might sing it really poppy one night (laughs) — a happy little ditty! (laughing) So, they change, and a good song should. And Townes Van Zandt certainly often said to us, “Songs — often you don’t know what they mean or where they come from, and they mean something different to everybody who listens to them, and a good song should.” You bring your life to it, and I’ll bring mine to it.

I could see Townes Van Zandt singing a song like that.

Yeah, I could too, actually. Totally. You know, and you’d be sitting there going, “huh?” (laughing)

Well, with these four releases, I think what’s really cool is that there is a book that will eventually come out by a pretty interesting artist, who I don’t really know much about.

Yes. You know, I’m not involved very much in the process of the book, but I do know a lot about Enrique (Martinez Celaya) — he’s been a friend of the band for a long time. I met him, oddly enough, about five years ago or so. He called — he’s been a fan of the band for a long time — he was having an art exhibit in L.A., and he wanted to open the art exhibit — his vision was to open his exhibit with me standing in the middle of the gallery singing “Mining for Gold.” That was his vision, you know? No stage, no nothing, I just come out and sing the song. (laughs) I said, “okay, you’re mad!” (laughing) And I — I don’t do that sort of thing, I really … just think, “oh no, not going to do that.”

So he then sent his art books to me — he said, “well, just look at my art.” So, I say, “okay, free art books, great!” So, I looked at the art, and I really liked it. And I never studied art, I don’t know anything about it except what I like and what I don’t like. I was really was intrigued by the art. So, you know, what the hell, this is a crazy idea, I like the idea, I don’t know if I have the guts to do it, but I like his art, so I’m going to do it. And I did! (laughs)

The weird thing was, I arrived at the art gallery, and all his new paintings were hanging on the wall, and they were these huge pieces. And when I walked into the art gallery — it was empty, because it was during the day, and the show was that night — so I had a chance to sort of just be alone with these big pieces, and I looked at them and said, “oh my God, Mike needs to see this.” It was our music in art.

That’s what I saw. He did it all in tar and feathers, and it was really rough and ugly and mean, but it was beautiful at the same time. And I go, “this is us, this is us in art, it’s so weird!” (laughs) And I was so excited. So, I told him, “you have to meet my brother, you would really like my brother, and my brother would like you!” (laughs) So, we figured out a way for them to meet, and they’ve been friends and have done a lot of different projects over the years, and this is one of them, and it’s one of those collaborations that came together in some weird way. Because even the idea of me saying yes to the project was just so bizarre — I never say yes to those things. So, it was meant to be.

Well, when I saw the first cover for Renmin Park, I just thought, “now that’s a Cowboy Junkies cover.”

Yeah. Oh yeah.

I think that’s a good thing about art and music, which I think, unfortunately, a lot of people miss out on these days when they just download a file.

Oh, I know. Totally. I totally agree. Enrique has said that when he’s painting, the two musicians that he likes to listen to while he paints is us and Leonard Cohen. And I agree, I think there’s a lot of connections between painting and sculpture and music.

Especially with a series like this. I was reading something where Mike was saying that these songs are about different characters. And with The Wilderness, like you were saying earlier, it might be a little more defined with a Junkies sound. But, did you have a different mindset with these particular songs? Was there anything that tied the four albums together?

Well, there were definite themes. When we went at it, we didn’t go at it as a foursome, we went at it as individual albums. The idea was really that what would bind the four together would basically just be a period of time that we recorded them in. And over the years, we discovered that definitely the period of time that you are recording in does have a huge impact on the result of the album. Because, like with anything, it’s what’s going on in your life, and whether you’re happy or sad, or your marriage is good or bad — so time has a huge impact on the outcome, so that’s what would bind the four.

But each album in themselves had a specific theme. Renmin Park was definitely about Mike’s China visit and the feeling of being a stranger in a culture that you know nothing about, and could never totally understand anyway if you tried, in a lifetime.

And Demons was the Vic (Chesnutt) album, and that was …  you know, after Vic’s death, that seemed to make sense that we did that. And also, we’ve often talked about doing an album of cover songs, which was always something in the back of our heads to do, because it would be such a challenge, you know, to take on a body of work as opposed to just one song. And when Vic died, it was just obvious it should be him.

And I think that Sing In My Meadow, again, is a side of the Junkies, unless you’ve been to our concerts, it’s a side you don’t know about, because that kind of psychedelic music, maybe we might do one song like that on an album, but for us to do an entire album that way was a real challenge, especially for me, because that’s not my forte! (laughs) So, that was, again … each album had its own challenges.

And that’s the beauty of the band — it’s always been like that for the listener, a challenge.

I think that comes from the fact that, before anything, we’re fans of music. We have never said, “oh, we can’t do that because we’re not a punk or jazz band.” We’ve just played the music and done the albums we wanted to do, and we’ve had great success in that we’re still around. But, maybe that’s the answer as to why we’ve never had a big hit, either! (laughs) People don’t know who we are or what we’re doing. (laughing) We’re too schizophrenic for them, or whatever. But, we’re still here, and we still enjoy it, and I think that’s why — it’s still a challenge, it’s not boring.

And you have control.

Well, that was the best … when I write my memoirs, if I ever do, I think one of the best decisions we ever made — and it came at the right time — was when we decided to drop the majors and go our separate ways. Which was scary, because the majors have the money. (laughs) But, they don’t really have that freedom, and I think if we had stayed with the majors, especially with the way they are today, there would have been more and more restrictions on us and demands for singles and all that crap that was irritating us. So, I think that was great when we decided to go our separate ways when we did.

Cowboy Junkies
Wednesday, April 18, 2012 at 8:00 PM

Sheldon Concert Hall, Saint Louis, Missouri (for tickets, click here)

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