Music  |  Features

Mystery Is A Farce

On The Farm With The Cowboy Junkies

June 1, 2004  |  12:00am
Mystery Is A Farce

“Maybe it’s all men and all women we love; maybe that’s the Holy Sperit—the human sperit—the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of.”—John Steinbeck, The Grapes Of Wrath

Canadians are a funny bunch. Jim Carrey, Mike Myers, John Candy, even the members of the Cowboy Junkies: all funny. The ticket-taker at the gate of Air Canada Flight 801 departing from Boston’s Logan Airport: not so much.

I’m attempting to board a flight to Toronto while wearing a Boston Bruins hockey jersey. They’re called bragging rights, and I got ’em: The Bruins stung the Toronto Maple Leafs 2-1 to clinch a playoff spot in the previous evening’s hotly contested Eastern Conference game, and I think showing up on the Junkies’ home turf to talk about life, love and music while flashing my colors is amusing. Unfortunately, Mr. Ticket-Taker does not agree.

“Sir, you cannot board the plane wearing that jersey.”

“Funny.”

“Seriously, you need to take it off before boarding.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

I search his face for the ironic smile or conspiratorial wink lurking somewhere behind this behemoth’s puckhead mug but find nothing. It’s 6:30 a.m. and the game went late, my one-month-old son thinks sleep is for wimps, I drove through a snowstorm with no coffee, and security just confiscated my lethal nail clippers. Now defenseless and tired, I’m in no position to drop the gloves, so the jersey goes back into the bag. During the quick flight I realize I just became a punch line, and that Canadians take their hockey very seriously.

This Canadian duality of being serious and funny at the same time becomes the recurring theme woven throughout the two days spent deconstructing the Junkies’ ninth studio album, One Soul Now, and the myth that still clings to one of the most venerable and misunderstood rock ’n’ roll bands of the last 20 years.

The Cowboy Junkies are Michael Timmins, little sister/lead singer Margo Timmins, baby brother/drummer Pete Timmins and teenage- cohort/bassist Alan Anton. Popular music needs them in its foundation to remain standing. Through the fog of Jessicas, Britneys, Avrils and X-tinas, they help keep the integrity lamp burning, and their seminal contributions to the canon of good music are enough to keep the true believers from withering under Clear Channel’s soulless ignorance. They’re also gracious hosts. Mike, Peter and Alan are kind enough to pick me up at the airport on their way to Margo’s farm for the first of many photo shoots that accompany the new album and supporting tour. When told of the Bruins-jersey debacle, they dryly agree with Mr. Ticket-Taker and add that they wouldn’t have let anyone displaying such heresy into the car.

“Seriously?” I ask.

“Fersure.”

After an awkward silence, Pete snickers and gets down to the important stuff: more hockey talk. Luckily, a way out of the hockey abyss into which I’ve fallen comes when Mike plays a track from the newly mastered bonus EP, ’Neath Your Covers, that will accompany One Soul Now.

Possibly the only thing that can quiet a bunch of puck-crazed Canadians is Neil Young, for they all go silent as the familiar strum of their hometown hero’s “Helpless” spills into the car. But, instead of the Ontario messiah’s back-throated warble, we hear the voice that’s launched a thousand adjectives, particularly: haunting, sensual, gloomy, languid and—of course—ethereal.

However, anyone who’s heard Margo sing “Murder, Tonight, in the Trailer Park” live knows that her self-trained voice isn’t highly refined or delicate. In fact it couldn’t be more organic, vibrant and grounded.

The stereotypes attached to Margo’s voice—and ultimately her personality—are part of the constant contradiction between the myth of the Cowboy Junkies and their reality. During a stop at a grocery store, Alan and Mike calmly tackle this dichotomy as they wind their shopping cart through the aisles, Pete piling food into it.

“It’s laziness, really,” offers Mike. “Music has moved to the point where most people don’t make it beyond first impressions. Mainstream listeners just don’t commit to engaging with the lyrics. They hear a sonic quality and assume the song is just sad or dark, when if you listen, it’s really life-affirming.”

Alan jumps in, “Since we never thought we were going to make a living doing this, we never worried about making it accessible for everybody. If we believe in what we play, then we’ll turn on those with a like mind.”

Mike then adds, “The material has texture and layers you have to meet halfway; the listener brings their baggage, and we bring ours and we commune. It’s not just a hook with an easy beat. We have never tried to force-feed our listeners—it is what it is, take it or leave it.”

Heading home, the conversation shifts to their kids and it becomes obvious that for this group, everything is about family. Although Pete and Mike both live in Toronto, Margo spends most of her free time on the farm outside the city, and Alan lives on Vancouver Island—so this gathering is not only a photo shoot, but a mini family reunion. That these siblings still love being together after nearly 20 years as a band is astounding.

This is immediately apparent on walking into Margo’s 100-year-old farmhouse. The home is so full of light, life and commotion that you have to brace yourself before being knocked over by the welcoming committee of Achilles and Drusilla, her Rhodesian Ridgebacks. The embraces are plentiful, but the highlight comes via the bluebird eyes, flash-blond hair and cherubic cheeks of Margo’s recently adopted son, Edward. She’s a glowing mother, but the cooing and cuddling gets put on hold. The photographer is ready to begin.

Although officially spring, it’s snowy and cold as the band trudges out to the massive barn that sits atop 100-plus acres of fertile earth bordered by a glass-clear stream. Though beautiful, the conditions aren’t ideal for hours of posing for the camera. But, you wouldn’t know it from the laughing that starts as soon as the photographer positions the band in order to capture that moment of press-packet perfection.

Pete suggests he do the “squat with ground contemplation.”

Mike says, “I’ll give the far-horizon stare.”

In response Alan mockingly complains, “That’s the bass player stare! Damn, I guess I’ll go with the foreground blurry-guy thing.”

Margo, hands in pockets, adds, “Watch the profile shot; I got a big nose.”

Even with snow whipping their faces, the band knows this is part of the game so they do their best to oblige the photographer’s creative direction. But after a while, the shoot begins to drag, and Pete warns that the real parody begins when you run out of good backdrops and resort to “props”. Five minutes later, inside the barn, the photographer and her assistant start looking around for objects for Pete to hold. After a few chains, whips, and sheep jokes, Pete is handed an old plank of wood with a single nail through it. Two rolls later, before frostbite sets in and Pete starts wielding his prop with impatience, the photographer agrees to a break. Just as all the coats and hats are put back on, the afternoon sun pours through the cracks in the barn like a river breaching a dam. The photographer doesn’t even have to ask; the band is already positioning for the optimal shot. They’re pros, and while dust motes twirl in the slanted light, they quell the shivering and pretend it’s really spring.

Once the shoot’s over—and we’ve downed a few beers and an incredible dish of pasta and salami mixed up by Chef Pete—Mike and I head to the farmhouse porch to let it all digest. When told that for some inexplicable reason the advance copy of One Soul Now only worked in my car, Mike nods. “Yeah, that’s our new marketing strategy. We figured that’s the optimal listening environment, no distractions.”

Witticisms aside, he’s right. While listening to the album late at night without disruption, it becomes clear that it exudes an aural vitality and confidence. Despite allusions to Steinbeck and Shakespeare, Mike has stripped away more than a few veils of narrative cloaking, so much so that you wonder if everything is all right in his world.

“Generally, I am happy; it’s just as you grow older relationships become more confused—not just with our spouses and kids, but with our place in the world. … there is a certain comfort in my chaos, knowing I have no control over the unforeseen.”

Amidst his uncertainty, religious philosophy floats throughout the album. Mike adds, “My wife belongs to a church where there is a freedom and tolerance of all religious beliefs, and although I am not part of the congregation, I sometimes go with her to help manage the kids … the interconnectedness seeps through and helps put things into perspective when forming my own beliefs, a lot of which comes out in the title track.”

The album begins with this track, a song that immediately makes you feel connected. The hook, a sharp and infectious walking bass line, stays with you long after the song’s over. Originally written in 1997 for Miles From Our Home, it missed the cut and sat on the shelf. When the band revisited it during an early rehearsal session for One Soul Now, they discovered they’d grown into the track, which was now eerily relevant. Mike says, “That song defines where I am in life at this very moment.”

After another quick beer, it’s time for round two of the photo shoot. The photographer pries the band away from Edward, who’s being showered with the smothering attention only uncles can dish out. Pete proudly declares, “Ed’s going to be an incredible power forward,” before heading out again into the fray.

This time around it’s decided they should go for the “band walking down a country lane” shot—a Cowboy Junkies staple. Looking at these pictures later, I’m amazed how serious and cool the band looks when they’ve been doing nothing but ripping on each other all afternoon. Seemingly, the shutter only clicks in between bouts of goofiness, a word Margo continually uses to describe herself. “I grew up with three brothers, and when I go out on tour I ride in a bus with eight or nine guys, I don’t have time to be high maintenance.” This is immediately reinforced when Achilles jumps on her in the middle of the shoot spraying Margo’s white coat with muddy paw prints. She smiles, “What are you gonna do?”

When asked what makes for a good photo shoot, Alan dryly replies, “Brevity.” With the cold creeping in and Margo now trying to keep the dogs from getting into a dead muskrat on the bank of the nearby stream, interest in posing for the camera is waning. Smartly, the photographer calls it a day, and they head back to the hearth.

I ask Alan on the way back if he still enjoys playing, and his response is animated. “More than ever. It used to be that every fourth or fifth show, we weren’t in the pocket, but now we are much more consistent. It’s completely addictive. Our expectations have never been higher, and we are by far our toughest critics.”

It shows on the new album. It’s not a didactic confessional or treatise on dysfunction; it’s about normalcy—warts and all—written with little narrative sugarcoating.

“As you get older,” explains Mike, “you get more to the point. It’s harder to be more direct and blunt with songs especially if your bent is more to the metaphorical, but at times it can be more effective.”

Alan quickly adds, “Yeah, I’ve noticed Mike has never used the word unctuous.”

Once the photographer leaves, work is over for the day and it’s time to relax. The grill gets fired up, the wine uncorked and the beer poured. The refrigerator displays Margo’s personal photo gallery of “famous” people. Needless to say it’s hysterical, impressive and covers every square inch of space. The highlights include Margo with Molly Ringwald (circa Pretty in Pink); Sly Stallone (she had to squat down to fit in the picture); Meatloaf (they sang the anthems at the MLB All-Star game in Pittsburgh); The Boss (at her brothers’ suggestion, she asked him to marry her); Jon Lovitz (in devil costume on their first visit to Saturday Night Live); and Sean Penn (pre-Madonna, he did some mean Brando impressions before passing out on their tour bus in between Santa Cruz and L.A.). These stories come in animated spurts. Like the old couples from the band’s older songs, the Junkies finish each other’s sentences while recalling tours gone by. Margo muses, “I’m always wondering how the hell did I get here. It always amazes me that after 20 years, I’m still here and doing what I love to do. I still enjoy hanging out with these guys; they make me laugh and there’s a feeling of camaraderie.”

After Edward’s been put to bed, the band starts talking earnestly about what’s ahead and what they’d like to leave behind—namely the Junkies mystique.

“It’s so Star magazine,” Mike complains. “Just because we don’t spend our time off the road getting our picture taken with Paris Hilton doesn’t mean we’re adverse to the public eye. We just don’t know how to do it, it’s not in our nature.”

Pete chimes in, “We spend our free time watching hockey and being with our families. It’s not that sexy.”

And then Mike says, “But the suggestive power of music is so strong that people still think we are our music.”

When asked if the band’s name lends itself to the image, Alan retorts, “It’s just a name we thought up 20 years ago, and it’s better than our first choice, Double Dog Frog and The Floating F--- Pigs.”

The band members acknowledge that, initially, their handlers may have promoted certain personas in order to better market Cowboy Junkies albums. But with the Internet’s advent the group began shedding the gatekeepers and hammering down the wall between itself and its fans. To underscore the point, the band also provides an unprecedented look into how each song on the new album came to be via a multimedia package called Anatomy of a Song. It’s a truly insightful experience to hear Mike fumbling around with the Walkman-recorded inception of “From Hunting Ground to City,” a song that later found its way onto the album.

“The less boundaries between the music and the listener the better the experience.” This is Mike’s mantra and this is how the Junkies have always wanted it to be. “Our biggest fights with management and the record companies were when they attempted to ‘sell’ us and make us something different for this particular record or that particular record and it was like, ‘f--- it.’ We are going to be the same for this record as we will be for the next 20 years of records when you won’t even be around. You stay with a band because of the music, not because you tie it to an image or confuse it with an image.”

Maybe this is why the Junkies have had a relatively charmed life when it comes to holding up under critics’ bullshit detectors. They aren’t selling anything but their music and the joy they have making it. Perhaps their only problem—if you can call it that—is that they’re too musically focused, making their sound overly distinctive. But the band’s rejection of this idea comes in rapid-fire succession.

“Our music is one groove and one sound,” Mike asserts.

Margo agrees. “Like we always say, it’s the sound of the four of us playing together.”

Pete: “You hear us on the radio …”

Alan: “and in four bars you know it’s us …”

Mike: “And that’s not a bad thing. You hear The Vines, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Hives, The Strokes, etc. and is their sound distinctive? I don’t understand why ‘distinctive’ has such a bad connotation. For those that don’t like us, that’s the angle they always come from—which is ridiculous. What band wouldn’t want a sound that’s uniquely their own?”

None of this is said with any scorn or jealousy; this is the industry reality the band has come to accept. They keep playing, and the cycles of musical relevance and popularity keep finding them. Margo boastfully notes, “We have never done anything we aren’t proud of and that’s saying a lot in this business.”

Invariably, any conversation with the Junkies leads back to family. They’re more Carter/Cash than Robinson, Davies, Fogherty or Gallagher, which means difficult times only make them closer and stronger. Self-described ‘polygamists’—married to band and family—they manage to balance both worlds with the same humor and honesty that keeps each set of relationships healthy.

“I like the way Bill Murray talks about family in Lost in Translation,” says Alan. “… I went with my wife … and it was tough, especially when the girl asks him about marriage and he says it’s hard, but your kids are the sweetest, most wonderful people you meet in your life, and that’s what it’s all about. I mean, you know marriage is going to be tough, but the kids are there, and again, that’s what it’s all about.”

“And then there’s the band,” says Margo, “and that is its own relationship.”

“That’s a party, let me tell ya,” adds Pete.

“Both families—the band and our personal families,” Mike explains, “have respect for the other, because they need each other to work.”

Alan adds, “By the way, I just want to say I love my wife very much … and I look forward to seeing her when I get home.”

With this the boys go off to watch hockey, while Margo opens another bottle of wine. When asked about the making of One Soul Now, she pauses, pours herself a healthy glass and takes a deep breath.

“During Open so many weird things happened—label limbo, etc. It was made in a very uncommercial frame of mind, and therefore a lot of attitude lives in those songs, but overall it was a very cathartic experience. One Soul Now is more of a statement. As Mike said, everything that happens in your life—whether it’s an Edward, or marriage, or bills—everything affects how you approach an album. The whole process of getting Edward has been a year, which made focusing on One Soul Now very difficult. My first pass at these songs was my Julie Andrews voice, meaning I sang well … but it wasn’t me. But once I made it through to the other side, it became the album I’m most proud of, because I’m not big on challenges. Although Mike always pushes me into them musically, I always want the easy way out … you know, give me a ballad.”

Anyone who has seen Margo live knows there is a supercharged, über-sensuality that sometimes invades the room when she sings. As for whether or not that was cultivated by managers and publicists or by her own deliberate silence on the subject in interviews, she’s very succinct.

“I never spoke to my sensuality one way or the other because I was never asked. The ambiguity of my personality was a construct of others. That’s why I started going out into the audience after the show for the meet-and-greets. I hated that gap that the handlers kept creating. We all want to break down those barriers. It’s gone so far that some people even think my whole goofball personality is an act to seem friendlier because I’ve been pegged as unfriendly and aloof. It’s ludicrous.”

Alan chimes in when he comes back to refill his glass, “We’re here to set the record straight. She’s a complete moron.”

Margo concurs. “I’m an idiot!”

Alan keeps pouring it on: “Also a cheat, liar, drug addict … but she really is a good person.”

Margo laughs, “Seriously, I know I’ve disappointed many people because I have told a stupid story onstage and they want me to be Ms. Mysterioso. They ask me why I’m not the same in person as I am on the record. But most people are happy to find out that I’m just like them.”

With that she starts picking up after the guys and doing the dishes. Pete happily tells all who are listening that the Maple Leafs won and the Bruins lost, putting the teams’ standings in a virtual tie. Celebratory beers are drunk, and the rest of the night is spent on the couch watching Bowling for Columbine. After watching Marilyn Manson address Moore’s questions on the power of music, Mike yawns—“smart but staged”—and calls it a night.

I wake up with the sun coming through a tall window draped with curtains emblazoned with the words to “Sun Comes Up, It’s Tuesday Morning”; this is almost as surreal as finding Ms. Mysterioso making Edward’s formula in the kitchen.

Are the Junkies too much substance and not enough flash? They sing about tempests in teapots, where the world revolves around a glance, the definition of love is an extra lump of sugar in your tea, and no matter what happens the sun will rise again. The difference between One Soul Now and other Junkies albums is they are slowly stepping into the shoes of the characters they’ve written, played and sung about for the last two decades. Now they too have children, mortgages, heating bills, relatives and spouses.

With Margo, Mike, Edward and Sparticus the cat aboard, the drive back to the airport is spent listening to new bands and talking about how to keep bridging the gap between band and audience. Margo and Mike are both excited about what’s next and have no plans on stopping, ever. Just like the band’s songs, the Junkies ride the center line between monumental extremes—letting go of safety but not embracing destruction. They know that life is lived in the minutia, that change is incremental and that none of us knows anything. Despite their mystifying persona, the Cowboy Junkies find grace in what’s most mundane. And, ultimately, that’s funny.

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