A Q&A With Cowboy Junkies

Photo credit: Heather Pollock
Michael Timmins discusses new album, reflects on career, and Colorado

Hard to believe that the Cowboy Junkies released their landmark The Trinity Session 30 years ago. That album is memorable for expertly weaving original songs with fresh takes on covers of Hank Williams, The Velvet Underground, and others.

Over the course of the subsequent three decades, the Cowboy Junkies have released album after album of its characteristic country, folk and rock music. Able to combine haunting lyrics and pinpoint instrumentation, the Cowboy Junkies are releasing their new album All That Reckoning, July 13. It’s a deeply affecting album, and one that the band hopes to inspire some positive ideas. “What we need is love and compassion,” songwriter Michael Timmins told us in a recent interview. 

The Cowboy Junkies will be playing the Boulder Theater July 8, with an in-store performance at Twist & Shout records in Denver that same day. On July 9, Cowboy Junkies will be at The Armory in Fort Collins. 

The Colorado Sound: All That Reckoning has lines like “welcome to the age of disillusion,” “you can control hate,” and “sing me a song about life in American / sing me a song of love.” Why those lines at this time?

Michael Timmins: The reasons have many layers. Specifically, and simply put, I feel that we are living through an age where most of the conventions, institutions, morals and belief systems that our culture and modern civilization have been built on are crumbling and/or being discarded. In to the vacuum rushes confusion and fear, followed closely by hate. What we need is love and compassion.

What’s really endearing about the new album are the sounds you introduce. On “The Things We Do To Each Other”, there are a lot of bright moments, despite the subject matter. Is this a conscious balance?

Alan [bassist Alan Anton] has been fooling around with monophonic synths and old Moogs and processors for a while. When we started to work on the album we consciously decided that we would include as much “indefinable” sounds and music as the specific song could carry, without it getting bogged down. Some of the sounds are pretty dark and nasty, others are uplifting and sparkly. We tried to use whatever made sense either as a juxtaposition to the music and lyric or to further underline the theme of the song.

“My belief is that the ultimate goal of art should be to spark a conversation or a process of introspection”

All That Reckoning serves to be a wake-up call. If this album shakes anyone out of a fog, what is the light you are aiming to point toward?

I never try and point the listener in any specific direction. Everyone comes to a song or a piece of art with their own history and baggage. My belief is that the ultimate goal of art should be to spark a conversation or a process of introspection. If this happens, then the song, movie, book, painting, sculpture, dance performance is a successful piece of art. It’s a start. And from there anything, even change, is possible.

Does making records today have a different objective than it might have when you started out?

That’s a hard one. I think in a general sense we have always approached our music with an artistic objective. But how we get to that point has changed. I think that with a band like ours, that has been around for 30 years and has a very large body of work, one has to be a little more focused when it comes to releasing a new album. There has to be a reason to add to the catalogue. I think All That Reckoning came about because once I started to write I began to see a theme forming between the personal and the social and it felt like there was a need for these types of songs. Which is probably pretty naïve, but then so is being a 59 year old and playing music for a living.

Cowboy Junkies
All That Reckoning is a deeply affecting album. It’s out July 13

One of the defining qualities of the Cowboy Junkies is embracing almost any style and you do so again on the new album – from slowed down acoustic songs to more straight ahead rockers. As a songwriter, is it easier – or harder – to write for any particular style?

I generally approach my songs like a singer-songwriter with just a voice and an acoustic guitar and then I leave it up to the energy created by the band to push the songs in whatever direction they head off in to. Also, with about half of these songs I started with some very intricate bass lines provided by Alan which I then wrote lyrics and melodies to.

“We consciously decided that we would include as much “indefinable” sounds and music as the specific song could carry”

Following up on that, as a band which creates viscerally moving music, which comes first for you – the subject matter or the tempo?

Subject matter comes first and then that usually suggests the tempo. But its hard for me to say. A lot of what we do comes very organically with this band.

How important is Margo to the band? Her vocals have become so ubiquitous that she seems to have become another “instrument” for the band.

Well, the band and the band’s sound, doesn’t exist without Margo’s voice. It is ultimately what communicates the “message” to the listener.

From a personal perspective, how has growing up while being in a band with Margo and Peter developed your relationship as siblings? 

Hard to say. I don’t know what growing up while not being in a band with them is like.

2018 happens to be the 30th anniversary of The Trinity Session. Over those 30 years, do any special Colorado memories stick out?

So many great memories playing Colorado. It was definitely one of the first areas outside of the major coastal cities to take a liking to the band. I think a memory that is seared in to our collective memories is experiencing Independence Pass on a 45 foot bus towing a 15 foot trailer. The bus driver picked us up at the Denver airport and just followed his GPS (in the early days of GPS) to Aspen. Over (and almost down) the mountain we went.

As a band that’s been around for over 30 years, what’s been the biggest change you’ve experienced?

“There is more (music) out there and it is easier to access than any time in the history of the world, but fewer and fewer people are really listening.”

The biggest change is how our music is “consumed.” The mere fact that I use that word rather than “listened to” tells you everything. It’s very disheartening to me, that music in general has become so devalued in our culture and in most people’s lives. There is more of it out there and it is easier to access than any time in the history of the world, but fewer and fewer people are really listening.

Finally, we’re seeing lots of “best albums of the half year” lists right now. What’s one or two of the greatest albums you’ve heard so far this year?

I find it difficult to keep track of the years releases, so this might be a 2017 (or even 2016) release. There are three or four songs on the last Nick Cave album, The Skeleton Tree, that I keep going back to, especially “Magneto”. I could listen to that song on repeat for days on end.

Catch the band at the Boulder Theater on July 8. Tickets are still available. The Fort Collins show at The Armory is sold out. For more information on the in-store appearance at Twist & Shout, find out more.