In the early 1990s, Cowboy Junkies lead vocalist Margo Timmins performed just for me. I sat about 30 feet away from her and she sang one of her favorites, “Misguided Angel” to an audience of one. But I’m not sure she even noticed me. I was at the Berkeley Community Theater getting ready to serve as a volunteer usher for her show, and she was doing her sound check. When she did the “na-na-na-na-na-na” part of “Sweet Jane” I pretty much melted into the seat.
So it was a pleasure to interview Margo in advance of the Cowboy Junkies’ show this month for The Press Democrat. She was engaging, fully present and happy to chat about the light and dark sides of the Cowboy Junkies’ art. I had to trim about 200 words from my story to fit it into the paper, the part about how John Prine helped her conquer stage fright. You can read the full version below or read it on the Press Democrat.
By MICHAEL SHAPIRO
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Bands that make it big when they’re young have a choice: they can base the rest of their career on their early hits or blaze ambitious new trails.
The Cowboy Junkies, an alt-folk and blues band from eastern Canada, chose the latter. Or maybe it wasn’t a choice. Lead singer Margo Timmins said that to stay together, the band had to keep evolving.
“Our goal is to fulfill our ideas – and we have a ton of them,” she said in a phone interview this month, adding that the band is now independent and not subject record-label control.
The scope and approach of recent CDs like the Chinese-influenced “Renmin Park” –part of the recently completed four-CD “Nomad” series – wouldn’t have been permitted by most labels, Timmins said.
“The labels were great for us. I would never regret the years on labels – they gave us a global audience’” she said. “But it was very limiting and by the time it ended it was the right time. Like any relationship, sometimes it’s just time to go.”
Those attending the Cowboy Junkies’ show on May 1 at the Napa Valley Opera House will get plenty of both old and new, said Timmins.
“We do two sets,” with no opening act, Timmins said. “The first set is all the “Nomad” series; then in the second set we do all the old stuff. It works because people settle down — they know they’re going to get something old and something they know, so they’re more open” to the new material.
Those attending the show can submit song requests by email (JunkieInfo@aol.com). “We’re asking the audience for a lot so we’re opening up the second set to the audience,” Timmins said.
The biggest day in the Cowboy Junkies’ career was Nov. 27, 1987, when band founder and Margo’s brother, Michael Timmins, had the group record “The Trinity Session” in a single day at Toronto’s Church of the Holy Trinity.
The band gathered around a single microphone in the cavernous space, giving the album a haunting, ethereal sound. The album included a complete makeover or Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” with transcendent vocals by Margo Timmins.
“The day after the recording our mother happened to be visiting us while we listened to the playback,” Michael Timmins says on the band’s site. “After listening for a while she turned to us and said, ‘Your lives will never be the same,’ and she was right.”
Twenty years later the band recorded the CD/DVD package “Trinity Revisited” with guest artists Natalie Merchant, Vic Chesnutt and Ryan Adams, affirming a career-long penchant for working with like-minded musicians.
Margo Timmins said she has gleaned more than musical ideas from other artists. Early in the band’s career she was very shy on stage and often couldn’t face the audience.
Then the Cowboy Junkies toured with John Prine who showed Timmins “how to have fun on stage. He would say, ‘If you fall off the stage, so what, get up and keep on singing.’ ”
Now 52, Timmins enjoys performing so much that when she turned 40 she insisted that the band book a gig so that she could celebrate the milestone on stage.
The Cowboy Junkies’ music is often bright and uplifting – listen to “Anniversary Song” – but the band has never been afraid of the dark.
“The darker stuff is more interesting to us,” Timmins said. “When things are screwed up and scary and hard, that’s when you need music and books and other people to help you understand what’s going on and not feel as messed up or lonesome.
“We’ve always reached toward that kind of literature and music, so it makes sense for us to sing about the human conditions that aren’t so easy.”
Timmins was concerned about how the band’s 2011 album “Demons” – a set of covers of songs by their friend Chesnutt – who committed suicide on Christmas Day in 2009 – would affect her.
“I thought it would really bring me down – to go to this dark place all day, but then I’d drive home feeling empowered,” she said.
“I could never have handled that kind of material in my 30s. I could have sung it, but I don’t think I could have opened my heart up as much to it,” she said.
“As I get older, I get less concerned with being scared – maybe I’ve become braver. Maybe I’ve seen more and done more, and I’m not as messed up as I thought I was.
“The darkness is more interesting and it’s something people need to share more, and that’s what music is: sharing.”