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Cowboy Junkies

interview by Tom Lanham
published in The Sunday Chronicle (San Francisco)


Margo Timmens/Cowboy Junkies c Ken Settle/Artist Publications

Margo Timmins

Photo © Ken Settle/Artist Publications

 

“It was the greatest day of my life...”

--Margo Timmins

 

Canadian vocalist Margo Timmins says it was, quite simply, "the greatest day of my life." Alone with her husband and two brothers in a tiny Toronto church last year (1988), she watched through stained glass windows as the evening sun set, and began to tune in to the eerie, almost mystical atmosphere.

But it wasn't until the next morning, when the quartet listened to a playback of its 12-hour recording session in Toronto's Church of the Holy Trinity, that the awe-struck, 28-year-old singer knew for certain that the feeling had been captured. They had recorded "something that exceeded my wildest expectations, something that we just didn't anticipate.

"We were on the road virtually non-stop from 1980 to '85," she recalls. "We never had more than two weeks off at a time. I never was real good at the business side of music, but I've always realized the importance of a strong live base to support the best record you can produce. People want to know you can back up your product."

And with Joan, that's no easy task. Her records are a proven product. She reached deep into her soul in 1983 to arrive at a title for her second LP, Album, and a little deeper for a performance that yielded two more hits in Fake Friends and an appealingly abrasive version of Sly Stone's Everyday People.

A year later, she appropriately put out the Glorious Results Of A Misspent Youth, which simultaneously served as a testimony to her commitment to the future and the struggle of her past. That testimony was clearest in the record's rearming of the Runaway's Cherry Bomb, which drew national attention and lent immediate credibility to Joan's old gang.

I figured it was like an equality song," she says. "It's just throwing back in everybody's faces the same thing you hear from the guys, but with girls saying it."

She found another way to express herself when she made her debut as an actress in 1986's Light of Day. Oddly enough, it turns out this was what she had wanted to do in the first place.

"Acting is something I always wanted to do as a kid," she says. "I found it fascinating. I figured I'd go to New York and make it big. Then, when I was 18, I went to my first (job] by day and spike-haired, club-hopping punker by night ("My office manager was very understanding"), Timmins usually ended up "totally exhausted."

But by her mid-20s, Timmins had left night life behind and was studying social work at university while her brother plied his musical trade in New York and London. Coming home to Toronto, though, Michael asked his sister an unexpected question: Would she give up social work, which she wasn't enjoying, and form a Joy Division-meets-minimalist-country band with him?

"It didn't take much convincing," she laughed. "I'd never really thought of myself as a singer—I'd just sing along when the radio was on or when I was doing dishes. It took me a full year to fit in with what Michael was doing.

Finally, along with baby brother Peter Timmins on drums and her husband, Alan Anton, on bass, Margo and crew played their first concert in March 1986. Timmins says it was, for her, "a terrifying experience. Being on stage isn't so frightening anymore, though," she conceded. Admittedly a "shy introvert, the type of person that stays home a lot," Timmins has nonetheless become a formidable song stylist, even without formal training.

On The Trinity Session she pays haunting homage to Patsy Cline ("Walking After Midnight"), Hank Williams ("I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry"), and the traditional country songs "Mining For Gold" and "Working On A Building." Rock legend Lou Reed, after hearing the Junkies' rendition of his classic "Sweet Jane," sounding like smoke lazily drifting through the air, called it "the best and most authentic version I have ever heard."

Timmins has been startled by such praise. "This is like a fantasy, hard to keep in perspective," she sighed. But still, she enjoys tackling other performers' work. "It's such a challenge to take something already written and definitive and try to interpret it for 1989."

Remembering how, as a young girl, she would rifle her brother's record collection, Timmins now delights in exposing the Cowboy Junkies' growing audience to some of her favorite stars. "People come up to me after shows and say, 'You know, I've never heard Hank Williams before, but I've bought some of his records after hearing your album.' That's great, because to me, that's what it's all about."

The Cowboy Junkies themselves have been introduced to a few new things this year, most notably fame. The Trinity Session has sold more than 200,000 copies with no hit single, and demand for the band has forced them to add a fiddler, an accordionist and a pedal-steel guitarist, and to hit the road on tour.

"I never dreamed of getting a gold record, but now it actually seems possible," Timmins said, still surprised at the record company bidding war that ensued over their completed master tape. "When we finished The Trinity Session, we knew that we'd made a great album. What we didn't know was if anyone else would like it. I guess they do."

  

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