Become What You Are: A Conversation with Cowboy Junkies’ Michael Timmins

Cowboy Junkies
Razor & Tie

When troubadour singer songwriter Vic Chesnutt died last Christmas, the world was robbed of a true original. A paraplegic with limited vocal and guitar skills, and a songwriter whose understanding of the politics of intimacy was matched only by his mordant sense of humour, Chesnutt was by no means everyone’s favourite artist. But, he was always, and unmistakably, an artist.

Which is why his songs do not, at first blush, appear well suited to being sung by others. They are too personal, too weirdly constructed, too Vic Chesnutt to sound right coming from anyone but him. So, when a “Sweet Relief” tribute record was compiled back in the mid-1990s (to help with ongoing insurance costs), the problem of covering Vic seemed all too apparent. But, despite this apparent obstacle, the Cowboy Junkies’ new record Nomads, Vol. 2: Demons is comprised entirely of Vic Chesnutt numbers. Partly an homage to a good friend gone down, partly a celebration of the richness of his oeuvre, and partly a making good on a long-ago plan to make a record with their old friend, Cowboy Junkies have crafted a thoughtful and often profound study of his work.

For a band that has produced so many memorable songs – “Oregon Hill”, “Misguided Angel”, “Sun Comes Up, It’s Tuesday Morning”, “Pale Sun” — the Junkies have always been known for their ingenious covers. From their masterful re-imaginings of Elvis Presley’s “Blue Moon” and Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” on their breakthrough 1987 record The Trinity Sessions to their three-song suite dedicated to Townes Van Zandt (including a song he wrote for them, one they wrote for him, and a cover of his elegiac “To Live’s to Fly”) that ends their best record, 1992’s Black Eyed Man, this is a band that is uncommonly adept at exploring the material of others.

Fresh from the release of the new record, and looking forward to two more releases (Volumes 3 and 4 in the ambitious Nomads series are due out within the next 12 months), the Cowboy Junkies are on a real artistic tear, some 30 years into their career. I caught up with Michael Timmins, the Junkies’ principle songwriter (and brother to vocalist Margo and drummer Peter) to talk Vic, the Nomads project, and the inspiration you can find in covering other people’s songs.

This is a great first impression record. There’s a looseness to it, and a real feel of just jamming these songs.

I’m glad to hear that because we definitely wanted to record it that way. I mean, most of our records are approached that way — not all of them, but a lot of them. This one, because Vic [Chesnutt] had a very… it always seemed like he had a very cavalier attitude towards recording. I don’t think it was [cavalier]. But, it was very much: go in, play, and what you get, you get. You know? And that’s how his records feel to me, anyway. There’s a real sort of let-things-happen type of attitude, which I think is really healthy. Especially in today’s industry. So we wanted to make sure that we had the same attitude. We knew, obviously, that the blueprints were there — his songs were the blueprints — and then we went in and just sort of jammed. You know, this is the basic structure, now let’s see what we get. We wanted that recording style, and also we wanted that energy. I mean, covering Vic is kind of daunting because, well, you don’t have Vic, you know? His attitude, his singing style, his approach, that’s such a big part of his music. So, we wanted to make sure we at least had a certain amount of energy and vibrancy, that sort of kinetic feel to it. I’m glad that comes across.

There’s a lot more, shall we say, breathing room in these tracks than you’re likely to hear on most pop records.

Part of it was we knew that whatever we did was going to sound more polished, for lack of a better word, than any of Vic’s records because he had such an amazingly odd way of recording. So, we wanted to make sure that even if it sounded a little bit more polished from a tonal point of view, we wanted to make sure that the music actually had that vibe to it. In other words, cleaning it up too much would actually be a disservice to it, and to what he does.

Is the genesis of this record that you’d planned to make a record with him?

Yeah, though the two aren’t necessarily linked. We did a little bit of touring with him, and then when we did Trinity Revisited (2007) he came up and we did some recording. And it was during that session when we were doing a little bit of jamming in between, while the cameras were figuring out what to do [these sessions were filmed for a movie of the same name], and we’d jam around a bit. And it just felt really good. And, also, we loved how Vic and Margo [Timmins]’s voices sounded together. We’d always been huge fans of his, and he had a lot of respect for what we did too, and we just started talking about it. He had actually just come from Montreal — he recorded North Star Deserter in Montreal — and we’d said, hey it would be really fun to do an entire album together. So, it was something we talked about off and on for the next couple of years. The thing was, it was going to be his songs. We were going to be the band, I’d produce it, and we’d record it up here. And he and Margo would share vocals. But, it was up to him to write the songs. The last time I talked to him, he had an idea that it was going to be a song cycle about his childhood in Georgia. But that was it. I never heard…. he died a few months later.

It’s usually said that his first record Little was about his childhood. Was he going to revisit that material?

I think with somebody like Vic, his childhood was pretty crucial to his development, and to how he writes songs. As he got older, he became a different type of songwriter and a different type of person. I think it underlies everything he did, so going back and revisiting that idea, or theme, would be important for him to do. I’m sure he touches on it throughout his catalogue.

The Cowboy Junkies have been known, despite the fact that you have always been a fascinating songwriter in your own right, as a band with a keen ear for covering other artists. I first heard Townes Van Zandt through you guys, for example. But there’s Lou Reed, Gram Parsons, The Stones, and now Vic Chesnutt…

Yeah, you know, where that comes from is that before we were ever musicians we were fans of music. We still are. Oddly enough, despite the fact that three of us are family and Alan [Anton, the drummer] is somebody I’ve known since kindergarten, we didn’t grow up in teenage bands. You know? We didn’t jam together in the house, in the basement with our parents singing harmony or whatever [laughs]. We didn’t belong to a gospel church or whatever. But what we did have was we had a huge record collection in our house. It started with my Dad, and then my older brother who is five years older than me, so he was like the perfect age in the late ’60s to bring all that music into the house. And we were all huge music fans. And everybody had a turntable of some sort in their room. The whole reason I wanted to be a musician was that I was so sure that music was the one thing that really… flipped my lid. [laughing] I just became my Dad there! Anyway I just loved it. And in the late ’70s when punk rock came along, all of a sudden it was like, hey, anybody can be a musician. You don’t have to be Mick Jagger or Keith Richards. You can be just you. Just pick up a guitar and do it. And that’s really what got me into playing.

I think that when Cowboy Junkies were formed, we had a common record collection, and a common background in what music we loved, and that seeped into everything we did. It’s just so fun to take on the music that inspired you. I mean, you said you discovered Townes Van Zandt through us, and that’s the best. That’s the best thing.

Is that the reason you are so good at interpreting others? Why do you do so much of it?

Why do we do it? I don’t know. I think we have a lot of respect but… we don’t feel like we have to do it exactly the same way. The respect comes from the fact that the song we’re going to cover exists, and it’s powerful in one way, but we understand as musicians that this song can be powerful in many many other ways, too. And just the fact that it exists in this form, by the original artist, doesn’t mean that it’s the only way it can exist, you know? Anyone who’s ever written a song, or recorded a song, will tell you that it can go in multiple different ways. So, just try to take them in different directions.

Being that you guys were friends answers half of the question, probably, but what was the draw here? Why a Vic Chestnutt covers record?

He was such a unique songwriter. That’s the thing. I think when we came up with the idea to do this we all said, well that’s a great idea, but can we do this? You know? Because he had a very singular and unique style, and it was singular and unique to him. If you look at his lyrics, his songs had a lot of proper names and actual places and things. They’re obviously events and people that populated his life. Situations which are very specific. And you start thinking, well, how is that relevant to us? How can we take something like that and make it our own? Because, otherwise, there’s no real point in doing it. But then you look a bit further into those songs, and there’s always an underlying emotion or spirit or situation that’s universal. And that’s what makes a great song, something which you can delve into on a deeper level. So once we began to really look at it, we thought: maybe we can do this. But, it was really up to Margo to take it on. Really, in the end, it came down to her, to be able to take these songs, these melodies, and these emotions, and make them her own. That was a huge challenge for her, and I really think she lived up to it.

He was such a unique writer. He recorded in an odd way. He had a very, for a lot of people a tough voice to listen to. I loved his voice, and a lot of people did, but a lot of people wouldn’t be able to get by it. But, like Townes — back in the early ’90s not a lot of people knew about Townes — maybe, you know, at the very least we could open up this portal to Vic’s music and they could explore it through us. That would be amazing.

That’s an interesting idea — to be suggestive, to try to inspire people to check out artists you admire.

Sure, and it happens all the time, too. In different ways, too. There could be a song that you think is irrelevant, and then you hear somebody else do it and the lyrics take on a whole new meaning. You know? When somebody takes on a song and does something with it, it can change it, and really open up a whole new world for the listener. And make them go off in other directions, and listen to their work.

A great example of the cover that changes the song entirely is Otis Redding’s “Respect”. For Aretha Franklin it became a feminist anthem, but for him it was about: have my dinner ready when I get home.

That’s terrific! [laughs] Well, I love doing it. I love covering songs. And we’re always covering songs. Our live shows are filled with covers. But, once we cover a song, we don’t really look at it as a cover. We never look at the setlist and say: oh no, we’ve got too many covers in there. It’s our song. It’s our way of expressing whatever it is that that song is expressing. We never delineate between what we wrote and what we’re covering. It’s irrelevant to us.

So is this like a project for you, to try to get these things, these artists, out there?

It’s more organic. I mean, we’re not actively searching for them. But, we contribute a lot to tribute records. Whether it’s the Stones, or Gram Parsons or… I mean we’ve done dozens of them. And often a song will enter the repertoire that way. For example, there’s a Stones tribute coming out, and we have “Moonlight Mile” on there. But, we also did “No Expectations” because: let’s see how it goes. And now we have those songs which will float up into our repertoire now and again. And doing that, you begin to listen to the records again, you get so inspired. I was such a huge Stones fan growing up, and then I lost them, but going back to listen to those records you just realize how phenomenal they are. So, when you’re doing something like this you really listen to them, and it’s a great way to get so inspired.

Let’s get back to the Nomads project. This new record, Demons, is Volume 2. The first Volume [Renmin Park (2010)] was a kind of song cycle about a Chinese town. Presumably there’s some kind of thematic connection between them?

There’s not really. The Nomads series, it’s really… the overarching theme is four albums in 18 months. Just by the very nature of doing that many songs, that much writing, and doing that much recording in such a short time, there’s going to be something that connects them. In the end, we’re going to pull back, and look at those four albums, and, just because of the way we operate and the way I work as a songwriter, there’s going to be something that connects them all. I just know there is. But I am not necessarily writing from that point of view. I am writing from an idea that all of these songs, all of that recording is going to be done in that period of time. Each album is certainly going to have a focus — obviously the first two do — but the idea that all of them are going to have this very singular link? We’re not worried about that. It’s more of a conceptual thing. At the end of it, we’re going to put out a book about the whole thing. We know that, within that book, you’ll be able to see the links.

Why Nomads?

I already see that it’s making sense. But, where it came from is that the four albums, the one thing that unites them, is the covers. They’re four paintings by a friend of ours, and they’re all very similar paintings, and the name of the series was the Nomad paintings. And, we’re a band that’s been on the road for 30 years now, and the first volume is about my family visiting China, and then here along comes the idea of a Vic record, and if there was ever a nomad out there it was Vic. It just rang true for us. When we finish the series, it’ll be easier to define the reason we called it the Nomads series. But, it’s like the Cowboy Junkies – we never knew why we called ourselves that. We just did. And now it sounds like the perfect way to describe our music.