One of the more innovative bands in alt-rock history returns to the Narrows Center on Thursday, September 22, when the Cowboy Junkies visit the Fall River venue. Comprised of Alan Anton (bass) and siblings Michael Timmins (songwriter, guitarist), Peter Timmins (drums), and Margo Timmins (vocalist), the band formed in Toronto, Canada in 1985.
From the start, the Cowboy Junkies, who played the Newport Folk Festival in 2008, presented a fresh, distinct sound. Difficult to categorize, they initially fell under the “alt-country” umbrella, a genre that brought together folk punk, rock and country. But that label never quite fit. They really fall into a category of their own.
I recently spoke with songwriter and lead guitarist Michael Timmins by phone. Like most artists, he missed touring during the pandemic but did find time to work on the “creative side” of things.
“We didn’t get on the road for over two years… being here in Canada, for a long time we couldn’t get into the States,” explained Timmins. “It was difficult, but it gave us the opportunity to do a lot of writing and I spent a lot of time in the studio. One of the results of the pandemic was that I could focus on writing and playing; for me that was good, but not too good for the bank account,” joked Timmins, “but good for the creative side of things.”
The band built a loyal following in the late 1980s and 90s, behind platinum-selling LPs The Trinity Sessions, The Caution Horses, and other albums. They’ve released over 20 studio and live albums, featuring a vibrant mix of originals and covers. Timmins’ songwriting is compelling, he can tell stories as good as Dylan, Prine, or Mitchell, but the band first gained recognition for their haunting covers of songs like Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” and Neil Young’s “Powerfinger.”
Along those lines, their latest release Songs of the Recollection, is an album of densely arranged covers from artists as diverse as Neil Young, Gramm Parsons, The Rolling Stones and David Bowie.
“That kind of came up by happenstance, we were going through our archives and putting together an album of covers, and we realized there’s a lot of songs that we’ve never released, or we released in very odd ways, like on tribute collections. We also realized that there are songs we play in our live set that we’ve never released. We looked through the songs, collected a whole bunch of them, began to narrow it down, and put some final touches on,” Timmins explained.
“I don’t know if it would have come up without the pandemic, because it was time-consuming. Once we put it together, we thought, hey this is kind of a cool sounding record, there are a lot of songs that we’re very proud of,” he added.
The band is known for raw arrangements that burn slow and the new album features that familiar layered sound, behind the expressive voice of frontwoman Margo Timmins. How does that all come together?
“A song like (Gramm Parsons cover) “Ooh Las Vegas” is very much a product of the studio. We go into the studio with an idea for this song and begin to work on it, and bring in different things to add, different ideas, that’s part of the recording process. The next stage is the mixing process, taking stuff away, and moving stuff around. The song is a perfect example of a pure studio production. It wouldn’t come about without us having a bit of time in our own studio,” said Timmins.
Timmins explained how the band approaches cover songs.
“Once we decide to do a cover, whether we record it, or play it in our live set, once we feel that our interpretation is valid, we don’t really distinguish between it and our originals. Rock music is funny because it’s kind of obsessed with writers. In every other genre, country music, blues music, or jazz, it’s all about interpreting. It’s OK to have another writer, it doesn’t diminish the song, even though you didn’t write it, it doesn’t diminish the idea that you’re doing it, it doesn’t diminish the validity of it.”