The Rumpus Interview with Michael Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies

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Formed in 1985 with relentless touring and album releases to follow, the Canadian 4-piece, the Cowboy Junkies are one of the most enduring acts in music today. While straddling alternative and folk equally, the band also has the acclaim of never having released a weak or inconsistent record.

They are finishing up one of their most ambitious projects yet, The Nomad Series, which called for the release of four albums in 18 months’ time. (The series was named after the work of painter Enrique Martinez Celaya, who is currently producing a book of art that will be sold with all four of the albums.)  The final album in the installment, The Wilderness, is full of acoustic songs that showcase songwriter-guitarist Michael Timmins’ craft and his sister Margo Timmins’ pristine and evocative vocal delivery. Here’s hoping there is as much in front of the Junkies as there is behind them.

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The Rumpus: I read that you had a trip to China that was generative for the whole Nomad Series. Can you tell me more about that?

Michael Timmins: It was more specifically about the first record, Renmin Park, which is based around that trip to China with my family. We lived there for three months in a smallish community and got to know people. That record is based around a lot of recordings I did there, so that’s the genesis for volume one of the series.

Rumpus: What inspired you to spend time in China?

Timmins: Two of my children are adopted from China, so we went back there just to give them an experience, to let them know their birth country, let them look around. It was a way of trying to immerse ourselves as much as possible, rather than just visiting and doing the whole tourist thing.

Rumpus: A lot of the songs on The Wilderness were written a few years ago, and I imagine that a lot of the songs on the Nomad Series are also of an older vintage, and I was wondering how you decided which songs would go on which record.

Timmins: No, all the songs on one through three were written specifically for each record, the difference being volume four, The Wilderness, there’s like three of four of the songs that were written prior to us even having the idea for the series. So when we came up with the idea for the Nomad Series, those songs, we immediately pinned to the fourth volume.

Rumpus: How do you feel like Wilderness differs from the other Nomad albums?

Timmins: Each album is a little bit different unto itself. Wilderness is the one which is the most folk-driven, most singer-songwriter driven. Most of the songs are very much about the singer and the song and have not had a lot of production. It’s pretty bare-bones.

Rumpus: What was the recording process like for Wilderness?

Timmins: The four of us wrote the songs. The four of us would get together and then work out arrangements and we’d play the songs as a unit in our studio until we had a take we liked. We would add interpretation individually if we liked by overdubbing or taking away. Margo would come in and do the vocal after that. For a couple of the songs, I wanted to stick to the heart and soul of what I did for the songwriting demos.

Rumpus: I was curious about “Unanswered Letter,” mostly because the press materials say it’s a song about suicide, but I don’t feel like that’s obvious from the lyrics.

Timmins: Well, that’s good. It shouldn’t be. The song is about finding oneself alone or disconnected or just cut off from the things that would bind one to this world or other people. It’s not specifically about suicide, just about finding oneself alone.

Rumpus: Can you tell me a little bit about the writing process for “Fairytale”?

Timmins:  That was one of the songs that was written before the series began. I was at this retreat in the north of Toronto, in a cabin, in winter-time. It was a process of starting with getting images together, a lot of reflecting. Reflecting on friends past, reflecting on world events that were happening at the time.

Rumpus: “Fuck, I Hate the Cold” is quite different from the rest of the record. Can you comment on your decision to include that?

Timmins: It was going to be the last song on the album and the last song on the series. The Wilderness is a very dark record, and the Nomad Series in general was pretty dark, and so, we just wanted to leave it with dark humor, rather than leave it with a heaviness. It felt a little bit light. The song was something that we threw together, and we liked the twist of it, ending something that’s a huge project with it.

Rumpus: Was there anything that inspired The Wilderness as a whole?

Timmins: Well, there’s the song, “Angel in the Wilderness,” and there’s probably a few references scattered through the rest of the songs. [They] were heavily influenced by the book Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. I was reading that book and started writing the record a couple years ago.

Rumpus: I know you’ve said you need to write in solitude, and I imagine with three kids, it’s difficult to do that. Do you write every day?

Timmins: No, I don’t have the space. I don’t have the physical space or the brain-space. Part of being in a band these days is that there’s so much more to do these days than write. If I could just be a songwriter and make a living at that, that’d be great.  But there’s so much business to take care of, and even touring takes up a ton of emotional energy and space, and then being a father too.  I don’t have time to do that, unfortunately. I try to collect thoughts as they come to me, and then when I get opportunities, I try to clump together a few days at a time where I can go away and just focus on writing.

Rumpus: Have you ever written fiction?

Timmins: Not really, no. I’ve written a lot of poetry, but that’s kind of an extension of the songwriting process.

Rumpus: One thing I’ve wondered about for a long time, knowing that you write the songs while I listen to Margo singing them, is how you go about writing —  I don’t want to say ‘from a woman’s perspective’ — but I never feel like, ‘ugh, this is a dude writing a song for a chick to sing.’  I really hear this in songs like “‘Cause Cheap Is How I Feel.”

Timmins: Right, that’s good. My theory behind that is that if you write a good song, and you write a song from an honest point of view, it can be sung from a female or a male perspective. If it’s truly on and it’s truly emotionally honest, and you strip away any of the clichés, and you strip away any of the stuff that has attached itself to not just songwriting but writing in general. So that’s my theory about that, that if it’s stripped-down enough, and it’s sincerely honest, it doesn’t matter. I think that song can be sung from a male point of view as well. It just happened Margo was singing it. We have a few songs like that that could be going in either direction.

Rumpus: Can you tell me more about the book that’s coming out?

Timmins: The last part of the series is a book that’s being put together by a well-known painter down here. He also has a small publishing arm that he creates art books out of, and he’s creating a book around the Nomad Series and the ephemera that makes up a recording, whether [it’s] photos, lyrics.  The records will come with the books as well, so that’s another perspective.


Erin Lyndal Martin is a creative writer, music journalist, and artist. Her work has recently appeared in Salon, No Depression, Gigantic Sequins, and Yalobusha Review. More from this author →