A better live band

After capturing the world’s attention with The Trinity Sessions in 1988, Cowboy Junkies have continued to reinvent the music they love. Their new, independently-released album, Renmin Park, is the first in a series of four coming over the next 18 months, and includes Chinese rock star and album art from a prominent painter/physicist. (The second album will be covers of the late Vic Chesnutt’s songs.)

No fixing: The new album is a bold step forward, with promises that the live show is “as raw and real as it can possibly be,” says Margo Timmins.

A visit to their website opens up a treasure trove of not only their released albums, but also many of their recording whims, experiments and side projects. Margo Timmins took some time while watching over her son and his new puppy to reflect on the progression that has brought the band this far.

Xpress: After 25 years in the music business, you are free of recording contracts and obligations. What prompted the move?
We’ve been doing albums really for maybe 10 years without a recording contract. When we left Geffen it was really a moment of make-or-break for us. If we’d continued to play this whole label game we would have imploded. It’s a little scarier, because with labels, you get these checks every once in a while in your mail. Now they don’t arrive unless we make them arrive, but the actual playing, your head space and the business side of things, it’s a lot easier because you’re in control.

There’s not as much talk. Now there’s just action, and if there isn’t action you only have yourself to blame. Musical freedom, we’ve always had that. But, of course every time you do something you hand it over to the label and their first question is, “Where’s the single?” We’re not exactly a single-driven kind of band.

What inspired you to use (painter and physicist) Enrique Martinez Celaya’s paintings as the basis for the [Nomad] series, and how do they relate to the four volumes?

It was something that came together from different elements. We were thinking about the next studio album and had a lot of material. Right now the band is in a space where we’re writing very easily. Enrique is a friend of ours, a wonderful painter, and has been inspired by our work many times. We did a show for an opening of one of his galleries. He had this series of four paintings of the boy with the leopard in various spots. We decided that would make such a great album cover, and there were four of them.

This first one, Renmin Park, is based on my brother’s experience living in China. The next one, Demons, is going to be cover songs of Vic Chesnutt’s material. … Enrique calls the four paintings the Nomad series, so that seemed to be appropriate to what we were doing as well.

What was your initial reaction to working on this album when your brother Michael returned from China with the ambient sounds and music?
I had two reactions. Fear would be one — “How am I going to work with this?” The other was, I have complete trust in Mike’s ability and his musical vision to me has always been inspiring. Mike is a really talented man, and for me it’s an honor to be able to work on whatever project he’s doing.

When he gave me this project, I was a little bit concerned. A lot of the sounds were in keys that were not in my comfort zone. The other thing is the ones that we’re playing to loops, there’s nobody playing a melody. As a singer that was a little bit difficult. The third and biggest problem, which I didn’t anticipate from the beginning, was that Mike’s always written from an experience in his life that’s going on, and I’m only 18 months behind him, and I’ve always pretty much been experiencing those things too. But, with Renmin Park I did not go to China. I have never lived in a foreign country like that, and tried to make my way and be the only white person in town. The biggest challenge was how to get into these songs and make them believable from my voice, not having any background.

The album includes a couple of songs by [influential Chinese rock star and novelist] Zuoxiao Zuzhou, which gives it a very different sound and feel. How have your fans responded to this change?
It’s been good. It’s interesting because it’s not the easiest album on the planet to get into. You have to rework them to do them live because there’s just the five of us up there. It’s always funny to me which ones they respond to more. “Sir Francis Bacon” is a song that we’re doing live and they seem to really like it. We’ve made the groove a little more swinging than what is on the album. Our audience, they’re intelligent. I’ve always been thankful to have an audience that actually allows you to try new things.

What do you hope fans will take away from a live show that they can’t get from your recordings?
I think we’re a better live band then we are a studio band. What makes Cowboy Junkies is that we are very much in the moment. That’s why Trinity Sessions was such a success. You could not get closer to us through a recording. It was done with one microphone catching the sounds of the room. There’s no overdubbing. There’s no fixing. It’s as raw and as real as it possibly could be. When people come to our shows that’s what they see. We have a real sense of where we are at that moment in that room. You’re not getting the album. You’re going to get who we are at that time. That’s why people come to our shows again and again.

[Wendi Loomis can be reached at wendi@jazzandpoetry.com.]

who: Cowboy Junkies
where: The Orange Peel
when: Friday, July 23 (8 p.m. $28/$30. Partially seated show. theorangepeel.net)

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