Cowboy Junkies: Covered In Blues (Interview With Michael Timmins)

Mike Timmins of Cowboy Junkies remembers the first few days after 9/11 well. He remembers playing a show in Gainesville, Florida, at a club where, as he wrote in his online tour diary, “portions of the roof were caving in, parts of the club had no electricity, including the bathrooms, which had lamps standing beside the sinks with extension cords running across the wet floor and up the bar where they had been plugged in.” He does not remember hugging his wife or children, or relaxing at his home in Toronto. That didn’t happen for a while. Instead, he and his bandmates injected themselves into more hell. While the rest of the nation and world began to re-examine their lives, Timmins and the Cowboy Junkies had little choice but to continue with their North American tour, even in disgusting rock clubs that defined the dark and gloomy mood across the nation. They desperately needed a good show.

That show came three days later in Houston, Texas, where, for the first time in a while, everyone seemed to be smiling. Timmins later wrote about that night: “We had fun, the audience had fun, our crew had fun, even the security guards had fun. There was a police officer side stage all night and whenever I looked over at him he was wearing this enormous ear-to ear grin. It was an incredible night. What a relief, what a release, what an overwhelming, beautiful feeling.”

Fast forward three years–same city, same club. The problem: Eveything important from that night in 2001 was missing. The consequence: An opportunity lost to focus on the goodness of humanity.

“My feeling is that there was a moment there after 9/11, virtually once the dust cleared, that the world was obviously completely shocked and dumbfounded,” says Timmins on the phone from his home in Toronto. “I think there was a huge moment there to take all this evilness that had happened and this nastiness and turn it to good. To realize that we can go down two paths: We can seek violence—that they’ll kill us and we’ll kill you; or we can take this, we can find the people that did this and generally figure out why the hell would anyone want to do this and where is it coming from, and let’s take all the good in this country and all the good that we have from around the world and try to focus it for the good and make something good out of this.

And unfortunately we went the other way…we went ‘I’ll kill you, you’ll kill me,’ and that’s what we’re doing. I just think it was a real lost moment. I think for the first time in many, many years the United States had the entire world behind it and they could have taken that feeling of, ‘God, let’s turn this into something good,’ but…there were a lot of people in charge at the wrong time.”

That feeling of lost opportunity and lost moments became the catalyst for their latest album, Early 21st Century Blues, which features the Junkies covering the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, U2, and John Lennon. While touring throughout the world in 2003 and 2004, Mike Timmins, along with the rest of the band that consists of Margo Timmins, Peter Timmins, and Alan Anton, “talked current events, the war, the invasion, the countries, the people on the streets—so we came home with a lot of that and it certainly was a big influence in the idea to go ahead with this record,” Timmins says.

Instead of writing an album’s worth of original material, the band searched their record collections and memories for songs that reflected the mood of the world and what was at stake. “With this way, we sort of came up with the themes first, so it was kind of fun. A lot of songs that were brought up, I never even would have thought about. It was a good way to do it,” Timmins states.

The standout track is a stunning cover of Lennon’s “I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier,” which turned out to take on a hip-hop vibe. Mixed in with Margo’s vocals and Mike’s angry guitar, is a rap, which was written and performed by a friend, Kevin Bond (aka Rebel). “Of all those songs that we covered, I actually had to go and get permission for that song,” claims Timmins. “When you do a song, you can cover it as long as you stay mechanical, but if you substantially change it, you have to get permission from the owner of the copyright, and that’s Yoko Ono.

“So we had to actually go to her and plead our case. I actually did write a letter to her because she is known for not allowing stuff to change; if anyone wants to change John’s music, she usually says “No,” she won’t do it. So I wrote a letter to her and my last line in the letter was something like, “By the way, I think John would have been a great rapper!” I’d like to think that’s what made her approve it. And he sort of was in a way, songs like “Come Together” and “Give Peace a Chance,” there is a rap side to it. I hope he would have liked it.”

The other highlight on the album is an original song written by Timmins called “December Skies.” Like many of the songs recorded for Early 21st Century Blues, it too had an anti-war theme, only it added a shock value with the chorus consisting of the line, “Time to kill our children and sing about it.”

The song was inspired by the 1977 novel The Wars, written by Canadian author Timothy Findley. Timmins, also a Canadian, took an immediate liking to the anti-war theme throughout the story.

“The novel is about World War One. It’s a really beautiful book, poignantly anti-war, what the character goes through is pretty stunning,” asserts Timmins. “And that quote from the album is in the beginning of the book when the mother of the main character who is about to go to war, is at the local church. And inside the church the pastor is going on about their boys going on to fight the Great War and fight evil and blah blah blah. And then they break into hymns and start singing praises and all this shit.”

They walk out of the church and the mother is just sitting on the church steps and says, ‘I can’t believe they are doing this. We’re about to start killing our children and they’re singing about it.’ It just sums it up—singing about it being a celebration of war and of everything that goes into war and the fact that really what you’re doing is you’re sending your children off to die. And other people’s children, too, really. And that’s the basis for that.”

The basis, however, wasn’t easily digested by the rest of the band at first. Lead singer Margo Timmins, who often gets the first look at the songs her brother Mike writes, was confused by the content. “For sure, right from day one of giving it to her, the immediate reaction she had and the band had was, “What the hell is that song?” says Timmins with a laugh. “Because you just hear the words, you know, it’s a song, so it takes a while, you have to sit down and look at it and figure out your way into it. Your immediate reaction is to the chorus and you go, “Huh?”

And we don’t do this with all songs, but we sort of actually did sit down and talk about it and I said, “Well, let’s read it and study it.” And the idea of having that chorus was to make people stop and say, “Huh?” Because it is that sort of issue that people should be stopped in their tracks about. So, it was intentional.”

The reaction from their fans after hearing the song live also stirred up some conversation. “It was interesting. People…we get a reaction after the show. I guess if there is a negative reaction we get it afterwards from people when Margo is out talking with people and people might want to question her on it,” Timmins notes. “Some people might react very strongly positively to it—the ones who have figured out the song and have seen the bold statement to it. But we’ve never had anyone go, “Ohh…boo!” But people have definitely have come up to us afterwards and ask, “Hey, what is that song about?” Because again, if they haven’t heard the record and are hearing it for the first time, you don’t necessarily get the whole gist of it. But that’s a good thing; any time you can write a song or perform a song that people want to talk about, that’s a pretty good thing.”

Timmins, who is currently writing songs for the next Cowboy Junkies album, is an important songwriter, one who continually gets ignored partly because he doesn’t sing his own songs. “I think part of the problem with me writing and Margo singing is that disconnect there between the singer and the songwriter. So, if you’re singing your own words, people tend to focus on it more. So I think, in a way, that is part of the problem. You know, I meet enough people who come up to me that have taken a lot from my songs and that’s pretty amazing. Certainly in the abstract, of course I would like more people to recognize them in some way, but I think a lot do. Maybe not the way some other songwriters are recognized, and there are times when I think, “I’ve written better songs than him!” But, you know, whatever. I’m sure there are plenty of songwriters out there who want the attention that I do get. It’s all perspective.”

One young songwriter who has taken note of Timmins’ songwriting and the distinct sound of Cowboy Junkies is Ryan Adams. Adams tried to duplicate the sound of the Junkies’ breakthrough album, Trinity Session, on his last album, Jacksonville City Nights.

“It’s the ultimate compliment,” says Timmins. “Some of the stuff that he (Adams) has done, especially his first record, Heartbreaker, you know, it’s brilliant, I just love it. And I love a lot of the stuff he has done since then. I’m a big fan. And I was a big fan before I knew anything about him, so when I hear him say something like that—or anybody—you go, ‘Wow, that’s great.’ That is why I got into music– because people influenced me and made me want to do things. So when in turn you realize that your music and what you’ve done has influenced somebody else, it’s an amazing feeling. It makes it all worthwhile in many, many ways. That’s a great thing about music.”

Related Content

Recent Posts

New to Glide

Keep up-to-date with Glide