When Margo Timmins strolled up to the microphone in her low-cut black cocktail dress, wrapped in a scarlet shawl, with a rusty shock of hair draped over one eye a la Veronica Lake, even if you’d never seen Cowboy Junkies before, there was no mistaking her star power at the Villa Montalvo’s Garden Theatre in the summer of ’09. Timmins and two of her brothers, Michael on guitar and Peter on drums, along with bassist Alan Anton, have been doing the slow boil as Cowboy Junkies since 1985. As its name implies, the Toronto-based quartet specializes in quiet, ultra-slow tunes that might sound comforting to strung-out cowpokes hunkered down around a campfire after a long day rounding up stray dogies. MAGNET recently spoke to Margo, who, along with her band mates, will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week.
“Stranger Here” (download):
MAGNET: You told a good story at the Cowboy Junkies’ show at Villa Montalvo in Saratoga, Calif., about taking your son, Ed, out on the road. He ran into a piece of luggage and cut his head open, and you got blood on your face while bandaging him. He looks up at you and says, “Mommy, you look like a vampire.” How was it taking your son on tour?
Timmins: Oh, it’s the worst, really. It’s like taking your kid to work with a split brain. They know you’re not giving them 100 percent attention, and you know you’re not giving 100 percent to your band. And you’re the one at the end of the day who doesn’t feel that you’ve done anything wrong.
Do you ever get crackpots calling you at home? Rock fans gone amok, stalkers?
No, no, I’ve been pretty lucky that way. When I lived downtown, I used to have a few people jump over my fence. But now I live out in the burbs, and nobody knows me. I was in the country for a while. I have a farmhouse. But now with my son in school, I have to be in town, so I moved closer to my parents for the better schools. It’s another lifestyle, but I don’t mind it at all. I kinda like it, quiet.
So, you never thought about home-schooling him while on the road?
[Laughs] I can barely get through his homework.
It’s a lot tougher to be a kid nowadays. My mom just let us out of the house after breakfast and expected us back for dinner. Now it’s all structured.
Yeah, I’m one of these parents who says, “He’s old enough to walk to school by himself.” And the other kids’ mothers look at me like I’m really a bad mother. It’s crazy, it really is. And I don’t think it teaches the kids anything.
Here’s one for you. Any idea why there are so many great Canadian musicians? Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, the Band, Arcade Fire, right off the top?
Well, you know what my theory is? In order to become successful you have to be accepted by the Americans, right, because it’s a bigger audience. So, I figure you guys, out of all the Canadian bands, pick the better ones, which makes it look like all the Canadians are really talented.
Maybe so, it’s natural selection. We only get the cream of the cream.
Exactly. But I also think our tradition of music is based on a folk scene of singer/songwriters. Which, of course, you guys have in spades. When we write, we’re often writing about you guys and your life.
“American Woman” by the Guess Who, as an obvious example.
As Canadians, we’re quite fascinated with what’s going on in America. We have this big, huge neighbor that we have a lot of things in common with and a lot of things that aren’t in common.
Did you ever see the 1982 Canadian indie movie called Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains, about an all-girl punk band trying to survive? It starred Diane Lane and Laura Dern when they were teenagers. Some of their problems are the same old sexist trip: You’re girls, you can’t be any good, that kind of thing. Have you experienced much of that in your career?
I can’t say I have. But I have to say, I’ve had the security of being protected by my brothers, Mike and Pete. Not that they’ve made a show of it, but they’ve always been there, and our bass player, Alan, too. I’ve known him since I was a kid. A long time ago we played a motorcycle club in Barrie (Ontario), and there I was, onstage singing my songs in front of a bunch of motorcycle boys, yelling whatever they had to yell. I was like a mess, I didn’t know how to deal with this. It was not my lifestyle. My brothers didn’t like it, either: This was their sister. They could see that I was upset and rattled. They quickly closed ranks and told me to turn around and look at them and just focus on the music. And when we’ve seen inappropriate things in magazines, they’ve laughed it off and made me laugh at it and not take it seriously. It’s not just the sexist stuff but also the negative stuff.
Sure, you’ve gotta have a tough hide to be an entertainer.
As a woman, when critics write about your show, they tend to discuss your looks, your outfit. I mean, they don’t discuss Mick Jagger’s looks.
Especially nowadays. I don’t know if it was stage fright, but I’ve read that when you started singing with the band, you didn’t want to face the audience.
Yeah, that’s how I started off, for sure. I never was a shy person, but the idea of standing onstage was a place I’d never imagined myself to be or even wanted to be. I wanted to have six children like my mom and make beds.
Is it true you wanted to be a go-go dancer, as a kid?
[Laughs] Yes, I was very young, before I realized what it really meant. I think I liked the boots. I didn’t realize you got ogled by a bunch of men. That was the beauty of being in a band like Cowboy Junkies. My brothers knew my personality right from the beginning and sort of knew that I had to grow into this onstage person. And they allowed me to.
I’ve interviewed both Ray and Dave Davies of the Kinks, who, reportedly, have had pretty good dust-ups onstage, although I’ve never seen one. Have you ever had problems like that with Mike and Pete?
Well, not onstage. Never fist-fights. I would think with the Davies brothers, there was probably some alcohol involved. I think being in a band is like a marriage. You’re living close together in very awkward circumstances, in a tour bus. You’re not sleeping, not eating. You’re making decisions that affect your career, and like in a marriage, you don’t always agree on how things should go. Everybody has their own needs. We’ve definitely been mad at each other. But we’ve never had a big fight on the bus in front of anybody. There’s never been anybody losing it and having a dramatic scene. We certainly have not liked each other backstage and snarled. But, even when we were little, I’ve always been the nurturer. I seriously did want to have six kids. Also I think having three of us makes a difference. When I’m mad at Mike, I can go to Pete and tell him what an idiot Mike is, and vice versa. There’s always somebody to complain to and get it out of your system. We have three other siblings, my parents are still together. We have always been very aware if Mike and I or Pete and I aren’t talking, and we allow ourselves to get to that point where we destroy our relationship, we would destroy if for a lot other people. It would just be terrible. So, we never let anything get too stupid.
Tell me what your parents thought when you told them what the name of the band was.
My parents were before the hippie generation, but I don’t think they were shocked at the name. They had listened to all our crazy music for years and watched us go through our punk stage with our awful hair and awful makeup. I think they were more worried about having half of their kids in a van that was driving across the country for long, long distances, late at night on icy roads and exhausted. We would drive from Toronto to Montreal to do a gig, then turn around and come back to go to work. We were young and had no idea of our mortality.
How did you evolve the slow, slower and slowest sound of the band?
[Laughs] I’m not a big loud singer, and I’m not a big loud person, so that helped keep it quiet. I think with slow music there’s more space. When we started out, we weren’t very good musicians. We like the space. The space was something that all of us could hear as part of the music, as opposed to, “Oh my God, the space, we’ve got to do something there, put a horn in.” The tempos allowed us to think of what we were going to do next. We always wrote songs by jamming, right from the very early days. Then listen to the tapes and say, “Well, this part’s sort of cool, let’s work on that.”
Fill me in, if you would, on the back-story of the new album, Renmin Park. Your family spent three months in China? How long ago was that?
No, it wasn’t me. It was Mike. He has three children, two of which are adopted girls from China. He wanted to go to China to show his daughters their roots. He really wanted to experience the culture as much as he could. His wife is a second-language teacher, so she got a job in a school. They really were the only white people in their village. Obviously, it was life-changing. Michael was really taken with the sounds of everyday life. He emailed us to send him a digital recorder. He went around taping everything, people doing their tai-chi in the parks, playing badminton. The parks are their playgrounds, so they’re huge. Every city has a Renmin Park, which translates into “people’s park.” And they go there to do everything, not just picnic. That’s where life happens. The whole album is a love story with China, a complicated situation. A lot of the sounds he taped are used on the album as background loops. The three of us who didn’t go were easily led by Mike, because we’ve always trusted his musical vision, but from Mike’s perspective it was daring. I have to say, I’m quite proud of that album.
I saw the band back in the ’80s at the Fillmore, but when you walked onstage last summer at the Montalvo estate, with your shock of red hair and wrapped in a scarlet shawl, even if somebody didn’t know who you were, the star-power was overwhelming. You said somewhere that you think your hair is just as important as your music. Is that true?
[Laughs] I must have been in my assertive mode that night. I think my hair has been written about more than anything else. For me personally, there are moments in the show when things are going well when I have hidden behind my hair, like the curtain closes for a moment.
Being aware of the quiet nature of your music, I was surprised you were so chatty last summer. If I had never seen you live, I’d have thought you might not say anything onstage.
It depends on the night. If I’m in the mood, I do. I’m not a shy person. If there’s a story at hand, I’ll tell it. The next night I might not say anything except to introduce the songs. There are nights when I’m missing home, I’m sadder or not feeling well. Or I don’t have a story. And again, the boys have always allowed me to play it the way I feel it. I always go out after the show and speak with people. The material also changes from night to night. If I’m not feeling out there and bold, then it might be a softer version of the same song tonight.
There are bands that play their set note-for-note the same every night, which I imagine could become a big bore.
Yeah, totally. For us, we love playing live, because we never know what the night is going to bring.
And when it’s good that way, it’s really good.
Well, that’s it. You still get that buzz when you get offstage. Even though I’m 50 years old now, I just feel invincible. That’s what keeps you out there.