COWBOY JUNKIES – Being Understated Is The Key To Longevity

It is March 1988 at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza in Los Angeles and members of the National Association of Recording Merchandisers have gathered together for their annual convention. This high-profile event allows all the major U.S record companies to hook up with key U.S record retailers to promote and hype that year’s new releases. It’s a given that if your record is hyped during this session you probably have a hit on your hands.

Up in the RCA suite, posters for one particular release dominate the label’s promotional push. It’s `The Trinity Session’ by Toronto-based quartet The Cowboy Junkies. Music Express magazine was distributed in the States via Musicland/Sam Goody at that time so when the RCA staff realized that I was from Toronto, they all clamoured to find out more about these newcomers who’s debut single, a cover of Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane”, was causing such a sensation at U.S radio

Michael Timmins has fond memories of those days. He, along with siblings Margo and Peter and bassist Alan Anton had formed Cowboy Junkies in 1985 and the amazing success of their second album is a major reason why the group is about to be inducted into Canada’s Music Industry Hall Of Fame, ceremonies to take place Thursday May 7th at Toronto’s Sheraton Centre as part of the week-long Canadian Music Week activities.

“It’s nice to be appreciated for what we’ve done but it’s not something we’ve focused on,” noted the reticent  Timmins as he’s reached at the Toronto office of the band’s Latent Records studio. “This Hall of Fame, awards stuff or things of this nature are flattering but we’d just sooner go about our regular business.”

Yes it’s been more than 28 years since `The Trinity Session’ was recorded (primarily in one day) , November 27th 1987 when band members and a few select musical guests sat in a circle around a Calrec Ambisonic Microphone in the acoustically-sound, Church Of The Holy Trinity  in downtown Toronto and, under the direction of producer Peter Moore, recorded the album’s 12 songs  (10 on the original vinyl release) in one take, direct to tape, no mixing, overdubbing or editing in any way.

The sheer simplicity of `The Trinity Session’ took North America by storm. The L.A Times rated the album one of the Ten Best of 1988, Rolling Stone Magazine’s Anthony DeCurtis gave the record a rave review, paying particular attention to Margo Timmins’ plaintive, ethereal vocal delivery and Margo herself would later be honoured by People Magazine, who named her one of the World’s 50 Most Beautiful Women.cowboyjunkies

Combining original compositions like “Misguided Angel”, “I Don’t Get It and “To Love Is To Bury”  and “200 More Miles”with country/folk hits like Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight”, Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and their cover of “Sweet Jane” which reached No 5 on the Billboard singles chart, The Junkies’ recorded this album in such an easy flowing, hypnotic  style that DeCurtis noted “ it felt like the album was one continuous song,”

Reaching platinum status in the U.S (over one million units sold) and double platinum in Canada (over two hundred thousand units sold), the success of `The Trinity Session’ opened up a global touring market for Cowboy Junkies. And although none of their subsequent albums had the same sales impact, the band is still much in demand in the States.

Cowboy Junkies had a trial run for their `The Trinity Session’ as their first album 1985’s `Whites Off Earth Now” was also given the sparse recording treatment, Peter Moore producing the record using an AmbIsonic microphone and utilizing a garage as a studio.

“We started out as an indie band, then we were picked up by RCA and later Geffen so we had 10 years with the majors and that was fine. It allowed us to use their marketing money which was great and they gave us name recognition around the world,” enthused Timmins. “But for the last 15 years or so, we have returned to our indie roots, we own our own label (Latent), our own studio so we are pretty well self-sufficient.”

“There was pressure to put ourselves in someone else s hands and let them create what they thought was commercially viable, but that would have been a sell out,” he added. “But we weren’t tempted. We knew what we had was something special and that it would have been ruined if we had trusted someone else.”

Cowboy Junkies recorded three more studio albums for RCA, two for Geffen before launching their own indie label in 2001 with a release titled “Open”. They then released three more indie releases before marking the 20th anniversary of `The Trinity Session’ by returning to The Church Of The Holy Trinity on October 8th 2007 to record ` Trinity Revisited’, a re-recording of their previous landmark, but with arrangement changes to the tracks and the involvement of three guest vocalists; Natalie Merchant, Vic Chestnutt and Ryan Adams.

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“We couldn’t have possibly recorded this album the way we recorded the original record,” admitted Timmins. “We had so many people in the building, we had a video crew shooting a documentary and the original way we recorded the tracks was a lot trickier than it seemed at the time.”

In recent years, The Junkies have recorded a four-record series called Nomad which has involved some major touring, they have developed their own talent roster which includes the likes of Lee Harvey Osmond, The Skydiggers, Jeff Bird, The Good Family, Poison Kings and Mary Gauthier and have even developed an “Under Cover” program in which every month, The Junkies and an artist off their label releases a cover song that is available as a free download on their Face Book page.

To recognize the 50th anniversary of the November 22nd 1963 assassination of former U.S President John F. Kennedy, the Junkies collaborated on the recording of `The Kennedy Suite’, a rock opera, post-modern musical that was performed  November 22nd and 23rd 2013 at Toronto’s Winter Garden Theatre  which featured performances by the likes of Hawksley Workman, Sarah Harmer, Harlan Pepper and Lee Harvey Osmond.

They still tour and record although Timmins noted they are enjoying a bit of down time right now having performed throughout 2014 in support of their Nomad releases. “Logistics make things a little more complicated now that we’ve all got families and kids,” he acknowledged. “But when we get back in the studio or step back on stage, the creative juices start to flow again. “

“We may not be at the forefront of what is happening commercially,” acknowledged Timmins. “But I believe we have a sound that is enduring and we can honestly say we have never sold ourselves out.”

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