Coming out of a cold winter with Cowboy Junkies’ Michael Timmins
The title The Wilderness does a fine job of conveying the stark tone of the Canadian alt-folk/rock group Cowboy Junkies’ newest release, whose dominant themes are loss, loneliness and desperation. Much of the album’s somber feel can be chalked up to the state of confusion that the band’s guitarist and chief songwriter, Michael Timmins, recently found himself in as he grappled with relationship, family and aging issues.
As Timmins puts it, The Wilderness is about being at a point in life “where you look up, and you realize that you’re at a place of great beauty in some ways, but also a place which can be a little bit frightening. You’re a little bit lost: You never really expected to find yourself here, and you don’t really know where you are.”
The Wilderness is the fourth and final offering in the Junkies’ ambitious Nomad Series, which found the band members challenging themselves to write and record four albums in 18 months. The first of these albums, Renmin Park, was an experimental-sounding work inspired by Timmins’ three-month stay in China in 2008, while the second, Demons, consisted exclusively of Vic Chesnutt covers. As Timmins explains, the third album in the series, Sing in My Meadow, represented the band’s “acid blues” side. “There’s an aspect to our show which is a lot louder and more psychedelic and a little bit more raucous than people are probably familiar with from our recordings,” he notes. “We thought it would be kind of fun to have a whole album geared toward that aspect of our style.” To this end, Timmins wrote the songs at a brisk pace, and the band recorded them live off the studio floor over a three-day period.
“Once we’d done the three [albums], we felt like the obvious part of our style that wasn’t being represented was the side which most people associate with us: the more folk, singer-songwriter aspect,” Timmins explains. In the interest of emphasizing this aspect of their sound, the Junkies made a point of keeping the music on The Wilderness simple and vocal-driven. The sparser instrumentation reflects the barren mood of the lyrics. “Even the album cover reflects that,” Timmins offers. “The four records reflect different seasons, and The Wilderness is the winter scene.”
Timmins names “Unanswered Letter” and “We Are the Selfish Ones” as two of his favorite pieces from the album. “In keeping with the theme, they’re very honed lyrics,” he states. “They’re very sparse and very sharp. To me, there’s no fat on those lyrics.”
The album closes with “Fuck, I Hate the Cold,” a bit of a departure from the Junkies’ usual style. With its ear-grabbing I-vi chord progression and amusingly direct lyrics, “Fuck” ends the Nomad Series with a burst of life force, lending the impression that winter is coming to an end, and the ice is beginning to thaw. “We thought it was important to end on a light note—not just the record, but the whole series, you know?” Timmins reflects. “We thought, ‘Let’s just end with a little bit of a twist.’”
The act of creating four albums in 18 months would be a bold venture in any era, but never more so than in the present day, when many listeners consider the album format a dead medium. The humor of this situation isn’t lost on Timmins. “That’s very typical of us,” he laughs. “Whatever. The industry does what the industry does. We’ve never really paid much attention to it one way or the other.” He adds that while such considerations might be important for musicians who aspire to be major stars, “there’s lots of little niche markets within any industry, and there’s still a lot of people our age who want to listen to albums. Those are generally the people who listen to us.”
Those who attend Cowboy Junkies’ gig at The Rio Theatre on Saturday will hear a mix of newer songs and old favorites, including the band’s celebrated cover of The Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane.” Consider this show a rite of spring for album-oriented music junkies celebrating the return of warmer days.
Cowboy Junkies play at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 4 at The Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $30. For more information, call 423-8209