As the lone Canadian on the Albumism writing staff, I feel a responsibility to use my platform to discuss music that has shaped my motherland’s landscape. Sure, we’ve produced a decent amount of artistic exports that have found success, and even overexposure, abroad. But, there’s so much great Canadian music you likely haven’t heard—creative, poignant, life-changing stuff that deserves the attention of ears who appreciate scrupulous tunesmiths.
While it’s true that Canada’s mainstream musical evolution has often mirrored, and in many ways has been derivative of, American influences, there is also a powerful nationalism that girds the country’s artistic tastes and values. So, if you’ve had the opportunity to tune into a Canadian radio station in the past thirty years, you would’ve undoubtedly heard domestic products not unlike the pop, rock, and R&B fare produced in the U.S. But, there’s a good chance you would’ve also come across distinctive shades of Celtic, classical, and even indigenous (aboriginal) music.
It’s why bands like Toronto alt-folk veterans Cowboy Junkies have been able to rise and prevail across—and irrespective of—a turbulent industry. The quartet, comprised of siblings Margo Timmins (vocals), Michael Timmins (guitars), Peter Timmins (drums), and close family friend Alan Anton (bass), assembled in 1985—a progressive iteration of Peter and Alan’s musical relationship that was established when they were in high school.
Their debut album Whites Off Earth Now!! arrived the following year, the fruit of a collaboration with producer Peter Moore (Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Oscar Peterson, Diana Krall, Neko Case). But their bona fide breakout came with 1988’s critically lauded The Trinity Session, notably recorded during a one-day session in November 1987 at Toronto's Church of the Holy Trinity using a single microphone. The band was nominated for Group of the Year at the JUNO Awards in 1990, and again in 1991 after the release of their third studio album The Caution Horses.
I recently had the good fortune of sitting down with founding member and principal songwriter Michael Timmins to discuss their sixteenth studio album All That Reckoning, an outstanding set that underscores the band’s singularity it’s achieved over a thirty-plus-year career trajectory. Much has changed since their inception, but their innate gift for making creative and conscientious music has, happily, remained intact.
Grant Walters: First, I’ve really enjoyed listening to All That Reckoning. You’ve been discussing how this album is symbolic of the place where personal integrity, ethics, and responsibility intersect. I’ve talked with a handful of Canadian artists recently, many of whom are writing with this incisive lens on what’s happening in American society. In fact, I was on the phone with Steven Page the other day whose latest album contains a lot of rather sharp commentary on the political climate south of the 49th. So I’m curious what conversations you and the band had as you shaped this record in terms of what messages or ideas you wanted your audience to hear and know that you care about?
Michael Timmins: Yeah, just to start with the lens part—you’re right, we’ve always had an interesting perspective on the U.S., I think mainly because it’s so important to us, from an economic, social, and cultural, and even from a very personal point of view. Most of us, Steven being one of them, have very close, personal ties to the U.S. And I’m the same: I’m married to an American, my younger sister lives in the U.S. and her two kids are citizens. Our band survived by working in the U.S. and by selling records down there and touring—and always has. And any family you’d go to up and down the street in Canada, you’d find that. There’s some connection.
So, we’re very, very closely tied, yet we do have a certain distance because of some fairly major structural things in our social fabric and in the way we relate to the world and to each other in our society. I think that gives us a little bit of a remove and always has. And these days, it seems like we’re further removed in many ways as far as the way we look at things, but in a weird way, we’re almost closer [laughs]. Because we’re in more danger, I guess? I mean, there’s a real sense in Canada now, a real anxiety. We don’t know what’s going on, like a lot of the rest of the world and in your country, as well. There’s a real unrest, a sense of what’s the next move? Where does this head? Where does it go, and does it resolve itself for the good in the long run? Nobody really knows.
And that’s the lens under which this record was written, but it starts with the personal. And all those things I just talked about can be put into the personal realm, as well, you know? I’m in my late fifties now, still making music, and I’m still in the same relationship with my wife of twenty-six years. I’ve got three kids who are about to head off into the world. They’re all in their late teens, and one’s already gone, and another’s going next year. So, I have a very anxious perspective on just my own personal life [laughs]. I make a living as a musician as art—that’s another thing to add to the personal. It’s a very difficult thing to do in this day and age.
So, all these things were sort of bubbling when I started this record. And I always make a record from a personal point of view. But at the end I see if those things are all hooking on to what was happening socially and politically, and that the anxieties I was feeling internally were being felt everywhere for different reasons. But kind of for the same thing, this disruption, this lacking and moving of solid ground. I’m not quite sure where we stand anymore on many issues, whether they be personal or social. So, that’s where I started, and at the end I noticed that the two hooked together quite nicely, and that set the songwriting and the thought process.
GW: That’s an interesting take. I spent about half of my life in Canada and my immediate family and my roots are very much intact there, so even though I’ve now lived in the U.S. for something close to seventeen years, I still feel a very visceral connection to and understanding of that viewpoint you discussed. But, unless you’re Drake, or The Weeknd, or Shawn Mendes, I don’t know that Canadian music really registers in cultural consciousness here. Maybe on a surface level among people who identify it as a product of a different country, but probably not as a function of deeper commentary on the gravity of American social and political issues and how Canadians perceive them.
MT: Yeah, and I think part of that conversation is fueled by the way Canadians relate to each other differently. They relate to their country and society differently than Americans. I think that’s the prime difference between our two countries. We share so many cultural touchdowns and we share the same language that allows us to then easily communicate with them, but we communicate from a very different sort of place where we as individuals sit in our society, right?
That sort of adds this different perspective and different shade on things. When we see things moving so far away—and we’ve always recognized that—from where we sit in that cultural fabric, that social fabric, then it becomes frightening. We’ve always been a little bit different, but right now, a snapshot of today, we’re very different. Which is frightening. It’s not a good thing.
GW: I want to take a few steps back and talk about Cowboy Junkies’ coming of age amid the stuff that comprised mainstream 1980s Canadian music, where artists like Corey Hart and Bryan Adams were sort of the national standard on pop radio. I know the band’s roots were steeped in and influenced by post-punk, but you emerged with this folk-rock trademark that was rather different than your contemporaries at the time. What was it like to forge your sound in that kind of climate?
MT: Well, a lot of it had to do with the Toronto music scene. And also, you mentioned the Corey Harts and the Bryan Adamses. There were those people, and that was the music business, that was the major labels and that was sort of on the hill over there, and we ignored it because it really had nothing to do with us or the people around us. The Toronto music scene, and I’m sure in the Montréal and the Vancouver scenes as well, at that time in the mid-to-late-80s, was a really vibrant place for experimentation, and there was also a very strong roots movement going on. There was country and blues, and people not just doing covers, but doing their own thing and taking instruments associated with those types of traditional music and kind of making it their own.
And we really took that to heart. I mean, we got the accordions and mandolins and fiddles out, and the electric guitars kind of a very little bit, and the soil here was very fertile for that [laughs]. Lots of clubs and lots of people understood in hearing something different. And there was no competition, you know? You weren’t going for a record contract because, as I said, those guys were up there on the hill and you didn’t even think about that. There wasn’t even a thought that what we were doing in our scene—not just us, but everybody in our scene—would even have any interest. Or that the majors would ever even come down to take a listen, because they didn’t care, as it was so outside of what was happening in the mainstream.
And that had a certain amount of freedom because you weren’t expecting or vying for anything. You were just making music, and you were just doing it for yourself and trying to be creative. There was no thought of “well, this is happening, and we’ve got to sort of buck against it.” It was “what kind of music do we want to make,” and “here’s what we want to explore,” and that’s what would happen. And then, the majors came to us, to our scene. That’s when Blue Rodeo got snapped up, and we got snapped up, and the Barenaked Ladies after that. And then with the success of those bands, the scene got co-opted and grew into the “biz” side of things. But up to that point, it was a true indie scene.
GW: And now roots music is in vogue across the industry and it’s being heralded as a return to purity, or at least a purer form of the country and folk music that got too commercialized or tangled up in pop crossover. I’m curious if that resurgence has provided Cowboy Junkies any benefit by association with the genre?
MT: The funny thing about us, and we’ve been doing this for thirty-two or thirty-three years now, is that we’ve never really been accepted by an outside scene. We’ve always done our thing, And, as you say, there’s all of these folk-rock and roots rock groups now—you’d think we’d be looked upon as one of the progenitors of that scene. But I feel that we’re not [laughs]. And I think part of it is that we change up what we do every once in a while and we’re not always folk-y, I guess, although that’s always been the root of what we do.
So it’s nice to hear that music and I prefer that music as a fan, but I don’t necessarily feel like it’s had any effect on who we are or what we are. And part of that is we’re up here in Toronto, in Canada, as opposed to if we were based in New York City or L.A. where we might possibly be able to inject ourselves into that sort of scene and into the fabric of the “biz,” so you could get your name out there. We’re kind of removed up here, even though Toronto is a huge city. But really, in terms of the music industry, it’s irrelevant, anyway, at least as far as the U.S. music industry is concerned.
I don’t know, we’ve always kind of remained outside, and we’re not very good at promoting. We don’t go to the right parties or go to the awards shows. We don’t participate. I’m not bemoaning the fact that we’re not part of that, but it’s part of why we survive, and part of why we do what we do. Like what I was saying before, at the beginning of our career, that’s how you did it. And you maintain that attitude throughout.
GW: But I think it’s a really good thing that the band has retained such a definitive sense of self. I admire that you’ve consciously made the choice to stay so true to form.
MT: I agree. I think that’s a good thing, too. It’s hard to maintain a certain independent identity in this day and age in anything, really. To be your own personal brand has been a good thing for us.
GW: And you’ve continued to make music in much the same way that you did in the beginning, as well.
MT: Yeah, we don’t record with a single microphone like we did on Trinity, but the main core of what we do when we’re in the studio is perform live as a band off the floor. That’s a big part of it. Everything is individually mic’d so we have some control in the post-production. We didn’t have that control with Trinity. But that’s a big part of it, capturing the energy and the way we react to each other.
That’s a really important part of our sound and in what people hear—there’s an energy that happens when musicians are bouncing off each other. And then we’ll add overdubs if we do something that doesn’t sound good, or we’ll edit something. It’s not as fundamental as what we did on Trinity, but it’s very much a part of how we record. And a lot of bands do, but, again, a lot of bands don’t. There are good recordings made in other ways, but for this particular band, it’s an important part of how we capture its essence.
GW: And one of the reasons why people fall so in love with live music is because that energy and essence you talked about is tangible.
MT: Yes, exactly. And for me, it’s almost a “feel” thing. If you listen to a recording, that energy should come through without overanalyzing it—it’s just ‘okay, this is natural and organic,’ and no matter how much you’ve added to it, at the core it’s just that.
GW: I was reading an interview you recently did with Billboard in which you discussed the album art form as a dying phenomenon. As someone who writes about and appreciates albums for their ability to shape musical narrative and tell important stories, although I agree with your assessment, I find it to be really heartbreaking.
MT: To me, there’s a sadness about it because the way I grew up and how I was introduced to music was through this great experience I had with albums, you know, like David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust or Lou Reed’s Transformer. You know, those have great singles on them, but it’s the album—like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon or Wish You Were Here—there were tons of them especially in the ‘70s, which was the golden age of the album. That’s my experience and that’s how I listened to music, and that’s my bias.
I do think that’s the art form for rock music, however you want to broadly define rock music. And it’s sad that it’s disappearing with how we’re delivering music nowadays with streaming sites and playlists. It’s totally destroying that. And, you know, there’s a nice little resurgence of vinyl, but that’s, in the grand scheme of things, so tiny. You know, [Cowboy Junkies] aren’t going to change because I wouldn’t know how to make music any other way, but it is disheartening that it seems to be disappearing from the larger culture.
GW: Since making albums is still clearly important to you, how do you and your bandmates know when you’ve made a Cowboy Junkies album that pleases you enough artistically to put out into the universe?
MT: That’s the hardest thing. Because by the time you finish making a record, you’ve gone through a very long process, and it’s gone through so many stages from the writing, to the recording, to the editing, to the mixing, to the overdubs. It’s a huge process. And from my point of view, I’m in the middle of it all from note one, because I do all of the recording and mixing, as well. So, by the end of it [laughs], I usually feel ‘this album sucks! [laughs] But I’m going to put it out anyway because what the hell, I’ve spent two years doing it.’
So, it’s very difficult, but I think you rely on each other, which is fortunate because as a band, we know each other’s tastes and opinions and how we relate to music, so that’s a big part of it. We bounce a lot of ideas off of each other, and if we have doubts, we double-check each other and ask ‘is this good? Is this sitting okay?’ And you just make sure as you’re going along that each part is good and strong. When I’m writing a song, before I present it to the band, I’ve got to make sure from my point of view that it’s a good, strong song. And then we move on to the next phase, which is recording, and we can sit around and listen to the bed track where we all played the song together and made the arrangement and go ‘is this strong? Okay, now, next phase.’ Or when we do an overdub, ’is that a good part we’ve added?’
Every phase you’ve got to make sure you’re not going through the motions and you’re not taking a short cut. So, you hope that by the end of it, if you’ve made sure every phase is strong, you’ve got a strong album. It’s a matter of always checking in with one another. But, I gotta tell you, by the end of it, you’re so sick of it.[laughs].
GW: And this question isn’t meant to trivialize Cowboy Junkies’ legacy, because I happen to think the five of you have established a pretty great one, but what, at the end of it all, do you want people to eventually say about the band when they’re looking at its history in the rearview mirror?
MT: God, that’s a hard one. Yeah, I don’t know. Every time we’ve put out a record, the commentary comes back to how we’ve carved our own path and we’ve done what we wanted to do and we’ve created the things we’ve wanted to create. And whether they liked the record or not, they’ve always given us props for that, right? That’s an important thing, and as we’ve talked about, that’s not common these days. It’s hard to do that.
Hopefully, by the end of it all, it’s ‘this was an original band, it was a unique band in that they stayed true to what they wanted to do, they put out the records they wanted to put out, they did the types of shows they wanted to do.’ And when we’re gone and finished, that we’ve put out something unique. The value is up to others to decide, but there’s at least a recognition that something unique is now gone. To me, that’s good enough.
GW: One of my responsibilities as a writer for Albumism is to ask you to perform the very difficult task of choosing your top five favorite albums.
MT: You know, it’s the boring choice, but it’s because it’s so far and high above everything else is Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. You can go back to that in any era, listening to anything, and you listen and think ‘oh my God. How is this possible that this was made fifty, sixty years ago?’ It’s so perfect and so beautiful and so transcendent. So, that sits well above everything.
I think Transformer for me was a really important record, even though it’s not necessarily my favorite of Lou Reed’s stuff and The Velvet Underground stuff was probably more important. But, it was a curious record for my age—I was pretty young and it just fascinated me. I didn’t know what it was, you know? I didn’t understand it, and that will always be the sign of a good record when I don’t understand it.
Modern records, like Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space got me really excited about making music and making studio records—being in the studio and creating something like a feel and a vibe, something that you want to listen to from beginning to end. I love going back to that record and listening to it.
Bob Dylan was huge for me and there are a ton of records there, but Desire was pretty big, mostly I think because of my age. And now when I listen to it, and I don’t think it was intentional, but now I hear all of the Cowboy Junkies’ instrumentation [laughs]. You know, the fiddle and the accordion, and the very prominent female vocal in there. So, that’s a huge record for me. And again, it’s the vibe. It’s got a great feel to it.
I’d say Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division. There are a lot of records from that period that when I listen to them now, they’re horrible sounding [laughs]. Generally speaking, I just go, ‘oh my God.’ The drum sounds are fascinating because they were kind of new then, but I don’t think they wore well. The songs still are powerful to me because of who I was at the time and what I was going through, you know—I was just becoming a musician, a professional musician, I guess. Those records were very big for Alan and me as post-punk stuff.