A HOLY GHOST FEELING: Cowboy Junkies

30 years ago the Cowboy Junkies struck gold with The Trinity Session. With a vinyl reissue of the iconic album, a new record on the horizon, and a sold-out American tour in progress, they’re mining it again. Below, read a CJ story about Trinity and its aftermath from the BLURT editor’s archives.

BY FRED MILLS

This past weekend I was privy to one of the most intimate-yet-expansive, brilliantly engaging, shows in my nearly half-century of concertgoing. On March 2 Canada’s Cowboy Junkies, currently on their “All That Reckoning” North American spring tour, performed at the Diana Wortham Theatre in Asheville, North Carolina, a two-set concert essentially bookended by familiar tunes l from the band’s classic 1988 sophomore effort The Trinity Session (“Sweet Jane” in particular was staggeringly great; below is a solid version from another tour) and featuring material from the group’s upcoming studio album, their first since 2012’s Nomad Series Vol. 4: The Wilderness (reviewed here), plus selected faves from their extensive back catalog. Though the essential Cowboy Junkies formula remains the same in 2018—atmospheric, at times meditative, wraiths of sound and spotlighted by guitarist Michael Timmins’ trademark clean, bluesy, just-a-hint-of-reverb riffs and leads, alongside sister Margo’s breathy, ethereal vocals—it’s anything but formulaic, instead rich, resonant, luminous, and haunting, the kind of music that follows you for days afterwards.

The concert in this small, acoustically perfect venue sold out weeks ago, and the transfixed audience (which clearly tilted towards an older demographic; I’d be surprised if there was anyone there under 30) was both reverent to the point of being hushed for long periods of time, and wildly enthusiastic. That the band came out afterwards to greet well-wishers, sign records and pose for photos, and of course move plenty of merch only cemented the bond, which for two hours was profound. (Below: Load-out in Asheville; via the band’s Facebook page.)

In addition to the forthcoming record, The Trinity Session recently saw a 30th anniversary Canadian reissue as a two-LP vinyl edition (upon its original ’88 appearance the vinyl was extremely limited and primarily released only in Canada and Europe) boasting a gatefold sleeve, slightly different artwork, and extensive liner notes detailing the inception and the making of the album. Collectors could also snag it in different shades of wax, either limited edition white or red, or the more widely available black. Long one of my favorite albums, it prompted me to revisit a story I did on the band in 2008 for BLURT predecessor Harp magazine, where I served as Managing Editor and also penned the archivally-minded “Indelibles” column. Occasioned by the CD/DVD release of Trinity Revisited, a document of the CJ’s return to the original church where they recorded their 1988 opus and were joined at the sessions by Ryan Adams, Natalie Merchant, and Vic Chesnutt. Michael Timmins proved an engaging interview subject, hardly matching the image I’d had of him being relatively non-forthcoming in interviews (based on other journalists’ reports), seemingly willing to answer questions he’d no doubt fielded scores of times in the past and also apparently eager to set the record straight on a number of points. “You got kind of exhausted by it,” Timmins told me, in response to my query about always being asked in interviews about Trinity. “But you very quickly learned after a few years that it was a very important record that launched our careers and got us into the spotlight internationally and onto so many people’s radars. It allowed us to continue on—it was a vehicle to enable people to explore the rest of our music when they might never have heard of us otherwise. So we got a kind of perspective on that record pretty quickly: ‘This is an important record for us and we should not dismiss it.’”

Indeed—the record’s timeless, and people will always be interested in hearing about it. They clearly were interested in 2008 when the band did selected conc erts during which they performed the entire album from start to finish, such as THIS Feb. 23, 2008 concert in Toronto, broadcast over the radio.n So now seems as good a time as any to resurrect the conversation. To Michael, thanks for your time 10 years ago, and to the entire band, thanks for three decades-plus of music and memories. The Asheville show marked only the third time I’d seen the Cowboy Junkies perform—it definitely won’t be my last. (Below: The band performs a phenomenal 10-minute “Working On a Building” in Toronto in 2008 during a concert featuring them covering “Trinity” in its entirety.)

*****

CHARLOTTE, NC, 1990: The Cowboy Junkies have just taken the stage of Spirit Square, an old church renovated into a performance venue. As the Canadian band eases into the familiar bluesy lope of “I Don’t Get It”—from 1988’s acclaimed The Trinity Session, recorded at Toronto’s Church of the Holy Trinity—your future HARP correspondent gazes around the intimate room, marveling at its visual beauty (the original stained glass windows are still in place) and perfect acoustics.

“That was a special show—that was a nice little space,” says guitarist/songwriter Michael Timmins, on the phone from Toronto. I’m surprised he remembers it; perhaps he also looked around the room that night and said to himself, this is like returning to Trinity.

We’re here to discuss his band’s literal return to Trinity, in November of 2006. That’s when Timmins, his vocalist sister Margo and their drummer brother Peter, along with bassist Alan Anton and harmonica/mandolin player Jeff Bird plus guests Ryan Adams, Natalie Merchant and Vic Chesnutt, convened at the church to re-cut the dozen songs that comprised The Trinity Session for a 20th anniversary edition CD/DVD. Trinity Revisited benefits from better circumstances—the earlier recording was done in 14 hours, with a single mic and no overdubs, while this time they spent three days and brought along a full audio and film crew—yet as Timmins points out, the intention was not “to redo it or improve upon it. We just wanted to revisit it, just sort of go back and see where all the songs are 20 years later.”

Some quick backtracking is in order. In 1987 the Cowboy Junkies were essentially unknown outside Canada; a year earlier they’d self-released their debut LP, Whites Off Earth Now! which sold modestly and remained import-only in the U.S. Now, their close friend and producer Peter Moore was suggesting that for their sophomore effort they give the acoustically-sublime Trinity church a try.

“Peter had done some recording in the church before, a little jazz combo and some orchestral stuff, and he thought it might work for us,” says Timmins. He pauses, then chuckles at one particular memory. “But at the time we were an unknown entity, and although the church was pretty progressive he wasn’t sure whether booking a rock band called Cowboy Junkies would fly! So he just figured, ‘Oh, I’ll play it easy, tell them it’s a group called The Timmins Family…’”

Call it a case of strategic serendipity. Timmins recalls going over to his sister’s apartment the next morning with the Trinity tape and playing it for her and their mother who’d dropped by for coffee. “I said, here, you gotta listen to this, and we put it on, and it was… amazing! [My mother] turned to Margot and said, ‘You know, your life is never going to be the same.’ She’s not some big music aficionado. But she heard something in there.”

Mom was right. A career-making album by any measure, Trinity was initially self-released like its predecessor. But its seamless blend of opiated swamp-rock and ethereal twang, plus some downright haunting interpretations of Hank Williams, Elvis, Patsy Cline and the Velvet Underground, caught the ear of RCA, who released the album in the U.S. The record quickly struck a deep chord among critics, radio programmers (the Junkies’ cover of “Sweet Jane” became a Top Ten hit) and the burgeoning alt-country scene. Since its release the Junkies have toured the globe and issued eleven studio albums, steadily growing and expanding their musical palette. But all along, Trinity material has remained in their setlists, and from time to time fans and friends would raise the question of why hadn’t they ever gone back to that Toronto church to recapture some of its sonic—holy—magic.

“We’d thought, well, let’s just leave good enough alone. But then the anniversary was coming up,” explains Timmins. “I dunno, I guess we just felt we’d moved far enough from it that we could revisit it with some perspective. And we thought that having the guests would definitely bring a new perspective to it. As we’ve moved along, more and more people have mentioned how important a record that was to them—these three being some of them.”

“These three”: far from the walk-ons that we’ve come to expect from guest star-laden projects, Adams, Merchant and Chesnutt literally joined the band for the making of Trinity Revisited. All eight msicians set up in a circle to achieve—as captured on cameras by filmmakers Pierre and François Lamoureux—an uncommon intimacy to the music. Chesnutt’s ancient mariner’s croak; Merchant’s woodsy warble; Adams’ lilting yelp; all three voices pierce these familiar songs, but not intrusively, instead lending fresh nuance to the material. There’s also a newfound intensity in spots, such as during a midsong Timmins-Adams guitar duel in “I Don’t Get It.”

At one point Margo Timmins glances around at her accompanists: it’s a look of pure pleasure, a kind of I’m-pinching-myself-this-is-so-good look.

And now, in reflecting upon the trio’s contributions, her brother’s enthusiasm is palpable; his voice actually rises in pitch as he recalls how uniquely the personalities blended. “We had no clue how they would work together,” he says. “But we just said, let’s go for it and we’ll see where it lands. And we’re ecstatic how it turned out! The guests brought their own edges to [the songs] that added the next level of newness to them for us.”

The Cowboy Junkies performed Trinity in its entirety last October at London’s Royal Albert Hall. As of this writing, plans were to do it again in February in Toronto. (Adams guested in London and was scheduled to come up to Canada for the Toronto show along with the Band’s Garth Hudson.) Timmins indicates that they might mount a few more Trinity showcases but that they are adamant about not touring it per se (“I think we’d get bored pretty quick…”) so they didn’t risk diluting its specialness. Hearing this, I ask him if that 1988 album had ever felt like an albatross for the band: Oh no, here comes another question about the church…

“Well, yeah, on that level, it did,” he replies. “But we quickly learned that it was a very important record that got us onto so many people’s radars. We were once doing an interview in the mid ‘90s, and the questions inevitably came back to The Trinity Session. We did our dutiful best [laughs] without rolling our eyes, and afterwards Jeff Byrd sort of turned to us and said, ‘You know, I realize that you only get one story in life. Trinity is your story!’

“And it’s very true. That is our story.”

***

MICHAEL TIMMINS—THE HARP INTERVIEW

[Editor’s Note: What follows is the complete transcript of our conversation with the Cowboy Junkies’ Michael Timmins in which he expands upon some of the topics covered above and touches upon others. Below, watch a kind of “Trinity Revisited” trailer created by a fan – it would seem that the band and/or their label has been quite proficient at taking down audio and video not specifically uploaded by them.)

HARP: You are still a Toronto resident, right? I was wondering if you’d see the church from time to time and think to yourself, “What if…?”

MICHAEL TIMMINS: I still live in Toronto, yeah, but there was no real reason to go to the church. I mean, I’ve driven by it a lot, and walked by it, but for whatever reason never stepped inside it.

HARP: In 1990 I saw you guys play—Townes Van Zandt was on the tour with you—at this place called Spirit Square in Charlotte. An old converted church, stained glass windows and everything. I remember thinking at the time that this would be the closest I’d ever get to seeing the band in a setting remotely similar to the one for Trinity. Lo and behold: now I’ve got a DVD of you performing a return engagement in the Trinity church.

MT: That was a special show—that was a nice little space. I remember it! It was maybe a little bit smaller than Trinity Church.

HARP: So a devil’s advocate question: As great as the new recording is, why mess with perfection?

MT: Oh yeah, that’s definitely a question we asked ourselves, and probably the reason we’d never touched it before. Nevermind going over the material—we’d never even gone back to Trinity Church to record something else. It was just this perfect moment in time which we captured back then and thought, well, let’s just leave good enough alone and move on.

But then the anniversary was coming up, and this was suggested to us—and the idea of bringing in guest musicians was suggested. I guess we just felt, as a band, we’d moved far enough from it that we could revisit it with some perspective. And we thought that having the guests would definitely bring a new perspective to it. As we’ve moved along, more and more people—obviously music fans, but musicians as well—have mentioned how important a record that was to them. These three being some of them. And it was just, I dunno, I just thought of it as an opportunity and a challenge. We weren’t attempting to redo it or improve upon it; we just wanted to revisit it, just sort of go back and see where all the songs are in the spaces 20 years later. And as I said, bring in some guests this time.

HARP: Why these particular guests? Did you already have a relationship with Ryan, Natalie and Vic?

MT: Not really. Vic, we’d done some touring with over the years. We’d never met Ryan but were big fans of him. Natalie we’d never worked with but we’d certainly crossed paths with over the years. All of them had some connection, though; they were all fans of that album specifically, and of the band in general. We, more importantly, were fans of what they were doing and what they’ve done over the years. And it was just an odd mixture of people; we had no clue how they would work together. But we just said, let’s go for it [laughs] and we’ll see where it lands.

It was a big risk on many, many levels. Certainly the least of which was screwing with this record. But we just thought, as I said, we were far enough away from it and had enough experience and perspective now, so let’s see where these songs are and where this record fits. I’m really glad we did it and we’re ecstatic how it turned out. We never want anyone to think we were trying to redo it or recreate it. It’s a different record, you know? Same songs, different record. And it’s part of what you do onstage every night too. You play the same songs over and over again. But this is just a way of bringing them all together and going back to the same space. I dunno, it was a project and I think it worked out well.

HARP: Most albums with guests just do it more as “walk ons” where they sing this or that song. It was unusual for you to integrate them into the ensemble.

MT: Yeah, that was a big part of it. We wanted to get players who had the ability to do that, and more importantly were interested in doing that and not just “come on and do the song.” It was kind of like the way we approached the first recording in a sense; we invited guests back then, too—not famous people, but they were guests—and incorporated them into what we were doing.

So we just sort of ran through these songs, and it was very similar [to the original session] how we approached it. We charted things out kind of loosely at the start, had a brief rehearsal, and then just went for it, doing the songs two or three times and recording them. Just like last time. That was a very important part of it, too. We wanted to make sure that the people who were going to join us weren’t just going to learn a song and come in and do it, but rather become a part of the band for that day of the recording.

HARP: Over the years song arrangements evolve and change. Was there a temptation to “go back” to the old songs? “Okay, this is how we used to do this song, let’s do it that way…” That sort of self-editing?

MT: Not really. We kind of stuck to how we were playing the songs now, and that was part of the whole deal of not wanting to try to recreate it. It was more this being twenty years down the line, where we were, and some of the songs are still the same while others have a bit more edge to them because we play them with a different attitude now. We wanted to bring that to the new recording so it would be a new recording. All these songs, to a certain degree, we’ve played on and off through the years, so we kind of kept them where they were. And the guests brought their own edges to them, so that added the next level of newness to them for us. So no, we didn’t really go back. The only reason I would go back was when I was putting together the rough outline of who was gonna sing what, because I knew that [album] was what the guests would be referring to. So in listening to the songs I wanted to explain to them “this doesn’t work like this anymore, it works like that…”—so it was more of a reference.

HARP: There’s a moment in the bonus documentary on the DVD where you and Ryan are working on one of the songs and he’s suggesting to try something for the spinout of the song, so you do.  And to me that signified that it wasn’t carved in stone for you.

MT: Oh yeah. That was a big part of it. And again, 20 years down the line, we’re not precious about the record or about our music. We love having guests come in whether it be onstage or recording, bringing their perspective and their ideas. We’ve always approached our music like that from the beginning, really—the original Trinity Session being a perfect example of that, you know? We brought in all those guests to bring their talent and their voices with their instruments.

So there’s no difference with this. Ryan had lots of ideas, as did Natalie and Vic, and everything was listened to and tried and experimented with. Some were used, some weren’t, but it all shifted stuff slightly. And, as I say, it brought their personalities to the record, which was very important.

HARP: Such unusual sounding voices. They brought different nuances of the songs to the surface at times.

MT: Yeah, yeah. That’s true. And we had no clue how their voices would work together! I mean, Vic is such a unique artist, his voice and his playing, and obviously his songs; his singing and his playing are totally “outside” and that’s what I’ve always loved about him. Natalie has a voice we’ve always loved—and Margot has actually referred to her voice many times when we were recording, sort of trying to do something “more Natalie-like.” [laughs] She’s always been a presence in our music. And Ryan, I think what we were most amazed bout him, because we’ve always loved his music and his songs and his recording, in person it was just how amazing his voice was. He can sing anything! And there’s so much confidence behind it, which is an incredible thing.

So it was a real joy to do it. As these guys began to play it was really fun.

HARP: During “Working on a Building,” I believe, Ryan, Natalie and Margot are all harmonizing together at one point and it’s an amazing stack of harmonies.

MT: Yeah, exactly. And that’s the sort of thing that we didn’t know whether it would work. I don’t have enough musical technical knowledge to be able to listen to the recordings and figure out where they fit within their range. It was just a matter of getting them together and hoping for the best. Yeah, their vocals stack up great.

HARP: It was interesting watching the documentary where you guys sit around reminiscing with your original producer Peter Moore. What was it like getting back together with him, or had you kept touch?

MT: Oh, I’ve been working with Peter ever since that record. A couple of the other records he co-produced, he mixed others, and he’s mastered most of our records. I work with him on a lot of independent stuff too, so Peter’s been a part of what we do for a long time. He’s also a great wealth of knowledge on technical and recording equipment; as we built our studio and done more recording, I’ve always referred to him.

HARP: Tell me the story of Peter booking the church to do the original recording—“The Timmins Family.”

MT: [laughs] Peter had done some recording in the church before. Not an electric band, but a little jazz combo and some orchestral church. That’s how we knew about the church, and he thought it might work with us. We weren’t sure how the drums and bass would work, but he liked the sound of it. But at the time we were an unknown entity, and although at the time the church was pretty progressive, he wasn’t sure whether booking a rock band called the “Cowboy Junkies” would fly! So he just figured, “Oh, I’ll just play it easy, go in there and tell them I’m recording a session for the CBC”—which is our national radio station—“and it’s a group called The Timmins Family.” [laughs] Just a way of getting us in there and not having to hassle over the name Cowboy Junkies.

HARP: “Oh! Like the Von Trapp Family Singers! Like the Sound Of Music! Sure! Bring them on in!” Smart move on Peter’s part. There’s another story I’ve heard about the morning after the first Trinity was recorded and your mother was over at Margot’s place having coffee when you came in with the tapes…

MT: It was a very weird situation because of the way Trinity was recorded. It was done; the day we walked out of the church, it was finished. No mixing. A live recording to two-track, just on a DAT tape. So I had the actual master tape, and probably a dub onto a cassette. We’d gone home that night after the recording, and Pete was living in the same house at the time so we listened to it and we were blown away. You know, we walked out of the church thinking that was a great day, but not knowing what it sounded like on tape.

So the next morning, Margot was living a couple of blocks away, and I went over with the tape and said, “My God, you’ve got to hear this!” My mother happened to be there, which is very unusual; she’d come downtown to do something and stopped in at Margot’s. I said, here, you gotta listen to this, and we put it on, and it was.. [stammers, then laughs]… amazing! She turned to Margot and said, “You know, your life is never going to be the same.’ [laughs] It was really weird, because she’s not some big music aficionado. But she just heard something in there — which I guess a lot of people wound up hearing. So that was an interesting comment.

HARP: Barbara Walters question: How does a band stay together for 20 years? What’s the chemistry, aside from the familial connection?

MT: That’s a big part of it. We’ve always had a way of knowing how to deal with each other. Even Alan, I’ve been friends with him since before Pete was born. So we’re all very tight and have a shared background. Shared musical tastes, we all shared record collections, and that includes Alan. I guess we fought as kids and made up because we had to live in the same house, and so now we sort of… know each other’s spaces, which buttons not to push at certain times. And I think we sort of have shared values as far as what we want to get out of being a band and making music. We all enjoy the same things; it’s not like one person wants to become a rock star and the other person wants to be whatever. We just enjoy being in a band and playing music together and we kind of glom on to that. When things are bad or we’re kind of troubled, we go back to that: “We like playing music. We don’t want to lose that.”

HARP: A lot of bands will tell me that when times get tough they sometimes cast back to when they were stuck in the van together, get a chuckle out of it, and they can appreciate where they are now.

MT: Sure, sure. There’s a shared history, and the longer you go the longer that history becomes. With the family history and the Alan as a friend history, we have a lot joining the four of us together.

HARP: What are your plans for your next studio album?

MT: Well, I’m going to start… today! After this interview I’m going to go meet a guy about this place: when I start to sit down and conceptualize and write a new record, I try to get out of town and isolate myself. I don’t have my own space so I rent places up in the country, say, an hour or two hours out of Toronto. I’m calling this guy today because I think I have a lead on a place where I can do that this month. That’s the start of it, and you never know where it can lead from there. [Ed. note: In 2010 the band would finally release the fruits of their latest recording sessions, volume 1 of “The Nomad Series,” Renmin Park.]

I tend to get a place for a few months and that kickstarts the writing process. I try and gather material and ideas and hopefully finish some songs. Then I bring the band into the process from there. Things can go really quickly from there, or they can get spread out over the course of a year. So I dunno; we’ll still be touring a lot in the coming year, so I’d like to get some songs that we can play live and go from there.

HARP: I always thought you were very fortunate to have a “voice” through which you could write—Margot’s voice. It reminds me, oddly enough, of how Pete Townshend had a voice he could write through—Roger Daltrey’s. It’s a very special relationship for a songwriter to have with his material, filtering it through another voice.

MT: Yeah, it makes the whole process very interesting. The way I look at it is that once I finish a song and hand it over, I feel really removed from it. So I can almost write the songs on a very personal level and not even think of how they’re going to be expressed, because Margo takes them and they become her songs. [laughs] It’s kind of a neat thing. And of course having the ability to have Margot sing them adds a new level of meaning to them. It can be a nice surprise when we’re working on the songs.

HARP: Getting back to Trinity just a bit more: Did you ever perform the album in its entirety from the stage?

MT: We never did in the past. Just a couple of gigs after [recording Trinity Revisited]. In October [2007] we did it at the Royal Albert Hall in London, and Ryan actually joined us for that. And then we’re doing it again at Massey Hall in Toronto next month [February]. Ryan’s coming up for that and we’re hoping Garth Hudson will join us too.

But we never toured it. There’s no real temptation to do that either. I can see us doing it maybe once or twice more. You know, it begins to smack a little of nostalgia, and it’s kind of fun in a way. Having Ryan there makes it exciting and different for us because the whole show has a different vibe with the extra musician onstage. Garth would make it really fun. But just for the five of us or the four of us to go around on tour with it… I’m not saying we won’t do it a few more times, but we wouldn’t do a full tour with it. I think we’d get really bored pretty quick, and with our shows we’ve always changed them around night to night and carried a full repertoire of songs. It’s what we do; we do a lot of touring and we like changing things around.

HARP: Whites Off Earth didn’t come out in the U.S. initially, so for the majority of the record buying public, Trinity was your debut. Did it ever become an albatross? “Oh no, here comes another question about the church…”?

MT: Well, yeah, on that level, it did. You got kind of exhausted by it. But you very quickly learned after a few years that it was a very important record that launched our careers and got us into the spotlight internationally and onto so many people’s radars. It allowed us to continue on—it was a vehicle to enable people to explore the rest of our music when they might never have heard of us otherwise. So we got a kind of perspective on that record pretty quickly: “This is an important record for us and we should not dismiss it.” It is what it is.

Sure, you get tired of it, but you have to respect it. We were once doing an interview in the mid ‘90s, a radio show, me, Margot and Jeff Byrd. I think we were promoting Lay It Down, our sixth or seventh record, and the questions inevitably came back to The Trinity Session. We did our dutiful best [laughs] without rolling our eyes, and afterwards Jeff sort of turned to us and said, ‘You know, I realize that you only get one story in life. Trinity is your story!’ [laughs]

And it’s very true. That is our story. No matter what you do, people are always gonna refer back to it. And that’s true too. The majority of reviews we get, no matter what the record, there’s always a reference back to Trinity: “It’s the same/better/worse than…” Or whatever; it’s always referred back to. But we’ve kind of been around long enough to realize it is what it is and we know how to deal with it.

HARP: Better that than some big tragedy or drug/booze-powered flameout to be “your story” or the coda to every review.

MT: Absolutely.

Leave a Reply