Cowboy Junkies are in town next week, playing amid the gothic grandeur of Gorton Monastery. Kevin Bourke catches up with songwriter Michael Timmins
A couple of years ago I heard Cowboy Junkies revisit their classic, wonderfully atmospheric album, The Trinity Session, originally recorded in 1987 at Toronto’s Church Of The Holy Trinity, in a pretty common-or-garden venue in Edinburgh. When I heard the Canadian blues/jazz/country band were playing at Gorton Monastery on their upcoming tour, I couldn’t help but point out to the band’s Michael Timmins what a missed opportunity that had been. If only they’d played at Manchester’s gothic palace on their last tour.
‘By the sounds of things,’ he agrees, ‘but the history of this band is full of accidents and most of them have been good, so…’ In fact, it seems that the band’s last album, Renmin Park, the first in the Nomad Series, was itself something of a lucky accident. Musically and lyrically, it was inspired by Timmins’ visit to China, the birth country of two of his adopted daughters, an experience that he had initially regarded as something wholly personal.
‘My family and I were given an opportunity to spend three months in China,’ he tells me. ‘We were boarded at a school in the small town of Jingjiang on the Yangtze River, about two hours from Shanghai. My wife taught English, my three young kids attended a few classes and I spent my days exploring. But, mostly, we inserted ourselves into the day-to-day life of Jingjiang.
‘We were welcomed with open arms by anyone in the town who could put three English words together,’ he recalls. ‘Homes were open to us, we created friendships and had adventures that have already become part of our family lore. It was a storybook experience, overwhelming to say the least, perhaps even life altering for my daughters.
‘Renmin Park is a reflection of that adventure, although I had no initial intention of making music from it. When we first got to China one of the first things that struck me, aside from the poor air quality, were the sounds. Not only was it loud and unrelenting, but there were so many textures to the sounds that were completely foreign to these Western ears. So I wrote back home and asked my brother Pete to pick me up a high-end portable digital recorder. I’d spend hours in the park walking around and recording music and conversations, exercise classes and badminton games. In the streets I’d record the sound of the traffic. At the school I’d sit in on some classes to record the students chanting their lessons. Even drifting by our apartment window were the calls of various hawkers, selling everything from vegetables to propane. I recorded it all.
‘When I got home, I knew I had a treasure trove of really interesting and unusual “field recordings” and I knew I wanted to somehow use them in the making of music. Eventually I bundled them up and sent them to our friend Joby Baker, with some pretty vague instructions to “create loops out of these sounds, let them spur your imagination”. Pete and I set to work on the results in our studio, taking out elements that didn’t work for us and adding our own elements. And then I sat with them and wrote melodies and lyrics. Finally Margo came in and transformed them into Cowboy Junkies songs.’
Cowboy Junkies, Gorton Monastery, 9 November. £25.