When Cowboy Junkies gathered around a single microphone to record “The Trinity Session” straight to tape, they didn’t know it at the time, but the Canadian quartet had sculpted a seminal masterpiece that helped define the alt-country genre.
Twenty-five years later and Cowboy Junkies recently achieved another milestone, “The Nomad Series,” four CDs released over the span of 18 months. In this interview, songwriter/guitarist Michael Timmins talks about completing the series and its final installment, a recorded farewell to Vic Chestnutt – the much-lauded Americana singer-songwriter who died in 2009 – and the special “Trinity Session” performance planned for Sunday’s show at the Bing Crosby Theater.
IJ: Looking back at this ambitious project, can you share your thoughts on the end result of “The Nomad Series”? Is its mission accomplished?
MT: I think so. When we started out we didn’t know what we were aiming for or what we wanted to achieve but we knew we wanted to have a certain quality in all four records. We didn’t have a specific goal. We were driving at a feeling and those goals would show themselves as we continued to write and record. We put together an album and the next album would suggest itself. It felt like a real success artistically and it’s done well commercially, too.
IJ: How does “Wilderness” compare to the other albums in the series? Why is this one last?
MT: “Wilderness” is the set of songs most people would associate with Cowboy Junkies. It’s folk driven and singer-songwriter driven. It’s geared more toward the lyrics and voice and that’s an important part of what we do. On other records we didn’t focus on this side and with this one being the final one we wanted to make sure to touch back to what is at the heart of our sound.
IJ: What was it like for you to record the Vic Chestnutt tunes for Volume Two of the “Nomad Series”?
MT: It was a really good way to say goodbye to Vic and honor his memory and body of work. It was a nice send-off from our point of view. We grew to appreciate his music more by trying to put different spins on the songs and recreate them so they work for us. It’s a great way to investigate someone’s songs, to do a whole album of them. It’s a lot of work, but it allowed us to get inside his stuff and see how unique his work is.
IJ: How do you keep a band together for two and a half decades?
MT: The key to keeping any band together is good communication … Everyone enjoying themselves and playing live and getting the same energy and surge of adrenaline from playing live with the same musicians. We still get that. There has to be good communication. You have to work through problems. It’s in how you talk to each other to make sure everyone respects and understands each other. It’s about respect.
IJ: How do you feel about the band’s renown for being pioneers of alt-country and having a lasting influence on a generation of artists and bands?
MT: I don’t think about it one way or the other. You don’t go into a band thinking you’re creating a certain style of music that does or doesn’t fit a genre. If someone says that, I think that’s a nice compliment, which is great, but that doesn’t really mean anything. What matters is that you’re suggesting we inspired a lot of other bands and musicians to create in a certain style, and that’s what’s more important.
IJ: For this Spokane show, you’ll be performing “Trinity Session” from front to back, as well as songs from “The Nomad” series?
MT: Yes, the second set will be the complete “Trinity Session” from start to finish. We don’t do it very often. It’s interesting when you take an album and play it live. It’s so intense and quiet and very unique. We’re only doing it one night on this tour. We don’t like to do it everywhere. That way, when we do it we know it is going to be a special night.