COWBOY JUNKIES FEATURE
band in the world'. Cowboy Junkies formed in Toronto in 1985. Their first long player. 1986’s Whites Off Earth Now]. emerged to less than ecstatic response. It was with their second release. the magnificently understated. million-selling The Trinity Session (1987). recorded for $120 via a single microphone in a Toronto chapel basement. that the unashamedly reserved foursome captured international attention and acclaim. ‘Trinity was a benchmark.‘ Michael admits, ‘and we feel lucky to have made that record. But we‘ve come a fair way from that now and I hope there will be many other benchmarks.‘ Like Michelle Shocked's Texas Campfire Tapes. the Junkies’ formative stylings — then a loosely executed mixture ofauthentic country tones and unusual covers (Lou Reed. John Lee Hooker. Hank Williams) — made an important statement about the irresistible
splendour of the effortlessly crafted ‘song’. In an era of techno-dalliance and arch production values they made it sound simple.
1990’s The Caution Horses lacked much of the group’s harnessed passion, but their new album, Black Eyed Man. is like a grown-up version of The Trinity Sessions, and the most coherent statement this enigmatic family operation has made to date of its rootsy faith in elegaic, poetic storytelling.
Black-Eyed Man, gently produced by Michael, makes it clearer than ever that the Junkies’ appeal is two-pronged. First, there is Margo’s voice, haunting and deadpan. emotionless. recently described as “the most compelling voice in popular music’.
‘I simply convey a series of words,’ she explains. ‘I think phrasing and your idea of what a song is about, emotionally, are as important as melody. Before, we did covers that already had a clear sense of meaning in them, a meaning placed there by the original writer and generally agreed upon by performers through the years. Now, Michael writes original songs for my voice and style of singing. Often, I don’t fully comprehend what a song that he gives to me is really about, so I convey that confusion, maybe, in my performance. I just express the words as best I can, and ifthey’re ambiguous, then so be it.’ Which leads us to the second component of the Canadians’ twin-driven allure - the undeniably poetic nature of Michael’s lyrics. His songs are short stories, mini-dramas, broadly cinematic in effect, sometimes leaning towards Dylan’s mysterious narrative presentations, often recalling Tom Waits’ hobo-mix of bathos and pathos, occasionally re-modelling, in a smalltown kind ofway, Springsteen‘s urbane heartland scenarios.
‘Yes, I think there is a poetic element in what we do,’ the dapper Michael agrees in his medium-paced Toronto drawl. ‘At least I hope so. It’s just the way I write, and I’m glad that people pick up on that side ofit. I’m ﬂattered that people appreciate it enough to comment on it. Bob Dylan is an enormous inﬂuence on me as a songwriter. He’s right up there at the top of the list, way above anyone else. But, having said that, I don‘t think I write like him. He’s a much more enigmatic, sometimes almost a surrealist writer. I think I’m a realist at
songs: Margo has performed seated at a dimly-lit table while her backing musicians squat cross-legged. The Junkies’ music. it must be said. can get so laid-back it is virtually comatose. but. even then. its sheer inexpressiveness is oddly affecting. It can be like watching some trapped emotion trying to escape but gradually. eventually accepting its imprisonment; which can be extremely moving and. when coming from the vulnerable figure of Margo, invariably is. Detractors claim that Cowboy Junkies records are overly maudlin. indulgent and repetitive, like ‘listening to a tenth generation Xerox ofearly 70s country-roek‘ (The Independent). Admirers would argue that the distanced. detached effect is a wholly deliberate artistic statement which accentuates the timeless aspect of what the Cowboy Junkies are doing with traditional American music in 1992.
‘I used to want to be the song, whereas now I’ve realised it’s sutticient just to be the singer.’
‘I think phrasing and your idea of what a song is about, emotionally, are as importantas melody.’
heart. He litters his work with abstract ideas whereas I try to detail my songs with real elements. There’s a mixture of stuff from personal experience and observation in what I write. And then, hopefully, there’s a lot of imagination to stitch it together in what’s meant to be an interesting way.’
Translated into melody via the Junkies’ fey country-rock, the result of Michael’s bardic endeavours is the naturalistic portrayal of a mythic, fantasy America, objectively drawn from a Canadian perspective, a place where murder and loss predominate , rendered into song in an eerily dispassionate manner. The band’s stage presentation has, in the past, emphasised the unexcitable character of the
‘That’s a neat way of putting it.‘ nods Margo. smiling in a winsome way that makes you understand what the People people were getting at. ’But, really, we‘re just telling little stories about what goes on in America. I think we’re taking the traditional format of the blues-country song and replacing the romantic. nostalgic elements you always had in there with a more realistic. contemporary set of events.‘
‘We don't plan to be enigmatic.‘ objects Michael, when asked. ‘I write the way I do because it’s natural to me. On stage, I sit when I play and Margo. I guess. is kinda withdrawn. She doesn’t hop and dance around a lot. The music doesn’t call for that. We just like to be comfortable when we play our music. And. sometimes. that involves sitting down. We’re performing songs. not putting on a theatrical show. We‘re musicians and. hopefully. people come to our concerts to hear us. not to watch us.’
‘To hear us tell our sad American stories,’ adds Margo. quietly. ‘because that’s basically what we come to do.’
The Cowboy Junkies play The Pavilion. Glasgow on Tues 3.
“The List 28 February: ’l:)92 9