Reckoning With the Cowboy Junkies

Many bands start out in a loud, rebellious phase, but Cowboy Junkies seem to be working in reverse. It’s been 30 years since the release of their breakthrough album The Trinity Session, featuring a hushed, hypnotic cover of The Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” and the Toronto-based alt-country quartet have now come full circle with their soon-to-be-released studio album All that Reckoning, which includes more rock songs than the quiet ballads they’re best known for.

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The Junkies continue to bridge the gap between traditional Canadian folk music and modern-day storytelling. Now in their 50s, siblings Margo (vocals), Michael (guitar) and Peter Timmins (drums) and co-founder/bassist Alan Anton are all married with teenage kids. All That Reckoning addresses life with their long-time partners and the strange state of the world we now live in, opposed to their 2012 release, The Wilderness, which focused on the challenges of parenthood. “I am at a time in my life where a lot of reassessing, a lot of questioning [about where we’re headed] is going on,” said songwriter Michael Timmins. “I also think that our society and our institutions are going through a great reckoning, where things that were once accepted are no longer…This is made more frightening by the fact that I have three kids coming of age and preparing to head out on their own into this great maw.”

Along with life experience and world affairs, Timmins was inspired by literature and the arts. The songs “Mountain Stream” and “Missing Children” contain quotes from William Blake poems and “When We Arrive” includes words from a piece painted by contemporary artist Enrique Martinez Celaya. There will also be two versions of the title track, guitar-laden versus atmospheric ballad. “We took two different approaches to the song. They each carry their own intention: one is more contemplative, the other is more angry.”

Although the overall sound of All That Reckoning is heavier, the Junkies retain their signature bluesy-country-folk-psych-rock style. “I think there will always be an identifiable Cowboy Junkies element,” Timmins noted, “but half of the songs on the new album were written around elaborate bass lines that Alan came up with. And we did a lot of experimenting with analog keyboards, which gives some songs a quasi-psychedelic vibe.”

The band continues to tour and they’re having as much fun now as they did 30 years ago. The Junkies’ spring tour celebrates the 35th anniversary of Latent Recording, an independent label founded in 1981 by Timmins and Anton, which ended up being the band’s primary label through the years. They have since expanded the roster to record and release other artists they have an affinity with. “We have a bit of a pay-it-forward attitude with the label,” said Timmins, who has also composed songs for films like The Girl on the Train. “The business is so difficult these days, we’re doing what little we can to help out the music scene.”

When the Junkies stop at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on April 6 they will be going acoustic and electric, performing new material, classics, deep cuts and fan requests. They’ve recently added David Bowie’s “Five Years” to their repertoire, supplementing the extensive list of covers they can draw from. “One of our favorite songs to perform live is ‘Good Friday.’ It gives Margo room to really let it loose—her stage presence and voice just keep getting stronger. I think the more bluesy or psychedelic songs, like ‘I Don’t Get It,’ ‘Shining Moon’ and ‘He Will Call You Baby,’ are usually the most fun to play live because there’s room for us to stretch.”

When asked what keeps the Junkies’ core group of devoted fans (affectionately called llamas) traveling to all their shows, Timmins referred to the band’s authenticity. “I hope it’s because we usually put on a good show, but I think it’s also an authentic performance. We’re a band that’s been performing together for thirty years and there’s a real, honest connection with the audience on most nights. I think that’s a rare thing these days.”

lisa heffernan

Lisa Heffernan received a master’s in Communications from Emerson College before moving to New York. She has worked for publications such as: Details, Nylon, Rolling Stone, Time Out, Newport Mercury, American Songwriter and W magazine.