The Shadows Are Long:
Cowboy Junkies Pay Fond Tribute To Vic Chesnutt
Vic Chesnutt and the Cowboy Junkies had a mutual admiration thing going since the mid-1990s when the Toronto band invited him to open the tour for their album Lay It Down. Keeping in touch and crossing paths occasionally in the years since, in 2007 they invited him to Toronto to participate in a 20th Anniversary re-recording of their breakthrough second album, The Trinity Session, augmented by select guests. During that period, they seriously discussed the idea of collaborating on an album of new material together.
Chesnutt’s death on Christmas Day 2009 clearly extinguished that intriguing possibility. Instead, the Junkies – vocalist Margo Timmins, her brothers Michael (guitar) and Peter (drums) and bassist Alan Anton – decided to undertake an album of covers of Chesnutt’s songs. As Michael relates in his liner notes to Demons (out Feb. 15th on Latent Recordings/Razor & Tie), the band had attempted a version of “West of Rome” for Lay It Down in 1996, “but were never able to match its wistfulness, its forlornness or its honesty.” Fifteen years later, not only do they capture the stirring, vivid mood of that song, they meld with it, become it, make it their own. It’s one of numerous outstanding, unforgettable performances on Demons, which I confidently predict will thoroughly delight Chesnutt fans and Cowboy Junkies devotees alike. Recorded with an assortment of supplementary players (including a horn section, cellist, organist, violinist and more), it stands as one of the band’s finest works. Their approach is organic and magical – I can’t imagine any other group doing as much sympathetic justice to this material.
Refreshingly pleasant and down-to-earth, Margo Timmins spoke with me one afternoon last month about Vic, Demons, and the Cowboy Junkies’ “Nomad Series.”
Stomp and Stammer: You recorded Lay It Down in Athens with John Keane. Is that when you first met Vic?
Margo Timmins: We didn’t meet anybody in Athens [laughs]. We wanted to! We’re not very good at meeting people. No, we met him on the road when we did that tour. It was my husband who introduced his music to us. And the fact that it was Graham who brought him into our lives was sort of unusual, because you know, we were out and about, and out in the world, especially with a lot of musicians, but he went under the radar for us… And then once we heard his records, we were like, “Oh my God, we’ve got to see this guy!” We’ve always said the nice thing about being in the position that we’re in is being able to sort of choose who we want to open for us. And we’ve always chosen people that we’re wanting to get to know more, and listen more in depth to their music, because when you sort of get to hear somebody every night, night after night, you really get a sense of what these songs are about, more so than just an album. So Vic was somebody right away where we were, “OK, we’ve got to get this guy with us!”
When you first met him, after listening to his songs, was he anything like how you expected him to be?
Well, yeah, I guess personality-wise, for sure. I think his music has so many layers, where it’s not easy to listen to and understand and to really grasp what the songs mean. And then when you do get them, they affect you so much for your entire life, and you keep going back to them. And Vic, to me, was that way as well, as a man. He wasn’t the most approachable person, and yet when you approached him, he couldn’t have been sweeter and nicer, and more enjoyable to talk to. And sometimes he was so funny, and other times he was not so funny [laughs]. He was always fighting his demons, and you knew his demons were strong, and harsh – both the inside demons and the outside ones, you know… Traveling with him, I remember that tour, and I think we were in Norfolk, and I was just in one of those moods, like, “Why am I doing this? I just wanna go home. I hate everybody and I hate this, I hate that,” [laughs] basically bitching, and you know, there’s Vic being carried up on stage, or being carried up the stairs to get into the club, and I was like, “What am I doing? What a whiner I am!” I can remember I did a terrible show that night. I did OK, but I wasn’t really trying, I wasn’t in the mood, I wasn’t in the show. I was just doing it so I can get out of here and go back to my hotel. And I decided that night, after watching them carry up Vic, that I would never get on stage and do that again. Not try, and not focus. Because I can get away with it, I have a pretty voice, it’s always going to be pretty [laughs], I can do it, but there’s a difference between singing, and actually really being in the song. So when I do get in that mood, I always think of that Norfolk show. I was so mad at myself afterwards! You know when you’re not just mad, but almost ashamed? I was ashamed of myself.
For Trinity Revisited, Vic played with the band and sang on “Postcard Blues.” He was one of a small handful of guest players on that album. Obviously he was very special to the band.
Oh yeah. When we toured with him, just watching him play every night made us huge, huge fans. So definitely when we were doing Trinity [Revisited], he was top of the list of people we wanted to be a part of it. And he said yes right away. He was the first person to say yes to the idea. And it worked out great. He was the only one of our guests, Natalie Merchant and Ryan Adams being the other two– we’d met both Ryan and Natalie, but we didn’t really know them well enough to know how well it would work with the band – but definitely with Vic, his attitude and the way he approached his music was totally the same as ours. So we knew it would work.
Tell me a little bit about how Demons came together. I understand that Cowboy Junkies had planned to record an album with Vic at some point.
Vic and us had been talking, well, forever about doing something. But then when we did that Trinity Session Revisited with him, we sort of discovered how nicely our voices worked. And so there was more discussion about doing this album together, and what would it be and how to do it. And then, of course, with his death, that was cancelled. And it was really disappointing. I really wanted to sing with him more…and also, I’m a huge fan, and to be able just to do his songs was something I really wanted, as a singer, to attempt. And so it was just really heartbreaking, personally, but also just having the project come to an end before we even started. So I think we were sort of expressing that, and that light bulb went off – we can still do it, we can still at least get into his songs, you know. And certainly, when you do a cover, you do get into that person’s song, on another level than as a listener. And so that was really exciting – the idea just seemed so right, and it fit in with this four-album project that we were doing, ’cause we were trying to figure out what those four albums would be. A Vic Chesnutt cover album just seemed perfect.
Vic’s lyrical style was probably different than what you’re used to singing. Was it a challenge to get used to that?
You know, I thought it would be. I was really nervous about this album… His music is hard, and I wanted to do a good job, of course. And I find covers are always a little tricky, because, you know, there is an original. When you’re doing your song, nobody’s heard it, and they’re not comparing it to anything, but certainly with covers they do. And so, when we started to work on it, I was thinking, “This is gonna take me a while.” But the weird thing was, it was so easy! It was like I’d been singing them all my life! I got right into it. And they’re so dark. I mean, we do a lot of dark songs, but this is really serious, dark stuff. My brother Michael was laughing at me, he said, “Your soul’s a lot darker than we thought! Maybe you should see a shrink,,” [laughs]. I embraced them, and it just came out, and the weird thing was, I loved doing it. I always enjoy doing records, but I just couldn’t wait to get to the studio, and when I’d leave the studio, I’d feel so good. It was like it was therapy or something. I just would feel so happy, and so relaxed. So I guess maybe that’s it. I do have a darker soul that needs expressing. That’s what dark songs do for me. Not make me happy where I want to go run around in the streets or something, but…maybe it makes you feel not so lonely, or not so isolated – you know that other people have expressed how you feel, so you sort of feel OK. You know that everybody else is just as messed up as you are, so you’re alright.
The recording of Vic speaking onstage at the beginning of “When the Bottom Fell Out” – was that taken from one of the shows he opened for you?
It’s not from one of our shows… I think it just came off some live tape we had or something… The album is very heavy, all the songs that we chose are pretty heavy – most of his songs are – but…there was nothing that could show Vic’s lighter side, his sense of humor, the way he sort of viewed things. And we thought this little story sort of did that. And so that’s why we put it in. And I’m glad. I think, again, his personality was complex, and you should show all of the sides, as much as you can.
Demons is Volume 2 in what you’re calling The Nomad Series. Volume 1, last year’s Renmin Park, was inspired by a long trip Michael spent in China. And I’m not sure what’s next. Tell me a little about The Nomad Series, if you could.
Well, we were trying to figure out what we were going to do next, as far as the next studio album, and we had so much material, and so many ideas, so we sort of thought, “Let’s put out a double album.” And then at one point we were saying, “Let’s make it a triple album!” [laughs] So there was talk about…how to put all these different pieces together, and that’s a nice problem to have, to have so many ideas. But then we were down in Miami, doing an art exhibition, an opening for a friend of ours, Enrique Martinez Celaya who’s this amazing artist, and in his art show, he had this – which has become the cover of our albums – this “Nomad” series of these four paintings, basically of a boy standing with a leopard on his back in four different seasons. And one thing led to another. So we thought, let’s put out four albums, and each one will be different, but we’ll do it within the same time period. Because that’s what albums are about – they’re just capturing a band in that time. Basically it is like putting out a triple album or whatever, except it’s not so, I don’t know…bulky? It just seemed like too much. Where this is more organized. It makes more sense to me. The first one was all about Mike’s trip to China, this one’s all about Vic’s music, the next one is called Sing in My Meadow, which is gonna be…re-recordings of a lot of [our older] songs the way we do them now. And then the last one is all original [new] material. It was a challenge – it’s a lot of material to put together in 18 months!