One listen to the title track of Miles From Our Home (Geffen Records), the seventh Cowboy Junkies album, reveals volumes about a band that, after 11 years together, continues to break new ground. "Miles From Our Home," an up-tempo song featuring layered vocal harmonies and textured guitar washes, displays a seductive pop sensibility � a significant departure for a band known primarily for quiet intensity and spare production. Of course, much of the new album draws on Cowboy Junkies� signature sound � hushed vocals, minimal instrumentation and a deep, fluid groove � but several tracks take that sound into previously unexplored territory.
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In this sense, geography is destiny, as the band crafted the album in a 150-year-old mill house outside of Toronto. "We were in this amazing old house in a spectacularly beautiful environment, with a pond and a waterfall," explains songwriter and guitarist Michael Timmins. "The title Miles From Our Home relates directly to the fact that we were up there, away from home. But it also suggests the idea that this album is quite far from where we started as a band."
Adds Margo Timmins, Junkies vocalist and sister of Michael and drummer Peter Timmins: "For me, the song "Miles From Our Home" is about finding freedom, finding the strength within yourself to do what you want, regardless of what other people think. This album is a change for the Junkies, and that song says, �Yeah, we�ve moved on a bit from how we�ve been defined, but then, that�s what life�s about."
With its full arrangements and polished production, the album indeed reflects the growth of a band whose debut was a simple two-track recording made in their garage and released on their own label. Still, in songs plumbing the emotional depths and lyrics searching for answers � "New Dawn Coming," "Good Friday" "Darkling Days" � Miles From Our Home also remains true to the Cowboy Junkies of the past.
"There are a lot of question marks in the songs on this album," Michael confirms, "and a sense of frustration about the curves fate can throw. But with that also comes a feeling of anticipation and, sometimes, joy. We learn as we go along, and that brings understanding and perhaps a sense of enlightenment as well."
During the eight months Cowboy Junkies worked on the album, a new approach to the creative process developed. Says Michael: "In the past, we�d rehearse the songs until we knew what we were going to do; recording was really just a matter of getting a good take in the studio. With this record, we spent more time in the studio brainstorming ideas for songs and working out drum parts, vocal parts and lead and rhythm guitar parts; it was sort of like recording demos for ourselves."
The making of Miles From Our Home (released June 30, 1998) was also a chance for Cowboy Junkies to reaffirm their identity as a unit. "Usually, we work at our mom�s house, and everyone goes home each night," says Margo. "But this time the four of us were up at the mill house for two or three days at a time, hanging out, cooking and eating together. To me, that�s the greatest part of being in a band, having that intimacy. When it�s just the four of us playing music, we�re the same as we were when we first started. That always amazes me, and I hope it never ends."
The Junkies spent six weeks in the studio with producer John Leckie (Radiohead, The Verve, Stone Roses, Kula Shaker). "We used a producer for the first time on our last album [1996�s Lay It Down, the band�s Geffen debut], and we found it really helped us translate the songs," Michael says. "It was great working with John on Miles From Our Home ; he�s very laid back, a quiet legend [Leckie has long been associated with Abbey Road studios, where he worked on albums by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, George Harrison and Marc Bolan]. We needed someone who could help us with the layering of instruments and vocals and strings. He gave us the confidence to try something different."
Leckie�s influence is apparent on the opening cut, "New Dawn Coming," which bursts out of the speakers with the expansive sounds of doubled vocals, jangly guitars and swirling feedback, Hammond B-3 organ, booming drums, even maracas. "As for the guitars, well, that was a product of me being in the home studio by myself," Michael laughs. "A lot of the songs are made up of at least four or five little bits of different guitar tracks I�d recorded, and some have parts of as many as 10 or 15 tracks. John is a guitar person himself, so he was putting guitars on top of guitars."
Cowboy Junkies� collective wing-spreading is also heard, though more subtly, on the album�s more atmospheric songs. "Blue Guitar," for instance, showcases a deliberate, melancholic groove that provides an affecting platform for Margo�s warm, throaty vocals, as well as the song�s flowing acoustic guitar lines and strings. "That one is my abstract good-bye to Townes Van Zandt, who was one of the greatest songwriters of our day," says Michael, referring to the Texas legend who died in 1997. "We�d done a long tour together a few years ago, and we�d kept in touch. Half the lyrics were written by Townes, though he never recorded them; I wrote additional lyrics."
Throughout the album, Michael�s own strengths as a songwriter continue to shine. In "Those Final Feet," about the death of his 94-year-old grandfather, Michael manages to imbue what is essentially a requiem with a mood of optimism; funereal snare drums are juxtaposed with lilting piano and organ accompaniment. "The sad songs are the ones we feel strongest about sharing," Margo remarks. "Sometimes when I�m at my lowest, feeling lonely on the road, those sad ones can make me cry, but afterwards I feel so good. They really connect emotionally, which I think has a tendency to bring people together."
With six critically acclaimed releases under their belts, Cowboy Junkies have clearly connected with fans � they�ve sold more than four million albums worldwide. The band started out in 1985 with Michael, Peter and bassist Alan Anton, one of Michael�s oldest friends, jamming in a garage. Michael and Alan had tried their luck with a couple of other bands, the Hunger Project and Germinal, and had recently returned to Toronto after several years in New York and England. The next step was to find a singer. "I never wanted to be a musician," Margo confides, "but one day Mike asked me to sing. I said yes, but only if I didn�t have to do it in front of the other guys. So I sang with Mike for a couple of days, and then he asked, �Um, do you think it�d be okay if we brought the other guys in now?� I said, �Well, okay. I guess so, I mean, if we have to.�"
The Junkies released their debut, Whites Off Earth Now!, in 1986 on their own Latent label. Hypnotic and languorous, it revealed Michael�s fascination with Robert Johnson, Lightnin� Hopkins and other seminal blues artists. The band toured the Southern and Southwestern U.S. in support of the record, soaking up the music of Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers along the way, which, in turn, inspired their second album, The Trinity Session, self-released in 1988.
Recorded with a single microphone in Toronto�s Church of the Holy Trinity in one 14-hour session � at a cost of $250 � The Trinity Session featured spare, lilting originals alongside Jennings, Williams and Patsy Cline covers, as well as a haunting version of the Velvet Underground classic "Sweet Jane." With "Sweet Jane" getting considerable airplay on college and commercial radio and reviewers lauding the band�s fresh sound, word soon began to spread. Before long, the Junkies had signed to RCA Records, which re-released The Trinity Session to a wider audience and platinum sales.
Their subsequent albums � The Caution Horses (1990), Black Eyed Man (1992), Pale Sun, Crescent Moon (1993) and Lay It Down, which featured the Top 20 Modern Rock hit "A Common Disaster" and earned Cowboy Junkies a gold record � chronicle the band�s evolution, a process Michael sees as gradual and organic. "Mostly, we�ve changed in the way we play as a band; it�s become much easier to communicate musically over the years. And we�ve all grown as musicians. We�re able to bring more dynamics and variety to the music."
For more than a decade, in fact, Cowboy Junkies have continued to cultivate their distinctive sound, consistently making music on their own terms. "I think ours is a healthy success story," says Michael. "It�s not a flashy one � we�ve never had an enormous hit � but that�s probably the reason we�re still around. We�ve been able to do what we want with our integrity in tact and always keep our respect for the audience in the forefront. I think the fans appreciate that." Margo concludes simply, "I think the point is to be honest and to just continue doing what we do."
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