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Cowboy Junkies' new album recalls their start by returning to cover songs


When the Cowboy Junkies released their first album in 1986, it consisted almost entirely of covers, though, sometimes, their renditions were so original, you couldn't recognize the song they were covering, like Robert Johnson's "Me And The Devil Blues."


MARGO TIMMINS: (Singing) Early this morning, he knocked on my door.

ELLIOTT: The alt rock band has released over a dozen studio albums since then, but covers have always held a special place in the Canadian group's repertoire. In their new album, "Songs Of The Recollection," Cowboy Junkies went back to the beginning. It's all covers, though some are recent additions to the band's set list.


MARGO TIMMINS: (Singing) Take me to the station and put me on a train. I've got no expectations to pass through here again.

ELLIOTT: The brother and sister team Margo and Michael Timmins of Cowboy Junkies join us now. Welcome to the program.

MARGO TIMMINS: Thanks for having us.

MICHAEL TIMMINS: It's great to be here.

ELLIOTT: What makes a great cover? And why do you think you've had such success doing covers?

MARGO TIMMINS: Well, I think, you know, the first thing is before you do a cover, you have to love the song. You know, before you're a musician, you're a fan. So you choose a song, obviously, that you love, that's inspired you in some way. It's interesting, though. A lot of people don't realize - is that a lot of songs are attempted but not necessarily released or even come out of our rehearsal studio. So it takes a lot. You have to be very careful with what you choose.

And I think that, for us, what it is - it's not to - just to redo the song the way it was done, but to find your own way into the song, to interpret it from your experience. And I think that's really important to us. So I don't know why we've had success with it, (laughter) but maybe we should just be honest about our approach with it. I don't know that answer.

ELLIOTT: So the album starts with David Bowie's "Five Years." That's the opening track from his 1972 "Ziggy Stardust" LP.


MARGO TIMMINS: (Singing) My brain hurt like a warehouse. It had no room to spare. I had to cram so many things to store everything in there. And all the fat, skinny people, and all the tall, short people, and all the nobody people...

ELLIOTT: So the song really just punches right out of the gate and, to me, feels very relevant to today. Why did you want to start with this song?

MICHAEL TIMMINS: Well, you know, on the original album, on Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust," it's the opening track, right? And it's sort of, to me, the ultimate opening track of, certainly, any record of that era. And it's hard to put up against any opening track on any album. It's just such a great curtain raising, you know? So I think that's why. And it's also the most recent cover that we've done, so it feels most revelant (ph) to us. We've been playing this one live for about five years now and recorded it specifically for this collection.


MARGO TIMMINS: (Singing) Five years, stuck on my eyes. Five years, what a surprise. We've got...

MARGO TIMMINS: It's a huge song to undertake because it's a song that's known and loved by so many fans. But oddly enough, it wasn't that hard to get into because I think, like I say, it just - it speaks of how most of us feel right now. It's a pretty messed-up world and a bit messed up in the (laughter) last two years. And, you know, it was really easy, at least for me, to just get into those vocals and send them out the way I've been feeling for a while.


MARGO TIMMINS: (Singing) We've got five years.

ELLIOTT: I'm curious how you all decided which songs to include when there's just so much good music, right? Was there an overriding principle or a throughline that you were looking to?

MICHAEL TIMMINS: You know, there wasn't really to start. We - it was really a matter of what we had. And we sort of looked at them and realized there's a real - and it's not surprising, you know, that the people we represent, the artists we represent and are covering here, are pretty relevant to our young selves when we were becoming music fans, like - people like David Bowie and Dylan and Neil Young, for sure, and, you know, Gram Parsons. And, you know, that era of music that's late '60s, early '70s - that's really our wheelhouse for when, you know, we were very young - like, 12, 13, you know, 14 years old - and were really just captured by music.


ELLIOTT: I was particularly struck by the beautiful, kind of jammy, layered sound of the Gram Parsons song "Ooh Las Vegas."


MARGO TIMMINS: (Singing) Ooh, Las Vegas, Las Vegas, ain't no place for a poor girl like me.

I'm not a big fan of Las Vegas (laughter), so...


MARGO TIMMINS: ...When I approached that song, I wanted to approach it from a point of view of real distaste for this culture and just how broken you can become by it. And...

ELLIOTT: Uh-huh.

MARGO TIMMINS: So it was fun. It was a real fun song to get into and go into that ugly space (laughter). So - and that hangover kind of (laughter) - next morning (laughter) kind of stays.


MARGO TIMMINS: (Singing) Every time I hit your crystal city, you know you're going to make a wreck out of me.

Mike introducing us is - brings in all these layers and stuff like that. And sometimes, it's very surprising to hear what he's done at the end of the day.


MARGO TIMMINS: (Singing) Ooh, Las Vegas, Las Vegas.

ELLIOTT: Michael, take me back to how you decided to start stacking that sound.

MICHAEL TIMMINS: We were sort of figuring out what we wanted to do with the song. You know, Emmylou Harris does a really sort of hyped-up version, and then there's Gram Parsons' version. And we wanted to make sure we got away from that. And we were aiming for a really psychedelic approach. So it was just a matter of recording a lot of guitars, a lot of different parts, and then having Margo just do a variety of harmonies on top of all that. So it was really a very collaborative process for sure.

ELLIOTT: Margo, you mentioned you've been singing and playing together for more than 30 years. And I imagine even longer than that given that your family - what have you learned about how you do your best work?

MARGO TIMMINS: I think - it so changed over the years. You know, the only real nice thing about getting older is a sense of yourself and not feeling you have to prove anything or sell this much or make these people happy. There's more of a sense of just doing it for the music's sake. I enjoy being in the Junkies way more now than I did when I was younger and appreciate what it gives me in my life.

ELLIOTT: So, Michael, you have reflections on what it's like after this many years playing together with your siblings and other band members?

MICHAEL TIMMINS: You know, I think it comes down to the live show again, for me. The band, especially for the little COVID break we had, was hitting such a great stride as a live band. There was a real sense of command of the room. That's a really great feeling, to really get an audience in sync with what you're doing. And that, to me - you know, that takes time. The four of us have been consistently together as a band for over 30 years, and that's really rare these days. So the communication between the four of us is pretty special. And that, to me, is the greatest pleasure.


ELLIOTT: We've been speaking with Michael and Margo Timmins of Cowboy Junkies. Their new album is "Songs Of The Recollection." Thanks so much for being with us.




MARGO TIMMINS: (Singing) I was sitting on the terrace, lost in the stars, listening to the sounds of... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.