Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Junkies branch out on diverse four-album series

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A 25-year anniversary is usually cause for a party or to sit back and reflect.

Instead, the Cowboy Junkies celebrated their silver anniversary in 2010 by looking to the future and coming up with an ambitious challenge to write, record and release four albums in the span of 18 months.

"We had no constraints, so we went crazy with it," says guitarist Michael Timmins, the band's main songwriter. "We were sitting down trying to figure out what to do with the next record -- we had so many ideas to go with and for the first time in many years we had no financial or contractual ties to record labels, so it was really whatever we could dream up."

Some of the ideas tossed around by the Canadian folk-roots quartet -- siblings Michael, Margo (vocals) and Peter (drums) Timmins and bassist Alan Anton -- included double and triple albums with various themes. In the end they decided on the Nomad Series, which they released on their own imprint, Latent Recordings.

"You can't bring that idea to a label: 'We want to make four albums in 18 months,' especially in this market where they say the album is dead," Timmins says.

The first release, Renmin Park, was inspired by Timmins' 2008 trip to China, where he and his wife have adopted two children over the years.

Instead of merely taking photos like most tourists, he recorded the sounds he heard while living in Shanghai for two months.

"I did a lot of recordings of musicians and street noises -- the sounds and feel of the city -- and I brought those back and had the desire to turn that into an album. You start with things like people walking in the park or playing badminton and you play music around that. In China I thought the visuals were different, but even the sounds are different. There's something about the energy that a photo doesn't capture. I'm a musician so a lot of stuff is auditory to me," he says.

The second volume was going to be a covers collection of some kind, but became a tribute to their friend Vic Chesnutt, who committed suicide in 2009. Demons features 11 songs written by the acclaimed Athens, Ga., singer-songwriter, who played Winnipeg a month before he died.

"We had a project on the back burner with him: we were going to be his band and he was going to write the songs," Timmins says. "It was an honour to dig into his music; some of (the songs) were pretty heavy, especially under the circumstances. He was amazing, though. He was a true artist."

The subject matter of Vol. 3, Sing in My Meadow, isn't as heavy, but the material is some of the rawest stuff the Junkies have ever recorded, as they tackled rock, garage and psychedelia. Vol. 4, The Wilderness, is a return to the classic, haunting folk-roots sound longtime fans know well.

Those fans will get to hear a selection of all that material when the group plays a sold-out show at the West End Cultural Centre tonight, its first local gig since appearing at the Winnipeg Folk Festival in 2001.

The Winnipeg date is a night off from their current gig as the opening act for John Mellencamp's No Better Than This Canadian tour, which is visiting smaller cities like Penticton, B.C., Moose Jaw, Sask., and Thunder Bay, Ont.

The Junkies will play two sets tonight: the first will feature material from the Nomad Series, while the second will cover the rest of the band's career. The band will be selling a special five-disc box set of the series; the additional CD features material recorded during the sessions but not included on any of the albums.

"I think that challenge of creating the records was something, so that got me going," Timmins says about the abundance of material.

A 140-page Nomad Series coffee table book with lyrics, essays, photos and artwork will be released in August to fully complete the project.

As for what the band will do for a followup, Timmins just laughs.

"We just finished this. Just give me a year," he says.

rob.williams@freepress.mb.ca

Cowboy Junkies

Tonight, West End Cultural Centre, 8 p.m.

Sold out

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 25, 2012 D3

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