Cowboy Junkies intensify the energy on 'Miles From Our Home'
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From Donna Freydkin
(CNN) -- After each and every exhausting concert, Cowboy Junkies vocalist Margo Timmins connects with fans the hands-on way. With seemingly endless patience and cheerful composure, Timmins signs autographs for and chats with dozens of eager Junkies fans, all clamoring for a nanosecond of her attention.
For music veteran Timmins, hanging out with her hangers-on is just another aspect of appreciating the listeners who, in turn, have given her band a sense of longevity in an industry marked by fickle fans and capricious trends.
"When you choose between having a hit album or staying true to your fans, I'd rather be true to my fans. I'd hate to hear that we sold out. That would kill me," says the blonde, delicate Timmins, lounging on a velvet seat inside her dusky tour bus several hours before the show.
While "Miles From Our Home" is a much more dynamic, powerful album than their previous six releases, the Cowboy Junkies remain about as far as you can get from the musical version of Spam.
After 13 years as a band, the Canadian foursome has yet to have a requisite "hit" album. Casting off pressures to churn out radio-friendly singles, the Junkies -- composed of vocalist Margo Timmins, her brother Michael on guitar, other brother Peter on drums, and Alan Anton on bass -- have released seven critically acclaimed albums of their characteristically hushed, intricately layered melodies, showcased in Margo Timmins' sedate soprano vocals.
New release has more pop
After releasing their debut, "Whites Off Earth Now!," in 1986 on their own Latent label and "The Trinity Session" in 1988, the Junkies generated "The Caution Horses" (1990), "Black Eyed Man" (1992), "Pale Sun, Crescent Moon" (1993) and the more uptempo "Lay It Down," which featured the Top 20 modern rock hit "A Common Disaster" and earned the band a gold record.
Timmins still points to "Lay It Down" as her favorite album, calling it "an album that sat really where I sit as a singer." Aside from that single, the Junkies' best-known release remains a gorgeously austere cover of the Velvet Underground cover "Sweet Jane."
Their latest release, "Miles From Our Home," is a poppier, more upbeat and energetic album featuring a broader selection of possible hits. The title song soars with sweeping vocals and more complicated production than previous Junkies efforts.
"New Dawn Coming" is another stirring blend of thoughtful lyrics and Timmins' gorgeous voice. "Blue Guitar" and "Those Final Feet" are classic melancholy Junkies hymns. A natural progression from "Lay It down," itself a much more upbeat album than its predecessors, "Miles From Our Home" takes vintage Cowboy Junkies into potential crossover territory.
New album "a little bit big" for Timmins
Everything is relative, of course. Those familiar with the Junkies' signature soft, fluid tunes realize that anything considered even remotely close to pop for the band doesn't register on the stamina scale for most other performers. Nevertheless, Timmins calls "Miles From Our Home" "a little bit big for me," explaining that "bigger sound is not my forte."
Written in a 150-year-old house, "Miles From Our Home" is the band's second album for major record label Geffen. Being isolated together in the aged mill afforded the band members complete intimacy and immediate access to equipment, allowing them to play with vocals and instrumentation.
Crafted in eight months, the album presents a much more potent side of the band, a side perhaps somewhat unfamiliar to longtime listeners weaned on years of serene and pensive Cowboy Junkies music. Dense and refined, the album is intense without representing a complete departure for the band.
"This album has more layers of music, more guitars and more vocal sounds," says Timmins. "Because there is a lot more music, I guess it is a little more upbeat, for lack of a better word and relative to our other stuff."
'I'd love to have a hit single'
So how does a band as self-contained as the Cowboy Junkies retain its musical integrity for more than a decade? By separating the business of selling records from the art of making music, says Timmins.
"It's not that we don't want to be all over the radio," says Timmins, whose band has sold a total of 4 million albums to date. "I'd love to have a hit single. However, I also want to be in the business a long time and longevity is something that we all wanted. In order to have that, you have to be true to what you do and to each other."
Staying true to themselves means being selective about the covers they do, the interviews they give and the even the outfits they wear onstage. For Timmins, music-industry staying power means more than heavy radio rotation.
"Success is a very difficult thing in a society where we dispose of what we like very quickly, before you even learn to play your instrument," says Timmins. "So far, the record companies we have worked with have respect for us as musicians. I want to sell records and I need a record company to do that, but I don't want to sell myself."
After the most boisterous Junkies album to date, Timmins wants to return to simpler, quieter tunes for the next release. For the artist who most enjoys performing such tranquil gems as "Good Friday" and "No Birds," louder does not necessarily mean being more vocal.
"I'd like to see a quiet album and go back to being sparse again, because this album is such a big album," explains Timmins, a bit ruefully. "I'd like to go back to being as sparse as we possibly can."
And no, the singer did not grow up grooving to Muzak. Surprisingly enough, the former punk and rock aficionado remains a diehard fan of Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young and Bob Dylan, as well as various country, jazz and blues performers.
"Before we were musicians, we were fans of music, and when we approach an album, we approach it as an album with a theme and a thought process behind each song," she says.
Yet even as musicians, the Cowboy Junkies still remember what it's like to be just fans. That's why Timmins diligently sheds her sweaty stage outfit for more comfortable attire, treks into the lobby of whatever venue she played at that night and chats with her audience.
She is so unassuming that initially, the crowd doesn't even recognize her, affording her some space before descending upon her. She is tired, drained, but she keeps on grinning, because these are the people who will ensure that 10 years from now, she'll still be on stage.
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