The Cowboy Junkies Reinvent Themselves With a New Series of Albums

When Cowboy Junkies guitarist and songwriter Michael Timmins returned from a three-month stay in China with a head full of songs and a batch of recorded sounds, the rest of the band members knew they were in for a challenge. Timmins wanted to build an entire album out of the sights and sounds that inspired him there, but vocalist Margo Timmins, drummer Peter Timmins, and bassist Alan Anton hadn't shared any of those experiences. How would they collaborate on what amounts to one member's profoundly personal experience?

"Our first reaction was, ‘Why don't you go make your own record?'" Anton says during a phone interview between recording sessions at the band's Toronto studio. "It was hard for us, since we hadn't shared his experience. On the creative end it was also very different for us in that all four of us didn't sit in a room and work out songs together. It was really kind of a piecemeal approach. For instance, I was working on some of the tracks with a friend of mine out West where I live, and then we had to fit it all in and develop it in the studio. It was a bit of a challenge, but it definitely worked out. The material became Junkiefied very quickly."

The album is Renmin Park, the first in a rapid-fire series of four albums, called the Nomad Series, that will be released within a span of 18 months. At first glance, it's a radical departure for the Junkies. Not only does it incorporate traditional Chinese instruments and found sounds that Timmins recorded during his Chinese sojourn—parades, street performers, even a badminton match—but there are also covers of Chinese rock songs alongside original Junkies tracks. A song called "My Fall" was originally recorded by Chinese pop star Xu Wei, while "I Cannot Sit Sadly by Your Side," in many ways a definitive Junkies ballad, is actually a cover of a song by Zuoxiao Zuzhou (also known by the equally confounding moniker ZXZZ). Mike Timmins has described Zuzhou's work as "sort of a Leonard Cohen meets Nick Cave by way of Tom Waits," which is as good a description as you're likely to come by. The underground star also contributes vocals in his native Chinese on "A Walk in the Park."

"It was interesting for the rest of the band, because we didn't go over there, so we never experienced it all together," says Anton. "We had to figure out how to approach what he brought back. It took a little thinking and a little experimenting, and we finally came up with a way to develop the songs in terms of sounds that he found there and brought back with him, and hopefully in the end it would all sound like a developed piece, which was our one big worry—that it might be too fractured sounding, this here, that there. But we were really happy with the result. We've done things over the years that were a little different for us, and this one is probably the most different, but at the same time we just thought it was really powerful. "

The idea for the Nomad Series was born about a year ago, when the band was trying to decide what to do with a surplus of new material and ideas. They originally assumed they'd be working with a more traditional one-album-per-year release schedule, but decided that wouldn't work; by the time the fourth installment was released, fans might have forgotten the first. They needed a tighter schedule for the series. As punishing as it sounds, 18 months was deemed ideal.

The series then needed a name and a unifying concept, and those were provided by Cuban-American artist Enrique Martinez Celaya. Celaya, a longtime friend and fan of the Junkies, heard about their ambitious experiment, and volunteered a new series of paintings for possible use as cover art.

"The paintings were called the Nomad Series, and we asked him if we could use that name," Anton recalls. "We loved the idea and it just sort of fit into our process right now."

At the moment, the band is halfway through the second installment of the series, an album of Vic Chesnutt covers called Demons, due out in October. After that will come Sing in My Meadow, a return to all-original material that Anton describes as "sort of a psychedelic blues record." The Nomad Series will wrap up with a fourth volume called The Wilderness, another collection of new songs culled from the band's recent repertoire.

"We're just sort of figuring it out as we go through it," Anton says. "It's really hard to define what it's going to be until the end."