Cowboy Junkies: To China And Back The band's new album, Renmin Park, was inspired by songwriter Michael Timmins' three-month stay in rural China. The record features an adventurous combination of the group's laid-back sound with traditional Chinese music, modern rock and Timmins' own field recordings.
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Cowboy Junkies: To China And Back

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Cowboy Junkies: To China And Back

Cowboy Junkies: To China And Back

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The new CD by the Canadian band Cowboy Junkies is a fictional love story. The setting: a village in rural China.

(Soundbite of song, "Renmin Park")

COWBOY JUNKIES (Music Group): (Singing) Meet me on the meadow, or in the park, where the stone bridge meets the pond...

SIMON: Two songs set up the conflict in this drama. The protagonist in the title cut, "Renmin Park," urges the sweetheart to a meeting. But another song kind of reveals the rift that separates the two lovers.

(Soundbite of song, "Stranger Here")

COWBOY JUNKIES: (Singing) Stranger here, face down in the river floating by the backwards sky. Stranger here...

SIMON: Two members of Cowboy Junkies join us now from the studios of Cake Mix Recording in Dallas - brother and sister Michael and Margo Timmins. Thanks very much for being with us.

Ms. MARGO TIMMINS (Cowboy Junkies): Thanks for having us.

Mr. MICHAEL TIMMINS (Cowboy Junkies): Hi, a pleasure.

SIMON: And Michael Timmins, if we could begin with you, I gather this was a love story that worked into your mind when you and your wife were in the middle of a real-life love story.

Mr. TIMMINS: Yeah, this was sort of formulated - and a lot of the ideas and images, and a lot of the sounds come from a prolonged visit that my wife and I had in China with three of our children - two of who are adopted from China. And we spent three months there in the fall of 2008. We obviously had been there before, adopting our kids, but this was a real stay - and a real opportunity to get to know people, and try and get to know the culture a little bit more than you do on a two-week visit.

And yeah, it was definitely a love story from many angles, I think.

SIMON: In my experience, in the two-week visit, you get taken to the silk museum and gift shop.

Mr. TIMMINS: Yeah, exactly. And the pearl factory - don't forget the pearl factory.

SIMON: And gift shop.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TIMMINS: That's right.

SIMON: Yeah. Your opportunities to actually speak with people and get to know China are limited.

Mr. TIMMINS: Yeah, I think it's true. Any prolonged visit you do in any country is where you get to know individuals and you make friendships. And the language barriers and the cultural barriers begin to melt away a little bit. And you know, you get to know people, and their problems and your problems are very similar. So that was really the beauty of it.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: And you brought back sounds that are part of this CD.

Mr. TIMMINS: Yeah, a big part of what I did when I was there was, my wife was teaching school, and my kids were kind of part time in school there. So we did a lot of wandering around, a lot of traveling. And as soon as I got there, I realized that I needed something more than just my camera. So the sounds were something that were completely different to my Western ears. And I realized I wanted to sort of capture all that as part of our experience.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Margo Timmins, you weren't in China with the family, right?

Ms. TIMMINS: No, no.

SIMON: What did you think of the sounds when you heard them?

Ms. TIMMINS: Well, when Mike brought back the sounds, there was a lot of them, and I guess the answer is they scared me a little bit, the idea of turning them into music and me having to sing to them. I couldn't really understand or grasp hold of what he was attempting. But Mike and I have worked together for so long that, you know, I knew he knew what he was doing, and I would go there if I could and hopefully, do what he wanted me to do on this album.

SIMON: But of course, your fans want a Cowboy Junkies stamp on it, too. They just don't want a piece of anthropology.

Ms. TIMMINS: Well, I think, you know, anytime that the Junkies get together, there's always going to be that Junkies stamp, which I guess is the feel or sound of the Junkies. I think if you put Mike and Pete and Al and I together and ask us to play music, to whatever - background noise or whatever - it's going to have that Junkies stamp or feel. And I think a big part of that is my voice, just with strange sounds behind it.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Let's listen to a cut where actually, you're not singing. This is a song called - you note all the social life in the park - "A Walk in the Park."

(Soundbite of song, "A Walk in the Park")

Mr. ZUOXIANO ZUZHOU (Singer): (Singing in Chinese)

SIMON: Michael Timmins, when I read your description that this was the Chinese Leonard Cohen, I had no problem accepting it.

Mr. TIMMINS: Yeah. This is Zuoxiano Zuzhou, who's quite a - underground figure in China. He's a very well-known well, he's an underground, very respected musician, not necessarily well-known. He's also a painter and a novelist as well. And - but he has this very intense singing style.

And this song, I recorded the sounds in China. There's about - probably six or seven different field recordings in that song. And then Allen, our bass player, and our friend Joby Baker, took it and created sort of a loop kind of structure out of it. I then took that and sent it, emailed it to China, to Zuoxiano Zuzhou, who then wrote lyrics to it, sang a vocal on it. He then sent it back to me and drawing on it, put a guitar on it. Then I sent it back out west to Joby, who put the finishing touches on it and mixed it.

(Soundbite of song, "A Walk in the Park")

Mr. ZUZHOU: (Singing in Chinese)

Mr. TIMMINS: It was quite an amazing - kind of modern recording experience. And I felt it was really important to get, you know, a modern Chinese rock person on the album. There's a few other traditional instruments on there, but Zuzhou is sort of the - that's the one modern voice on there.

We actually covered another one of his songs on the record, called "I Cannot Sit Sadly by Your Side."

SIMON: Let's listen, if we could, to a bit of "I Cannot Sit Sadly by Your Side."

(Soundbite of song, "I Cannot Sit Sadly by Your Side")

COWBOY JUNKIES: (Singing) You brought back that guitar. I told you I wanted you no more. It only plays the songs that no one's asking for. I cannot sit sadly by your side.

SIMON: Margo, I can imagine you first heard this song in Mandarin or a native dialect, right?

Ms. TIMMINS: You know, I did after the fact.

SIMON: Oh, all right. I wondered if you heard it and said, hey, I can sing that.

Ms. TIMMINS: No, that would've really scared me. You know, my approach to this album was - it was a struggle at first just because I hadn't been to China. I've never lived in a foreign country for that long a period. I've always been the tourist who's gone to the gift shops. And at first, I really didn't know how to get into these songs, especially a song like that - that was written by, you know, somebody completely living a completely different lifestyle than I.

I guess my approach, basically, was to sort of turn it into a film, almost, and try to get into the film.

(Soundbite of song, "I Cannot Sit Sadly by Your Side")

COWBOY JUNKIES: (Singing) I cannot sit sadly by your side.

SIMON: Michael Timmins, can you tell us about Eric Chen?

Mr. TIMMINS: Yeah. Eric was a young man, probably in his mid-30s, who lived in Jingjiang, which is where we were living, and who I just came across at this very strange tea party. It soon became apparent that he was a huge music fan. He didn't know that I was in a band or anything like that at the time. We just, for whatever reason, began to talk music. When he found out that I was in a band and that he could actually Google me and find out about me, he was really thrilled.

But he not only knew everything about Western music, but he was a huge encyclopedia for the modern rock scene in China. So we became real good friends, and we'd get together pretty much every day. He'd play me modern Chinese, music and he sort of taught me who the Springsteen was and who the - you know, who the Dylan was. So he was the one who really helped me find my way into these songs.

And then he also translated them for me, too, once I became interested in covering them. So he was a very important person for me to meet, and we're still in contact through email.

SIMON: Are there Cowboy Junkies fans in China?

Mr. TIMMINS: Well, you know, there are. Again, he showed me all the various sites where Cowboy Junkies had a presence. And the funny thing was, he then introduced me to a friend of his who was very excited to meet me because when "Trinity Session" came out, he was responsible for mastering it. And, of course, what he meant was he was responsible for creating the master, which then duplicated all the illegal bootlegs for the album, and he was very excited to tell me that. Oh, thank you very much.

SIMON: And talk to my lawyer, yeah.

Mr. TIMMINS: Well, you know, that is just the reality. If we think we have a problem here with copyright, you know, China's a whole other issue. It's not even considered. I mean, Eric was showing me all these sites with different T-shirts - and where you can buy T-shirts. And I just kind of innocently said, well, does the band get any of that? And he kind of looked at me like I was insane. What do you mean, does the band get any of that?

SIMON: What a concept.

Mr. TIMMINS: Oh, I know. So, you know, that was very eye-opening as well. So, yeah. So, there were some fans - a few scattered here and there.

SIMON: Margo Timmins, what do you hope this CD touches in people?

Ms. TIMMINS: Well, the part of this album that I probably have clinged to mostly and can relate to, because I also have an adopted son - not from China but from Russia - is the whole, that side of it that, you know, when Mike was over there with my nieces and showing them their homeland, I was very interested in just how the girls were and how they were interpreting it, what it was doing to their heads. You know...

SIMON: How old were the girls?

Ms. TIMMINS: What were they then, Mike?

Mr. TIMMINS: Six and 11.

Ms. TIMMINS: Yeah, so I think with this album, that's the part that touches my heart. And I hope other people sort of hear that and see that. And what I think is most beautiful about what Mike's songwriting and this whole album, and what he mentioned at the beginning of this interview, is just how it doesn't really matter - our politics or where we live. People are people, and we love our children. And so I hope that people maybe just open their eyes a little bit more.

SIMON: Well, I want to thank you both very much for being with us.

Mr. TIMMINS: Well, thank you.

Ms. TIMMINS: Thank you.

SIMON: Michael and Margo Timmins of Cowboy Junkies. The new CD is called "Renmin Park." They joined us from Cake Mix Recording in Dallas.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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