The Cowboy Junkies aren’t a band that nitpick over their recordings.
The Canadian quartet has a long history of capturing raw performances live off the floor. Their second and most well-known album “The Trinity Session” (1988) was recorded with the band’s members and various guests sitting around a single ambisonic microphone in Toronto’s Church of the Holy Trinity.
Nearly 30 years later, the band is speeding up its output. Over an 18-month span between 2010 and 2012, the band released four new studio albums, collectively known as the “Nomad Series” — 2010’s “Renmin Park,” 2011’s “Demons” and “Sing in My Meadow” and most recently 2012’s “The Wilderness.”
Working that fast can be a challenge for any musician, and guitarist and main songwriter Michael Timmins admits to some hectic scheduling to get the material completed. But for the most part, the wealth of material was a direct result of the way the band has worked all these years.
Where: The Egg, Empire State Plaza, Albany
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
How Much: $29.50
More Info: 473-1845, www.theegg.org
“It was a pretty intense schedule because we also toured a lot, but we took a good chunk of time off the road for that purpose, to get it down,” Michael Timmins said recently from his home in Toronto, where he formed Cowboy Junkies with his siblings Margo Timmins and Peter Timmins and bassist Alan Anton in the mid-’80s.
“We were recording pretty much straight through, and we record fast. Once I’ve written the song and we know what we want to do, that gets a lot of the skeleton done fast, and then it’s just a matter of figuring if we want to add anything in the mixing process. But we don’t fixate on anything — to us it’s more important to capture what we want and then move from there. We’re not looking for the perfect snare sound or anything.”
In tour mode
With the “Nomad Series” officially completed, and recently packaged together in a box set, the band is focused on touring. They’ll be at The Egg on Saturday night, a stop on the band’s U.S. tour continuing through mid-March.
Roadwork will continue this year, with dates in Canada and more shows in the U.S. in April and May. Even with a full tour schedule, the band is staying creative, with Michael already working on material for future records.
“We’re sort of always working on new material, hacking away at stuff, but there’s no real focus,” Michael said. “We’re always working. Right now we’re more in tour mode — we’ll be doing a lot of touring for the next while.”
“The Wilderness,” more so than the other “Nomad” albums, is a product of Michael’s prolificacy. At least half of the songs were written before the band had the idea for “Renmin Park,” which was inspired by Michael’s visit to China with his wife to adopt two Chinese children, in particular his time spent in the park of the same name (it translates to “People’s Park”).
“At the time of writing those earlier songs, I was just writing,” Michael said. “Sometimes I’ll go off and start to write even if I don’t have a focus. That was one of the reasons I sort of put those songs away and decided to use them later on. My hope was to discover what the songs were about, what the focus was, after doing the other three records.”
Each of the “Nomad” albums does have a specific theme. “Remnin Park” finds the band fusing field recordings made in China with the group’s ethereal, laid-back sound; “Demons” is composed of 11 covers from late Georgia singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt; and “Sing in My Meadow” is the band’s take on garage rock — “The third album was more psychedelic, more reflective of that element of the live show that we don’t do in the studio,” Michael said.
By contrast, “The Wilderness” is the most Cowboy Junkies-sounding album of the series, with sparse, gentle arrangements framing Margo’s almost whispered vocal delivery. Indeed, the lyrics, rather than experimentation in the music like the previous three albums, became the focus for this album.
Beauty and danger
“We realized that the fourth album should be more of the lyric-driven side of it,” Michael said. “Coincidentally, we had the title ‘The Wilderness’ — we had that title for the album first, which was unusual for us. Then we began thinking of wilderness as an over-arching theme for the record — the wilderness being not just a physical place but a temporal place as well, where one finds oneself in a place of great beauty, but also great unknown danger. One can get lost in the wilderness as well as enjoy it, and that sort of became the over-arching theme of the songs.”
Fan reaction to all four albums has been positive, with many gradually discovering the new music. The band has never taken a mainstream approach to releasing its music, so releasing four full-length albums in the digital age, where the focus has moved to single-shot downloads, was never much of a concern for the band. In fact, today’s music industry only seems to be helping.
“The hard-core fans, the more you give them, the more they like you, so that’s great,” Michael said. “And then people who are just in and out of the band are taking their time coming to it — they’ll listen to one, then come to the show and get another. That’s the whole idea, the whole point — in this day and age, you don’t have to sell all the records in the first two months; there’s no problem with somebody discovering things one at a time.”
Along with the “Nomad Series,” the band has also been busy celebrating its past. In 2008 the band released “Trinity Revisited,” a re-recording of the original “The Trinity Session” album done in the same church, with guests including Natalie Merchant, Chesnutt (shortly before his death in 2009) and Ryan Adams. The event was turned into a concert, with a film of the show and a behind-the-scenes documentary also released.
Unlike the original album, the band mic’ed each individual instrument (“When you have a film crew, you can’t do it with one microphone; it’s too sensitive for that,” Michael said). But the live feel of the original sessions remains intact.
“It grew from this sort of idea of making note of the fact that ‘The Trinity Session’ is an important record for a lot of people, including us,” Michael said.