Cowboy Junkies Swallow Impermanence on 20th Album ‘Such Ferocious Beauty’

By 2021, Michael Timmins’ father’s dementia had started to progress. Wrestling with the immensity of the changes as a son, the intensity of his father’s state, and an overshadowing awareness of impermanence, Timmins’ songs began shifting around all things that eventually fade on Cowboy Junkies’ 20th album, Such Ferocious Beauty.

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Written by Timmins remotely in an old converted barn in Northern, Ontario, the songs were a more familial matter for bandmates and siblings, including sister and vocalist Margo Timmins and drummer Peter, along with bassist Alan Anton. The storyline within Such Ferocious Beauty was a collective one for Cowboy Junkies and was left with reflection on the death of the Timmins’ mother in 2018 and their father’s struggle with dementia before passing away in June of 2022.

Such Ferocious Beauty is also a continuation of Cowboy Junkies’ life journeys in song since forming more than 35 years ago with the breakthrough album The Trinity Sessions in 1988. Citing the band’s 2018 album, All That Reckoning, and their follow-up, Ghosts, in retrospect, Timmins sees Such Ferocious Beauty as the continuation of a naturally occurring trifecta of releases.

“This record is connected to ‘All That Reckoning,’” said Timmins in a previous statement. “I see our recent work in a cycle: ‘Reckoning,’ ‘Ghosts,’ ‘Such Ferocious Beauty.’ They were all done in very violent and tumultuous times. The violent side is so much a part of our society now; not just the physical, but the way we relate to each other. It’s hard to escape.”

I woke up this morning, didn’t know who I was / I looked at the room, I didn’t know where I was / Or if I ever was on delivers Margo on the somber, opening elegy “What I Lost,” a precursor to a chain of events unwound in the remaining nine tracks. 

“Flood,” which also provided a closing verse that would become the album title, leaves a more unsettling notion of drowning in fears, and the unknown—Should I follow it down / To where the river meets the sea? / Or let it devour me and references individuals, one perhaps centered on the Timmins’ father, who built his life and is in denial watching the water rise above him.

Never have Cowboy Junkies been so ugly and so beautiful at the same time. Such Ferocious Beauty is where the unpleasant ends meet lovelier beginnings, and vice versa, and how easily things can fall apart in bluesier “Hard To Build. Easy To Break” or sobering “Circe and Penelope”—I got a life full of regrets and dreams … I miss him almost every day.

“Mike has never shied away from the darker, harder, and sometimes uglier realities of our human condition,” said Margo Timmins in a statement, “nor has he shied from its beauty. Thankfully, with one comes the other.”

Margo’s vocals relentlessly shimmer, even while grappling with the inevitable mortality and social-political climate on “Hell is Real.” There’s more of a reckoning with life changes on the mid-tempo “Shadows 2,” and the outward chaos of “Knives” and “Mike Tyson (Here It Comes)”—The world starts to arrive / With its own insistence. Such Ferocious Beauty doesn’t shy from the pervasive heartache of “Throw a Match,” and an unending desire for better days, and searching for “Blue Skies.”

“I love the power of these songs and the images they conjure,” said Timmins. “To me, they reflect more upon life and nature and the impact they have on us. Within our own humanity, there is great heartache and misery, but also great joy and comfort. There is nothing more humbling to me than the ferocious beauty we live amongst, including life and death.”

Timmins recently spoke to American Songwriter about writing more than 35 years in with Cowboy Junkies, and all the pretty and uglier things that found a way into Such Ferocious Beauty.

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American Songwriter: Everything kept spilling over from All That Reckoning in 2018, through the pandemic, then Ghosts. Tell me how Such Ferocious Beauty started piecing together for you from your last release.

Michael Timmins: I started writing in the fall of 20, and then it was really in the spring — March, April, May, June of ’21 — when I really got really focused, and that’s when things began to come together.

I don’t know if I started writing the record necessarily around my dad, but obviously, his presence was in my mind, and in my life. It was becoming more obvious and more intense when he became sick. That’s when the album started to take focus. Some of the songs are more specific about my dad like “What I Lost” and “Shadows 2,” which was sort of written near the end of it, but it’s hard to say. I don’t think there’s really a specific song, just the overall arching theme of impermanence and the relationship with my dad, and what was happening around us. Those themes began to take more shape and coalesce.

AS: There are these two sides on Such Ferocious Beauty: the not-so-pleasant and the beautiful. Where do both meet in the songs? Were there any other underlying threads between the 10 songs that began surfacing over time?

MT: The title sort of sums it up. You’re right, in many ways, there’s a ferociousness and a beauty, and you don’t necessarily think of those two as being habitable. But in a very general way, it refers to life. And that’s what life is, right?  It can be extremely hard, and it can be extremely difficult, but if you’re paying attention, and you care to pay attention, the most difficult path can be extremely beautiful. There are moments that are like, “Wow, that was part of my day,” whether it’s listening to music, seeing a sunset, or an unexpected engagement with a stranger on the street.

Definitely, my dad and the deterioration with his dementia, where he was going, and being part of that journey was obviously very relevant. I also started writing in 2020, and that was a pretty strange time, so my brain was definitely in the mode of “Where do we go from here?”— especially then. We really didn’t know if we were coming out of COVID, and then all the election stuff began happening. I was thinking of all the January 6 stuff and everything leading up to that. It was a very intense, weird time, so I think all those social elements, the overall arching element of COVID, and the very specific personal ailment of my dad coalesced.

AS: Did any songs have a more surprising transformation from when they were written to recording?

TM: Usually, It’s just me and my acoustic guitar. For this record, I rented this old converted barn near the tail end of COVID, and I would play [Margo] songs, and we had all the songs on some level set to vocal and acoustic guitar. And that completely changed when all four of us got together in the studio. All the songs changed, except for “Blue Sky,” which is pretty straightforward. But most of them changed quite a bit — not necessarily the melodies, just the grooves, and sonics.

AS: When you think back to Whites Off the Earth Now (1987), The Trinity Session (1988), and even something more recent like Ghosts, do you feel like the same songwriter?

MT: As a songwriter, I’m more of a lyricist. I always approached it the same way. I’m always writing about what’s going on around me whether some are of a more personal nature or what’s going on with family and friends and society. If you go through our records, you can see that there’s a journey. I never really sit down and think, “Well, you know, I’m gonna write a pop song today.” I love pop songs, but it’s not what I do. It’s not how I approach my music, and that’s been the same. 

As far as the band is concerned, flushing those ideas out, in many ways, it’s the same, but it’s also grown and matured since the four of us have been together for a long time. The way we relate to each other, musically, has gotten stronger, so it’s easier because everybody’s gotten better at what they do. They’ve defined their personality more through their instruments. There’s also less pushing and pulling, and more of this organic coming together, certainly over the last 10 years.

AS: I imagine you’ve also been guilty of holding on to songs for some time, or the ones that never made the cut.

MT: I do believe in holding on to songs that don’t quite make it, but generally these days, when I’m beginning to start to write an album, there’s really a reason for it. I might be able to call in some ideas from a past song, but it’s rare that an older song will completely resonate.

Sometimes there’s a song, and 10 years later your life takes a turn, and you’re like “Oh that’s what that song is about.” I like to start with a blank slate, but I might look at some old notes, or some old demos and see if there’s anything there that I want to expand on or develop, or redevelop. I definitely don’t trash stuff and delete it forever. I used to write all the time, but now it’s very concept orientated.

AS: So everything is more laser-focused now?

TM: It’s part of life. As you get older, and life caves in on you, you make it more structured (laughs).

Even from a band point of view, we run ourselves basically, so I have to sort of compartmentalize. I usually escape somewhere I can’t be reached and take time — two, three weeks at a time — just writing and not really checking on anything else. That’s really the only way I can write these things. In the old days, all I did was write. That was one of my only responsibilities, to write and go play live, so that’s changed over the years. 

AS: Life does dictate songs. You mentioned how some older songs resurface, and understanding them better over time. What’s your connection to some older Cowboy Junkies songs now?

MT: They certainly still resonate. I look back on some of them and think, “Wow, that’s awkward.” It sort of encapsulates a time, but when I hear them now I know where I was in my life at that point, in relationships and they bring me back to a place, which is great. And many are still relevant in that sense. But I can also step back and say “That captured what I was trying to say there.”

Photo: Heather Pollock / Courtesy of Liz Campanile PR

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