SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — It has been 30 years since the Cowboy Junkies released their debut album “Whites Off Earth Now!!” in 1986, yet record companies and critics alike have never quite been able to pin a label on the band. Straddling the lines between alternative country, blues and folk rock with frequent forays into other styles, the group’s moody, atmospheric sound does not fit comfortably within any one genre. But in spite of that, or perhaps because of it, the Junkies have developed a cult following that has lasted to this day.
For a small Canadian band whose music has refused to conform to modern commercial standards, such devotion means the world.
“We feel very blessed to have people who have followed us through the years,” guitarist and songwriter Michael Timmins told the News-Record in a Feb. 12 phone interview. “People have certain eras or albums they like best, but the real hardcore following comes back. Even if they don’t like a specific record, they’ll check out the next one to see what we’re up to. So we’re very, very lucky and we’re appreciative of it.”
Some members of that following will no doubt be in attendance when the Junkies return to the South Orange Performing Arts Center on Saturday, Feb. 27. There Timmins, his singer sister Margo, brother Peter on drums and friend Alan Anton on bass will play some of their best-loved work, such as their most well-known single: their cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” from the Junkies’ seminal 1988 album “The Trinity Session.” But they will also play a lot of material from their new box set “Notes Falling Slow,” which consists of remastered versions of their 2000s records “Open,” “One Soul Now” and “At the End of Paths Taken,” plus a fourth disc containing newly recorded songs that were originally written at the time those albums were made.
Revisiting those albums has been an enjoyable experience, according to Timmins. More importantly, he said it gives the Junkies an opportunity to refocus attention onto three of what he described as the group’s most important releases, which were recorded during the pivotal moment when the band members started to enter parenthood while also returning to their independent roots after departing Geffen Records. He said that period of transition is reflected in the songs of that decade.
At the same time though, Timmins added that playing songs from at least 10 years ago is never the same experience as when recording them.
“It’s been a lot of fun re-examining those songs,” Timmins said. “They have different relevance. You always look at a song differently 10, 15 years later because your life circumstance changes and maybe the way you approach music or the way I approach songwriting changes. So you’re always looking at songs in a different light.”
One set of songs the Junkies certainly look at differently today are those featured in their sophomore effort “The Trinity Session.” The album — so named because it was recorded inside Toronto’s Church of the Holy Trinity — put the Junkies on the map as artists, garnering immense critical acclaim and reaching platinum status in the United States. A follow-up record, 2007’s “Trinity Revisited,” even attracted the likes of Natalie Merchant and Ryan Adams to perform re-recordings of the material.
Looking back, Timmins said he and his bandmates will be forever grateful to “The Trinity Session” for helping to launch their career. But to say that the album’s success was unexpected would be an understatement.
“It was just a weird, little quirky record that for some reason took off and struck people in a certain way,” Timmins said. “It came out in the late ’80s, and for a lot of popular music that was a very sterile time. The type of recordings people were doing were very, very studio-oriented and they didn’t really have a lot of human feeling in them. But ‘The Trinity Session’ was a very natural, very organic-sounding recording that was done live off the floor and with one microphone. It was a very, very simple recording, very simple technique, which captured musicians communicating with one another through music.”
The success of “The Trinity Session” led to more than a dozen additional studio albums that often experimented with different styles ranging from psychedelic rock to Eastern-influenced sounds. It also made Hollywood take notice; more than 40 films and television shows feature the group’s music or have commissioned the band to perform original soundtrack material.
The group was even asked to perform the theme to the 1994 Meryl Streep action thriller “The River Wild,” an experience Timmins described as “interesting.” The guitarist-songwriter recalled that director Curtis Hanson asked the band to record a version of the traditional Scottish folk song “The Water is Wide,” only to reject their initial attempt as being too depressing. Its second, more upbeat version was used in the movie, but Timmins finds that whole process an amusing commentary on how the Junkies have always fit into the music scene.
“Once again, we’re too sad for popular culture,” Timmins joked.
While they may not have ever fit into the pop music category, but the Junkies surely will not disappoint their die-hard fans at SOPAC next week. Timmins said hearing the band’s music live is a totally different experience from just listening to one of its albums. And all genre labels aside, he encouraged anyone who enjoys a good concert performance in general to check out the show.
“Even if you’re not quite sure of who we are or what we do, or you think you know what we do, if you don’t hear us live then you don’t know completely what we do,” Timmins said. “We’re different than one might expect.”
To order tickets, call 973-313-2787 or visit www.sopacnow.org/cowboy-junkies.