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Before you meet Cowboy Junkies singer Margo Timmons, it's easy to picture her as one of the more glamorous Canadians on the planet. Her intense, whispery voice has led the Junkies to a continuing series of roaring successes. All over the world, Timmons and her group have startled critics and record buyers alike with their trance-inducing blend of country-blues.
Even America, which considers Canada to be something along the lines of a cultural Siberia, has been mesmerized by the Junkies and hypnotized by Timmons. The willowy, hazel-eyed Torontonian has even been offered screen tests and recently was named one of Esquire magazine's "Women We Love to Love."
So when Timmons portrays the down-to-earth reality of her life, it fits with her image about as well as a drum solo in one of the Junkies' songs.
" . . . I just have time to do laundry between stops," she says nonchalantly in an interview before the Junkies' show last Friday at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts. "I live life the way I like it. We're not party people. I love Emmylou Harris because she makes dinner every night and only tours in the summer when the kids can come along."
For Timmons, 29, the clamorous attention from magazine and movie moguls is "flattering, but I don't take it too seriously. It makes me laugh, especially the weird stuff, like I'm having an affair with Sean Penn."
Sorry, Hollywood. Margo Timmons is anything but the next Madonna. Rather, she's a self-described "good Catholic girl" who "wouldn't be caught dead in a bar except to hear or play music."
Timmons' ego, it seems, hasn't expanded much since her accidental start in the music business back in 1985. At the time, she was toiling as a legal secretary, her singing confined "to that while doing the dishes." But when her brothers Michael, Peter, and John (who's since left the group) formed their band with friend Alan Anton, they recruited the shy little sister to sing, "since none of them can, I guess." Soon the Cowboy Junkies set out for an interminable tour of eastern Canadian and New York bars.
Then, in 1986, the band recorded Whites off Earth Now!! in Michael's garage. The album was composed entirely of covers, all played at the Junkies' now-trademark glacial tempo. Their version of "Blue Moon" caught the fancy of early fans and local music writers, establishing the band's reputation as a moody, ethereal outfit. And the song remains the Junkies' most requested concert number.
Performing on stage initially terrified Margo. "For the first year, I couldn't open my eyes on-stage or anything. I didn't sing loud because of any style thing, but because I didn't know what would happen if I did."
So what helped transform the meek young Canadian girl into the cool and confident woman who recently chattered to and joked with an enthusiastic SRO house at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts?
"Doing all the bars taught us a lot," she reflects. "I learned to ignore the cash registers and hockey games and just concentrate. In the old days, we'd play anywhere, drive any distance for a gig, it didn't matter. I do feel more confident now, less like `Can I pull it off tonight?' . . . though it's always a risk."
It was the Cowboy Junkies' second album, The Trinity Session, that convinced Margo to seriously pursue a career in music. The LP was recorded in one day at a church outside their Toronto home base, using one microphone and costing a mere $250--Canadian. "We liked the way we sounded," Timmons says. "You know, the stained glass and all."
The Trinity Session's cover of "Sweet Jane," with Timmons' sultry interpretation, eventually found its way into regular rotation on MTV and VH-1, prompting a major-label bidding battle. The group signed with RCA Records, and The Trinity Session has sold more than a million copies.
Timmons admits surprise at the sudden success, but the singer believes brother Michael's oft-stated theory that "people have 45 minutes to spare to listen to ten slow songs."
"It's what I love, ballads," she declares softly. "I'll always sing ballads."
The Junkies' latest RCA effort, The Caution Horses, continues to focus on the band's slow-moving, languorous style--one that's been described as everything from simplistic to narcoleptic to uncategorizable.
"It's not country, it's not blues, it's not rock," says Timmons. "We just do what we do."
Whatever "it" is, works: Tours now include larger, less boozy venues, and the band's success has garnered it trips to Europe and Japan and guest shots on Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show.
And, denials of stardom notwithstanding, Timmons is quite aware of her contribution to the Cowboy Junkies' accomplishments.
"Overall, I like what we're doing. I'm sort of content. . . . My voice is getting stronger; at least, I can sing louder, above a speaking level.
"When we get home, I'm thinking about taking voice lessons," she says, bearing a small smile. "I know if my voice changes, it all changes."
Margo Timmons is a self-described "good Catholic girl" who "wouldn't be caught dead in a bar except to hear or play music.