Cowboy Junkies Honouring An Icon
Published Dec 09, 2013Michael Timmins seems to be attracted to big projects lately. After wrapping up his band Cowboy Junkies' ambitious four-disc collection The Nomad Series in 2012, along with a new album by his side project Lee Harvey Osmond, Timmins returned to finishing The Kennedy Suite, a project he began in 2007 in collaboration with songwriter Scott Garbe, along with Andy Maize and Josh Finlayson of Skydiggers. The album is a powerful song cycle inspired by the JFK assassination, featuring a litany of guests including Sarah Harmer, Jason Collett and the Good Family. Timmins explained the lengthy process behind The Kennedy Suite, why we should still care about JFK, and who he thinks really killed him.
First off, how are the live shows shaping up?
Good. The first one's sold out and the second one's moving, so hopefully it'll do well as far as that goes. But putting them together has been a bit of a nightmare. It's been a learning experience for sure; lots of elements involved, and not just musicians. There are 40 singers and musicians, and that unto itself is difficult. But we're trying to present this as an entire piece, so rather than just have people come up and do their thing, we're trying to a have a bit of a stage element to it, so the narrative can be shown in an audio/visual way. We don't have a lot of rehearsal time for it, so we'll see. It's kind of nerve-wracking, but a lot of fun.
Sounds like herding cats.
Yeah, that's exactly the term I've been using.
This is a project that Scott Garbe has been working on for quite some time, at least since the Skydiggers recorded "The Truth About Us" is 1997. How and when did you become involved?
That song was the first song he wrote for The Kennedy Suite, but at that time he wasn't necessarily writing this thing. It was just an individual song he wrote. He's always been fascinated with the assassination, and as he kept writing songs he realized he was writing an entire piece. I think he finished it up around 2003, then gave it to Andy Maize. Then around 2006 Andy brought it to me when Andy, Josh [Finlayson] and I had just finished working on the Finlayson/Maize record Dark Hollow together and we were sort of looking for another project to do. Andy told me to take a listen and I just fell in love with the entire thing right away. I loved the intelligence of it and the possibilities that we could do with it. That's what really got me excited, that there were so many directions we could take this. So it was way back in 2007 that we actually began to work on it. We bed-tracked a lot of the stuff and got some guests in at that time, but we didn't know what the endgame was. Then I got sidetracked by touring and The Nomad Series and other productions I was doing, so over the years we'd sort of pick off a song here and there and maybe get another person involved.
Did Lee Harvey Osmond come out of this process as well?
Yes, that's exactly right. This was the first thing Tom [Wilson] did as Lee Harvey Osmond. I didn't know Tom before that and Josh suggested him for one of the songs, so he came into the studio and we really got along, and then we started talking about the two of us doing something together. Since we started doing this, I've done two Lee Harvey Osmond records; that's how long it's taken! So we were picking away at it, and then really when we ran up against the 50th anniversary of the assassination, we thought, "Well, if we don't finish this thing this year we might as well erase it all because it's too obvious when to put it out." So, I guess it was in the spring I started to really go at it and make sure the music was done, and I mixed it throughout the summer. It's been a very long cycle, but in some ways it's been good because happy accidents came out of it. Lee Harvey Osmond for example, and I got involved with the Good Family. A lot of nice things happened that wouldn't have if we'd just worked on it for a solid six months.
Did you and Scott spend a lot of time constructing the narrative?
Yeah, I mean, Scott had written the songs, so I listened to what he had and it suggested to me that every song should have a different feel. From a writing perspective, every song did have a different style, and that really excited me as a producer. Every song could be its own entity, and then the challenge was to maintain an overarching narrative. That was something I immediately glommed onto, to try to make each song its own mini piece.
Did it take some effort to explain the concept to the other artists?
Yeah, it really, really did [laughs]. I had my little sales pitch down by the end of it. It was very awkward, but some people really fell right into it. Some people looked at me like, what the fuck are you talking about? They either seemed to get it or not get it, and that was fine. The thing was, most of the artists only heard their song, so they didn't really know what the whole thing was about. I explained what it was all about, but they only focused on their individual song.
Obviously, this project is just one of countless things happening to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination. Has there been any reaction yet from the States?
Not really. We've just begun to get it out to people we have relationships with. I think if you're not in music, the more news-oriented people are, as you said, absorbing all of the other things marking the anniversary right now. I don't know if they have time to listen to an album of songs about the thing. But to me it's not about an anniversary. I think the writing is strong enough that it'll carry over, so it doesn't really matter when it comes out down there.
I agree. The feeling I got from the album was that it had to do more with JFK's humanity, and how so many people felt a connection to that.
That's the other aspect to this thing that I really liked from the start, the personal side. It's not so much about the event itself, it's about the people around it. The writing deals with all of the players in the drama as individuals, and I think that overall it says a lot about all of us as human beings.
This is also another perfect example of we as Canadians having perhaps a more objective view of American culture. Did this idea ever come up over the course of making the album?
Yeah, for sure. We have been asked a couple of times about that — how is this relevant to Canadians? I go back to the question I've been asked forever about Canadian bands playing American music. It's sort of the same thing in that Canadians are inundated with American culture — not just culture, but economics and politics as well — but we do have a unique perspective on it. We are slightly outside of it, and we have a very different view than those who are in it. I think that that unto itself makes this project relevant, because the event itself was certainly international in its consequences, so any outside perspective I think is a healthy one. We do that a lot as Canadians with everything that comes out of America, including music.
I have to ask, do you believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone?
I'm not a conspiracy theorist in general, so my answer is yes. I usually find that conspiracies are way too complicated. I'm a believer that, unfortunately, fates cross. Something happens, and that leads to something else, which leads to something else. Horrible, cataclysmic events happen just because a person is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Working with Scott and the more I read about it, I don't understand how a conspiracy could have worked. And if it did happen, it would have involved way too many people to not have something leaked at some point. The circumstantial evidence is certainly overwhelming in terms of Oswald being a crazy little asshole with a chip on his shoulder.
I noticed the latest theory is that a Secret Service agent behind JFK had his gun accidentally go off and that was the second shot that hit him.
Yeah, I saw a documentary on that too. But again, there were hundreds of people who didn't see that, and the entire Secret Service managed to cover it up? Come on, really?
In the end, JFK really did inspire people in a way that's pretty much impossible for politicians to do anymore, and I think the clips of his speeches you included on the album really drives that home.
That, to me, is one of the great things about the record. What you say is true. You hear those clips and you understand how inspiring he was. Especially as a young person at the time, it must have been so overwhelming. And then to have this person you looked up to be gone in a second, you begin to realize the immensity of the tragedy.