An audience with Cowboy Junkies: “If you don’t reinterpret a song, then you’re just covering it and what’s the point?”

The alt country stalwarts talk Townes Van Zandt, The Trinity Session, family politics and the art of a great cover version

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It’s mid-January in Simcoe County and the temperature has dropped to a bracing -15°c. “My dogs won’t even go outside,” reports Margo Timmins. “I open the door and they look at me like, ‘Are you crazy?’” Thankfully, the biting cold hasn’t deterred Cowboy Junkies, one of Canada’s most enduring bands, from recently completing their 19th album. “Over the last two years, Mike’s rented a house up here near me for about a month each time. We would do whatever we were doing in the morning and then in the afternoons I would go up to his place and work on new songs. It was fantastic because I didn’t have to go into Toronto, which is not my favourite place to go!”

They’re due to mix the new album soon with a view to releasing it in the autumn. In the meantime there’s a “holdover record” coming next month, comprising covers old and new – including their acclaimed version of “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You” from Uncut’s Dylan Revisited CD. “We’ve done tons of covers over the years but these are the ones that we really love,” explains Michael Timmins. “It’s basically a snapshot of what inspired us as musicians – David Bowie, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, The Cure, Gram Parsons. These are the people who made us feel, ‘Wow – I’d like to do that’.”

Some of your covers have become almost as famous as the originals. What’s the secret of a good cover version?

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Andy Perkins, Earlsfield, London

MICHAEL: It’s being true to the song, but not so true that you’re like a wedding band. It’s about finding a way into a song so it becomes an expression of yourself. We don’t really think of them as covers – once we’ve put our stamp on them and imbued them with our personality, they become sort of our songs.

MARGO: I have to be able to sing them from my perspective, as a female, with my worldview and my experiences. If you don’t reinterpret the song, then you’re just covering it and what’s the point? But we’re also very much aware of the original because we’re fans of that song. We don’t want people to be upset that we destroyed their favourite song!

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