If Beijing Opera isn't the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Toronto's veteran alt-country band Cowboy Junkies, you'll be forgiven. There's quite a musical gap between the slow, sexy huskiness of Margo Timmins and the high-pitched urgency of Beijing Opera. Yet Beijing Opera was a strong influence in the creation of the Junkies' latest project. You might not actually hear it, but it's there in the fabric of Renmin Park, a recently released concept album reborn out of a family pilgrimage to China.
Margo's brother Michael Timmins wasn't looking for his next musical project when he set off for the city of Jingjiang two years ago with his family. He was looking for something much more profound: His young daughters, then 6 and 11, had both been adopted from China. (He also has a biological son, who was 8 at the time.) On this trip, the girls would visit the orphanages where they began their lives and be immersed in their native culture.
Michael planned to take a three-month break from music while there, but this proved impossible. He started attending a daily gathering of Beijing opera fans - a sort of karaoke club where a handful of people of varying musical talents would play instruments and sing Beijing Opera. At the park where they met, he also heard folk music and "bad pop music blaring out of boom boxes." He found a local music fanatic who schooled him in good Chinese pop.
"The sounds of the city and the noises [were]a big part of it too," he says. "It was just so foreign to Western ears."
Michael wrote home and asked for a portable recorder to be shipped over. He wasn't sure what - if anything - he might do with the recordings professionally, but he felt the sounds of China were as important to document as the sights he photographed.
When he returned and presented the idea of using the audio in some way to the rest of the band, they weren't quite sure what to think.
"I wondered what form would this take? Are you going to ask me to sing Chinese?" remembers Margo. "I have to admit that in the beginning I thought: 'Oh my God, what is going on here and what is he talking about?' ... But we've been doing this a long time and we all trust and respect Mike's musical vision."
The independent blues/country/rock outfit has been together for 25 years, and while its fame may have peaked with the 1988 album Trinity Session, it continues to have a loyal following. Michael serves as songwriter and engineer; he also plays guitar and sings.
For Renmin Park, the band built tracks around loops of Michael's field recordings. Along with the loose story of two lovers destined for disappointment are the sounds of Jingjiang: children singing, badminton players. It begins with a tinny recording of the music Michael's family heard blaring out of a loudspeaker each morning, to which students would perform calisthenics. There are also two covers of Chinese pop songs.
Despite her initial misgivings, Margo had little problem vocalizing her brother's vision, but struggled with the title track. "I couldn't really what I call make it believable.... "I wasn't [in China] I didn't hear the sounds, I didn't smell the streets. I didn't feel the crowds or the people looking at me, so there was nothing I could personally connect to."
So she headed to Toronto's Chinatown, took a good hard look at the faces as she walked around, and thought about how different cultures connect. "I actually thought I should go deeper than just my own little world in Etobicoke."
The project has great personal meaning for Margo: It was not only born out of a life-altering trip for her nieces, but she herself is an adoptive mother. She adopted her son Ed, now 7, from Russia when he was 11 months old.
"The songs that deal with the adopted children, part of it is kind of exposing a part of my life," she says. "It's like reading your diary or your journal or something.... You're standing there quite naked exposing your deepest emotions.
"There is some pain as an adoptive parent that you know that you cannot take away from your children, that they will always wonder where they came from and why they were left alone.... You don't want to think about your son lying in a crib somewhere. You want to think that he was always loved and cared for."
Renmin Park is the first of four recordings to be released over the next 18 months in the Junkies' ambitious Nomad series. Up next is Demons, in which the band will cover music by their late friend and collaborator Vic Chesnutt.
"We're making some of our best music right now," says Michael. "We've been able to stick together this long and mature, I think, live. And in the studio I think we're at our most creative and strongest."
Cowboy Junkies will play two shows at The Cultch in Vancouver on Oct. 3 and one show at Koerner Hall in Toronto on Nov. 19.