MACLEAN’S HONOR ROLL

Shyly into the limelight

A quiet voice that sounds as if it is trying to take the melancholy chill off a Canadian winter

MARGO TIMMINS December 31 1990
MACLEAN’S HONOR ROLL

Shyly into the limelight

A quiet voice that sounds as if it is trying to take the melancholy chill off a Canadian winter

MARGO TIMMINS December 31 1990

Shyly into the limelight

A quiet voice that sounds as if it is trying to take the melancholy chill off a Canadian winter

MARGO TIMMINS

She has beguiling features, untamed hair the color of late autumn, and a voice that sounds as if it is trying to take the melancholy chill off a Canadian winter. It is a dangerously quiet voice, sexy by default rather than design. It hangs like woodsmoke above the smoulder of harmonica and steel guitar, and lingers in the shadows between hope and despair, intimacy and caution. It belongs to Margo Timmins, and sounds like no one else.

Timmins, 29, is the lead singer of the Cowboy Junkies, a Toronto-based band that scored one of the most unlikely successes in the past decade of pop music. Creating a hit album usually requires several months of studio work and thousands of dollars. But the Cowboy Junkies recorded their 1988 album, The Trinity Session, for just $250 through a single microphone during one day

in a Toronto church. The album sold one million copies worldwide. And since then, the band has packed concert halls throughout North America, Europe and Japan. Now, this year’s album, The Caution Horses, has enhanced the group’s reputation. In a year when rockers Milli Vanilli were exposed as lip-sync frauds, Cowboy Junkies affirmed the appeal of popular music based on acoustic honesty rather than studio technology. And with their success, Timmins now says with justifiable confidence, “I guess we’re here to stay.”

Despite their outlaw name, coined to create a stir on the street, the Cowboy Junkies do not play cowboy music. And they are not junkies—although their music almost always consists of narcotically slow ballads. On the contrary, the band is a cozy affair that includes two of Margo’s brothers: Michael, 31, writes most of the songs, and Peter, 25, is the band’s drummer. “We’re all very quiet people, and we don’t do the party scene,” says Margo.

One of six children, Margo was raised in Montreal until, at age 12, her family moved to Toronto. Their father, John Timmins, owns an aircraft leasing company. For Margo, teenage rebellion meant dropping out of school and taking a secretarial course. She later obtained a degree in social work, but chose to work as her father’s secretary while the band was forming.

Timmins stepped shyly into the limelight. It was not her idea. And she had no experience in music when Michael asked her to front his fledgling band five years ago. At the beginning, she made a vow—“to make sure that the person on stage was me.” Even now, Timmins sings as if she were carefully unveiling a personal secret. And her style has won the respect of critics attuned to a new wave of acoustic sounds in pop music—and to a generation of no-frills female singers.

Originally, her only real ambition was to get married and have children. She is married to Toronto entertainment lawyer Graham Henderson, who helped introduce the band to the United States. They live with two white Shetland sheepdogs in an old house downtown. But now that she is so busy with music, she says, having children will have to wait.

Planning a new album, Timmins says that it may be “a little more upbeat.” But playing quietly has its own edge, she says, adding: “To keep the mood down takes as much energy as jumping off your speaker stacks and running through smoke.” Onstage, Timmins does not run or dance. She stands, curled around the microphone—a singer who has learned to make her presence felt without raising her voice.