Every city, town and village in China has a Renmin Park. Translated it means People’s Park and it is in the park where the community’s social life is conducted, it is where the rumours start and where the lovers meet, it is from the heart of the park where all things real and human and important exist and grow. We spent a lot of time in Renmin Park in Jingjiang. There was a rusted out old playground that was probably built in the 50’s and had some of the most rickety and dangerous looking slides and rides that I’ve ever seen. Our kids loved it, I was thankful that they had all had tetanus shots. Every Tuesday and Thursday I would wake up at 6am and head down to the park to play some badminton with my 80 year old friend Mr Liu and all of his friends. He would kick my ass every time (I once tried to play ping-pong against him and was completely humiliated). Mr Liu had flown for the People’ Liberation Army airforce in the 1950s. His squadron had transported Mao on occasion and he had flown missions in Tibet and Korea. He had spent 16 years in a labour camp in the 60’s and 70’s for speaking the truth to a class of cadets: an amazing man who I feel privileged to have met. After our badminton game we would go back to his apartment and he would serve me a breakfast of eggs, rice, ginger and hot fresh milk.
When I would arrive at the park at 6:30am the place would be hopping. There would be multiple games of badminton going on; the roller rink would be full of people dancing on their roller-skates; there would be large and small groups going though their tai-chi and exercise routines; hundreds of people walking around the man-made lake in the middle of the park, taking their morning constitutional, the place would be packed. We were always out of place in the park. We always felt welcomed but we were always strangers. The staring and gawking never stopped. As unusual as it felt, it just became part of our existence and Renmin Park slowly became our park too.
Here is my demo of another song off of the album, Stranger Here….
When we first got to China one of the first things that struck me, aside from the poor air quality, were the sounds. Not only was it loud and unrelenting, but there were so many textures to the sounds that were completely foreign to these Western ears. So I wrote back home and asked brother Pete to pick me up a high end portable digital recorder. I had it, along with my camera, wherever I went. I’d spend hours in the park walking around and recording music and conversations, exercise classes and badminton games; in the streets I’d record the intense sound of the traffic; at the school I’d wander the halls and sit in on some classes and record the students chanting their lessons, or capture them at their morning exercise where the entire school of three thousand students would do their calisthenics. Even drifting by our apartment window were the calls of various hawkers, selling everything from vegetables to propane. I recorded it all.
When I got home I knew I had a treasure trove of really interesting and unusual “field recordings” and I knew that I wanted to somehow use them in the making of music, but I really wasn’t sure how to go about it. Eventually I bundled them up and sent them West to our friend Joby Baker in Victoria. I gave pretty vague instructions; create loops out of these sounds, let them spur your imagination. Alan, who lives on Vancouver Island, also got involved and the two of them proceeded to build musical structures with some of the field recordings as the foundations. They then sent them back East, Pete and I set to work on them in our studio, taking out elements that didn’t work for us and adding our own elements. And then I sat with them and wrote melodies and lyrics. Finally Margo came in and transformed them into Cowboy Junkies songs.
Five of these songs will appear on Renmin Park. Here is a taste of how two of them sounded about half way through the process:
In late 2008, my family and I were given an opportunity to spend three months in China. We were boarded at an elementary/middle school in the small town of Jingjiang situated on the Yangtze River, about two hours from Shanghai. My wife taught English at the school, my three young kids attended a few classes and I spent my days exploring. We also did as much travelling as my wife’s schedule would allow. On one massively intense trip we journeyed to the birth villages of each of my daughters (two of my three children were adopted from China). But, mostly, we inserted ourselves into the day to day life of Jingjiang.
When I say that Jingjiang is a small town I mean that in relative terms. Its official population is 650,000, but its real population is closer to 1,000,000: a mere speck on the Chinese demographic landscape. We were welcomed with open arms by anyone in the town who could put three English words together. Homes were open to us, we were feted at every possible occasion and in every possible style, we created friendships that are only possible under such intense and foreign conditions and had adventures that have already become part of our family lore. It was a storybook experience, overwhelming to say the least, perhaps even life altering for my daughters.
Renmin Park is a reflection of that adventure. It’s a fictional love story about two people whose two worlds will forever keep them apart. It’s a thank-you letter to an obscure city and the people who opened up their lives to five very strange strangers. It’s a personal document about a bewilderingly complex culture that is, once again, experiencing a massive upheaval. It’s another chapter in a band’s ongoing twenty-five year journey.
Here is a rough mix of the albums title track:
I’ve always loved the Winter Olympics because all of the sports are slightly insane. They are all played on blades or boards; they all revolve around challenging gravity or completely throwing oneself at its mercy; and all of the sports (let’s exclude curling) are played on such an edge that the slightest miscalculation can lead to serious injury or even death. And then, of course, there is hockey.
So when my sister Suzanne (who is a big-wig at the Hudson Bay Company and who is in charge of the design team that put together all of that groovy Canada merch that flooded the streets of Vancouver) came to me and brother Pete and said that she had an extra ticket for the Gold medal hockey game…well, Pete and I started to salivate. The decision as to who would go was decided by a coin toss….tails, I won.
What can I say…it has been a bit of a fairytale Olympics for us Canadians. We watched as a series of mishaps and one enormous tragedy caused the event to stumble out of the gate. The entire Canadian team seemed to stumble along with it, the hockey team in lock step. And then there was a slow change in momentum, gravity was defied and then gradually became our friend and we ended with such an intense, dramatic, victorious rush that I think our collective psyches have been altered forever. This narrative arc, this unbelievable journey that the Canadian Olympic Team went on over these past 17 days is not something that us Canadians are use to. (I’m not just talking about the hockey team, but their story is the story of the Games distilled for the entire Olympic team). It is the type of story that is commonplace in the history of our friends to the South, but not up here above the 49th parallel. We don’t usually find ourselves rising from the mat, struggling to our feet, the dramatic come-from-behind victory. It’s not because of a lack of will power or a lack of character, but because we rarely stick our chins out and therefore we rarely get knocked down, in the past we have preferred a victory (or a loss) “by decision”….a little bit boring, a little bit safe. Perhaps that has now changed. Perhaps now when our champions, when we, step, slide, run, jump, walk on to that world stage, in any and all fields-of-endeavour, we’ll be saying to ourselves, “shit yah, of course I can do this, of course I belong here, hell, I’m a Canadian…give me your best shot”.
And I was there to witness a small moment of that transformation…how cool is that…..LUUUUUUUUU….
Over the next 18 months (yes, we’ve amended our initial projection of 12 months), we will be releasing four albums, which will collectively be called The Nomad Series. The idea was born in the tumult of a perfect storm of ideas, influences, inspirations and timing. We have just launched our new website and want to put it through its paces. For the first time in twenty years we are completely free of any recording contracts and obligations, we find ourselves writing and recording more than we have in years, our studio (The Clubhouse) feels more and more like home, the band now has twenty five years under the hood and is sounding so darn good…and then, added in to that mix, our friend Enrique Martinez Celaya, the brilliant and inspired Cuban-American painter, dropped these four spectacular paintings (entitled Nomad) into our laps, and it became clear that we needed to release four albums, with his paintings as our ground. And that we needed the challenge of doing so under an intense release schedule.
But, primarily, the main reason for wanting to do a series of four albums is that, as we steam through our 25th year, we feel that we have the energy and inspiration to pull it off. We have been talking about what to do for our next album release for several months now. Our problem hasn’t been a dearth of ideas, but rather, a surplus. We have over two dozen new songs written, many of which we have been performing live over the past year or so, and many more sketches of songs that are just waiting to be fleshed out. There are also many “alternative” recording projects that we have discussed, which wouldn’t necessarily take the place of a “new-studio-album” release, but which we feel are vital to our health as a band and which we feel would be of interest to our audience (that’s you folks). So, four albums in 18 months seem to be the way to go….
The Nomad Series will break down in the following manner:
Renmin Park (volume 1): a song cycle inspired by a three month stay that my family and I had in China, an other-worldly experience. The album will be comprised of all new original material except for two cover songs written by a couple of legends on the Chinese music scene (a lot more to come about this album over the next several weeks).
Demons (volume 2): for some time now we have been batting around the idea of doing an album of conceptually linked cover songs (anyone who has followed us over the years knows that we love our cover songs and that they are a big part of who we are), but we couldn’t find that key that made sense to any of us. And then, this past Christmas, our friend Vic Chesnutt died. We had been discussing with Vic, off and on for the past couple of years, about doing a Chesnutt/Junkies album. During one of the last conversation that I had with Vic, he mentioned that he was working on a series of songs about his childhood that he wanted to bring to the collaboration. So, it only seems fitting that we record an album of Vic’s songs. His catalogue is so deep and for the most part, so overlooked. It will be a labour of love.
Sing In My Meadow (volume 3): this one is still being discussed and fought over (we are currently conducting an arm wrestling tournament to decide who gets the upper hand in determining its contents) . We need to keep a few options open. You never know when a great concept might suddenly present itself.
The Wilderness (volume 4): this will be an album of new songs. Some of these songs (Angel In The Wilderness, Fairytale, The Confession of Georgie E, etc) we have been playing live for the past year or so and they are bound to find their way on to this volume. There is also a whole set of new songs (and more that are yet to be written) that we will be unveiling on stage over the coming year. We’re not quite sure how these will form themselves into a cohesive album, but these things always work themselves out.
After 18 months and after the 4 volumes are released, we will be releasing a book that will delve into the character, nature, inspiration behind each of the volumes. Enrique’s publishing house, Whale and Star, will design and release the book (they also did our twenty year anniversary book XX).
We are aiming to have Volume 1, Renmin Park, available for sale through the website in late April (it will be in general release a couple of months after that). In the meantime we will be blogging about it and going in to more detail about its genesis and putting up a lot of the works in progress for you to listen to. So check back often (or go to the Cowboy Junkies Facebook page and add us as a fan so that you can be alerted directly, or follow us on twitter CJMusic, or subscribe to one of the other RSS feeds above).
Ok….back to work…oh yea, in the meantime here is a slideshow of Enrique’s Nomad paintings….
If you want a night of great music and you happen to be in the Toronto area, make sure that you check out Latent Recordings newest band, Huron, at the Dakota every Wednesday in February. They go on at 10:30 and they ROCK…man..
Someone brought along a video camera last week..here’s a taste…(this clip was flimed by DirkFimbob)
We have donated a track (our cover of Ryan Adams, “In My Time Of Need”) to a worthy cause. You may have already downloaded the song from us (its also on the Acoustic Junk cd), but check out the Target Cancer site to find out more about the series and to listen to some other folks rarities.
We have slowly been adding dates to our Spring tour so please make sure that you continue to check back often to the Tour page to see if we are coming to your area.
Also, if you haven’t checked out Cookie Bob’s latest addition to his Cookie Crumbs series, please do so. You’ll find it and lots of other obscure Junkie music in the Exclusive section. (I’ve posted the music for Volume 5 in the player below, but if you want to read Bob’s song by song descriptions scroll down the Exclusive page).
There will be more news posted soon about our upcoming album. As soon as I get some time free from the studio I’ll post a bit of the music that we have been working on.