There is a decent interview with me that has just been posted on American Songwriter. I discuss the Renmin Park album as well as the upcoming Demon’s (volume 2) album.
One of the main reasons for my family going to China for three months was to bring my two daughters back to the land of their birth; a chance for them to experience it firsthand. The latest trend in international adoptions is “homeland visits.” Parents are encouraged to take their adopted daughters on a two week tour of China, culminating in a trip to the child’s orphanage. It’s definitely a worthy idea (and a smart way for the adoption industry to make a bit more cash), but my wife and I have always felt that to take your kid from the suburban splendours of North America head-first into the urban sprawl that is modern China would be a little too mind-blowing for even the most prepared and sophisticated child. So when we were offered an opportunity to spend three months living in a small city in China, which would give this homeland visit a bit of context, we jumped at it. We thought that the experience of walking into an orphanage and seeing a room full of squalling babies laid out in their cribs on wooden boards wouldn’t be as traumatic for our daughters if they had a better sense of the difference between living conditions in China and those in the West. We were wrong, of course.
A Few Bags of Grain comes specifically out of that experience – of returning to the girl’s orphanages. We always talk about the birth-mother in the adoption stories that we are told to tell our kids, but I don’t think we are capable of truly representing her. We usually portray her as a stereotype – a tragic, romantic figure. We also talk about abandonment in these stories, but what do most of us truly know and understand about abandonment? Returning to the birth towns and the orphanages was an awakening for us as parents and a life-altering experience for, at least, my eldest daughter (who had just turned eleven). When we began the journey, my wife and I had no idea what were heading in to. My daughter, on the other hand, seemed to have a much deeper understanding of what lay ahead. As we were, literally, stepping out of our apartment to head off on this journey, she pulled us aside and out-of-the-blue said, “OK…I’ll go to the orphanage, but I don’t want to go to the place where I was found…”. She already knew what this trip was really about and what it was that she was going to have to face.
The song is about the “worthlessness of girl,” an attitude that exists not just in China, but all around the globe and shows itself in different ways. And, it’s about, that worn old saw, the indomitable nature of the human spirit.
Here is a video taken inside one of my daughter’s orphanages. Don’t watch this if you are in a public place, unless, of course, you don’t mind bawling in public.
If you’d like to catch up on some past blogs about the Renmin Park album, just click on a link:
We’re Canadian so we find it unseemly when someone toots their own horn, but every now and then you come across a review and you think (while giving the old Tiger Woods fist pump), “yes, we really got through to someone….”. Here is a current review from My Old Kentucky Blog.
Truth be told, Cowboy Junkies have never done much for me. It’s not like I harbor a grudge against the Timmins clan. Margo Timmins has great pipes, and I have great admiration for the painstaking recording process they utilized on 1988’s The Trinity Session. I guess it’s just that I’ve always just found something I wanted to hear more than or instead of the Cowboy Junkies; to me, they are like a conventionally attractive woman in a room full of supermodels and circus freaks.
And now Renmin Park is making me look like a fool.
A little background: Renmin Park (get it June 15th from the band’s own Latent Recordings label) is the first of four new releases the band will drop in the next eighteen months, known collectively as The Nomad Series, and was inspired by guitarist Micheal Timmins’ three month stay in China with his family in 2008. Timmins strategically introduces homemade field recordings to the band’s signature sound, creating an aural landscape that feels equal parts Mitchell Froom and Alan Lomax. Against this backdrop is set a loose song cycle chronicling the lives of a star-crossed young couple in the Chinese town of Jingjiang. Nothing earth shattering, but setting this familiar tale in an exotic and largely misunderstood culture gives the record surprising emotional depth. Longtime fans will find plenty of familiar terrain (Margo Timmins’ husky vocal delivery, tasteful arrangements and impeccable performances) and I suspect that lead single, Stranger Here, will be the unofficial soundtrack to countless weekend adventures this summer, but Renmin Park also benefits greatly from the inclusion of two cover songs by Chinese artists, I Cannot Sit Sadly By Your Side by Zuoxiao Zuzhou (of ZXZZ) and My Fall by Xu Wei.
The ultimate triumph of Renmin Park is Michael Timmins’ ability to create a cohesive record that feels simultaneously common and extraordinary. Subsequently, the album’s ballads are the real stars. The title track, a universal meditation on discontent, establishes the sustained somberness of the record that is only momentarily overcome by songs like Stranger Here. A Few Bags Of Grain packs so much pathos that it is easy to miss the scathing critique of China’s gender politics, but Zuzhou’s I Cannot Sit Sadly By Your Side is the number I return to time and again. This harrowing and hypnotic song perfectly encapsulates the paranoia and oppression left in the wake of China’s Cultural Revolution and the June Fourth Incident, and suggests that Zuzhou may have a couple Leonard Cohen records in his collection. It’s also proof-positive that a great song is a great song, regardless of the language. Trust me, you’re going to see Renmin Park on more than a few critics’ Best of 2010 lists.
Renmin Park will be followed by Demons, an entire record devoted to the songs of the band’s late friend, Vic Chesnutt. The final two installments of The Nomad Series are Sing in My Meadow (theme TBD) and The Wilderness, a full album of new Cowboy Junkie originals, many of which are already making their way into the band’s live repertoire. There are also plans for a lushly illustrated book that will delve into the character, nature, and inspiration behind each of the albums. Finally, the band’s website has been complete redesigned to serve as a portal into the creative process of The Nomad Series, and will feature demos, rough mixes and outtakes from the project as it progresses. Pretty damn cool if you ask me. Nothing like eating crow courtesy of Cowboy Junkies.
I hope everyone is enjoying the album. Over the past month or so I have been blogging about some of the inspiration behind the album and if you missed some of those blogs, and are interested, you can catch up by clicking on the links below. In the coming weeks I’ll be posting about the specific inspiration behind some of the individual songs. So be sure to check back in.
(Jason Lent has forsaken the island paradise of Hawaii to follow us around for a few months. I have happily placed the tour diary in his capable hands. It should bring a new perspective to our ramblings.)
All the world’s antiques have been shipped to Vermont. Coming off a late night drive from Buffalo and a short nap in Albany, I awoke envisioning four open lanes pointing straight to the horizon, a Dunkin Donuts coffee break every 56 miles, and track seven from Renmin Park blasting with the windows down. Instead, today’s drive was a torturous crawl through rain soaked Vermont on twisting one-lane roads with antique stores spaced every few hundred feet. Crossing into New Hampshire, the rain turned to blowing snow and I was traversing mountain passes and groping for a phone signal to check my GPS.
Walking into the Stone Mountain Arts Center, the white-knuckle ride over the last mountain immediately dissipated. Some venues manage to put the artist at ease and others are a treat for the ticket holders. This place nails the music experience for both. A rustic wood room with a high peaked ceiling and exposed log beams gives the music enough room to breathe while the floor to ceiling glass windows behind the stage give a glimpse at the stunning scenery outside. Bands are treated to an extensive collection of vinyl, a pool table and instruments to tinker with before taking the intimate stage. Oh, and the food and staff are superb as well.
The band entered as looped sounds from Renmin Park danced through the speakers, which faded into “A Few Bags of Grain” off the new album. It set the mood of the night perfectly and was a wicked opening number. The audience was dialed in from the drop of the puck and stayed on the same page as the band throughout. It became a shared experience where the surroundings made it impossible not to enjoy the night. The set list was diverse and a shimmering “Escape Is So Simple” left enough space between the notes to hear the snow falling outside. A beautiful night.
Finally it is here, our new album Renmin Park. This is the only place that you can buy the album, for the time being. It will be made available for wider release in mid-June. But for now, we sure could use your support. The player to the right will stream the entire album free of charge. You can also post the player on your own Facebook or My Space page or share it with anyone that you feel might be interested in the album (just click the share button on the player). We are also now offering the Clubhouse Subscription which includes Renmin Park and all of the other downloadable music on this site and much more, so please click on the “Clubhouse Subscription” panel above to get all the details. If you choose to purchase Renmin Park as a digital download you can do so as a high-end 320 mbps MP3 or as an Apple Lossless MP4 (both are compatible with itunes) or in the high fidelity FLAC format (the download also includes all of the lyrics and some of the charts. Please don’t choose FLAC unless you are familiar with the format); If you choose to purchase it as a CD it will be mailed out to you no later than May 3rd, but in the meantime we will send you a code which will allow you to download the album immediately (no more waiting, this is the modern world, after all).
We are very proud of this album. It is pretty dense from a lyrical, musical and conceptual point of view. Like most of our music, it requires time and patience (which we know are rare commodities in this day and age). But if you’ve come this far with us, we figure that you are up for the challenge. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.
P.S. If you have missed the blogs about Renmin Park and its genesis, just enter “Renmin Park” in the “Junkies Blog Search” window to the right.
It’s always hard to say what a song or group of songs are about. It’s no different for those on Renmin Park, but I’ll give it a shot;….abandoned children, abandoned mothers….governments and their fetish for leather and steel…alienation…sights seen, voices heard, friendships formed….personal histories, myths, stories told…the incalculable advantage of the alternate perspective…the great divide, romance, the addictive rush of the broken heart…the benefit of early morning exercise….discovery….giraffes and small dogs….the capacity of the human mind for great harm…the capacity of the human heart for great good….diesel fumes….beauty and fear…scapegoats, heroes, and villains and the fine line that divides them all… inevitability…cultural appropriation, perhaps…human nature, mother nature…mercilessness….English philosophers…people.
Here are a couple of final mixes:
Most of the music that I heard in Jingjiang was uninspired Taiwanese pop and Euro-pop, blaring from tinny speakers in every shop and out of every taxicab window. The most interesting music was found in the parks, where the traditional music was played. On most Sunday’s I would head down to Renmin Park and sit in this tiny pavilion that was home to a music club that performed music from the Beijing opera. Depending on the time of day, different musicians would be there with their erhus, pipas, shangxians and various percussion instruments. There was never any shortage of singers. Each would wait their turn and then stand up and belt out some song written long ago about love lost, stolen or betrayed. Most of the players were great, most of the singers were not so great, but they all approached the music with such passion. There were a few singers that seemed head and shoulders above the others, at least to these untrained ears. I was always welcomed with much fanfare. A seat was made available (after a few visits they knew that I preferred to sit in the back) and tea was poured and someone always made sure that my cup was full. No one in the “club” spoke any English and all I could master in mandarin was “happy new year”, so no words were exchanged, but none of that mattered. I recorded dozens of performances.
About half way through our stay I caught a lucky break. I was introduced to young man by the name of Eric Chen. He spoke excellent English (he learnt it by watching American movies) and he was a music freak. He was also desperate to talk to someone about music, because, as he told me on our first meeting, he was “not only the only person in Jingjiang who had ever heard the music of Radiohead, but the only person who had ever even heard the name Radiohead”. We quickly became friends and we spent a lot of time together. One day there was a knock on the door and it was Chen carrying an, almost portable, stereo system. He also had dozens of CDs with him. My introduction to the Chinese rock scene began in earnest. Chen introduced me to the ground-breaking, emotionally gut wrenching music of He Yong; the dour, introspective sounds of the brilliant Dou Wei; the prog-rock tinged musings of The Tang Dynasty; the melodic Cure-meets-Steve-Earle pop of Xu Wei and the inspired innovative sounds of Zuoxiao Zuzhou (ZXZZ). He introduced me to dozens of more artists that had sprung up on the Chinese rock scene since the ”new openness” of the late 1980’s. He showed me videos of legendary concerts in which some of these artists had performed and cemented their reputations. It was a great awakening for me. Two of the artists that I really became attached to were Xu Wei (but only his first album, as all of us hipsters know full well) and Zuoxiao Zuzhou. There was something about Xu Wei’s guttural voice and simple, haunting melodies that really attracted me and the breadth and unusualness of Zuoxiao Zuzhou’s work still fascinates me today (sort of a Leonard Cohen meets Nick Cave by way of Tom Waits; Zuoxiao Zuzhou contributes a lyric and lead vocal to one of the songs on Renmin Park). We decided to cover a song by each of these artists on Renmin Park (ZXZZ’s “I Cannot Sit Sadly By Your Side” and Xu Wei’s “My Fall”). Chen translated the lyrics and then I turned those translations into song lyrics. Here are the original songs as recorded by Xu Wei and ZXZZ:
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: