We all saw what happened when certain artists like the Dixie Chicks spoke out about the Iraq war - instant backlash, and in some cases were shunned by corporate radio. The Junkies have never been a radio darling, so the airplay backlash is really not a threat. But, still its a risk these days for artists to speak out. The Junkies are not only speaking out, they have recorded what is probably the most poignant anti-war/anti-violence disc in years. They went out and licensed some great songs from John Lennon, Richie Havens, U2 and others and have added a couple originals to create "21st Century Blues.".
What was the impetus for this cd? Why now?
The album kind of came about by chance. We were interested in doing a recording project that wasn't necessarily geared towards our original songs (we had released an album of original material, One Soul Now, in June 2004), but we also wanted a context for the project. We had written December Skies and This World Dreams Of during the One Soul Now sessions and we had been performing Isn't It A Pity on the road throughout 2004 and we realized that there was a certain commonality in the themes of those three songs. The Iraq war and our species renewed vigor in turning to violence at the first sign of any difference in world/societal/cultural views (whether it be the Western powers lobbing cruise missiles in to city centers or Islamic fundamentalists flying planes into buildings) was definitely playing on our collective consciences. Also, the topic of conversation with people that we were meeting in our travels around the world seem to always be turning to this renewed (or maybe it was just hitting closer to home) bloodlust. So the idea of doing an album about violence, greed, war, fear and loss made a lot of sense. It seems kind of feeble in the face of such huge problems, but we felt the least that we could do was to try and communicate a desire for peace. Kind of like throwing a Chuck Berry disc into a space-time capsule and hoping that the aliens who discover it will understand.
Some critics have said that the art community overall was fairly silent in response to the Iraq war and the questions surrounding it. Do you agree that there really hasn't been a major musical tide of protests songs like we saw in the 60s and 70s in response to Vietnam?
There has certainly been a lot of artists speaking out about the war, but maybe not as many as there were in response to Vietnam. But, unfortunately, it is still early. There will be plenty of time for protest in the coming years (albeit it might be a little too late at that point). I also think that one of the reasons for that lack of protest is that there is so much confusion and mis-information and emotion mixed up in the issue. The tie in to 9/11 (no matter how misguided) is hard to shake. Our purpose for putting out this album was not so much as an anti-Iraq War statement, but more as an anti-violence statement (a large umbrella, which the Iraq War would neatly fit under).
Are you worried about any kind of backlash in the US, like that received by the Dixie Chicks when they spoke out against the Iraq war?
Not really. Our general audience is generally pretty liberal and at the very least it is fairly open minded. I would like to think that someone who is truly in to our music would also be open to the notion of freedom of speech and even engaging us in a dialogue (at a concert or through our website) if their views happened to be different than ours. In any case, what kind of backlash could there be? Do you think that KROK might not play us on the radio?
Fair point.What's the view from the ground in Canada as far as popular support for the Iraq war?
From the very outset Canadians as a general population and as a government have been against the invasion. I was very proud of how our prime-minister handled the situation. It hasn't been an easy stance for us. We are inextricably entwined with the USA (personally, politically, historically, economically, culturally..you name it, we are tied together) so to many people this lack of support for our friends to the South felt a lot like abandonment and, to some, treachery. But stronger than those feelings was our innate sense that the invasion was, if not, morally then, at the very least, strategically wrong.
How did you go about picking the songs for the cd?
Once we came up with the concept for the album we all started to pitch song ideas to each other. They all had to fit the loose theme of violence, war, greed, loss. We narrowed that list down to about 16 songs, worked on 13 and then chose 11 for the final CD.
Was choosing the song "One" as the closing song on the cd any attempt to remind listeners of some themes conveyed on "One Soul Now"? And, is there any significance to placing that song last?
One Soul Now was definitely a statement about the need to come together (as is the song "One"), but that theme was dealt with through a series of songs that examined personal dilemma. Early 21st Century Blues is a much more explicit statement even though the statement is made mostly using the words of others. I think our ages and situations in life (we are all in our forties and have children that we are consumed with) has naturally lead us to look at life from a very different and changing perspective over the past several years and therefore over the past few albums. But that is the way that we have always approached our music, it has always been a reflection of where we are as people.
The song is definitely placed last for a reason, because lyrically it is a beautiful punctuation mark (whether it is a period, question mark or exclamation mark is debatable) on the themes that are explored throughout the album.
One of the originals on the cd is December Skies, tell us a little about the inspiration behind that song. That song has a line: "Time to kill our children and sing about it" - that could cause some "stir" - to what are you referring to there?
December Skies was written in November 2002. The build up to the war with Iraq was under way and although the invasion wouldn't happen for another four or five months it was pretty obvious that was where we were headed. At the time I was reading The Wars by Timothy Findley (I highly recommend it) and I came across the following passage:
"I was afraid I was going to scream," she said. She gestured back at the church with its sermon in progress. "I do not understand. I don't. I won't. I can't. Why is this happening to us? What does it mean - to kill your children? Kill them and then...go in there and sing about it! What does that mean?" She wept - but angrily.
It was such a simple idea, but, probably due to the tension in the air, the passage really struck me. It is a stark and brutal idea: the celebration of war, so endemic in our society, is akin to celebrating the killing of our children. So I wrote the song with that context in mind. After I wrote it, I realized that there were many more layers to the song and idea. One was the futility of being in a band and merely singing songs of protest in the face of such violence, while others must actually endure watching their children go off and die. The other layer was a bit more subtle. The title of the song refers to the rising of the Star of Bethlehem in the December sky. The Star of Bethlehem heralded the coming of Jesus and his message of peace and love and good will toward our fellow man (a message that seems to be completely lost in these times). But it also struck me that, according to Christians, Jesus was sent by his Father to die for our sins. Another father sending his child off to die for what he perceives is the greater good. . . and, man, do we ever sing about that one.
I think it's also important to realize that this killing of our children and singing about it is not the sole preserve of "our side." We've all seen the Palestinian mothers standing proudly in front of flags while holding pictures of their newly martyred suicide-bomber sons. And the endless parade of home videos with Al Qaeda leaders celebrating the acts of the newest martyrs to the cause. There seems to be more than enough insanity to go around.
All fair points, indeed. A quick question about the cd. I noticed that Jeff Bird contributes on this cd as an additional musician. Jeff dates all the way back to contributing on the Trinity Session. How did you come to start working with Jeff and how many Junkies cds has he been on?
We started to scout around for players when we were planning the recording session that was to become The Trinity Session. We wanted a fiddle player and a friend put us on to Jeff. We were to later find out that fiddle was his least favourite instrument, but he seemed to be able to make music come out of anything else we put in his hands or inserted in his mouth. He’s a great player, a beautiful person and nice and quiet on the road. In other words, a perfect sideman. I think he has made an appearance on every Junkies CD since Trinity.
So, he's like the fifth Junkie! The band spends a fair amount of time on the road and you're nearing the end of the current set of tour dates, will you be adding more?
We are trying to not spend too much time on the road this year. We might add a few dates scattered throughout the year and there is always the possibility of a trip to Europe if the right situation arises. But we really want to get back in to the studio and begin working on our next album.
Sounds good Michael, meanwhile we'll enjoy this one.
You can listen to all the tracks from 21st Century Blues on the Cowboy Junkies' official website.