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.At the band's website, you can find some blog posts and photos about the Renmin Park album.
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.
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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.
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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.
5 weeks ago