Members of the Cowboy Junkies (left to right) Peter Timmins

Members of the Cowboy Junkies (left to right) Peter Timmins

Touched by death

For Scott Garbe, songwriting has always been a hobby, an absorbing diversion from his primary gig: heading up the drama department at the Country Day School in King City, Ont.

TORONTO — For Scott Garbe, songwriting has always been a hobby, an absorbing diversion from his primary gig: heading up the drama department at the Country Day School in King City, Ont.

This week, that’s changed. Garbe collaborated with the Cowboy Junkies and a bevy of notable Canadian artists on The Kennedy Suite, a 15-song narrative centring on a cast of characters touched in some way by the assassination of U.S. president John F. Kennedy — an event that will have its 50th anniversary on Nov. 22.

The record was seven years in the making. And asked how it feels to let it out into the world, the drama teacher conjures a suitably dramatic image.

“I feel like I’m standing in a parking lot with my pants around my ankles,” Garbe relates with a laugh during an interview in Toronto this week. “I feel pretty exposed but at the same time it’s kind of exciting . . . . I’m more humbled by it than anything. How many times does that happen?

“I think it’s one of the great rock and roll stories — school teacher has his songs put out. I’m thrilled by it and excited by it and I just hope that other people find their way to it.”

It’s actually not Garbe’s first foray into having his songwriting published. Previously, the Skydiggers — longtime friends of Garbe’s — recorded his song The Truth About Us for 1997’s Desmond’s Hip City (the song is represented again on The Kennedy Suite).

That’s how long this Kennedy project has been percolating. It was also the Skydiggers who introduced Garbe and his songs to the Cowboy Junkies’ Michael Timmins, who loved the material and began methodical work on the record back in 2006.

Even though the subject matter is rather sombre, the album isn’t.

Opener Prologue: Origami Peace Corps Mischief Maker, performed by Hawskley Workman and the Screwed, pops with punk energy, Jessy Bell Smith’s The Dallas Youth Auxiliary is a witty tune about a trio of lovesick sisters who steal their father’s car to catch a glimpse at the president and it’s powered by tuba and banjo that Timmins says lent the tune “almost a cartoon feel,” while the Potion Kings’ Reliquary — told from the perspective of a scummy collector of assassination memorabilia — is engagingly ramshackle.

Garbe and Timmins rave about all the album’s guests, but forced to single out some of the favoured performances, Garbe cites Workman (“his vocals are out of this world — they’re on another planet”), Sarah Harmer (“it just buckles my knees every time I hear her sing”), the Skydiggers, and the Cowboy Junkies’ Margo Timmins, who delivers a characteristically moving performance inhabiting Jackie Kennedy’s point of view on the unsettling Disintegrating.

“What a treat to have Margo Timmins,” Garbe says. “It’s like: ‘Hey Michelangelo, here’s a sketch I did. Do you mind putting it on the Sistine Chapel roof?”

Garbe has been interested in Kennedy for as long as he can remember. His parents bought their first television to watch Kennedy’s funeral, and Garbe was born a year later. He grew up regarding Kennedy as a “real hero” and being inspired by his speeches even as a young child.

It wasn’t until he was in third grade that he discovered how Kennedy died.

“I came across a book that had photographs of the assassinations in it,” he recalls. “It really had a huge impact on me. Because it was the first time I can remember understanding what death was.”

Meanwhile, Timmins dived into the project only a year after the Cowboy Junkies’ completed their ambitious four-album Nomad Series, joking that his philosophy is: “Don’t stop till you’re dead!”

On Nov. 22 and 23, Timmins and a huge cast of collaborators will perform the entire 15-song record in sequence at Toronto’s Winter Garden Theatre. All the record’s guests — a group that also includes Lee Harvey Osmond, Jason Collett and Reid Jamieson — will be present other than Workman and Martin Tielli, and Timmins seems to be anticipating the event with a mixture of excitement and understandable wariness.

“There’s over 40 musicians, singers and musicians taking part. It’s a huge deal. Logistically, it’s really fun,” he says, hanging his head and pretending to whimper before laughing.

“I have no idea what it’s going to end up like but our intention is to present it as a piece . . . as a story (and) a narrative told through song. That’s the plan.

“Until a computer breaks or a musician has a nervous breakdown,” he adds with another laugh.

Although Garbe isn’t sure to what extent current students are aware of the project, he notes that plenty of past pupils will pack the audience for the shows.

The Kennedy Suite is sufficiently engaging musically and thematically that no prior knowledge of Kennedy is needed to enjoy — so Timmins and Garbe hope their audience extends far beyond history buffs and conspiracy theorists (the record isn’t much interested in probing the mysterious specifics of his death, anyway).

And a half-century after his death, they agree that Kennedy’s ideas retain a vital relevance.

“If there’s a message involved . . . it’s that Kennedy message, of there’s so much possibility out there,” Timmins says. “That possibility, if it existed 50 years ago, it still exists today . . . . Things are a lot more complicated now than they were then, but that doesn’t mean that one still can’t strive. And that to me is one of the messages of hearing that voice from back then.

“It’s still inspiring to me to hear his message.”