When Canadian Gothic-folk quartet Cowboy Junkies severed all major-label ties to form their own Latent Recordings imprint, it opened their horizons in a quite literal sense.
They just issued “Renmin Park,” volume 1 of an ambitious four-album project called “The Nomad Series,” soon followed by “Demons,” an entire set of Vic Chestnutt covers.
After a still-secret “Sing In My Meadow” and “The Wilderness,” it will finish with an explanatory book, featuring the artwork of Cuban-American painter Enrique Martinez Celaya.
But it broadened things figuratively as well.
For the Far East-exotic “Renmin Park” — which the group will be touting at Bimbo’s in San Francisco on Saturday — bandleader Michael Timmins journeyed all the way to China for three months.
While his wife taught English, he wandered their tiny village of Jingjiang, soaking up musical culture in Renmin (or “People’s”) Park and studied local artists playing pipas, erhus and shangxians.
“I was a frequent visitor to this little music club which performed Beijing Opera,” he says. “And that was so outside of anything I know or understand. But as I listened to more and more of it, I really began to understand it.”
The guitarist’s few phrases of proper Mandarin didn’t click with the local dialect, so he was essentially mute. He couldn’t chime in on six string, either, because the scales were too different.
“But all of the musicians there welcomed me with open arms and allowed me to just sit and listen, even though they had no clue who or what I was,” he says.
Eventually, he met the town’s sole English-speaking rock fan, who introduced him to the music of Chinese legends like Xu Wei and ZXZZ, whose “My Fall” and “I Cannot Sit Sadly By Your Side,” respectively, were reinterpreted by Timmins’ dulcet-toned sister Margo on “Renmin.”
ZXZZ even contributed lyrics and vocals to “A Walk in the Park.”
Timmins never expected this cultural exchange to hit him so hard. “The modern rock music in China is heavily influenced by American and English rock,” he says of his discoveries. “But their traditional folk sounds almost Appalachian. So it kind of floored me how basic folk music is.”
Timmins had an ulterior motive for his visit, however.
He wanted his two adopted Chinese daughters to revisit their homeland. “So we saw all the classic sights,” he says. “The Great Wall, Shanghai and Beijing, even the great Terra Cotta Warriors. But I think it was probably good we left when we did; winter was coming and there was no heating there.
“So we were still really in love with China when we left.”
IF YOU GO
Where: Bimbo’s 365 Club, 1025 Columbus Ave., S.F.
When: 9 p.m. Saturday
Contact: (415) 474-0365, www.bimbos365club.com