(I'll be posting a series of blogs over the coming days all about the making of The Trinity Session. Check out our Facebook page to see rare photos and anecdotes from me and Margo.)
We worked on the songs for our next album all through that summer. I had been inspired by the music that we had been listening to and began to write lyrics again for the first time in six years. Margo was also bitten by the bug and began to come to rehearsal with some lyrical ideas. As the songs began to take shape so did the overall form of the album. Not only were a lot of the songs reflecting our new found love of country and our experiences of the past year, but also each song seemed to be taking on classic American songwriting themes.
Misguided Angel was in the vein of the classic good girl meets bad boy scenario, 200 More Miles was our wistful "on the road" song, To Love Is To Bury was along the lines of those traditional black country ballads sung so powerfully by the Louvin Brothers and their peers. As these originals began to take shape we started to think about what songs we should attempt to interpret to compliment them. I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry was obvious. Hank Williams is one of the great American songwriters and this song in particular ranks as one of his best – simple, precise and sharp as a blade. We had to do a song from the Patsy Cline cannon. She had smoothed over so many pot hole filled miles during the previous year. We had seen Dwight Yokum performWalking After Midnight in Tulsa and so we thought we'd put our hand to it. We liked the fact that there might be something a little sinister lurking in the shadows. Dreaming My Dreams With You was chosen because it is also another beautiful, slow country ballad, but we also wanted to tip our hats to Waylon Jennings whose attitude and swagger was so much more Rock n Roll than most of the pretenders out there. Working on A Building is a traditional gospel song, but we were introduced to it by The Carter Family. Choosing this song was nod at the rich gospel roots that infuse country music. Mining For Gold, another traditional song, was chosen by Margo to do as an a cappella, another stylistic nod to the roots of country music.
Into this mix we decided to throw a few non country-influenced originals and covers. The intention was not to make a country album, but an album that dealt, loosely, with the great songwriting traditions, styles and themes that had crept into rock music over the past three decades. So we added a few more originals, I Don't Get It andPostcard Blues, which harkened back to the more Blues influenced material on Whites Off Earth Now!! and added two more covers. Blue Moon Revisited (A Song For Elvis)killed two birds with one stone. It is partly an acknowledgment of the great song writing days of Tin Pan Alley and the great songwriting teams of the era of which Rogers and Hart, who wrote Blue Moon, was one. And it is also our acknowledgment of Elvis Presley who stands alone as a rock music pioneer. Our version of Blue Moon relies heavily on Elvis's interpretation which he recorded for Sun records.
The last piece to this very abstract puzzle was Sweet Jane. The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed embody what we feel rock music should be about – slightly out of step, intelligent, groove orientated and original. They have to be listed as one of the great rock bands ever and Sweet Jane, for better or worse, is one of their most recognized songs. It was and still is the backbone of cover bands all across America. It has been pitilessly slaughtered countless times on countless nights on countless stages around the world. We thought, "lets take it and see if we can breathe new life into this tired old work horse ". We got our inspiration from The Velvets live album entitled 1969. To be honest it is one of our straighter covers, we didn't change it a whole lot. Originally we had tried to record it for the Whites album, but we never got the right feel. For this collection of songs we choseSweet Jane as being "our song- this is what we listened to growing up, this is where our musical tastes come from".
Once we felt that we had the material ready we began to think in terms of how we wanted to arrange it and with what instruments. We had been discussing using more traditional country instruments for this album, but the trick was to find the players. We were pretty firmly located in the Alternative scene in Toronto, it' was not like there were a plethora of accordion players to choose from. So we began our search and one player lead us to the next until we had gathered together a loose mish-mash of instrumentation and musicians from throughout Ontario. Some had met before, a couple had even played briefly with each other, but all were a little curious and probably more than a little suspicious of this band from Toronto with the weird name who had called them to come play on their album.
On pedal steel we found Kim Deschamps. Kim had interviewed me for a CBC radio show the previous year after the release of Whites. He had expressed interest in the music and had mentioned that if we ever needed a pedal steel player that we should give him a call. Hiring a pedal steel player was the furthest thing from my mind at the time, but I took his number. Kim also brought his dobro and lap steel along and his years of experience gigging around Ontario with dozens of country, rock and folk bands. We found our accordion player in Sudbury, Ontario through a recommendation from Kim. Jaro Czerwinec was one of the most eccentric characters that we had run into or have yet to run into, but also is one of the most soulful musicians we have ever had the pleasure of playing with. When we first contacted him he was gigging with legendary Canadian folk icon Daisy DeBolt and also with his home town Ukrainian folk troupe the Black Sea Cossacks. We also had the good luck to stumble into Jeff Bird. Jeff has since established a special relationship with the band appearing on all of our albums since Trinity and joining us on all of our tours. He is one of those gifted musicians who can pick up almost any instrument and caress, coax, squeeze, suck or wrench a sound out of it that seems to fit with whatever other music is going on. We initially called Jeff to play fiddle (an instrument he has had a love/hate relationship with over the years)on the session, but he also brought along his harmonicas and mandolin (one of his favourite instruments). Rounding out the compliment of musicians was Steve Shearer on blues harp and older brother John on guitar. We had met Steve at our very first gig where he had come backstage and introduced himself as, "Honky White Trash – a harmonica player". He said he had come to the gig because he was intrigued by the bands name. We in turn were intrigued by his name and kept in touch. Brother John had left the band in its early incarnation, but we all still had a yearning to do some recording together. I always loved the way he played guitar and we knew that the shared gene pool would allow him to harmonize perfectly with Margo on Misguided Angel.
In the days leading up to the recording most of the rehearsing was done on cassette and over the phone. We didn't have the money to bring everyone into Toronto for full blown rehearsals so we sent them each tapes of our rehearsals and the songs that we wanted them to play on accompanied by some sketchy notes. We were able to get Kim and Jeff to a couple of rehearsals and Kim even sat in on a few shows with us. Steve was living in Toronto at the time (the only one who was) so we were able to work and gig a bit more with him. We never even layed eyes on Jaro until he walked into Trinity church the day of the recording and we felt that our playing days with John would see him through. Basically we were depending on each of their musical skills and instincts and their collective experience gigging as professional musicians.
At the same time that we were getting the material and musicians together we were putting our heads together with Peter Moore about how we wanted to approach our next recording. We were all in agreement that we wanted to use the same recording technique that we had used for Whites. That is one microphone, 2 track, live off the floor. We had all loved the results that we had got with the first album and we saw no reason to change. It also helped that our financial situation hadn't changed much either. Paying for decent studio time was still well out of reach. The question was where to do this recording. Since recording Whites Peter had been doing a lot of one mic recording and experimenting with a few different rooms around the city. His favourite was The Church of the Holy Trinity.
Trinity church is a small historic church located in downtown Toronto in amongst the sprawl that is the Eaton Center. If not for the fact that the church was designated an historic landmark it would have been torn down years ago to make room for another clothing store. But it remains, cloaked in the shadow of one of the largest indoor malls in Canada. Peter had been using the church to record some symphony sessions and some small jazz band sessions and had liked the acoustics of the hall. He hadn't had an electric bass in the place or tried to record a voice in there, but he felt it was worth a shot. He thought that if it worked the natural reverb of the hall wrapped around our sound might make for an interesting aural experience.
Another problem that he faced was the added instrumentation that we wanted to record. It was one thing to record a four piece band gathered around a single mic, but to gather nine musicians around one mic and have the resulting recording sound properly balanced was another thing all together. Added to this problem was that Peter felt that it might be difficult to get the church to agree to rent it to a group called Cowboy Junkies. It was one thing to rent the church to a symphony or a jazz trio it was another to rent it to an obviously crazed bunch of rock musicians. The first problem we solved by he and I sitting for hours and scrupulously sketching out on paper what was going to happen musically with each song. That way Peter had a good idea of what instrument would be playing when and he could then place that musician in relation to the other musicians so that the sound of one instrument would not step on another. These sketches would of course evolve as the session progressed and as each musician brought there own ideas and the particular ideas grew, but at least he had a starting point. The other problem was solved by Peter telling the church officials that the band's name was The Timmins Family Singers and we were recording a few numbers for a CBC radio Christmas special. So armed with our new moniker, an arm full of loosely sketched ideas on paper, minds full of half baked ideas and a van full of musical instruments, we entered The Church of the Holy Trinity on the morning of November 27, 1987.
(coming next: November 27, 1987 and epilogue)