Revisiting Cowboy Junkies’ landmark 1987 album The Trinity Session
Recorded on November 27, 1987, Cowboy Junkies’ groundbreaking sophomore album The Trinity Session has lost none of its mystery or beauty in the three decades that have passed since the band dropped around $250 on a day of recording at a downtown Toronto church.
Tonight, I dropped the needle back into the haunting groove of The Trinity Session and drifted back into the Church of the Holy Trinity to celebrate the anniversary. A landmark album in the future of alternative country at the time, Cowboy Junkies captured an atmosphere that reflected the various elements of popular music that come together to form rock-n-roll.
After a few years in a post-punk outfit named Hunger Project, guitarist Michael Timmins and bassist Alan Anton returned to Toronto, after stints in New York City and London, disillusioned with the echoes of the music scenes they missed by only a year or two in each city. Jamming in a garage with Michael’s brothers Pete and John, a new sound started to come together and the addition of their sister Margo on vocals added the final piece. Playing with the urgency of a light snowfall, the band focused on creating an atmosphere where every note had room to breathe.
Upon meeting Peter Moore, the band enlisted him to come to their garage and record them using a single Calrec Ambisonic microphone. Composed mostly of blues covers (with a brilliant Bruce Springsteen cover thrown in), their debut album Whites Off Earth Now! allowed the band to load into a van and sneak across the border to tour the Unites States. It was on the empty, late night highways that tie the country together that the band began to listen to country artists such as Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams. In the lyrics of these pioneering artists, the band heard the honest storytelling that was slipping away in contemporary music. Returning to Toronto, the band decided to marry their sound to the country music that kept them company on lonely drives in search of gigs.
Without the money (or desire) to book time in a traditional recording studio, the band and Peter Moore set out to revisit the recording techniques of the first album but traded in their garage for the Church of the Holy Trinity, a historic building nestled in the middle of Toronto, just a short walk from Hard Rock Cafe Toronto. The band sought a few professional musicians with experience playing country and folk to help them flesh out their vision. Cassettes were mailed off with rough sketches of how the songs would be played, but rehearsals with the entire ensemble proved unrealistic.
On November 27, 1987, Cowboy Junkies entered the church unsure if the recording would even be possible and for the first few hours, it looked grim. After close to six hours of arranging and re-arranging the instruments around Peter Moore’s microphone, the sound finally came together and they hit record on a digital recorder (a modified Nakamichi PCM-F1 for us audio geeks). Recording into a single microphone meant that playing acoustic instruments became a choreographed dance with musicians stepping closer to the mic when more volume was needed. It was an unusual recording technique undertaken by a young band playing with local professionals they admired, some of whom they had never met in person before that day. And it was magic.
Opening with the a capella “Mining for Gold”, the Church of the Holy Trinity provides the only accompaniment to Margo Timmins as the furnace rumbles to life in the background, its metal skeleton banging out the rhythm of a miner’s chisel. This short introduction to The Trinity Session cleanses the sonic palette as effectively today as it did when I first heard it in my parent’s Chevy Astrovan on cassette. The album sounded out of place then just as it does now. It’s impossible not to slow down and listen.
“Misguided Angel” follows and remains one of the few songs co-written by Margo and Michael Timmins. This modern take on the good girl/bad boy archetype pays homage to the country songwriting tradition and has been in their set list ever since. The recording you hear on The Trinity Session was the first time Cowboy Junkies had ever played it with the other musicians. Sometimes recording is just that easy. Paired with the murder ballad “To Love Is to Bury”, Cowboy Junkies turn darkness into something seductive and mysterious. Whether it’s the country legends they are echoing here or the post-punk bands that inspired them as teenagers, Cowboy Junkies find that musical fault line where darkness and light rub together to ignite a moment of art that transcends mere entertainment.
Before they were musicians, Cowboy Junkies were music fans and that’s apparent throughout The Trinity Session. On the Hank Williams lament “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, Margo changes “purple sky” to “purple haze” in a nod to Jimi Hendrix. For their cover of the Velvet Underground classic “Sweet Jane”, the band opted for a slower version featured on the Velvet’s 1969 live album. In addition to a tempo more suited to the Junkies atmosphere, this version included the “heavenly wine and roses” bridge so often absent on Velvet Underground recordings. It was this cover that caught fire on MTV, helped in part by an unusually enthusiastic endorsement from Lou Reed himself. Having seen the band over 100 times since 1994, the first notes of “Sweet Jane” still give me the same chills I felt the first time I listened to The Trinity Session.
Next year will mark the 30th anniversary of the recording and I can’t imagine much will have changed in music. I’ll put Trinity Session on the turntable as I do every November 27th and find new reasons to fall in love with the album. Maybe it will be the varying weight of each stroke of the hi hat on “Blue Moon (Revisited)” or the opening beat of “Postcard Blues” which sounds like the heartbeat of the church. The mystery of this album never fully reveals itself, but year after year I will listen closely for each new revelation it gives me.