Armed with their own songs and a handful of well-selected covers, Margo Timmins, her songwriting brother and their fellow bandmates gathered around a single microphone in a small Toronto church and pushed “record.”
Twenty years later, the Cowboy Junkies’ “The Trinity Session” is looked upon as a seminal record that helped define the alt-country movement and quietly influenced a generation of musicians.
To celebrate, some of those who were shaped by the record, including Natalie Merchant and Ryan Adams, returned to the church with the band. This time a film crew was there to capture it as they re-recorded — and re-imagined — the album for a new generation of listeners.
“There was a nervousness about tampering with something that was very important to a lot of people, including ourselves,” Timmins said before a recent concert in Madison. “It could have been a disaster.”
Luckily for all involved, the experiment worked. The DVD, which features all 12 of the album’s original songs performed in sequence, has been on sale at their concerts and will be in stores on Feb. 26.
Still on the road, appearing before small but adoring crowds, the Junkies are celebrating the record by playing many of the songs live once again and talking openly about how much “The Trinity Session” means to them.
Known for Margo Timmins’ sultry, hushed vocal style; the guitarwork of her brother and lead songwriter Michael; drumming by other brother Peter and the bass of friend Alan Anton, the Junkies have built a career around doing things the way they want.
They run their own operation and aren’t signed to a major record label. They record what and when they want, then offer it up for sale to whomever wants to distribute it.
“There’s nobody pressuring us to do anything one way or the other,” Michael Timmins said.
Defining soundNot unlike the situation in 1987.
“The Trinity Session” was the band’s sophomore effort, coming off their first independent release “Whites Off Earth Now!”
The band billed themselves as The Timmins Family Singers to avoid suspicion with the keepers of the church over what may happen if Cowboy Junkies plugged in and started playing. They finished in 14 hours of recording.
“Trinity Session” helped define the sounds of the Cowboy Junkies: a mixture of roots, folk, blues and rock. Released independently, the album was snapped up by RCA in 1988. It has sold more than 1 million copies.
Thanks in large part to the acoustics of the church, “Trinity Session” gained acclaim as much for its sound as the songs themselves. Solemn, reverent, hushed and haunting, the band works its own songs, plus covers like Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane,” which went on to become their signature after appearing on the “Natural Born Killers” soundtrack.
“It’s very innocent. That’s a very true interpretation of where we were at that point,” Michael Timmins, 48, said of the original recording. “It’s still rare today to hear a record like that.”
A musical projectMichael Timmins said the band wanted to find a way to mark the 20th anniversary of the recording when the idea of returning to the church came up. Neither he nor his sister had been back since that day in November of 1987.
They approached both recordings in a similar way — bring together a lot of musicians who hadn’t played together before and see what happens.
Re-recording it was seen as a musical project, not a nostalgia trip, Michael Timmins said.
“We knew it would be different us going back there 20 years later but we wanted another edge there,” he said. “And bringing in the guests gave it that sort of other perspective.”
“Trinity Session” is seen as a key recording for a new generation of musicians, like Merchant’s band 10,000 Maniacs and Adams, who would help usher in the alt-country and Americana styles. Also joining them was singer-songwriter Vic Chestnutt.
The 20-years experience of the band shows in their confident playing, the stretching of the melodies and rhythms, and the maturity and more nuanced timbre of Margo Timmins’ voice. The guests also rework the songs to fit their styles.
Differences between the two recordings didn’t phase the band.
“Of course it’s going to be different. It’s 20 years later. I’m different. I’m 20 years older,” Margo Timmins said. “Twenty years ago if you would have asked me to sing with Natalie, I would have run away.”