(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.)
November 27, 1987
The pews and all seating had previously been removed so we had a choice of where to set up our equipment and recording gear, but since Peter had done some recording in the church he had a general idea of where he felt was the most acoustically sound spot. This was at the far end of the church hall away from the altar which would act as an enormous bass trap if we got too close to it.
The first order of the day was to set up all the gear and try and get a balance between the four of us, that would be the ultimate key to the recording. Once we were balanced properly the other instruments could be layered on top with a lot more ease. Peter set up the mic and we set up as we had for the Whites session in our garage with drums on one side facing the bass and guitar off to the side. As fate would have it we had a great stroke of luck that day. Whoever had been using the church before us had had the need of a PA system which they had left behind. It was head and shoulders above the one that we had brought from our rehearsal space and meant a huge difference in the final recording. Margo's vocals, like during the Whites session, had to be run through a PA speaker and some guardian angel had seen fit to leave us a high quality system. The "vocal" or speaker was placed on top of the bass cabinet, Margo then stood about six feet outside the circle and sang through a separate mic.
It took us about six hours of fussing to finally capture a sound that we were all happy with. This time was spent readjusting the microphone, moving an instrument five inches closer and then another instrument five inches further, turning one thing up and another down etc.. The process was far from simple and for a while it looked like we weren't going to be able to reign in the acoustics of the church. The natural reverb of the hall was overpowering our instruments. Finally after a few more adjustments we ran through a version of a song and adjourned to the small office (maybe it was one of the confessionals) where Peter had his playback equipment set up. The playback revealed Petes drums simmering softly in the background, Alan's bass rumbling underneath, my guitar airily chiming and Margo's voice floating easily above it all. We had found our sound.
While we had been looking for our sound the rest of the musicians had shown up. They were asked to go amuse themselves in the mall or find a place in the church and be very still. At one point Jaro arrived fresh from an overnight trip from Montreal, not having slept in two days. He quietly found a place somewhere near the sacristy, curled up and fell asleep. To this day he tells the story of the first time he was lulled to sleep by the sound of Cowboy Junkies music echoing dreamily in the distance.
The next couple of hours were spent recording the songs that involved only the four of us. Sweet Jane, Blue Moon and Dreaming My Dreams were all recorded within a few takes. The sound was holding together and as the music began to unfold the tension of the mornings efforts began to fade away. We then moved on to the simpler pieces which called for only one extra musician. Postcard Blues with Steves piercing harp solo, I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry with Kims haunting steel playing, Working On A Building with Johns distinctive guitar work. After that we built the band up a bit more adding two players and recorded 200 More Miles and I Don't Get It. Every time we changed configurations it called for Peter to subtly shift the wave pattern on the microphone and to precisely place the added musician in a specific spot on the floor. This was the way the recorded sound was mixed – physically moving the instrument. If someone had a solo section they were asked to play a little louder during it (in the case of an electric guitar) or move physically closer to the mic (in the case of something like a mandolin). By the time we were arranged around the mic we were in a circle which measured about twelve feet in diameter. Standing and sitting side by side cueing off of each others playing or the nod of a head, listening and reacting.
As the day progressed the occasional invited guest would drop by. Peter's wife Caroline dropped by with a couple of pizzas at one point knowing, otherwise, we wouldn't eat. Alan's wife Melanie stopped by with a friend and our friend Noel Archambault came by with his camera to visually record the proceedings. We also had a few uninvited guests throughout the day. One condition on renting the church was that we weren't allowed to close it, it had to be open to the public to wander through. A few takes were ruined by tourists stumbling through the front door admiring the faux gothic ceiling and almost bumping into Pete's drums in the process. I distinctly remember one young couple walking into the church and sitting down at the far end of hall and hanging out and listening for about thirty minutes. Years later I was having some work done on my house and one of the labourers doing the work told me about the day that he and his girlfriend had walked into Trinity church to take in the peace and quiet and had discovered a band playing inside.
Once all of the sound bugs had been ironed out the day progressed magically. No song took more than three or four takes to capture and every musician seemed to be connecting with each other on a very subconscious plain. We were all having one of those magical moments that musicians rarely find themselves in, when the music takes over and you feel like you aren't really responsible for what you are doing – you are just the channeler. It rarely happens to an individual and it is even rarer for it to happen to a group of players and it is even rarer for it to happen with the tape rolling. I remember sitting in the confessional during a break and listening to the playback of I'm So Lonesome I could Cry. Jeff Bird was there standing over my shoulder, this was only the second or third time that I had met Jeff. The song ended and Jeff looked at me and said, to no one in particular, "it's a beautiful thing…." And indeed it was.
The biggest challenge of the day was going to be the songs involving seven or more musicians. There were three potential problems: the first was that we were running out of time. We had only booked the church for twelve hours. This problem was easily solved by Peter slipping the security guard twenty five dollars to let us stay another two hours. A more serious problem was that the more musicians involved the more difficult it became for Peter to properly place them around the mic. The other potential problem was that the bigger the group got the more complex the arrangements of the song got. These large arrangements we had never practiced so the potential for a complete cacophony when we started up was very real. As we ran through the arrangements for Misguided Angel, Peter fussed and fretted over the sound problem. By the time we were ready to begin Peter was too. Four minutes and thirty seven seconds later we had recorded Misguided Angel and it was time to move on. It was just one of those occasions when you perform a song and after it is over everyone looks at one another and you all know that you got it, there is no need to do it again. The miraculous thing was that it was the first time we had all played that song together and that is exactly what you hear on the album. To Love Is To Bury was next and it went just as smoothly. I distinctly remember playing the song that day and being swept up in swirl of sound that the steel, fiddle and accordion created when they started to breathe as one.
The final number to be recorded was the big jam numberWalking After Midnight. We had purposely left the details of this song vague. All we knew was that we wanted all nine musicians to play on it. We quickly assigned who would soloin what spot told Peter to hit the record button and away we went. It is probably my favourite number on the album, because it is so impossibly loose and ragged just like music is suppose to be. It is the sound of a group of people tired, yet satisfied, celebrating the end of a long, but extremely succesful day.
One little fact about the session that few people know is that it was not all recorded in one day. Later that night as we were winding down at the bar we realized that we had forgotten to record Mining For Gold. We had kept putting it off to deal with the more complex songs, thinking that we would do it at the end of the day and then had just forgotten. A few days later Peter was back in the church recording the Toronto Symphony and on their lunch break he called Margo to come on down to the church. There in front of the entire TSO munching on sandwiches and sipping from thermoses, Margo ran through a couple of versions of Mining For Gold. The album was truly finished.
The beauty of the Trinity Session is that what you are hearing is exactly what went on in the church that day. Nine people communicating openly and honestly with one another through their musical instruments. It is a rare thing to come across in this day and age of hard sell and celebrity. The day following the session I went over to Margo's house with some cassette copies of the session. Coincidentally our mother was there. She had dropped in after doing an errand downtown. We put on the tape and listened in silence. After it was all over we sat there a little overwhelmed by what we had heard. Two days earlier this had not existed, now it was here and it was ours forever. My mother, clearly moved by what she had just heard, said, "my god, it's like you've just given birth to a baby". I suppose we had.
Source: Cowboy Junkies