Trigger Gospel
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Trigger Gospel

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"Anna Fermin Squeezes Trigger on New Album"

By T. J. Simon, January 2004

Chicago is seldom, if ever, regarded as a country town. But over the past decade, the Windy City's reputation for producing exciting alternative country music has flourished. Nearly every night, fans pack Chicago's mid-sized venues to see locally based acts such as The Waco Brothers and Kelly Hogan play country tunes among the concrete jungles of America's Second City.

Front and center among Chicago's hidden musical jewels is Anna Fermin's Trigger Gospel, whose unique brand of eclectic-country-pop has been wowing local audiences for more than seven years.

Fermin, who just released a new album, is a unique character in the world of country music for many reasons. At first glance, Fermin, 33, stands out among her peers because of her ethnicity - she was born in the Philippines and is one of the few Asian-Americans active in country music.

Fermin's family immigrated to the states when she was an infant in search of greater educational and employment opportunities. Rather than heading to an intimidating American metropolis, her father chose to settle the family one hour north of Chicago in the working-class town of Kenosha, Wisc.

"He thought Chicago was this big, dirty city, and he was having a hard time finding a job. He went up to Kenosha and had better luck there," Fermin explains via cell phone while driving back to Wisconsin for the holidays. "It never really felt awkward being an immigrant or Filipino. I felt like a normal kid growing up in the Midwest. But it was normal for me to eat weird Filipino food and attend Filipino functions. I never felt at a disadvantage."

While growing up in Wisconsin, the Fermin house always seemed to be filled with music. Mom and Dad were into classic country artists such as Patsy Cline and early Elvis while young Fermin devoured Top 40 radio hits including David Bowie and Duran Duran. She channeled much of her free time and energy into studying classical piano, violin and voice.

"As a typical teenager, I hated piano lessons. I was taking them because my mom and dad made me," Fermin recalls. "My dad had a karaoke machine. I'd do Bette Midler or Whitney Houston. I never thought I had much of a singing voice at all. It was never anything I really took seriously."

Her eclectic musical upbringing shines through on the new album from Anna Fermin's Trigger Gospel entitled "Oh, The Stories We Hold." The long-awaited disc showcases 11 country-pop numbers drawing from the very stories that have made Fermin's life so interesting thus far.

It was a long road between piano lessons in Wisconsin and the production of the new LP.

Fermin left home at age 18 to study visual arts in Chicago. "My parents are very old-school, so they wanted me to stay at home and be a doctor or a nurse or a lawyer or a teacher. But I was more inclined toward art," Fermin explains. "I wanted to go to the Art Institute of Chicago, and the only way I could convince them to send me was to promise that I would go into graphic design because it would be a lucrative business - something I could go into later."

Shortly after her graduation, Fermin began to think about expressing herself in terms of music. For this epiphany, she has two people to thank: a long-defunct boyfriend and Steve Earle.

"I was serenaded by an old boyfriend to a Steve Earle song called 'Down The Road,' and it blew me away," says Fermin of her inspiration. "I was so moved by the song, and all of the emotions surrounding it, I decided that I needed to learn how to do that. I just wanted to learn how to convey that kind of emotion. I wanted to learn how to play guitar, so I could sing him a song. I didn't know how to play guitar, so I borrowed an old classical guitar and taught myself how to play."

Shortly thereafter, Fermin wrote her first song, "August Moon," a country ballad that she began playing at various Chicago open mics and with her first band, Anaboy.

Before dissolving, Anaboy developed a small local following in Chicago with the apex being a slot opening for Texas singer-songwriter Jo Carol Pierce (ex-wife of Jimmie Dale Gilmore).

Anaboy dissolved in 1996, and Fermin began piecing together a new group from accomplished Chicago musicians who were also between bands. Her new, unnamed band had been rehearsing and playing informal gigs around Chicago for about three months when she got the call that changed everything: an opportunity to open for Johnny Cash at Chicago's House of Blues. But first, the band needed a name. Fermin, a collector of antiquarian books, owned a rare edition of a 1935 novel by Henry Sinclair Drago entitled Trigger Gospel. Needing a band name in anticipation of the Johnny Cash gig and the pending release of a five-song EP, Fermin reached for her bookshelf and pulled down the beautiful Drago book. Thus, Anna Fermin's Trigger Gospel was born.

The Johnny Cash opening slot provided mass exposure to Chicago's growing country music community. "It was an amazing gig," Fermin remembers. "I was extremely nervous. It was a sold out show in front of the biggest audience we had ever played. Johnny was very sweet to me, and he complimented me on my voice." The crowd gobbled up copies of Fermin's EP and future Trigger Gospel gigs became more and more crowded. It was time to start thinking about a full-length studio album.

At the time, Fermin's manager happened to be friends with Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock. After meeting Fermin in Austin, they referred her to the prolific producer Lloyd Maines (father of Dixie Chick, Natalie Maines) for assistance on the production Trigger Gospel's forthcoming disc.

Maines went to see the band play at the South By Southwest festival, and immediately agreed to produce the 1999 debut LP, "Things Change."

Fermin says recording under the direction of Maines was a complete pleasure. "Lloyd is like your favorite uncle. He's really easy to get along with. He's got no ego whatsoever. He's not one to do a lot of manipulating with arrangements or instrumentation. He just took what we had and made it sound the best," she says. The self-released disc featured what was to become Fermin's signature song, "Northern Lights," as well as a beautiful cover of the oft-recorded Latin number, "Beseme Mucho."

Hard work and relentless touring resulted in debut album sales exceeding 6,000 copies, a respectable figure in the world of do-it-yourself music.

Too eclectic for mainstream country distribution and not raw enough for the logical alt.-country indies, Anna Fermin's Trigger Gospel existed for four years in a musical no-man's land that made it hard to find a label to call home for a follow-up album.

A sizable gap between discs might have been a death sentence for lesser bands, but Trigger Gospel had a loyal following willing to wait for a new CD and attend live shows whenever possible.

In order to assuage her antsy fan base, Fermin self-released "Live Music Volume One," recorded in 2002 at the famed Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. It's one of those live albums that capture lightning in a bottle by catching band members performing at the top of their game. The disc includes perfect recordings of songs from "Things Change" including "Cry" and "Polite Conversations" as well as a cover of Richard Thompson's "Beat The Retreat."

In 2003, Fermin developed a business relationship with Undertow Records, a small, but respected, indie label who expressed an interest in releasing Trigger Gospel's second studio recording.

The boss at Undertow also managed Jay Bennett, who was striking out on his own after a particularly ugly and well-documented musical divorce from former Wilco band mate, Jeff Tweedy.

The timing was perfect, and Bennett was chosen to produce the follow-up to "Things Change."

"We decided to work with Jay because we felt he would be able to help us take the music to a different level," Fermin explains. "We knew that he was hands-on, very creative and would have a lot of input as far as the songs' arrangements."

The band found Bennett's style to be in sharp contrast to the laid-back manner of their first producer, Lloyd Maines.

"Jay is a genius bordering on madman," Fermin confides. "He's manic in his work ethic. We were recording things in elevators, in the bathroom, in back rooms, in the kitchen. It was an incredible experience in that we got more out of it than we expected."

The resulting album is rooted in a lush country sound with diverse influences including Latin, jazz, pop and rock. Call it Americana from a U.S. immigrant's worldview.

Fermin's emotionally-derived lyrics more often than not arise from recalling bad break-ups with historical boyfriends (see "Baby Won't You Please Come Home" and "Dragging On"), a trend that hopefully ended with her June 2003 wedding. From the opening lover's lament, "Are You Gonna Miss Me Too?" to the album's love letter to Chicago, "My Town," Fermin emotes with the voice of an angel and the composition skills of a seasoned pro. Her background as a visual artist shines through on the poetic musical painting, "White Birch," written while staring at birch trees swaying in the wind in Stevens Point, Wisc.

The disc also features two covers, a playful version of "Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps" (originally made famous by Doris Day) and a recording of Steve Earle's "Down The Road," the tune that inspired Fermin to pick up a guitar in the first place

. And the future?

Anna Fermin's Trigger Gospel is putting together a U.S. tour in support of the new music. Although the album is a celebration of American music, Fermin has used a spate of recent concerts to introduce country music fans to a bit of Filipino culture. She was able to obtain opening slots for other Filipino-American performers at a recent show.

"I was amazed that there were other Filipinos out there who are poets and jazz musicians who are forging their way. It was just cool to be able to highlight them as well," Fermin says with appropriate pride.

Another recent concert featured an unusual opening act - a buffet of traditional Filipino cuisine. "I never really paid attention to it until now when people make a point that I am Filipino. I've been more active now than I ever have been before in my adult life in acknowledging that I come from this colorful culture. I'm really proud to be part of that Asian-American community. It's kinda cool to see that there are Asians who are moving forward in the arts aside from just being medical professionals."
- Country Standard Time

"The 20 Best Albums You Might Have Missed in 2003"

Anna Fermin's Trigger Gospel, Oh, the Stories We Hold (Undertow)
This spectacular country album comes from a little-known singer out of Chicago. Contrary to the name, this isn't gospel music. Yet after listening, you'll want to testify to the power of passionate country music. Fermin's vocals sometimes remind me of Tanya Tucker, but the combo's ambitious musical spirit recalls the Dixie Chicks. Promising. --CS
- Country Music Today

"Anna Fermin gets her guns back"

By Greg Kot

Four years ago, Anna Fermin’s Trigger Gospel put out a terrific album, “Oh, the Stories We Told,” that spruced up her credentials as a singer who blurred the boundaries between country, pop, rock and gospel with unusual grace. Three years ago, Fermin got married, soon after gave birth to a son, and left Chicago and music behind.

She and her family moved to a house on the lakefront in Wisconsin, and she and her husband bought a bar. The new life didn’t last long, however. Within a couple of years, the couple had sold the bar and returned to Chicago.

“My fantasy was to be the house band at my own bar,” Fermin says with a laugh. “But it didn’t quite work out that way.”

The bar business, it turned out, was less glamorous than she envisioned, and she felt removed and isolated. She missed music and Chicago, where over the last decade she had established a small but avid following and released a handful of acclaimed independent records. When she returned to the city with her family, she felt reinvigorated and started writing music again.

Being a full-time mom didn’t exactly lend itself to writing an album, recording it with friends, and then self-releasing it, with all the marketing, promoting and self-managing that entails. But that’s exactly what Fermin did. On Friday, she’ll celebrate the release of “Go” (Sighlow) with a performance at Schubas.

The album draws on songs from various stages of her life. She wrote “Where My Heart Begins” for her husband, and surprised him by performing it on their wedding day. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” Fermin says.

“Yellow Rose of Texas” nicks its title from the iconic country song, but its lyrics and swinging jazz arrangement are highly personal. The song is a farewell to an old boyfriend. “It’s a song about parting with someone, but still acknowledging the history,” the singer says. “There are references in there, like the ‘orange bear,’ that only me and this other person would know.”

The key to making the record happen was Fermin’s determination to get back in the studio, and the performing and arranging ideas brought to the table by her band, particularly keyboardist Scott Ligon.

“My idea for this record was to do something just for the fans, and to basically do everything live in the studio because I was working with a really limited budget,” she says. “But once we got in there, it turned out to be a bigger project. I wanted to bang out the songs in a few days, but I wasn’t happy with the way they sounded. The wheels started turning, and Scott was throwing out ideas for the songs that we couldn’t ignore.”

“Go” showcases Fermin’s increasingly sophisticated vocals while splitting the difference between Trigger Gospel’s twangy roots and her longtime passion for pop and cabaret-style tunes. Fermin is pleased with the results, and has expanded her ideas for promoting it. She’ll be headlining a festival in Norway over the summer and touring the East Coast in the fall, both trips with her family.

“Music is something I see myself always doing,” she says. “And it’s difficult to pull away from motherhood. But we’re figuring out ways to make it work out.”

- Chicago Tribune

"Critic's Pick"

By Christian Schaeffer

On the just-released Go, Anna Fermin' s Trigger Gospel try on any manner of influences over nine tracks. "Where My Heart Begins" is classic country in the style of Loretta Lynn, with modest flourishes from a barroom piano and Fermin's strong, sweet voice singing words of romantic perseverance. By the next track, "Further Along," classical piano arpeggios and a spoken-word intro turn into a four-on-the-floor rocker, complete with an Abbey Road-inspired background chorus. The rest of the disc dabbles in ballads, roadhouse twang and a little bit of Memphis soul. Think of it as a sampler of that amorphous musical landscape we call "Americana," with Fermin and company the ideal musical chameleons you want as tour guides. - Riverfront Time, St. Louis

"4.5 out of 5 stars"

By John Conquest

Ever since Janeen Porter put us together back in 1999, for which I will be eternally grateful, Anna Fermin has been my NotSXSW headliner, and she always will be any time she graces Austin with her presence. There are other contemporary female country singers I admire who share certain qualities with her, even rival her in some, but none have the Chicago-based Filipina's combination of talents. Not just a wonderful singer or a dynamic performer or an outstanding songwriter or a creative artist constantly pushing her own and her genre's limits, she's all these things in one stupendous package. After signing up with a quite staggeringly useless indie label for her last album, Fermin is back on her own for her fifth, including a now out of print EP from 1997, recording. At nine tracks, it's a bit on the short side, which is a little odd as she has demonstrated several times, most obviously with the fantastic version of OH LONESOME ME on Bloodshot's Down To The Promised Land compilation, that she's a great interpreter, and does, in fact, have one cover on this, Gram Parsons & Chris Etheridge's SHE (and unlike Norah Jones, she stays on the beat), but with an artist of this magnitude, you take what you can get. Another eight marvellous originals, one rather audaciously titled YELLOW ROSE OF TEXAS, allow Fermin, backed by her longtime rhythm section, Michael Krayniak bass and Paul Bivans drums, plus newcomer multi-instrumentalist Scott Ligon (acoustic and electric guitars, piano, mellotron, clavinet, B-3 and Wurlitzer organs), to showcase her ability to switch from subtle, intimate and graceful phrasing to full throttle, room-filling, Edith Piaf-style belting. Anna Fermin walks on water, and if the roots music world at large doesn't seem to have realized this, it's their loss, but it doesn't have to be yours. - Third Coast Music


2006 , GO, Sighlow Music
Produced by Jay O'Rourke & Scott Ligon
Rax Trax Studios, Chicago, IL

2003, Oh, The Stories We Hold, Undertow Records
Produced by Jay Bennett, Pieholden Studios, Chicago, IL

2001, Live Music Volume One, Sighlow Music
Live at the Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago, IL

1999, Things to Come, Sighlow Music
Produced by Lloyd Maines, Kingsize Studios, Chicago, IL

1997, Self-titled EP, Anna Fermin's Trigger Gospel
Produced by Tom Dube, Playtime Studios, Boston, MA


1999, "Love Shack" with Jon Rauhouse & Robbie Fulks
Poor Little Knitter on the Road: A Tribute to the Knitters, Bloodshot Records

2000, "Oh, Lonesome Me"
Down to the Promised Land: 5 Years of Bloodshot Records
Bloodshot Records

2003, "Graveyard Shift"
For Anyone That's Listening: A Tribute to Uncle Tupelo
Flat Earth Records

2004, "The Box It Came In "
Hard Headed Woman: A Celebration of Wanda Jackson
Bloodshot Records



Named after an old Western novel, anna fermin’s trigger gospel reflects a spirited sound that intertwines hometown country and rock & roll with “a strong melodic-pop appeal.” (Holly Rushakoff, The Octopus)

Formed in 1997, anna fermin’s trigger gospel has garnered the attention and respect of critics and music fans alike, hooking audiences with their eclectic songs and rousing live shows. In the years this Chicago-based band has been together, they’ve shared the stage with an impressive roster of musicians including Johnny Cash, Steve Earle, Joe Ely, Robbie Fulks, Delbert McClinton, Neko Case and many more.

The eclectic influences of her bandmates, who include Paul Bivans on drums & percussion, Michael Krayniak on bass, and Scott Ligon on guitar & keyboard, have become the perfect compliment to Fermin’s stunning originals, "that smartly place her voice where it belongs - front and center.” (Monica Eng/Chicago Tribune)