When I started writing the posts that came to be The Great Canadian Road Trip series, the idea was to write about songs that possessed the specific name of a Canadian place within its lyrics. However, as the series has progressed, I have made the deliberate decision to move beyond the original criterion that I imposed upon myself and, instead, I will move forward simply talking about Canada, the people who create music here and the places that merit mention because of their connection to music. Today, we are going to visit a place of significant cultural and historical importance to the City of Toronto, as well as to the world of social activism and the Arts. That place is the Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto. Aside from the myriad of things the church is known for, one of the most enjoyable was that it was the location where one of Canada’s greatest albums of all time was recorded. The album was The Trinity Session. The band who recorded it was The Cowboy Junkies. Let’s find out what it was that drew The Cowboy Junkies to The Church of the Holy Trinity and what it was about the church itself that caused this album to have such a distinctive sound and to be such a career-defining success. Here is the story of a small church in the heart of a big city. Let’s go!
The Church of the Holy Trinity has a very interesting and important history. It was built in the mid-1800s on a parcel of land that was donated by a man named James Simcoe Macaulay. Mr. Macaulay was the surgeon to the British Army stationed in the area. When he was honorably discharged from his post, he purchased a parcel of land that comprised 100 acres of farm, forest and marshland in an area of Toronto that was undeveloped at the time. (In 2023, the heart of his property sat where the Toronto Eaton Centre Shopping Mall and office towers now reside). As time went on, Macaulay severed his land to various family members and other people who wanted to develop the area for housing and for business interests. One of the people who approached Macaulay about his land was Archbishop Strachan, the Anglican Archbishop of Toronto. Strachan had been contacted by lawyers from England who informed him that the diocese had been bequeathed a large sum of money (5000 pounds sterling) for the sole purpose of building a new church. The benefactor was an English woman named Mary Lambert Swale. Mrs. Swale stipulated that the church must be named The Church of the Holy Trinity and that it must be an “open church”, meaning that the pews were unreserved. (In the past, one of the ways that churches raised money was from the selling of their pew space in return for a monthly or yearly fee. This often meant that only the wealthy could afford to go to church and that the poor were denied access). Mrs. Swale’s conditions meant that The Church of the Holy Trinity would be a church that serviced immigrants, the poor, the homeless and anyone else who wanted to attend. Consequently, throughout the entire length of its history, The Church of the Holy Trinity has carried through with its mission statement and has served as home for all manner of those on the fringes of society including Vietnam draft dodgers, members of the LGBTQ2S+ community in the 1970s, the homeless (The Toronto Homeless Memorial Roll that contains the names of all homeless people who have died in Toronto is kept there), those battling addictions and many, many more. It was a building that took on the air of a sanctuary in the heart of Canada’s largest and fastest growing city. Not only was the Church of the Holy Trinity a champion for those in need, it also served the role as a patron of the Arts. Throughout its history, it has routinely offered the space within its walls to musicians in need of a place to perform or record. It was because of this that a group that billed itself at the time as the Timmins Family Singers booked the church for one day because that was all they could afford. The Timmins Family Singers turned out to be The Cowboy Junkies and that one day allowed them to record the album that put them on the musical map in Canada, The Trinity Session.
The Cowboy Junkies had their origin way back in kindergarten when Michael Timmins met his lifelong friend Alan Anton. The two boys grew up together and started forming bands while in high school. Their first band was called Hunger Project. Wanting to live in the land of their musical influences, the lads moved to England. Eventually Hunger Project went belly up, and the boys started a new, avant-garde band called Germinal. While that band earned them some small bits of recognition, they both agreed that it was time to return to Toronto, so back home they came. After experimenting with band lineups using various combinations of friends and acquaintances, Anton and Timmins came to the conclusion that their songs might sound better if they were being sung by a woman’s voice, so Michael recruited his younger sister, Margo, to join their band. The only problem with this was that Margo was extremely shy at this stage of her life. The last thing she wanted to do was to face a live audience and belt out tunes written by her brother. But when her brother and Alan Anton heard her sing, they knew her voice was mesmerizing, so they adapted their style of play to suit her hushed style of singing. As a result, The Cowboy Junkies stumbled upon their signature quiet sound quite by accident.
After realizing that performing in a small and intimate way was the key to their future success, the band sought opportunities to capture that sound live on an album. Fortunately for them, they ran into a man named Peter Moore who spoke about recording music using a single microphone. The band liked the thought of all crowding around one microphone and believed that doing so would allow their whispery style of play to be captured authentically on tape, so they formed a partnership with Moore. Now, the only thing left was to find an acoustically perfect place to make this album. Being a relatively new band, The Cowboy Junkies did not have a huge budget. Somewhere along the way, it was discovered that The Church of the Holy Trinity would rent its space for a small fee as long as the music being recorded was “suitable and appropriate” for such a venue. That’s how The Cowboy Junkies became The Timmins Family Singers for one day. They told the booking person at the church that they would be recording a Christmas album. They said nothing about singing songs of longing or addiction or sex. The band loved the acoustics they found in the church. The space had no pillars of any sort supporting the roof so the interior space was wide open. This, combined with the stone walls and rounded roof meant that there was a crystal clear clarity to the notes being played and the words being sung. The band recorded the simplest songs first…adjusting the microphone and their own positioning accordingly as each song progressed and grew more complex. The final song they recorded that day was “Misguided Angel”. It was recorded in one take. There was no overdubbing or mixing required. The version you hear when you listen to it today is exactly the same version that was recorded that day. With the exception of a few additional vocal tracks which were laid down afterwards, the entire Trinity Session album was recorded in one day at The Church of the Holy Trinity.
When The Trinity Session was released, it was lauded for the sound quality of the music, along with the inspired choice of lyrics of a majority of the songs, such as their cover of “Sweet Jane” by Lou Reed (which he has stated is his favourite version of that song), “200 More Miles”, “Blue Moon Revisited (A Song for Elvis)” and, today’s song, “Misguided Angel”. The album flew off of store shelves going two times platinum in Canada. Music critics across North America rated it as one of the best albums of the year, and as if that wasn’t enough, The Trinity Session was named the winner of the Polaris Prize for Best Album in Canada for the decade of the 1980s. To celebrate the success of the album, The Cowboy Junkies re-recorded it twenty five years later, but this time adding singers such as Natalie Merchant, Vic Chestnutt and Ryan Adams to the mix as duet partners. That album was called Trinity Session Revisited.
The Cowboy Junkies have released eighteen albums as of 2023. The band’s lineup has remained the same for almost thirty years now. As for The Church of the Holy Trinity, it occupies one of the most prime pieces of real estate in downtown Toronto. There have been many offers to buy the property and turn it into condominiums or storefront retail space but all attempts to buy the land on which the church sits have been rebuffed. This church, which was once one of Toronto’s most distinctive buildings, now sits dwarfed on all sides by buildings devoted to commerce and trade. Yet, it remains a safe harbour for those experiencing personal storms. It also remains a place where musicians and artists can find a venue to showcase their skills and talents. There is a weekly music series that anyone can attend. The Cowboy Junkies have never performed there but if you ever see a group that goes by the name of The Timmins Family Singers on the schedule, alert your friends and head on down because it will be sure to be quite the show. The price of admission remains free and will be forever more.
The link to the official website for the Cowboy Junkies can be found here.
The link to the official website for The Church of the Holy Trinity can be found here.
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