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.