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She Shoots, She Scores

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She Shoots, She Scores

Anna Fermin's been singing since she was a tot, but only six years ago, after hearing Steve Earle's mandolin-driven "Down the Road," did she pick up a guitar and start to write her own songs. Fermin, who was born in the Philippines and grew up in Kenosha, still can't explain her sudden attraction to twang, but she thinks it might be a rebellion of sorts: "Growing up I was forced to sing Whitney Houston and Bette Midler songs and I hated it," she says. "My dad had a karaoke machine and he used to take it to parties and make me sing for the guests."

After years of struggling to fit her awesome husky alto into the tradition--years of woodshedding, braving the open-mike circuit, and shuffling through backup personnel in two different bands--Fermin has at last made country music hers. Her new self-released Things to Come, which she's selling in local stores and via her Web site, www.triggergospel.com, is a seamless blend of country, folk rock, and pop that buoys Fermin, 28, to the surface of Chicago's deep pool of country talent.

Fermin's parents moved to Wisconsin when she was just a year old. Her father had been an accountant and her mother a teacher in Manila, but in the U.S. their poor English forced them into factory jobs. Her father, who played rudimentary piano and violin, got Anna started in piano lessons when she was just four; she continued studying for the next 14 years and picked up the violin as well. In junior high she sang light classical and Broadway fare in choir, but when it came time to attend college she decided to study visual art, not music. She heard the Earle tune just after graduating from the School of the Art Institute, and it stuck in her head during the next several months, which she spent in the Philippines and Japan.

When she returned, she borrowed an old classical guitar from an aunt. "I asked her to teach me a couple chords," she says. "The first song I ever wrote was a country song, just because I only knew three chords and it sounded like a country ballad. It just seemed natural to me." Writing and performing songs became her primary focus, and over the next few years she spun through a revolving door of day jobs, working as a coat-check girl at the Park West, a waitress at Wishbone (where she was befriended and encouraged by Freakwater's Janet Bean), and a production assistant at a TV-commercial production company. Playing at open mikes at the Abbey Pub, she met other musicians, and by late 1994, when she formed the band Anaboy, she'd written more than 20 songs. But over the next year, she says, she began to realize that her rock-oriented friends couldn't re-create the sounds she heard in her head, and by the end of 1995 only drummer Paul Bivans remained with her.

She spent most of 1996 writing new songs and working out arrangements with Bivans and guitarist Brian Dunn (who'd played with Stump the Host and Freakwater). That fall, when former Riptones guitarist Andon Davis replaced Dunn, the band now known as Trigger Gospel started to jell. Thanks to House of Blues talent buyer Michael Yerke, who in a previous job had frequently booked Fermin and Anaboy at the Cubby Bear, Trigger Gospel's first show was opening for Johnny Cash in December of that year. Gigging steadily after that, they recorded an eponymously titled EP in June 1997 and released it themselves that fall. They've since sold all 2,000 copies.

Trigger Gospel got yet more help from another early Fermin fan, Janeen Porter, who runs the C & D Print Shop on West Fulton. Porter is also a longtime fan of Austin country mainstays like Joe Ely and Butch Hancock (whom she put up on some of his first visits to Chicago). In November '97 she ushered Fermin down to Texas to play some solo gigs, one of which made a convert of Hancock. After seeing Trigger Gospel for himself at South by Southwest in March 1998, Hancock's pal Lloyd Maines--who's produced and played steel guitar for him, Ely, Robert Earl Keen, and Richard Buckner, among others--signed on to record Things to Come.

"We had planned to do it that fall, but he was so busy that it didn't end up happening until February of this year," says Fermin. "Which was great in a way, because I ended up writing a bunch of songs that made it onto the record." Bassist Rob Novak also left the band in the meantime and was replaced by Michael Krayniak. The album was cut at Kingsize, and Maines's deft and direct production eliminated the glossiness that had blunted the debut. He also added his own gorgeous pedal steel, the fiddle of local multi-instrumentalist John Rice, and accordion by Joel Guzman (Los Super Seven). Fermin's voice sounds terrific throughout, helping even lesser songs like the relatively stiff "Run With You" over the hump.

The improvement in Fermin's writing skills is exemplified by the hooky melody of "Polite Conversations" and the pretty, lilting ballad "Cry," but perhaps the most striking piece on the album is a version of "Besame Mucho," which she plays as a straight torch song. "It's been with me since I was a little kid," she explains. "It's affectionately known as the Filipino national anthem. I don't know why, but Filipinos, especially the older generation, go crazy when they hear it. So it has that kind of tie with me too."

Fermin celebrates the release of Things to Come on Thursday, June 10, at FitzGerald's; Lloyd Maines, Janet Bean, and Robbie Fulks will sit in with Trigger Gospel. The music starts at 7:30 with a set by Maines and Austin singer-songwriter Terri Hendrix, but the party begins at 6, when early birds can join in a free celebratory feast--including a couple of Filipino specialties cooked by Fermin's mom and cousins.

Send gripes, leads, and love letters to Peter Margasak at postnobills@chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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