Going to the Heart of the Music with

Trina Hamlin

by Richard Cuccaro

There is a hum to the universe, a pulse rising out of the static of life. Out of the cradle, we find our way, seeking our own rhythm. In the clatter of the train wheels, the chanting in the churches and the classrooms, the cadence of our footfalls as we run, the bellows of our breathing, the hammering of our heartbeats, we live our song.

These elements seem fused together as we listen to a woman breathe in and breathe out of a blues harp, its reedy voice alternately sobbing, wailing and crying out in ecstasy. In between harp passages, her massive vocal instrument surges, the melody and beat strong and steady, accompanied only by her hand beating against a tambourine. Her words describe personal passion and doubt, but the undercurrent of musical expression seems primitive, reaching back to a time when drumbeats carried our messages on the wind.

This would be Trina Hamlin, pouring her heart out through harmonica and voice, as she performs “Down to the Hollow.” The metaphors float like mist: …My spirit says yes, my mind says no; there’s something so scared, I’ve just got to go… can I go that far?… … Oh, no, no no… I’m goin’ down to the hollow, where the trees meet the soul. trying not to follow another long, lost and lonely road…

Audience members taking first notice of Trina’s big voice will be struck by her prodigious lung capacity and her talent for blowing blues harp better than any guy they’ve ever heard. Lately, she’s been playing percussion and harmonica backup for Susan Werner. If this is all some people see of her, they’re missing the complete picture.

Continuing an august tradition, Trina came east from the Minnesota north, echoing Bob Dylan. While she’s too young to be the prototype for the “Girl from the North Country,” she could serve as its archetype. Tallish, maybe 5 feet-9 or 10, she’s beautiful and has that magnificent instrument for a voice.

I first saw Trina perform in the East Village of New York City in the mid-to-late ‘90s. I thought I knew her as well as any audience member, but I didn’t know she played piano. I thought she only accompanied herself on guitar. But guitar was not her first instrument. It was the piano.

Her repertoire is considerably enlarged by what she does with a keyboard. On her live album, One NightStand, Seattle, WA, for the first time, I heard her play some terrific boogie-woogie licks, some soaring ballad accompaniment, and as a jokey aside, a few bars of classical piano passage. How this came to be unfolded in a two-part phone interview lasting more than two hours.


Trina’s path to music was indirect, at first.

Her mom always loved music. When her mom was young, she wanted to learn piano. Money was scarce and the family had no piano, but she saved her money, drew a piano keyboard to practice with, and took lessons anyway. It didn’t work and she had to quit. She finally bought a piano and tried taking lessons as an adult, but as it turned out, her love of music was not accompanied with a matching talent. Trina, around 2 years old at that time, would come up to the piano and pound on the keys. Her mother said later that Trina had more talent at age 2 than she ever had in her life.

After her mom gave up, she pushed Trina’s older brother to take lessons. He, alas, fell into the same category as his mother. Trina would listen to what her brother was trying to play from a book, and walk over and play it by ear. It would make him furious, when Trina would effortlessly mimic what he was struggling to learn. As it became apparent that her brother wasn’t cut out for music, it was finally Trina’s turn. Her mother decided to arrange lessons for her.

However, even before she started piano lessons, the big voice was already in evidence. At age 6, she was persuaded by neighbors to participate in a talent show. Trina picked a popular song to sing which had some intricate melody changes. She refused accompaniment and sang the song a cappella and won. “I got my little blue ribbon,” she says.

Her brother’s teacher wouldn’t accept Trina because she was too young. So, shortly after winning the talent show, Trina started taking piano lessons, from a woman from Sri Lanka, who taught out of her house and used the Montessori method. The first thing they did was to sit on the floor and play games with flash cards and sticks to learn rhythm. “That was very cool. If I were to ever teach kids, I would want them to learn rhythm first, just to feel it. It’s the foundation of music… really,” Trina says. Trina took lessons from her for 5 years. The Montessori method used colors and numbers and rhythms, which suited Trina. She didn’t want to read music and preferred to learn by ear. Although the Montessori method eventually leads its students to sight reading, Trina refused. Finally, her teacher forced her to leave, saying she had to study with someone who would force her to read music.

Trina’s talent continued to evolve. She was in the choir all through her school years and during elementary school, she was in the play “H.M.S. Pinafore.”

In junior high, she was part of a select group of students chosen to participate in an improvisational theater group, started by a speech teacher, Ert Jones-Hermerding. It was a “Second City” type group where students wrote their own plays. Trina was playing more piano now and writing songs (actually, from 3rd grade on). While she never felt that she wanted to be in theater, she “enjoyed the whole process of it.”  “I guess I was on the path at an early age, of being some kind of an entertainer,” she states.

In high school, she continued with choir and also went to summer music camp at the University of Minnesota, where singing was a part of the “curriculum.” She’d be classified as a mezzo soprano sometimes, but her true range was alto, where, she says, they “got to learn the harmonies.” “If I worked hard to expand my range as far as it would go, it made it all the way up to a wonderful mezzo soprano.” She says she still has some of that left today, but it’s just “not useful” in what she does.

Although she loved choir, it was not her whole life. She still liked what she did on her own better, writing songs at home on the piano.

A Leap Forward

A series of formative experiences occurred when Trina’s Improv group teacher encouraged her to audition for the Minnesota State Fair. A contest was held each year and the winner would play the following year with a 36-piece orchestra. It took her a couple of tries to win. The first time, still in junior high, she played piano and sang one of her own songs …and wasn’t chosen. A couple of years later, at the age of 16, she played and sang a combination of two covers, one fast and one slow. She began with a fast song, “I’ve Got the Music in Me,” segued into the slow one (a Kim Carnes song) and then finished up with the fast one, and she won. So, the following year, at age 17, she returned to sing with the orchestra. She was asked to pick some songs, which were then arranged for her and she sang without playing piano (“weird for me,” she said).  She performed with the orchestra for 11 straight days in front of an audience of “about five thousand people” each time. Dionne Warwick was supposed to play at the final “Grandstand” show, but couldn’t make it, so Trina filled in, along with Michael Johnson, a pop singer, the show’s opening act. The stage was bigger than anything she’d ever seen, and when the lights were turned on, she couldn’t see the audience - just a “black wall.” These days, the audiences are a lot smaller in the clubs, and when she plays festivals, large audiences don’t faze her.

College and Career

After high school, she attended the prestigious Berklee School in Boston and received a degree in Professional Music. The extent of her professional musicianship can get lost on the casual listener who might get immersed in her ability to belt out acoustic versions of southern rock and blues.

At Berklee, Trina chose voice for her main area of study. She sang classical as well as pop and learned sound engineering, which she enjoyed, and even did some classical conducting. It wasn’t until after she graduated that she picked up the guitar. She was in a few bands in the Boston area and had friends who played guitar. There was one available in the house that she shared, but it took 2 years for her to pick it up and learn it. It was 1990-91 and she was around 22 years old. This is where she picked up the harmonica, purely by accident.  Two college friends were in a blues band, “The One Eyed Jacks,” that she’d go to see after she got out of school. She thinks that perhaps watching the leader play harp gave her some insight into playing it. When another singer songwriter friend, for whom Trina sang backup vocals, asked Trina to play harp on a song, she demurred at first, but gave in. Her friend taught her how to “bend” a note, it gave it more of a “voice.”  Trina did it and liked it, then started “fooling around” with harmonica. She listened to albums by harp players, but that didn’t help, so she just kept experimenting on her own. She was fascinated by the rhythms she was getting - different than the ones she was singing. After 3 months, she got her first gig playing harp. She said, “I enjoyed that expression, kind of on a vocal level — it was all the rhythm I wasn’t singing.”

Trina’s guitar skills progressed slowly. She moved to New York and sang with bands, providing mainly harmonica, accordion and tambourine accompaniment, still noodling around at home. She was the lead singer for the band Blue Leaves until around 1994, when the band broke up and she started to go solo. At first she had a band because she felt she wasn’t playing guitar well enough.

Trina began to get noticed. Island Records brought her aboard and she made demos that found their way to producers of the TV show “Dawson’s Creek”. At least 3 of Trina’s songs were used on the show.

A Winding Path

Around 1997, events swirled around her and the insecure and changing nature of the music business turned life into a winding hairpin-turn-laden path.

Island came under new management in 1997. They were interested in competing with other major labels and wanted big-act singers, and weren’t interested in singer/songwriters. The relationship with Island ended.  Trina had been performing as a solo act since the fall of 1994, and wanted to tour and develop. She’d bounced between three clubs in the East Village: Sine, The Sidewalk Cafe (where we first saw her) and CBGB’s Gallery (next to the original CBGB’s and catering to acoustic acts). Most were pass-the-bucket “tip houses,”  where performers were not paid, and made their money from the collection at the end of each performance.

Through her association with the managers of Sine, Trina became friends with Jody Klein, the son of Allen Klein (ABKCO, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles). She began working with ABKCO as a “development deal,” making demos and recording with people like Jimi Zhivago (Ollabelle) and Fernando Saunders (Jeff Beck, Lou Reed). While the demos were never used, the experience was invaluable.

Then, Von Freeman, who did marketing and promotions for a top 40 station in Cinncinnati, Ohio, saw her play at Sidewalk and was impressed. He gave her his business card and later had Trina flown out to Ohio and featured her on “One Earth Party” radio-sponsored live shows where she performed with pop icons like Paula Cole, Duncan Sheik and the Goo Goo Dolls. “In Cincinnati, they thought I was famous,” she says. “It was hilarious.” Von “kind of” managed her for a while, getting her foot in the door at record companies, including Island. Trina describes her management experiences as “very free form,” people guiding her, but in an undirected sort of way.

Trina followed up her debut CD, Alone (1998), with Living Room in 1999. She’d met drummer Bill Dobrow and bassist Jeff Hill at the club the Living Room (both of them later played with Rufus Wainwright). She got some additional people on guitars and recorded the album at the home of producer Marilyn D’Amato who operated an “in-house” recording studio. “Everything on that album was written in my living room and it was recorded in a living room. It was a blast.” Because the album was not completed at the time her songs first appeared on Dawson’s Creek, she was unable to garner much publicity from the TV exposure.

In 1998, she played the main stage at the Newport folk Festival and a side stage as well. “It was spectacular… an amazing experience,” she says. Although she broke a guitar string during her first song, she played harp until her friends backstage replaced the string and got the guitar back to her. The crowd cheered ecstatically.

Her next CD, Foundation, released in 2002, was also produced by Marilyn D'Amato. It was recorded live in one night with a few friends in the room. Some formerly acoustic tracks were re-recorded, to explore their sound with band back-up.

The next CD, Living on Love, was released in 2005. On this CD, “Too Beautiful” shows her range in its jazz overtones. She describes the song, like many others, as one that came upon her by itself one morning and was finished by evening. The words and music came together, and she played chords on that song that she didn’t know she had in her.

In 2008, she released her CD, One NightStand, Seattle WA (There was another “NightStand” recorded in Indianapolis in 2007). She was on tour, going from San Francisco, to Seattle, to Alaska, and back to Seattle. Her house concert in Seattle was changed to a beautiful old theater with a recording studio at the back of the hall. The soundman offered to record the show and she accepted. When she got back to Seattle, she had 5 days free to do the mixing. “The universe left me in Seattle for 5 days so I could mix my live album that I didn’t know I was going to make.” On it, she does a beautifully understated, yet powerful version of “Summertime,” that illustrates her capability as a cabaret singer, if she were ever to choose that route. She dedicated it to her Uncle Murray, who used to coax her to sing that song impromptu in some of the tonier restaurants in New York City.

In 2008 Trina collaborated on one track on Vicki Gelfan’s album Uncovered, “Long Train Running,” that old Doobie Brothers chestnut. In our August feature article on Susan Werner, we mentioned how much Trina’s back-up harp work can raise the level of excitement in a song. We get further evidence of that on this track. Trina sings lead vocal and plays harp. If you remember that song all too well and think you were burned out on its excessive presence on FM airwaves in the ‘70s, think again. Trina breathes new life into it. Her monster vocal and, that harp …it’s breathtaking. Using overdubs, Trina provided back-up harp throughout the entire song, as well as the harp solos that are in the forefront along with her lead vocal. “I almost killed myself on that song,” she says.

Brixton Boogie, an album made in Germany, released in 2009, came about in a typical “Trina Hamlin” manner. On a June night in New York City, she met someone who asked her to play at his wedding. She asked when it was happening, and he said, “August.” This was not far off, and she needed to check her schedule to see if she could do it. She asked where, and he said “Hamburg.” “Iowa?” she queried. “No,” he said, “Germany.” She cleared her schedule and played the wedding . Additionally, she did a few gigs there, and was noticed by a man named Krisz Kreuzer who asked her to write words to some songs he was recording for an urban blues album. She did two. “Love will Do,” is a sultry duet, Barry White-like in its intensity. “Hey, Hey,” a funky blues, utilizes Trina’s harp-blowing. Both tracks convinced this listener that Trina is vastly under-used as a soul diva. From the tracks I got to hear, the album succeeds as a powerhouse blues CD with a consistent

mammoth-like bass throb at its foundation.

That Hamlin Style

Ever the independent, Trina prides herself on not having a “Berklee stamp” on her music. That said, however, she admits, “I probably don’t realize how much I draw from my experience at college when I’m in a musical situation. Due to the nature of the genre I’m in, we’re not passing around charts all the time. So, I’m not reading all the time, but  yet I understand it. And it’s this underlying understanding of what’s happening that I don’t always give myself credit for. Part of that is because I always felt a little bit off-kilter as a kid because I could hear, but I didn’t always know what I heard. I just heard it. Working with Susan [Werner] has been amazing because she talks in those terms a lot and I know that I understand it.” All that Trina has experienced prepared her well for her supporting role with Susan. In 2006, Trina, talking with a consultant, expressed a desire to do side work. A couple of months later, the consultant got back and said that Susan needed a band during her Gospel Truth tour. Susan produced charts and recorded tracks ahead of their first gig. Susan has said to Trina, “You’re like a cat. No matter what I throw at you, you land on your feet.” Given that Susan constantly needs to change things up to keep it interesting for herself, Trina is the perfect band mate for her. It’s obvious to their audiences that they love playing together.

To try to define Trina’s style, just for fun, a friend who was in advertising did a marketing study on Trina, using fans who’d known her since she was a child and those who’d come to know her as an adult artist. The overall opinion went beyond folk, blues, pop or acoustic rock (she certainly  encompasses all of those). The consensus centered on the phenomenon of Trina’s musical ability to funnel emotions for her listeners. Everyone in her audience makes contact with the particular emotions they need to feel when they listen to her. “It made it safe enough for them to feel, period,” she says. “When I hear a song for the first time, I hear the melody and then I feel it. Then, later, I know what the words are.”

Whatever the words are, they’ll always be worth listening to. Go and see her. The emotions will be hers at the start, but your own will surely follow.

Website: www.trinahamlin.com

Upcoming shows include:

Sep 10   7:30pm Connecticut Folk Festival & Green Expo, Edgerton Park,

               New Haven, CT - Grassy Hill Song Circle with Seth Glier,

               Reed Waddle and Mark Von Em

11       5pm with Susan Werner, Connecticut Folk Festival & Green Expo. 

           Also appearing: Nanci Griffith, The Kerry Boys, Lara Herscovitch,

           Gandalf Murphy