Interview with Singer/Songwriter Susan Cowsill
You might remember her as a member of ’60s family band The Cowsills or The Continental Drifters. Now an accomplished solo artist, she’ll play Jammin’ Java next week.
To say that Susan Cowsill has had a rough few years is a gross understatement. Immediately following the release of her album Just Believe It, her home and nearly all of her possessions—including memorabilia from her childhood spent as part of popular family band The Cowsills–were destroyed in Hurricane Katrina. Older brother Barry was also a victim of the storm, and his body wasn’t found for several months. The day before his funeral, Bill, another brother, passed away.
But Cowsill is nothing if not resilient; she has emerged from those tragedies with a renewed sense of optimism and an excellent, if bittersweet, new record, Lighthouse. She was kind enough to chat with District Noise about the album, her upcoming show at Jammin’ Java, and just what it means to be a New Orleanian.
District Noise: Right after your first solo record, Just Believe It, came out, you were hit with several tragedies. Was writing and recording Lighthouse cathartic, or did you find it painful to relive those events in the studio every day?
Susan Cowsill: Yes and yes (laughs). The writing of it was very cathartic and was done over a period of about four years. Recording was a whole other ball of wax that I wasn’t particularly prepared for because I didn’t really think it was going to be as emotional as it was. That being said, it was a good thing, once it was over, it was like being done with the whole deal in some ways. I’ve likened it to a funeral, if you will. We had the storm, we had the loss of my one brother in the storm, and the loss of my other brother, so Katrina was the beginning of the death of a certain way of life, and four years after it, the grieving process and the recording of Lighthouse was much like a funeral. That’s the way I ended up looking at it. I didn’t understand it while it was happening, though.
DN: The cover of “Galveston” on this record is fantastic. What drew you to that song and why did you decide to include it on Lighthouse?
SC: I’m a huuuuuge Jimmy Webb fan. I’ve only done one other solo record, but even on the Continental Drifters records, I usually do a cover. I knew I wanted to do a Jimmy Webb cover and was thinking about “Wichita Lineman,” because that’s one of my favorite songs. Then I thought “‘Wichita Lineman’ has been done a lot.” “Galveston” came to mind kind of randomly, but I thought, shoot: Galveston had just experienced yet another devastating hurricane. It’s so funny because that song is not about a storm; it’s about a young boy gone to war. However, it just seemed like a nod to Texas, you know?
DN: Tell me about covering “River of Love,” which your brother Barry wrote.
SC: It kind of just happened; I don’t really plan anything out, frankly. While we were still looking for him, I just started doing that song in our shows. It was, I think, a comforting tune. I don’t know why I picked it. When we got the news he was gone and learned where he ended up, it seemed rather trippy, as he was found under a wharf on the Mississippi, having drowned. So it only seemed fitting to record that on Lighthouse for obvious reasons. It’s a tribute.
DN: Jackson Browne guest stars on the record. When did you two first meet?
SC: Oh my God. I think I was 14 and he was 24. We’ve known each other most of my life. We just had a lot of mutual friends: my first boyfriend’s sister was married to Jackson. So he’s been a very dear friend through the years and helped us out a great deal with Lighthouse as we got into a bit of a snafu during the mixing. He loaned us his studio and his engineer volunteered to mix for free, and it was a really wonderful experience. Jackson and I had never done any music together, so it was a long time coming (laughs).
DN: Most people probably remember you from when you were with The Cowsills; you were this little girl who shook the tambourine. Tell me about the journey of going from that to The Continental Drifters to the solo alt-country singer/songwriter you are now.
SC: Well, I went to the Alt-Country Singer/Songwriter Store, and I bought this potion…(laughs) The Cowsills broke up for the first time in 1972; I was 12. I never really stopped doing music, per se, but I kept absorbing the music that was around me. I just kind of morphed. When I hooked up with The Continental Drifters in the early ‘90s, I think they had a very big influence [on me], because I hadn’t written any songs until that period. Perhaps living in L.A. in the early ‘90s and singing with Peter Holsapple [of The dB’s], Gary Eaton, and Vicki Peterson is when it happened. Because I didn’t write for many years, I think I was just kind of absorbing everything into the database until it was time for me to spit it back out.
DN: The final song on Lighthouse, “Crescent City Sneaux,” starts off really poignant, but by the end of the song seven minutes later, you all are doing the New Orleans Saints cheer. Tell me a little about the makings of that song.
SC: “Crescent City Sneaux” began its journey about a week after Katrina. We were evacuated to Nashville and our host banned us all from the television and put us all outside every evening around the fire. We were just sittin’ around with instruments in a state of shock, not knowing what was going on and all that good stuff. One night, Russ, my husband/drummer/everything guy, said “I feel like a kite without a string.” And I went “Yeah, that’s a good visual.” When we went to sit down by the fire it all started coming to me; I asked Pat for his telephone so I could record the first few lines. The “Sneaux” part was because it snowed at Christmas the year before Katrina, which was really a wonderful event for the whole city.
And the “Who Dat” at the end, that was [recorded] before we won the Super Bowl, just so you know. The deal is, [Katrina] was all very horrible, but we’re New Orleanians and I felt the need to do that song because we needed to snap out of it. We’re going to be all right. And we are.
DN: Are you a big football fan?
SC: I am a Saints fan. I am not a football fan, but I am a Saints fan, tried and true. I’m a convert, of course.
DN: It helps when you have one of the best and cutest quarterbacks in the NFL, right?
SC: It doesn’t hurt, does it? (Laughs) He’s pretty adorable and a really great guy, too.
DN: You and your band have been doing these Covered in Vinyl shows. What is that about?
SC: It’s a series we’ve been doing for about six years now. We play once a month over at the Carrollton Station, and we take a classic record and cover it from top to bottom as if it were playing. We’re not a tribute band so it isn’t exact renditions—sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t—and it’s been really successful and a very fun way to play in the town every month. You also get a new audience, people who don’t know who you are, but really liked, say, Aerosmith. They come to hear [the covers], and I play an original set at the beginning of the show, so hopefully we get a new fan here and there. Plus we have a couple compilation records out, Covered in Vinyl 1 and 2, which is the best of the shows.
DN: Jumping off that, what were the records that were instrumental to you as an artist?
SC: Karla Bonoff was very influential to me as a writer. Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark was a big coming of age record for me and my girlfriends. Elton John’s self-titled record is up there. James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James, Cat Stevens’ Tea for the Tillerman, and Carly Simon’s No Secrets.
DN: You’ll be in the DC area soon. What can someone expect from a Susan Cowsill show?
SC: You can expect to hear a wonderful new band—it’s about a year old, and just a different crew. Lighthouse has kind of a different musical configuration where it has violins and cellos and pianos, whereas most of what I did before was jangly pop/rock. We’ve got the Craft brothers who provide the strings and piano, and they also alternate on guitars. We have a wonderful bass player Mary LaSang, formerly of Cowboy Mouth; she’s also a really amazing songwriter as well. And of course, Russ. We’ll be playing stuff from the new record and some stuff from Just Believe It. We throw in a couple Continental Drifters songs here and there and a couple of covers. I talk way too much onstage and tell way too many stories. People still come to the shows so I guess it’s okay.
DN: Do you get a lot of folks who were big Cowsills fans from back when?
SC: Absolutely, which is awesome. I do know one Cowsills song, “The Rain, the Park, and Other Things,” which I am able to play and sing, so we usually throw that in for good measure. I really enjoy performing. I love interacting with my audience and I enjoy the giving and receiving of music. It’s one thing to write a song for yourself, which is primarily how and why we write. But when you’re sharing it and hopefully moving someone else, or it helps someone in any way, even if it’s just to make them feel good for a minute, that is, for me, the ultimate goal.