Providence Journal

Hit It: Susan Cowsill channels emotions of loss into her work
01:00 AM EDT on Thursday, October 21, 2010
By Rick massimo
journal pop music writer

Susan Cowsill lost a lot the past few years, and you can hear not only the loss but the hopeful beginnings of the recovery process on her latest disc, “Lighthouse,” which came out this spring.

Cowsill, a Newport native who started her career at age 8 with the hit-making family group The Cowsills, and her husband, drummer Russ Broussard, lost their New Orleans home in Hurricane Katrina; her brother Barry Cowsill also died in the storm, and her brother Bill died at his home in Canada several months later.

And while “Lighthouse” occasionally references the storm directly on songs such as “ONOLA” and “Crescent City Sneaux” (the latter a single that’s been out for a while), the losses are noted mostly in the album’s overall tone of bittersweet reminiscence alternating with the resolve to find a new way (“Could This Be Home,” “The Way That It Goes”).

“Loss is not new,” Cowsill says. “What package it comes in looks different day to day and year to year, but loss is a big part of the human experience, and it’s what we do with it and how we transfer it into something positive [that matters].”

Cowsill says that writing and recording the disc was a cathartic process, “which was due,” but it also hit her harder than she thought it would. “It was like putting yourself in therapy without realizing that that’s what you were doing.”

“I’ve made a lot of records, and [I thought] ‘well, it’s just some songs, and we’re going to make another record.’ ” She had started the songs at various times in “the journey of the previous four years” before the January 2009 recording process, but finishing them, particularly in a bunch, “conjured up a lot of the emotions that had gone on. And the recording of it was some sort of ceremonial, symbolic laying to rest of it all.”

That’s clearest on “River of Love,” a sweet, simple mid-tempo rocker of devotion that Barry Cowsill had written, that Susan Cowsill recorded not only at home, where the disc of the disc was done, but also in Los Angeles with her brothers Bob, Paul and John, as well as sister-in-law Vicki Peterson (formerly of The Bangles and Cowsill’s former band, The Continental Drifters) and session guitar ace Waddy Wachtel, who used to play with The Cowsills. The whole process, Cowsill says, was “awesome” and “much better than I could have hoped for.”

The story of the Cowsill family is coming to the screen in the form of a documentary, and Cowsill calls the film “quite a sweet and bitter journey” that tells an important story about the family band whose hits included “The Rain, The Park and Other Things,” “Indian Lake” and “Hair.” “We had a hand in the shifting of musical history. And we were also an American family.”

In the meantime, she’s touring the East Coast and heading up for a Southern New England doubleheader.

Playing in the area is “one of favorite things in the whole world to do,” particularly in the fall, she says, inquiring about the current foliage situation. “New Orleans is my adopted soul home, but Rhode Island is my nucleus. It is where everything that I am comes from.”

The Susan Cowsill Band plays at the Narrows Center for the Arts, 16 Anawan St., Fall River, Saturday night at 8, with The Mark Cutler Band opening; call (508) 324-1926 or go to www.ncfta.org. They also play Sunday night at the Knickerbocker Café, 35 Railroad Ave., Westerly, Sunday night at 7; call (401) 315-5070 or go to www.theknickerbockercafe.com.

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