St. Louis Beacon

Susan Cowsill: Reborn again after Katrina, she brings her music to St. Louis
By Terry Perkins, Special to the Beacon
Posted 9:22 am Mon., 06.28.10
Vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Susan Cowsill wasn’t born in New Orleans, but she has made her home therefor the past 17 years. Over that time, Cowsill’s life and music have been profoundly affected by events in her adopted home – especially by the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.susan cowsillPublicity photoCowsill, who performs at Off Broadway Thursday, July 1, as well as at a house concert in the area onWednesday, June 30, recently released her second recording as a leader, “Lighthouse.” The new record isCowsill’s first since her initial solo recording, “Just Believe It,” which came out a few months beforeKatrina swept through New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.As you might expect, the music on “Lighthouse” – and the story of how the recording project evolved –underscore the effects of Katrina’s tragic aftermath and the physical and spiritual rebuilding that havemarked the lives of Cowsill and all of New Orleans over the past few years.Cowsill’s musical roots go back much further than her move to the Big Easy. She made her professionaldebut as a musician in 1968 when she joined her five brothers and mother as a member of the Cowsills.Seven-year-old Susan’s voice fit right in to the family’s tight vocal harmonies and poppy Beach Boysinfluencedsound on hits such as “We Can Fly,” “Indian Lake” and “Hair.” Susan recorded, toured andmade TV appearances with the Cowsills for three more years before the band broke up. Interestingly, thedecline of the popularity of the Cowsills happened at the same time the TV series the group inspired, ThePartridge Family, became a major hit.But Susan Cowsill’s musical career was just beginning. Following high school, she began to make a namefor herself as an in-demand backup vocalist, recording with everyone from Dwight Twilley, Steve Wynnand Jules Shear to Hootie and the Blowfish, Nanci Griffith and Zachary Richard.In 1992, Cowsill and her husband, Peter Holsapple (former member of the legendary power pop band, thedBs), became members of the alt-country band, the Continental Drifters, in Los Angeles. The Driftersrelocated to New Orleans a year later, and Cowsill has made her home there ever since.The Drifters gained considerable critical acclaim for self-released recordings such as the band’s 1994 selftitleddebut, and 1998’s “Vermillion.” But by the time the band finally lined up a recording contract, therun was basically over. Cowsill and Holsapple ended their marriage. She left the band along with drummerRuss Broussard, and the two of them married later on.performances this weekSusan Cowsill performs with her band at Off Broadway, Thursday,July 1 at 8:30 pm. Tickets are $12 in advance and $15 day of show for those over 21. $15 in advance and$18 DOS for under 18. Rough Shop opens.On Wednesday, June 30, Susan plays a House Concert at 8 pm. She and the band will perform the Simonand Garfunkel album, “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme” in its entirety… followed by another set of herown music. A few tickets remain. Go to http://woodhouseconcerts.com for additional info.Cowsill’s first solo recording, 2005’s “Just Believe It,” received high praise across the board for hersongwriting skills and vocal expressiveness. AllMusic.com called “Just Believe It” “… masterful musicfrom a major talent,” and Rolling Stone labeled the CD as “…the heartbreaking sound of a woman in theprime of her singing and songwriting life.”Cowsill and Broussard were on tour promoting the CD when Katrina hit New Orleans, and they soon foundout their house and the belongings were lost. They spent four months living with various friends, beforedeciding to move back in September to enroll their child in school. For Cowsill, the natural answer toKatrina and its harrowing aftermath was to document her emotions through song. But it took four years tofinish many of those songs and record them on “Lighthouse.”“The record definitely took its time in terms of a gestation period,” explains Cowsill during a recent phoneconversation from her home. “It felt to me like having a baby. It was a long haul back from Katrina. Thingsthat used to be simple just weren’t so simple anymore. It was a very weird state of mind. Decision-makingwas very hard to do. For example, if you were low on milk or were out of something else you needed, itseemed like it took hours to decide when you were going to go to the store. And it was that way for fouryears. And it was the same for my songwriting. I was starting songs. But I wasn’t finishing them.”Cowsill also had to deal with the death of one her brothers, Barry Cowsill, who had moved to New Orleansto continue his career in music. Barry stayed in New Orleans after Katrina, but by the time Susan returnedto the city, he was missing. Barry’s body was found in the Mississippi River that December. It’s stillunknown whether he accidentally drowned or committed suicide. For Susan Cowsill, it was another painfuladdition to Katrina’s aftermath. But eventually, healing and rebuilding happened for her and her familyphysically and emotionally – as well as for her music.“After four years, we came to a point where things stabilized, and I felt it was time to get back to work andto record an album,” she states. “We set a deadline and a schedule and made it a priority to take the time tofinish those songs and go from there.” Cowsill’s friend since childhood, Jackson Browne, was instrumentalin adding his assistance to the final mixing and mastering of Lighthouse, helping Susan overcomeproduction delays that seemed to plague the project. Other musical friends such as guitarist Waddy Wachteland Susan’s surviving brothers Bob, Paul and John also contributed to the project.”Jackson and I have been longtime friends. I’ve known him since I was 14. He came to the rescue for us,helping us mix the record and singing on “Avenue of the Indians” as well.”According to Cowsill, “Lighthouse” is not meant as a concept album about Katrina. But it clearly capturesall the pain and depression – as well as the subsequent rebirth and rebuilding of the human spirit thatfollowed. From an understated cover of Jimmy Webb’s “Galveston” to her own songs such as “The WayThat It Goes” and the moving “Crescent City Sneaux,” there is an organic feel to the music that creates aninspired flow.Perhaps the most emotional moment on the CD comes when Susan, her brothers and the band sing “Riverof Love,” a song written by the late Barry Cowsill. They perform it with raw emotion and over the topenergy, building the intensity to a spine-tingling and dramatically moving level. And all the songs on“Lighthouse” seem to capture the essence and energy of life – with its ups and downs, its pain and joy.“I do feel a sense of accomplishment in getting this music recorded and released,” concludes Cowsill.“Writing these songs and recording them helped me feel better. And I hope it will help other people whowent through it personally or had friends who went through it feel better as well. Now going out to playthese songs live and share them is the focus for me.”

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer who has long covered the St. Louis music scene. To reach him, contactBeacon features and commentary editor Donna Korando.

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