Susan Cowsill returns to form after Katrina with Lighthouse

By Roy Kasten Wednesday, Jun 30 2010

Though only 51, Susan Cowsill‘s musical life spans four decades — from her childhood with the family band, the Cowsills, to her solo career and backup work in the ’70s and ’80s, and from her storied collaborations with the Continental Drifters to her own resurgence as a solo artist once again. Cowsill survived the hurricane that devastated her New Orleans home and has returned this year with Lighthouse, a confident but reflective album that’s as musically satisfying as anything she’s ever cut. B-Sides reached Cowsill at her home in the Crescent City for a conversation about her musical beginnings and the context for her latest project.

Susan Cowsill
8:30 p.m. Thursday, July 1.
Off Broadway, 3509 Lemp Avenue.
21-plus: $12 in advance, $15 day of show. Under 21: $15 in advance, $18 day of show. 314-773-3363.

b-Sides: Do you remember your earliest attempt at songwriting?

There was one song that I wrote for a friend who had passed away, but my first real, decent song was “The Rain Song,” which I did with the Continental Drifters. I say that’s my first song.

Was that a case where the band said, “OK, Susan, you have to pull your own weight here and write a song”?

In a way, but fortunately it was a little more loving than that. They were the first people to encourage me to write songs and learn an instrument. I was just a singer, but they said, “Come on, you come from a world of music and your brothers write.” But because I couldn’t play an instrument, I couldn’t write a song. The Drifters were very inspirational in that way, encouraging me to do it.

Tell me about Threadheads, the nonprofit that funded your new album.

We lovingly refer to it as a record company, but they’re not. They’re a group of people who had come to know each other as Jazz Fest fans. It was like a club. They’d come down to Jazz Fest from all over the country, and they came up with this idea to ask local bands to play parties they’d have. Paul Sanchez from Cowboy Mouth kicked off the whole idea. They asked him when his band would have another record. He said the band was broke and homeless after Katrina. So they said, “What if you had the money?” So that’s the origin. The handshake deal. It’s donational with the intention of being paid back. They loan it to you, and then you pay it back and donate 10 percent of what you borrowed to the Musicians’ Clinic in New Orleans. You own your own record after that. It’s a real labor of love.

Did it feel different recording the record because of that?

Without a doubt. There was no pressure from a record company, having to have it at a certain time, and knowing in the back of your mind that the label is getting a piece of the cake they’re not baking. The Threadheads thing is different. You’re beholden to them, but you want to be. It was a feeling of great gratitude, wanting it to be special for them.

The title of the new record and the title song, “Lighthouse,” could be ironic. In New Orleans, during Katrina, a lighthouse wouldn’t have helped.

My partner and husband, Russ Broussard, we were talking about our evacuation days, when we were out for four months in our Kia Sedona. We were looking for something to help us get home. And if we weren’t going home, we didn’t know where we were going or what we were doing. Russ said something about a lighthouse. That was the deal. We needed something to follow, something to set our sights on that would lead us back to where we were supposed to be.

Susan Cowsill returns to form after Katrina with Lighthouse

Though only 51, Susan Cowsill‘s musical life spans four decades — from her childhood with the family band, the Cowsills, to her solo career and backup work in the ’70s and ’80s, and from her storied collaborations with the Continental Drifters to her own resurgence as a solo artist once again. Cowsill survived the hurricane that devastated her New Orleans home and has returned this year with Lighthouse, a confident but reflective album that’s as musically satisfying as anything she’s ever cut. B-Sides reached Cowsill at her home in the Crescent City for a conversation about her musical beginnings and the context for her latest project.

Susan Cowsill: All grown up.

Walden Pond Press
Susan Cowsill: All grown up.

Details

Susan Cowsill
8:30 p.m. Thursday, July 1.
Off Broadway, 3509 Lemp Avenue.
21-plus: $12 in advance, $15 day of show. Under 21: $15 in advance, $18 day of show.
314-773-3363.

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B-Sides: Do you remember your earliest attempt at songwriting?

There was one song that I wrote for a friend who had passed away, but my first real, decent song was “The Rain Song,” which I did with the Continental Drifters. I say that’s my first song.

Was that a case where the band said, “OK, Susan, you have to pull your own weight here and write a song”?

In a way, but fortunately it was a little more loving than that. They were the first people to encourage me to write songs and learn an instrument. I was just a singer, but they said, “Come on, you come from a world of music and your brothers write.” But because I couldn’t play an instrument, I couldn’t write a song. The Drifters were very inspirational in that way, encouraging me to do it.

Tell me about Threadheads, the nonprofit that funded your new album.

We lovingly refer to it as a record company, but they’re not. They’re a group of people who had come to know each other as Jazz Fest fans. It was like a club. They’d come down to Jazz Fest from all over the country, and they came up with this idea to ask local bands to play parties they’d have. Paul Sanchez from Cowboy Mouth kicked off the whole idea. They asked him when his band would have another record. He said the band was broke and homeless after Katrina. So they said, “What if you had the money?” So that’s the origin. The handshake deal. It’s donational with the intention of being paid back. They loan it to you, and then you pay it back and donate 10 percent of what you borrowed to the Musicians’ Clinic in New Orleans. You own your own record after that. It’s a real labor of love.

Did it feel different recording the record because of that?

Without a doubt. There was no pressure from a record company, having to have it at a certain time, and knowing in the back of your mind that the label is getting a piece of the cake they’re not baking. The Threadheads thing is different. You’re beholden to them, but you want to be. It was a feeling of great gratitude, wanting it to be special for them.

The title of the new record and the title song, “Lighthouse,” could be ironic. In New Orleans, during Katrina, a lighthouse wouldn’t have helped.

My partner and husband, Russ Broussard, we were talking about our evacuation days, when we were out for four months in our Kia Sedona. We were looking for something to help us get home. And if we weren’t going home, we didn’t know where we were going or what we were doing. Russ said something about a lighthouse. That was the deal. We needed something to follow, something to set our sights on that would lead us back to where we were supposed to be.

6 Responses to Susan Cowsill returns to form after Katrina with Lighthouse
  1. Doug Prewitt
    July 3, 2010 | 5:08 pm

    Will you be in the Indy, Ind. area.

  2. John Doheny
    July 8, 2010 | 3:38 pm

    Hi Susan,

    Just dropping you a line to say hello. I figured it was about time, since we’ve been living in the same town for about seven years now. I knew your brother Bill pretty well up in Vancouver, through most of the bad days, and some of the good.

    Small world, huh?

    John Doheny.

  3. David Modlin
    July 11, 2010 | 3:38 pm

    Susan Cowsill is great. What a warm and loving soul. I have seen her perform twice with her brothers at two concerts 38 years and two continents apart. I had the pleasure of meeting Susan a couple of years ago at a Cowsills show in North Carolina. She was fun, friendly and genuine. I’m glad she has a new album. Her previous two(Just Believe It and Covered in Vinyl)are excellent. I’m looking forward to more great music from her.

  4. Diane Semmling
    July 14, 2010 | 10:05 pm

    Dear Susan, I just read your interview in Wood & Steel, and I just got sent home or demobilized by virtue of a negative Page 7,from NOLA & the bayou by the Coast Guard. I guess that is what happens when you take your 314-CE on Title 10 Coast Guard Reserve Deepwater Horizon mobilization. Anyway, the guitar kept me sane and extra baggage was authorized.

    I spent many a day in personnel staging in Kenner & my best Coast Guard buddy & I took the Veterans Ave bus & trolley into the French Quarter on 11 JUN 2010. Upon our return, I wrote “No L. A.” on the bus. This is a love song to my fellow Marine Science Technician Chief & Sector NY Coast Guard Reservist. While on the Canal Street trolley, he listened patiently & sympathetically to a veteran “Young old man” who still “reeled from Katrina’s force”.

    The quantity of fasteners(nails, screws, sheetrock screws, roofing nails) in the gutter of your streets left over from Katrina flabbergasted me, and I waged a one-woman campaign to pick them up. May I suggest you pick them up and give them away as you tour—they tell a story as well as any 4 chords.

    It looks like my 4 minutes is up. Peace, Diane

  5. DJ Castellon
    July 25, 2010 | 2:43 pm

    The music sounds fantastic Susan and Russ…but of course, it was expected to be. You guys are like the best!

  6. Yasmine Laiben
    April 13, 2011 | 4:54 pm

    I’m just glad to hear band of brothers 8 is on the way man! Can’t get enough

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