The Bluegrass Special

TheBluegrassSpecial.com Interview
Susan Cowsill
Comes A Reckoning
On Lighthouse, finding the balance of life, embracing the strength of love

By David McGee

The post-Katrina Susan Cowsill: ‘I’m older, wiser, more familiar with the deepest level of heartbreak that can actually exist than I ever was before. I’m more resilient, less resilient, more grateful. Am I a little better at finding the moment and nailing it down to a comprehensive piece of music that might transfer to somebody else? Maybe so. That would be a nice little perk, wouldn’t it?’ (Photo: Catherine Carter)

When Susan Cowsill was a little girl growing up in a “giant big house” in Newport, Rhode Island, she could see, beyond her window, a lighthouse signaling through the night. Every so often she would check on it to be sure it was still working. It became, she recalls, a metaphor for safety, “it looked out for me while I slept at night.”

In 2005, as she was in Tulsa, Oklahoma, recording with her ex-boyfriend/long-time friend Dwight Twilley, Cowsill received a call from her husband and musical collaborator, Russ Broussard, urging her to re-route her trip back to their New Orleans home and go instead to Nashville, where he was heading and would meet her. A hurricane had hit the Crescent City, and Broussard knew it was time to get out while he could. Cowsill and Broussard lost pretty much everything in terms of material possessions to Hurricane Katrina, and something more: Cowsill’s brother, Barry, on the eve of entering a drug rehab facility in New Orleans, went missing, and turned up months later, a drowning victim, although the circumstances of his death remain a mystery, as he had left his sister several voice mails indicating he was at a friend’s house and safe as Katrina blew through. The day before Barry’s funeral, she learned that her oldest brother, Bill, had succumbed to illness in Calgary, where he had made his home for many years and had been a key member of a legendary Canadian band, The Blue Shadows.


(photo: Steve Forester/The Times-Picayune Arch
ive)

Against this backdrop, Cowsill went to work—not promoting a new album, Just Believe It, she was ready to release, but reclaiming her and her family’s life, and coming to grips with another tragedy, the death of brothers to whom she had be so close, who had helped guide her through the tumult of the Cowsills family band’s heady days as pop stars in the ‘60s and who had remained confidantes, indeed, beacons— human lighthouses, in effect–for her. Slowly, in bits and pieces, songs began to emerge from Cowsill; songs that had ever reason to be bitter screeds at fate’s cruel blow, but instead took the measure of her entire life, peaks and valleys alike, and in her self-inventory wondered at the persistence of love, the strength of love, the test of love, as she had experienced it since becoming a household name in the Cowsills as an eight-year-old sitting on Dean Martn’s lap in one TV special, holding hands and singing a gospel tune with Johnny Cash on the Man in Black’s show, doing the old soft shoe with Buddy Ebsen on a Cowsills TV show. She reflected on Barry’s and Bill’s strength and wisdom, extolled their special relationship, and grieved for them (“Lighthouse,” “Dragon Flys,” “Avenue of the Indians”). She reserved a special prayer of grace, gratitude and revival for her beloved New Orleans (an updated version of her 2004 song inspired by a Christmas snow in New Orleans, “Crescent City Snow,” retitled “Crescent City Sneaux” and dedicated to the Katrina survivors). These traces of love developed into fully realized songs over time, and now comprise the finest body of work in Cowsills’ estimable career, a bonafide classic of an album titled Lighthouse, replete with tough rock ‘n’ roll (the aforementioned album opening, “Dragon Flys”); a country-tinged tune here and there (“Sweet Bitter End”); tender, lilting, philosophical sighs (“The Way That It Goes”); pastoral, rustic-flavored love songs (“You and Me Baby”); a mission statement, soaring, triumphant and roaring (“River of Love”) that reunites her with her siblings in glorious harmony—even a stirring, stripped down, slightly melancholy torch-style take on Jimmy Webb’s “Galveston,” an admitted statement of solidarity addressed to the victims of Hurricane Rita.



Funny, articulate, self-aware and self-assured, 51-year-old Susan Cowsill withholds nothing in interviews, and delights in the give and take. Her career has spanned 44 years, and she will be the first to tell you she’s seen it all and done it all. A pop star at age eight (she was nine when she cut her first recorded lead vocal, on the chirpy, uplifting “Ask the Children” from the Cowsills’ 1968 Wes Farrell-produced Captain Sad & His Ship of Fools album, which yielded one of the ‘60s great singles, “Indian Lake”), she left the family home at age 12 to escape her violent, sexually abusive father, Bud (“a complete alcoholic monster” according to guitarist and family friend Waddy Wachtel, who played on Cowsills sessions and is on Susan’s new album), and took up residence with her brother Paul in California. Two years laterk, at 14, she moved in with a boyfriend. A solo deal with Warner Bros. in 1976 produced only two singles, but she secured steady work as a backup singer for the likes of Dwight Twilley (which led to a long-term romance), Carlene Carter, and The Smithereens. In 1991 she began a fruitful tenure with the Continental Drifters, which allowed her to showcase original songs that had taken a decidedly introspective, country-folk turn. One of her Continental Drifters partners, former Bangle Vicki Peterson, joined Cowsill in a duo for awhile, dubbed The Psycho Sisters; Peterson later married Susan’s brother John, and is reunited musically with Susan on Lighthouse; another of her Continental Drifters partners, former dB Peter Holsapple, became her husband and father of their daughter, Miranda. Holsapple and Cowsill moved to New Orleans in 1991 and divorced ten years later. After Katrina, Holsapple returned to his home state of North Carolina, and Cowsill remained in New Orleans until Katrina forced her and Broussard (whom she married in 2003) into four months of nomad wandering around the country before they finally settled in Nashville.

Periodically through the years the Cowsills band has reunited for touring or recording purposes, or both. The post-hitmaking years have produced genuine but compelling oddities, such as the aborted 1978 album project titled Cocaine Drain (after the John Hall-penned title track), which was thought lost until Bob Cowsill recovered the lone acetate of the sessions, remastered it, added extra tracks and released it in 2008. Although she admits the title runs counter to the Cowsills’ clean-cut image, she will further confess: “I was a young, emancipated minor in southern California. I was doing every possible drug available at the time. But that’s not why that record was called that. There’s a lot of kooky stuff on that album.” In 1999 the Cowsills resurfaced on record,in memorable fashion. The Fleetwood Mac-influenced album Global is a pop-rock gem, very much a logical progression from the complex harmonies and fanciful arrangements the Cowsills employed on record in the ‘60s, almost flawless in execution and conception, with inspired performances and tunes both. It received some favorable reviews upon its release, but never gained any commercial traction, the band did not support it with a tour of any kind, and it now occupies the exalted ranks forgotten classics—vinyl versions of Global sell for up to $260 on Amazon.

So the past is prelude; the new album is a reckoning with a lifetime’s experiences. Prior to a rehearsal for her impending Lighthouse tour, Cowsill sat down for TheBluegrassSpecial.com Interview, to take up some of the matters noted above as well as “the series of events to end all series of events” that led to the creation of Lighthouse, a landmark moment for a gifted artist who undeniably has come a long way, baby.

***

The Susan Cowsill band, ‘Dragon Flys,’ from the new album, Lighthouse. This performance was recorded at the Folk Alliance in Memphis, 2009. Written by Susan and her husband, Russ Broussard (the drummer in her band), the song is inspired by Susan’s brother Barry, who drowned in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Set the stage for this album. Where were you, what were you doing when Katrina hit, and were you aware of Barry’s whereabouts at that time?

Susan Cowsill: Okay, I was in Oklahoma, Tulsa, Oklahoma. For a couple of years I lived in Tulsa. I was there recording with my ex-boyfriend but long-time friend Dwight Twilley. So I had gone there to work on a record with him and do a show with him, just because we also make music together. Then I was scheduled to go home on Sunday, and my husband Russ and I were going to drive to Nashville to do some shows. So that’s where I was.

We had no clue we even had a hurricane coming, because I had left on Thursday and I just hadn’t watched any news before I left. Somebody said something about a hurricane, but they come and go all the time in New Orleans; I didn’t pay any attention. Then finally my husband called me on Sunday, early morning, and said, “Babe, I gotta get outta here.” And I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “Have you watched any TV?” “No, I’ve been in the studio for three days. No, I haven’t.” He said, “This isn’t good. I gotta get outta here and you can’t come home.” And I’m like, “Whatta ya mean?” “You have to re-route yourself and go ahead to Nashville and I’ll meet you up there.”


Barry Cowsill

And Barry was home. I knew where he was, and Russ knew where he was, but he had gone to stay with a friend down in the warehouse district and kinda was on his own with his friend. His friend tried to get him to leave on Sunday, and he refused to go. He had a ticket out on Monday; he was getting ready to go into a MusicCares rehab facility, because he was at his breaking point finally, thank goodness. I knew he was home. I didn’t know that he wasn’t planning on going but I knew he had gone to stay with his friend.

So Russ left on that Sunday and drove to Nashville, and I flew into Nashville on that Sunday, and then Monday everything went down.

And it was months later before you found out what happened to Barry, correct?

Susan: Yeah, we found out on January 4. August, September, October, November, December. Yeah.

Was there any doubt in your mind that he perished in the hurricane? I’ve read online reports that he died under mysterious circumstances.

Susan: They are mysterious, and he did not perish in the hurricane. He had left messages on my cell phone that I did not receive until the next Thursday, because all of our cell phones were not functioning. But he was able to leave messages, and he was calling from a land line. He was leaving messages on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. So he had made it through the hurricane. It was the breaching of the levees, not the hurricane, that was the demise of our city. That’s clear. But he had made it through the first leg of it. And there are mysterious circumstances, but what we do know is that he drowned and we don’t know how. I’ve got my own take on it, but we’ll never know for certain. It’s one of those things I guess you don’t get to know until the end of the show and then someone will reveal all.

So you were in Tulsa recording with Dwight, but you had a new album, Just Believe It, ready to come out.

Susan: Just Believe It came out less than a month after the hurricane struck. So what was in the plans was a great promotion and a big tour, and all that kind of stuff behind Just Believe It. We had been working on Just Believe It for two years leading up to the big event known as the hurricane. So it was a gigantic disappointment. We were nomading for four months because we couldn’t go home. So we just stayed in our Kia Sedona. Our children were settled elsewhere, going to schools and trying to get a semblance of a normal life while we all waited to see when and if we were going home. So we went on a mini-tour that was already scheduled, because we had nothing else to do, although we had to borrow equipment. People were sending us equipment from all over the place, because all of our stuff was gone. We didn’t have anything to tour with. My friend Jackson Browne overnighted me a guitar and an amp. Our friend Johnny Franklin found Russ a drum kit. It was crazy. But we only did a couple of weeks because, quite honestly, Rita hit not long after, and our record company was stationed in Texas. It just fell apart at the seams, everything, in every way, shape and form. Once everything went down, I didn’t have the wherewithal to keep up with what was going on with the record. As important as Just Believe It was to Russ and I–we had spent every dime we had on it and two years in making it and it was everything–that went away when we couldn’t find my brother and we couldn’t go home and our children were displaced and living elsewhere.

Did you wind up losing everything in New Orleans?

Susan: Everything except what was in a very small apartment upstairs where we stored all of our belongings. We lived in a two-story, but downstairs was just a very large garage that had all of Russ’s and my belongings in it. We had an apartment up from that, and it was very small. We had a couch and TV in the living room, the kids had their beds and chests of drawers. Anything minimal that we could fit up there we did; then all of our stuff was downstairs–our equipment, our family heirlooms, our family photos, just everything else that one has. It all went away. Five, six feet of water.

Then for four months Russ and I just drove around. We stayed in Nashville with the McLaughlins for awhile; we stayed in Pennsylvania with the Franklins; we stayed in Indiana with the Cohens. We would go back to Lafayette every so often and check in with my in-laws and Russ’s family. We just drove around for four months. It was an enforced vacation–we call it the “evacu-cation.” Finally, we heard in December that our childrens’ school was going to be opening in January. So we stayed in Lafayette, then would drive down to New Orleans to house hunt in December, to get a home for when January rolled around. We did find a place, brought the kids home on January 3, got the phone call about Barry on January 4. It was screwed up.

So how and when did this album start forming? Did you start writing with the idea of coming to grips not only with Katrina but really with what’s happened in your life with your relationship with your brothers and family? Was that part of the inspiration?

Susan: It certainly wasn’t anything intentional. Everything that happened was a knee-jerk reaction to what was happening. Every lyric, every musical moment, was just my body, brain, heart and soul reacting to what was going on at any given moment. I would write down whatever came to me as I was tooling along down the road, but I never finished anything. It was just bits and pieces of songs for about four years. Then finally, it was really hard for a lot of us from home to get ourselves pulled back together, to get organized, to get direction back, to get the ability to make decisions back–just your basic post-traumatic distress disorder. Then at one point Russ just said, “Look, if we don’t give ourselves a deadline to get back to making another record, we’ll never do it.” And so we did. And the Threadheads came about at that time; they were instrumental in that. They’re the non-profit organization/record company that funded Lighthouse. And we just went ahead and set a time and a date. I sat down with this myriad of pieces of paper and notebooks that I had been writing in over the previous four years, and said, “Okay, time to collect everything up and get back into the space”–and it was very easy to do–“and finish these songs, finish these feelings. Get it done once and for all.”

Did you see in these bits and pieces of lyrics that a theme was developing, a connecting thread tying things together?

Susan: Oh, yeeaahh. Sure. Had I done it intentionally I probably wouldn’t have done it. I didn’t mean to write the record it is. Yeah, there’s a connecting theme–it’s trying to figure out where you are, who you are, where you’re going and what happened to where you were, and where everything went–who, what, where, how, when of the whole enchilada. Everything that comes with it–the goodness too, and there’s plenty of goodness. But as I sit back, even as I’m doing these interviews, and as I relisten to Lighthouse, I have to say that yeah, it’s the storm, but it’s life–certainly is my life, of finding things and losing things again, of getting the strength to, as Jackson Browne once said, get up and do it again. You just gotta keep finding a way to get back into the ring, or into the flow of life. Seize what’s good and what’s left and acknowledge the goodness that came from all of this experience, because there is plenty of it.

In that respect, the first time I listened to the record and got to the title song, which is kind of deep into the album, a lyric jumped out at me as having two themes emerging from it that seem crucial to understanding the whole of the album. The lyric is: “I set out on this lonesome ride/I did it on my own/searching for a million years/for where do I belong/but always deep in the night/I can still feel the light/look for me, follow me/my lighthouse, my lighthouse.” The two themes being both your personal journey–from childhood, the personal odyssey from then to today–

Susan: You got it.

And the other theme being the strength of someone’s love–maybe it’s Barry’s, I don’t know if you’re addressing him–but someone’s love is a guiding force in your life. Am I making too much of this?

Susan: No, you’re right on it. It’s the cumulative love; the universal love that has always helped me through. I’m not a Bible thumper and I don’t subscribe to any organized religion, but my spiritual self knows that there is a God in the universe that ultimately, if you look to it and trust it, it’s going to care of you. You care for it and it will care for you back. The lighthouse really did exist–there was one right down on the water near my giant big house in Newport, Rhode Island. And when I was young, I would check on it every once in awhile, make sure it was still on, had a little kid fantasy that that was my light, it looked out for me while I slept at night. It wasn’t planned to have that song, or even that title; everything just morphed. That song came late in the game of the record; it wasn’t something I had written early on in the journey. Russ and I were kicking around ideas for album titles, because none of the songs were making any sense to me to have as a title. I don’t know what came up, but we were talking about our journey, and the word “lighthouse” came up and I went, “Wow, that’s a pretty cool vision, which reminds me have I ever told you about this little lighthouse?” And he was like, “No, not ever.” “Yeah, it was just my little trip, you know.” And what a metaphor for our four months out there driving around waiting for the signal that says “Okay. Come back. Here we are. It’s safe to come back here.” Then the lyrics came afterwards. I had the piano part that I had been playing for years; I’m not a piano player, it was just something I’d doodled with when I sat down at the piano. I was wondering if I could write a piano song. Then the lyrics came, and then the whole thing, but it happened so beautifully. I thought, This is crazy. This music has been sitting around for fifteen, twenty years, that this word would come up, my memory of something I used as my own childhood metaphor of safety–it just all came together in this huge thing. And you are absolutely right in that it summed up my whole life, never mind the last four years.

The Susan Cowsill Band, ‘The Way That It Goes,’ from the new album, Lighthouse, live at the Folk Alliance, Memphis, TN, 2009. ‘We make all these huge plans, and we think we know what’s gonna go on and we put it all into a neat, tidy little bottle and say, ‘This is how it’s gonna be,’ and when it doesn’t happen that way we flip out and go, ‘Oh, my God, what happened?!’ That’s not how life is. It’s okay; it’s a journey, and if you don’t put too much emphasis on your destination, you can actually enjoy your ride, whatever it brings.’

One of the songs that struck me as being the product of real healing is “The Way That It Goes,” which counsels accepting the uncertainty of each day, making the most of basically each breath you take. It this a philosophical place you’ve arrived at in the aftermath of Katrina and Barry’s death, or does it reflect a view you’ve always held?

Susan: Well, it’s kind of funny because that was a song I started just before Katrina. Started–like really early, meager beginnings. I think there was a chorus–“that’s the way that it goes/that’s the way that it goes.” Here we were, planning our Just Believe It tour, and we ran into a lot of obstacles getting Just Believe It done, and it didn’t come out at the time we wanted it to, and it didn’t come out necessarily with the record company we had maybe hoped for, and the universe was having a laugh on us. We make all these huge plans, and we think we know what’s gonna go on and we put it all into a neat, tidy little bottle and say, “This is how it’s gonna be,” and when it doesn’t happen that way we flip out and go, “Oh, my God, what happened?!” That’s not how life is. So it was started, maybe a few lines and just the music, and when I sat back down with it, I thought, Well, how do you like this? So maybe it was even slightly prophetic in its early stages, then it became quite clear that were in a much larger capacity of we don’t know what’s going to happen, and you just better prepare yourself for the unexpected. Then you’ll be alright. Then you can kind of embrace it. It’s okay; it’s a journey, and if you don’t put too much emphasis on your destination, you can actually enjoy your ride, whatever it brings.

In a Huffington Post interview you made a reference to the music being how you saved yourself, and that wasn’t even a reference to the experience that produced Lighthouse. It was a general statement. When I heard about this record for the first time, in a press release that emphasized it was a product of Katrina and the losses personal and otherwise you had experienced, my first thought was, It’s probably going to be a terrific record because she’s a wonderful artist, writes great songs and so forth. But I also thought it could be tough to get through–you don’t know what to expect when you haven’t heard it. But when I came out on the other end of it, I realized, She’s not a fatalist.

Susan: No. Fortunately what I’m hearing is that everybody is getting the bright side of what this all is. At the end of the day, what are you gonna make of it–the lemon-lemonade routine, you know. It really is to me. That’s my choice.

The mood, ultimately, through the whole record is really elevating, spiritually bracing even. You may not subscribe to any religion, but there’s a spirituality here I hope people can recognize for what it is.

Susan: Absolutely. Yes. And that’s important. The core of my and my husband’s very being is that this is a gift. It’s got a planetary beginning, middle and end. I think embracing it and finding that there’s so much awesomeness in it, and almost feeling privileged to experience the not-so-pleasant aspects of it–because you’re really having a full adventure, aren’t you?–is the gift.

When you were in the midst of this; when you didn’t know when you could go back to New Orleans, when you didn’t know what had happened to your brother; everything was a question mark, did you have this perspective on it?

’Were there some dark moments? Without a doubt. Huge. Black as night.’
Susan: Sure, in and out or I wouldn’t be speaking with you. I had to have that perspective at some point during the process or I wouldn’t be here, okay? But were there incredible valleys en route to the mountain? Sure. Unbelievable. Absolutely. I’m so grateful somebody had our children so that we could really feel what we needed to feel without trying to protect them. It was horrific from time to time. When the good news came, the good news was so uplifting; when the bad news came it was like, “Holy crap.” I’ve always been someone who wanted to get back up the mountain to see the view. I’ve seen many valleys; it’s just not new to me. That probably has a lot to do with how I’ve come out of it, and my husband, too. When you have a life that isn’t just handed to you–I don’t think anybody does, frankly–I don’t know anybody who didn’t just experience some stuff and that is life, the life you’re living. But were there some dark moments? Without a doubt. Huge. Black as night.

The songs are really written from a personal perspective, things you’ve experienced, and we know what mistakes were made in terms of the levees’ flawed construction that magnified the tragedy. You don’t write political songs, that’s not what this is about, and I’m certainly not fishing here for you to start bashing anybody politically, but I wonder if there is any residual anger over why this happened down there and your brother being one of its victims?

Susan: Absolutely, there is. I haven’t yet written any political songs, but who knows? Political, that’s one way to look at it. I don’t care for injustice in any way, shape or form, and to be perfectly honest, on one of my black-as-night days, I can tell you that my brother might be alive had our Federal government and its Administration, and our commander-in-chief at the time, gotten their asses in there a little sooner than five days later. In a large way. They were late, too late for a lot of people, and that pisses me off to no end. Then of course there’s the lack of proper construction of those levees that remains a problem to this day, and that’s local government and Federal; it’s all over the board. Yeah, it pisses me off, it pisses me off right now. If it happened again we’d still be screwed. Now we have this oil spill. I have to release all my records, David, during Federally motivated natural disasters–that’s my new thing; you can quote me. I am the queen of releasing records under Federally motivated natural disasters. I don’t know what my next one could possibly be, but it will be interesting to find out.

But here’s the deal: I’m not buckling under on this one. I’m ready for it. Lighthouse means way too much to us, and not just on a personal note that I made this, dammit, and you’re gonna listen to it. My biggest hope comes from a service area in that there are a lot of people who go through a lot of crap in their lives, and it doesn’t have to be Federally motivated natural disasters; it can just be a personal incident. If can uplift just one person, then it’s a much richer life I’m living here doing what I do. I can take anything now. Katrina was a little bit of a shock, but after that there’s nothing you can throw at any of us, really, from NOLA, so I’m persevering through this record, not crawling under anything. Bring it on, man!

For me personally, and I’ll tell you I was a huge fan of the Cowsills family band back in the day–

Susan: Sweet.

There was a soaring, triumphant moment for me on this album when I got to “River of Love”–not only for the message of enduring love that it advances, but obviously you bring your brothers back on that track. The Cowsills harmonies are there in full force. I was listening to the Cowsills’ Captain Sad album the other day. You remember that one?

Susan: Sure!

And marveling again at how great the harmony singing was, and how intricate some of those harmony parts were–

Susan: Yes!

And you hear that on “River of Love.” Time and age has not diminished that ability of the Cowsills to sing great harmony. It’s a wonderful moment on this record.

Susan: I’m so glad that you love it. And yeah–we’re better than we ever were. The Cowsills still sing, quite a bit. That was a no-brainer having them sing on it with me, and my sister-in-law Vicki Peterson. Then we even had our very long time sweet friend, who was best friends with my brother Bill, Waddy Wachtel, play some guitar on it. Barry thought the world of Waddy, one of his heroes. It was a real sweet, conglomerate, musical moment for everybody involved. Everybody kind of got some healing out of it, and that’s kinda what the music’s about, if you ask me.

Susan Cowsill, ‘Crescent City Sneaux,’ from her new album, Lighthouse. Reflective and strong, the song embraces the album’s principal themes of resilience, frank personal inventory and enduring love–for a fallen city and sibling both. Quiet and introspective in parts, roaring and anguished in others, ‘Crescent City Sneaux’ weaves Lighthouse’s multiple narrative arcs into a stirring benediction at album’s end. A triumph throughout, both musical and personal, for an artist who has experienced most of the peaks and valleys a soul can absorb.

You have songs that are directly addressed to your brother, to New Orleans, but you also have a low-key, poignant, acoustic cover of Jimmy Webb’s “Galveston,” one of my favorite songs. This is a really terrific rendition. Is it there to show some solidarity with the hurricane victims on that coast?

Susan: The choice of the song was definitely a solidarity move. But I usually do a cover on whatever record I’m doing, even Continental Drifters, and on Just Believe It I did “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” by Sandy Denny. I knew I wanted to do a cover, and Jimmy Webb is one of my all-time favorite guy composers. I toyed with “Wichita Lineman,” but as this record evolved to what it became, then I realized, well, Galveston got it, so that’s a no-brainer too. Anything Jimmy does I love. All you gotta do is look for the signs, and they will present themselves. If you follow them, generally, you’re going down the right path.

But your arrangement is about 180 degrees from what Glen Campbell did. Did you always hear it as a bit of a torch song?

Susan: No, some songs I just want them to sound like the record that I loved so much, so I want to hear it only with me singing lead! In a lot of cases, too, I feel if you’re going to cover something, bringing something of your own to it can really be fun, especially for a listener who’s heard the song a million times. I think I was feeling pretty somber in general, and that just seemed like the way to roll. So I took a poll–“do you want to hear it faster or slower?” And most wanted to hear a kind of raucous version. I tried it, but it didn’t feel true, so I went with this, which just felt great to me.

There are a couple of things with a little country flavor, too. I know you’ve done that periodically throughout your solo years, but you could really convince somebody you got a flair for country, gal. You know?

Susan: Well, I do enjoy it! I really, honestly do. I’m not opposed to having my next career have a country element to it, a little more officially. It just comes out of me. If I could actually say I did it on purpose and knew what I was doing, I’d probably be able to pay my rent each month on time. But I don’t. It just comes out of me the way it comes out of me, and all those elements are just there. I don’t know where they came from.

And this bluesy edge your voice has taken on is very seductive.

Susan: And where did that come from??? I don’t even know what that’s about. I feel like I’m this science project that keeps morphing; like “The Fly,” he keeps turning into the fly and he can’t stop it and doesn’t know what’s happening.

Yeah, there’s definitely a ‘50s sci-film happening in your life.

Susan: Yeah, the pod people. What a funny thought!

Susan Cowsill performs ‘The Rain, The Park & Other Things’ with her band, at South by Southwest 2010

How are you different now than before Katrina and before your brothers’ deaths?

Susan: I’m older, wiser, more familiar with the deepest level of heartbreak that can actually exist than I ever was before. I’m more resilient, less resilient, more grateful. Am I a little better at finding the moment and nailing it down to a comprehensive piece of music that might transfer to somebody else? Maybe so. That would be a nice little perk, wouldn’t it? We have a little thing in my house called “The Good Things from Katrina.” And there are some: number one on my childrens’ list–cell phones. They got cell phones because we were all splitting up in four different directions. There are so many good things that came from it, and if me improving at my craft and sharing and being of some kind of help and service to anybody else through music, because it is a healing art, I’m convinced of that, then maybe I am different. I hope so.

Susan Cowsill’s Lighthouse is available at www.amazon.com

http://thebluegrassspecial.com/archive/2010/july10/videosjuly10.php

Susan On The Cowsills: ‘I Think We Were Amazing!’



The Cowsills: from left: Barry (bass), John (guitar), Susan, Bob (standing, behind Susan), mom Barbara, Paul, Bill
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As llong as we were interviewing Susan Cowsill for this issue, it seemed only right to tip our hats to her great family band, The Cowsills, whose records rank with the ‘60s most enduring hits. A brief discourse with Susan follows, specific to The Cowsills.

The Cowsills worked with some interesting producers. I know you were very young, but did that prove valuable to you as you got older and got into recording, that you had already been there on a pretty high level? Were you too young to appreciate it or absorb it? Was it useful to you?

Susan: I don’t know if it was useful, but I wasn’t too young to absorb it, because that’s how I know to do what I do. But I think you kind of cellularly learn as you go along, the brain being the absorbent sponge that it is. They talk about kids and how get what they get, even though they don’t know they’re getting it. I probably gained a lot from that experience, you know what I mean? I mean I wouldn’t be–the first song I ever wrote was “The Rain Song,” with the Continental Drifters, and it really came out pretty nicely, had this great pop construction. I don’t know where that came from. I assume it was from being around all these amazing artists–musicians, producers, I mean Artie Kornfeld was amazing. Wes Farrell was no slouch! I wasn’t sitting there studying them, but I certainly know, from the stuff that comes out of me, that something was attaching itself to my instincts.

When you reflect or are asked about when you guys were really in the pop hierarchy of the time, how do you regard the Cowsills’ body of work? Proud of what you did?

Susan: Oh, my God! Yes! Oh, yeah, I think we were amazing–I know we were amazing. I regard it as a great honor and privilege to have been in that band. My brothers were baby geniuses, and everything we did was high quality, beautiful–if you don’t like the genre, that’s one thing, but it doesn’t take away the quality of it in any way, shape or form. We made the best pop music–well, not the best but some of the best–of our time. And I’m incredibly proud. I love that music; I love to sing it, I love to hear it, I still listen to classic radio, and I regard us one of the best bands of the ‘60s.

On the Captain Sad album you take the lead vocal on “Ask the Children.” It was your first recorded vocal, and you really gave it a knockout reading.

Susan: Yesssss, it was my first lead vocal!!! And I had to share it with Barry! I was pretty excited to sink my teeth into that baby.

There is one other great Cowsills album that came much later. I thought then it was one of the best albums of that time–1999–and I would stand by that today, meaning Global.

Susan: Global is awesome.

On Amazon, it’s going for $260.

Susan: On Amazon?

Yeah. The vinyl.

Susan: Global?

Yes.

Susan: Hmmm. What a trip. See, Global, what a beautiful record. –David McGee

One Response to The Bluegrass Special
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