Folk Wax


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Susan Cowsill

By Kyle Palarino

Susan Cowsill
Photo courtesy of susancowsill.com

When I had the chance to meet with Susan Cowsill I couldn’t say no. Some people have stories that could go on forever. Susan is one of them. She has been on stage since her early childhood in the ’60s. Her travels physically brought her from Newport, Rhode Island to Los Angeles to New Orleans. Along the way she has traveled some hard roads and some glorious roads. The Cowsills and The Continental Drifters are two musical paths Susan has driven down. Emotionally she weathered death and Hurricane Katrina to create Lighthouse her second solo release.

She began in 1967 with her family singing with the Cowsills at the age of eight. They had big hits with “The Rain, The Park, and Other Things” and “Hair.” They were the classic vocal group that inspired the Partridge Family. I still own the Partridge Family Christmas album that has the most depressing version of “Frosty the Snowman” ever recorded. Their popularity only lasted from about ’68-’71 then the group disbanded. Each member continued in music, that’s their natural talent, but outside of small reunions, the Cowsills fame was in the past.

Susan would meet her then husband Peter Holsapple in Los Angeles while hanging out with her sister-in-law Vicki Peterson of the Bangles fame. From there she joined with Peter in the Americana-pop group the Continental Drifters. As the Drifters slowly moved back to their native New Orleans, so did Peter and Susan, and eventually Vicki, too. Susan didn’t mind leaving the California sun. Her personality is a better fit for the friendlier southern soil than the sunny pacific shores.

The Drifters had success through the ’90s releasing three albums. In 2001 she and Peter divorced. Susan started up her solo career along with other side projects with drummer Russ Broussard, whom she wed in 2003.

Now here is where the rocks started to appear in her road. And no it’s not Russ’ fault. The first solo Susan Cowsill album, Just Believe It was released in January 2005. While the reviews were very positive, the timing of the release was the crutch. As August rolled around, Katrina blew in. That ended any possibility of promoting the album. She had to put life into perspective, and the album got lost in the process.

During Katrina Susan and Russ hit the road and drove around as New Orleans was in a state of chaos. They lost their house to the flooding and all of their possessions. And that was not even the worst of it. Susan’s brother Barry Cowsill stayed in New Orleans during Katrina. Just from the stories she told, I think he thought he might be stronger than Mother Nature. He went missing after the storm. It was not until just after Christmas when they found his body.

In February, the next loss hit. Brother Billy passed away from health issues. In the course of months, Susan’s life was dumped upside down and dragged down the road about three thousand miles. But as a creative soul, this would not keep her down but just take time to flow through her until the healing process yielded an album of songs that deal with loss, hurt, rebuilding, strength, and most of all hope.

There are plenty of great stories that Susan shared about those days that really show the true soul of an artist. Lighthouse was recorded while Susan was still healing, and her vocals are raw and ripe with emotion. You hear the loss and pain in her voice so clearly on some songs that you can feel it in your toes. The only way you can get a recording this true is to hit the red button and let Susan cry into the microphone if she needs to. Does that take away from the song? Hell no! With the emotional ride that Lighthouse takes you on, all you need to do is think of the title of the album. With a ray of light there is always hope.

Since New Orleans plays a huge roll in Susan’s life and songs keep that in mind as you listen to “Crescent City Sneaux.” This song is very prophetic because the city came true with the ultimate healing when the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl. As silly as that sounds, that was the final release as the city is now ready to move on. “Sneaux” was written a week after Katrina and has an ending with the Who Dat chant that sounds like it was recorded during the Super Bowl itself. The upbeat attitude and just emotional release on that song really sum up the feeling Susan had while building her “Lighthouse.”

Kyle M. Palarino for BluesWax: First off I’ll start off. I want to go in the past a little bit because you have such an awesome past.

SC: Sure, I time travel.

BW: What was it like being eight years old and in show business?

SC: Right. Well because I’ve only been eight years old in show business it didn’t seem like anything weird. And ever since I could remember we were making music. I guess I started to understand it wasn’t what everybody did, eventually. Then I would sit back and have a look at it and go, “Wow, so you’re not on television,”  to kids I would meet. Most people aren’t. Oh, like its news to me.

We moved here to the City in ’67 and went to the Professional Children’s School, and they were all doing stuff, too. It just seems like what everybody did. It didn’t dawn on me until a couple of years later that we were not the norm at all. It was fun, though. It was a blast! I mean I love TV. And here I was on it. I mean that’s as cool as you can get.

BW: That is awesome.

SC: That was awesome.

BW: When did you actually realize that wasn’t the norm?

SC: I think I was around ten. We moved to L.A., and I lived in a neighborhood where there were normal kids. They were like, “Wow, how weird for you.” I was like, “How is it weird? What do you kids do all day?” It really, really was something that was second nature to me. What was it like not being on TV at eight?

BW: At eight let’s see.

SC: What were you doing at eight years old?

BW: Ummm, playing ball in the yard a lot. That was about it which was fun.

SC: Before we got famous it was just music that was around. We weren’t famous right away. So I guess there was a moment or two, but I was so young I just kinda morphed right into it.

BW: What actually drew you to New Orleans?

SC: I was living in L.A., had been for twenty-something years by that time. I met a band there, the Continental Drifters. My girlfriend and I, Vicki Peterson (The Bengals), we ran into these guys – thought they were cute, and she was single and I was single – so we started hanging out with them at this club called Raji’s in L.A. In probably over a year’s time we ended up morphing into this band with these guys. Then she boyfriended one of the guys, and I married one of the guys. We played around L.A a lot. We traveled to New Orleans a bit because two of the guys in the Continental Drifters were from New Orleans. So we had done a little time there, and eventually Carlo (Nuccio) and Ray (Ganucheau) wanted to move home back to New Orleans. I was sick to death of L.A. I never liked L.A when I got there. They had plants that were made out of rubber.

Russ Broussard: In New Orleans you throw a parade in the party.

SC: Yeah, you just can’t have a simple soiree. You have to have a parade to go with your soiree.

RB: We had a parade. It was a funeral march for the Saints after the super bowl to finally bury the Saints. We had a full on funeral march with ten thousand people coming out.

BW: See that would never happen up here for anything.

SC: No. It’s exhausting; our parades are really just ridiculous. Every time you turn around there is a bloody parade. But I love it.

BW: I love the title of Lighthouse. With the heavy topics you have through it, it shows the hope at the end. I also think throughout it, you have so many songs that are kind of a sad song, but then you get a positive twist no matter what. You go in and out from song to song and never give anyone a chance to get down.

SC: I’m glad.

BW: You don’t which is the beauty of how it works.

SC: Awesome. I appreciate you saying that because I played it for my sister-in-law, and after it was over she basically said, “Well I’m going to go slit my wrists now.” I was like I didn’t think it was that bad. I thought it was hopeful and that it maintained.

BW: I think it did.

SC: I think it did too. She’s just being silly. Well you know in the whole event there had to be hope, or we’d just lay down the sword there and then.

BW: The other thing I like to say about New Orleans overall is it had an intrigue and mystique about it with the voodoo culture and the folkiness. That actually played out on the album. There is an underlying tone throughout the whole thing that fits with…

SC: With the NOLA.

BW: Yeah.

SC: Especially from Just Believe It – which is my record before this one – that something gets under your skin and in your blood and between your toes as well. It comes out in everybody’s art down there, be it audio or visual. There is a deep mysterious well of, I don’t know what it is, but you can’t miss it. I’m glad that got captured in there. It’s not on purpose. It’s just what it is. I think living there for seventeen years I think I’m adopted. Well Carlo even said I was a true New Orleanian because of my Saint fanaticism.

BW: That’s what it took?

RB: A year ago in January is when we were recording the album. So when we did “Crescent City Sneaux” which we had been playing since the storm. We did that whole “Who Dat” thing. Who Dat is one of the things we were looking forward to when returning to the city. And low and behold they went and won the Super Bowl.

SC: In fact I feel as though we had a hand in it.

RB: Someone wrote they had me through the whole album, but “Crescent City Sneaux” and the Who Dat thing is taking it too far or something like that with them winning the Super Bowl.

SC: But we had it written before that. And there is not too far. We are going to be winners everyday, all day, all year and maybe into the next.

BW: Let’s go back into Katrina a little bit before we get back into Who Dat. Tell me about your experience through Katrina.

SC: Well, you want the logistical experience or the emotional experience or both?

BW: A little more emotional.

SC: Ok, let’s see. That’s easier. It has less details.

BW: You could combine as much as you like.

SC: I suck at details. This is good for me. Emotionally unprecedented, feelings of holy shit and wow what next and life completely as you know it ripped out from under you, overnight. When we left town, everything was as it was. That coffee cup was sitting there. I’m sure one of the kids had not put the towel back on the rack, and it was in the middle of the floor. Almost like leaving the scene of a crime, when you come back and see everything just as it was except covered in mold, soot. I don’t think I’ve ever felt lost and uncertainty as much as that little journey we took.

BW: What was the biggest factor that got you through it?

SC: Factor that got us through it? That’s a good question. Well my ex-husband would say it was my Polianic nature which he used to give me so much shit for. So I’ll say it is my eternal sense of optimism. You don’t have a choice but to get through it especially if you have kids. There is no not getting through it. You know what, thinkin’ about it, probably our kids ’cause you could fold your own self up into a pile and stick it under somethin’ and never come out.

But you gotta lead your children and teach them that this kind of thing can happen, and you’re still gonna be okay. It’s just going to be real different, but that can be okay, too. That can be a beautiful thing. Like life has changed, and wow we’re going back home, and it’ll be totally different. Cool, we already spent eleven years like this. Certainly you’re in the mood for something different. Seriously thoug, I think that’s the decided factor for sure. Especially at our age, we’ve been through a lot. The younger people I dare say it would have been harder for. To have such a big thing happen at such a young age with nothing to fall back on in surviving this kind of thing. But they got it now, don’t they? Survivors. The children of Katrina. It will make them more resilient.

Ya know there are lots of good things that come from these kinds of things, the compassion of an entire country and world. I’ve never seen unconditional sweetness and generosity – and offered, not asked for. Russ and I drove around in our Kia Sedona for four months while our children got enrolled in schools. My daughter went to live with her aunty Vicki and my brother John, Russ’s son, went to stay with his mom. They got enrolled in new schools right away in the first two weeks.

Our pets went to my brother’s, but the first week we’re toolin’ around in this car goin’, “Well, what do ya wanna do? Let’s drive to the next town,” because the uncertainty was so large at that time. You pull up to a diner to get a bite to eat, and I remember a lady lookin’ out and lookin’ at our license plate and goin’, “You’re from Louisiana.” This was a couple weeks in, and we still had the dogs. She was like, “Do you want some water for your puppies?” “I guess, yeah they do have to drink.” We must have looked like so much bad road walkin’ in lookin’ shell shocked. People really offered up general warmth and concern and prayers and wishes that I’ve never seen before from perfect strangers. That was cool.

BW: So how big was the Saint’s winning the Super Bowl?

SC: B-I-G. It was really big. I mean they’ve been trying to do that anyway. We both start bawling – to hell with Katrina – The Saints! But it’s all related, and that’s why you’re asking us that. They have been trying to do that forever anyway, and there is no doubt in my mind that due to what we went through that every man on that team and that coach was so determined to bring everybody up and out, and they knew they had what would be the one thing that would make it right in this city. They came home right away, when the Superdome opened, and U2 played and the first game. It sounds crazy, and if you’re not into sports that’s cool – I’m not a big sports person, but I do understand what it means to rally around something and to come together as a community for anything, and it just combined something that could be really meaningless like a bunch of guys throwing a ball around beating the crap outta each other to get it away from the other guy enough times to be the winner. Something that simple to mean so, so much more. I can’t even tell you.

RB: The first year this city really had. We had a mayor that had basically abandoned us. He was living in Dallas Texas most of the time. We had Red Cross and finding out the numbers of the money that was donated to Red Cross and not knowing a single person in New Orleans that got a single item or dollar from the Red Cross.

SC: You know what they were giving us from Red Cross?

RB: Six months later.

SC: They were giving us gift certificates to Wal-Mart to buy stuff.

RB: No, No it was a care package with a mop, some bleach, a bucket.

SC: Oh that was Red Cross. Remember, we were in Georgia, and we went to Red Cross to get some money.

RB: That was FEMA. We had nothing, insurance not coming through and finding any out to not give the people their money. Well this house wasn’t destroyed by flooding. Your window was broken, so it could have been by the rain. There’s twelve feet of water in the house. Right!

SC: Somebody was trying to give us gift cards to buy stuff, and I remember one lady sittin’ at Red Cross or FEMA or whoever it was, and there was this woman sittin’ there goin’, “I have no place to put anything. I need money so I can drive and get my child to a family’s house, and they are giving me a gift card to Wal-Mart so I can buy stuff. Where the hell am I putting it?” It was like good point, very good point. So we all rallied in this building one day – I was helping to say can we just get gas with these cards ’cause that would be helpful. Buying stuff, none of us could buy anything. Where are we taking it – don’t you understand? And that was the kind of stuff that was like you’ve got to be fucking kidding me. But the Saints became everything.

RB: They became the city’s lighthouse in a way.

SC: They did. They were the beacon of light, and they knew it, man. I can’t even imagine what that must have felt like for them. A) The pressure – I know it was self imposed. They could have done anything. They came home. That’s all that mattered to us. But taking it all the way. That was quite a night. We had a big party. Little groups in the city would get together for each game. That night everybody got on a ferry and crossed over to the French Quarter. There was like twenty of us or somethin’. And there was not one incident ’cause everybody was like this town’s gonna riot, they’ll be burning cars and turning ’em over. It was like 1967. People just walking up to each other and saying. “I love you, man.”

RB: Or like  in Time magazine when World War II ended and people are hugging and kissing all the soldiers. Traffic wasn’t moving. People were just getting out of cars and hugging and crying.

SC: I think that we decided that if we win, we’ve won. It’s over. Game over, we’re good. Let’s get over it. Move on. How’s that for an answer?

BW: Beautiful. Very good. We have to get to the album a little bit, too.

RB: (Laughing) Ya Think?

SC: That’s cool. I can talk about New Orleans, the Saints.

BW: Alright, first song.

BW: What I did pick up on is “Dragon Flies” has such a carefree start to the album, but then you have “Avenue of the Indians.” Again here you are…

SC: I’m getting a little dark.

BW: Exactly! Another song I loved is “You and Me Baby.”

SC: That’s a pretty important one for me.

Kyle Palarino is a contributing editor at FolkWax. Kyle may be contacted at folkwax@visnat.com.

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