By Kyle Palarino
Susan Cowsill (photo courtesy of Dennis Gardner)
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.
In Part One of our interview, Susan talked about the creative process. ” 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.”
Katrina had a big impact on her muse. “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.
Kyle Palarino for FolkWax: Tell me what “Dragon Flies” about.
Susan Cowsill: “Dragon Flys” is about, now are you aware that I lost a brother in the storm?
SC: Okay. Well, that carefree little pop ditty is about that. My brother Barry thought that – well a direct quote from him through his life is “Death is overrated” as far as everyone’s reaction to it. Like please get a grip on yourselves, people. Ya know birth – no big deal, but death – oh, my God! So I think it was easy for me to tap into a joyous spot for this.
But the funniest part about it is that my brother was acquainted well with the possible demise of himself through his life. He always envisioned, and I think somebody told him somewhere in the great universe that once he departed, his return would be as an enormous ancient oak tree, and he’d live for thousands of years in this big majestic vision he had of his afterlife. I will swear on my mother’s urn that that is not exactly what happened.
I was visited for months by a singular dragon fly. Now, believe me. I’m not insane. I know it wasn’t the same one, but the representative of the dragon fly community was singular and was doing some pretty impressive things that for my money I was being visited by my brother. And it made me laugh because I was like, “Ha, ha, oh, big oak tree, not! Dragon flies I think live twenty days. I don’t think you’re going to be here long in this one.”
But I was driving around New Orleans about two days after we found out that he was gone, and there was this dragon fly drafting me in the driver side. I’m driving, and its right here. I’m only going like twenty – twenty-five, and then it would get in front of me. Then, it would come to the side and look at me with weird eyes. I mean what the fuck? It stayed with me for a mile. I thought, “Well, that’s damn interesting.” I leaned a little toward the cosmic side. They are always black rather large dragon flies.
I had a couple of other situations, but the one that sealed it and sent it home for me. We were in Gatlinburg, Tennessee playing a gig. We were at a national park hanging out for a day, and Russ was at the river moving rocks around to reroute water ’cause that’s what he does. I was reading on this inlet of this little river. We were there for like four hours, and I was noticing the flora and the fauna and the wildlife that was on our inlet, and one of the things that was there for four hours was this black dragon fly. And I was like seriously?!
So Russ comes out of the water after a couple of hours and sits down next to me, and I had been reading and had my knees up. He’s like, “What are you doin?” And I say, “I been readin’,” and he goes, “What’s goin’ on up here?” And I say. “A couple of things. We got a chipmunk over there, and there’s been some butterfly activity, but most impressively” – and now he knows I’m kind of on this dragon fly kick. “There is this giant black dragon fly,” but as I say it to him, I say there is this giant black dragon and, as I say the word fly, this thing lands on the top of my knee. I go, “There it is! Right there!” I screamed ’cause it scared the shit out of me. It landed right on my knee right as I said, “There’s this big black dragon fly.”
That was it. So I realized he was trying to tell me something. I was walking around our neighborhood one day alone. Russ was out on tour playing drums for somebody else, and I had had a couple of glasses of wine, and I had an empty wine glasses in my pocket which I thought was kind of funny. Only in New Orleans could you wander around your neighborhood without fear of being taken to jail with a wine glass in your pocket. That’s it, that’s “Dragon Flies.”
FW: I knew there was more to it.
SC: Than this little.
FW: Yeah, it wasn’t that simple. I would have never picked up on that.
CS: And I like that. And there was an onslaught of dragon flies in the city they say. I don’t remember it because I was being stalked by this one. I didn’t see all the other ones. I’m glad it started out that way ’cause quite honestly. It’s okay. Plus, we don’t want to depress everybody right at the get go.
FW: Oh, no.
SC: Oh, no.
FW: Alright, “You and Me Baby” written for Miranda.
SC: “You and Me Baby” was written the day after the first Mardi Gras back from the storm. There is a part of town called Lakeview where I used to live when I was married to Peter Holsapple. My daughter grew up in this part of town by the lake. Lakeview really took a hit. Lakeview was ten, eleven feet, forget about it. Lakeview was near one of the main canal levee breaks. We were over at our friend’s house for crawfish after Mardi Gras day ’cause that’s what they do. And Lakeview was an area I was having trouble going to ’cause that’s where my little girl spent her baby years.
It was this gorgeous area, just oak tree heaven. It was as green and lush as it could possibly be, and after the storm it was not. It was just mind boggling what it looked like with the houses decimated and the trees gone. It looked like a flippin’ nuclear bomb went off there. That blew my mind. That was my hardest part of town to go to. So we went over to our friend’s house. I don’t remember if it was the second year. Do you remember if it was the first or second year, babe?
Russ Broussard: It took them almost three years to get the house. So three years.
SC: So look at that three years. See, I get lost in these things. He’s really good at it. I was standing out on the back porch of their new home ’cause they lost their home. And I smelled familiar smells. The way our city smelled for a long time was really bad, too. I could smell something sweet in the air coming back. I was like, “Oh my god!” I could see green again, and it just took me right back to my daughter and our first years together. Just hangin’ out. She can’t listen to it without balling. She heard it once for the first time the other day. So that’s about our old neighborhood.
“The funniest part about it
is that my brother was acquainted well
with the possible demise
of himself through his life.”
FW: “River of Love” speaking of Barry (Cowsill).
SC: Written by my brother Barry. I was just asked this earlier, and I really hadn’t thought about it. One of the other interviewer dudes asked me why I was doing it, and I hadn’t really thought about that. And Russ had pointed out that we were really performing it right away when we got back home. So now I have an answer. It’s cool ’cause when you do a lot of interviews you know your answers, and he was like, “Why did you start doing that,” and I was like, “I don’t know.” Well hold on. Now I have to think and actually figure it out. I think it was ’cause I was missin’ him, and I was thinkin’ – and I’ve only had a couple of hours to think about this – maybe if I sing this song, and he hears it.
At first we were hoping he was just locked up somewhere. Really hoping he pissed someone off and got in jail for staying behind or just totally lost his mind. He was struggling with some addictive problems and was getting ready to go into a rehab facility that Monday of the storm. So I thought he went nuts and got taken somewhere hopefully. It was a way to stay connected to him, and if our universe is energy, and energy is airwaves and sound waves. I don’t know if he’s walkin’ around thinkin’ he’s Einstein or something when he’s not. Maybe he’ll hear it and come home. What do you think?
RB: I just thought about the little bridge part, the breakdown after they found him, or his body. It just happened one day live usually where the song ends and instead of ending she started to say, “We recognize you, we eulogize you.” She said it one night just on the fly on stage, and it just about took me out. It also pissed me off. Then I got my expression. I’m not going to say what I have to say on the mike. I’m going to say it on the drums.
SC: And if you listen to it you hear some anger in those drums.
RB: And love. He was such a ballsy performer and musician. He’ll pick up – he was fearless – any instrument and within ten minutes he could be making music on it. Oboe, you name it he would figure it out. Whatever was required to make a recognizable tone on his instrument.
FW: I could kill any instrument that’s about it. This has strings I’ll touch it. It will go out of tune. Watch!
SC: We all have our gifts, Kyle.
FW: Yeah, that’s not mine.
SC: I don’t know touching a string and making it go out of tune is kinda cool. It’s like bewitched stuff.
FW: I just play it out of tune and see if anyone notices. What are you doin’? That’s my music. No one wants to hear that.
SC: Hey, X made a nice living doing that.
RB: “You and Me Baby”
SC: “You and Me Baby.” And I’m sittin’ down there, and it’s just work. Alright, roll tape. And I’m singin’ these things, and I’m like, “Uh oh, umm, stop! I have to pee, okay, not. Sob sob sob, come back. Okay, roll tape. Okay, wait, stop.” I was actually pissing off a couple of band members. They were like, “Get it together. This is very unprofessional.” I mean the topic matter is only the death of family members and an entire way of life in the city. You’re right, I’m bein’ a noonie, ya know? Fuck you! Its how it’s hittin’ me, and it was embarrassing, and I wasn’t expecting it.
Then while workin’ my way through and when you’re trying to understand your own self I had to give myself a little bit of a break, and then I started really getting it. The whole thing was a long journey, and it was a death and a grieving process, and now we are at the funeral. We are putting this to bed. We are putting it in the ground by recording it and placing it and finalizing these thoughts and these emotions. Okay, they’re not in a coffin. They are on a CD, but it is that. And it’s saying goodbye to all these thoughts and all these feelings and all this stuff. And I was well within my rights to have a couple of good crying moments. So, okay, whatever.
FW: I’d have to say that I’m glad that you did because your voice comes across very emotional on the album.
SC: Almost too emotional, don’t ya think?
FW: No because of the topics on hand and because of all the experiences, that is where it all comes together, and it all comes out right on the album. And you don’t hold back at all.
SC: It’s kinda weird for you to say that. This is a really fun interview because you are saying a lot of different things which elicit different things outta my mouth.
FW: See, I did listen to it.
SC: I know you did. [laughing] I knew you did right away when we started. It might have been on the train here, but he got it all.
FW: I listened to it a little bit before hand when I got it but…
SC: Well, I can always tell when somebody has or has not. It’s just easy. But the weird thing about that is that I am a singer first and foremost. To me I expect a certain something coming out of my voice. A certain power a sound sound. This is one of the first albums I’ve ever done where I was in less control over what was coming out of my voice. Like “Sweet Bitter End” I’m almost whispering. I never whisper a word, never mind a song. [Russ laughs] I mean I’m just not that girl. But that’s where that came from.
On others I am just doing everything I can not to bawl my ass off while I am trying to get this thing out. And when I listened to it when we were first done I was like. “These are not those stellar performances that I am known for delivering.” And they’re not. They are very different to me. And I worried about that. I worried a little bit about them being too – not too emotional, I’m okay with that – but that they just weren’t really good enough.
It’s okay to be emotional, but to actually kinda suck on this cause all you’re doing is hanging on by a thread basically. So to hear that this was received in the way that I guess it would be and should be is comforting cause I will still listen to something and double think I should of done that over when I wasn’t so emotionally attached to it. Just a better performance as opposed to this whatever thing.
FW: Well ONOLA. I wrote the word – powerful.
SC: [whispers] Powerful. Yeah. At that point I think I had decided it was time to maybe drink or something. Really it was all too much. One of our co-producer engineer guys was like, “You know I think we could get another one of these later on when you’re not feeling so – you know,” and I was like, “Ya know what? If I sound tweaked, I am tweaked, I’m fuckin’ tweaked.” And that’s what it is, and I can come back here and sing this on a regular day. And I struggled with that, too. I am ready to lose it at the end of that song, and I can hear. And it’s very uncomfortable, it’s slightly revealing. But I really am now glad. Didn’t Mike (Costanzo) have me sing it over?
RB: I don’t remember.
SC: It’s like what are we doing here? So that was a hard one. I sang it again, and we didn’t use it. That was a tough song. That was the “Dear John” letter.
FW: It’s also part of the spur of the moment though. And if you don’t get it at that moment you’re never going to get it.
SC: No, not the way it obviously was felt. So it’s a little embarrassing whatever.
FW: I don’t think so.
SC: I’ve done worse things. Let’s say revealing. But I’ve swung from a chandelier. Made an ass of myself on any given occasion. For no really good reason that I can think of whatsoever. I wasn’t apologetic about it. I was like, “Fuck you if you don’t like that I swung. I’m gonna do it again, just being a punk comin’ up in the world.” So I actually have a sincere slightly altered moment about something pretty mind altering. I guess I’m allowed.
FW: In wrapping up on “Crescent City Sneaux,” I mean that song alone is a journey in itself. But I love how that ends. And I have to go into the end because it’s a great song, and what pushes it over the top is that ending and that’s the end of the album, and you’re just like damn put that in again. Ya know I’m a picky bastard when it comes to song orders on a lot of albums, I admit it.
SC: I was afraid of people like you because sometimes they go, “Ya know that was really inappropriate.”
FW: No, because if you put that anywhere else in the disc it wouldn’t have had the same effect.
FW: I mean what song would follow that up?
SC: I agree.
FW: Seriously. So I’m listening to it, and I’m like, “Wow, this song is really good,” and it’s going on and on, and it’s a longer song too, and then all of a sudden it totally changes and you’re like, “What the fuck? Wow, this is pretty cool.”
SC: Where are we now?
FW: You keep going and then it’s done and wow.
SC: And party.
FW: Yeah and that takes you right back to New Orleans, though.
SC: That’s right. Rounds for all my friends, and, oh, how about them Aints? Enough about this hurricane. I’m over it.
FW: It does seem like that Super Bowl win was, like you said, the end. That’s it.
SC: That’s what’s so funny then. Is this song is prophetic then because this is one of the only songs that was completed within the first week of Katrina. The rest of them I couldn’t finish any of them until the December before, then January we recorded it. And then I had to go back and revisit all this shit to go, “Alright, what was I thinking that week?” Talk about certifiable.
BW: I can only imagine, but geez.
SC: It’s all good, man. I really appreciate, I don’t care when you did listen to it, taking the time. When we do what we do it’s kinda like this weird thing to do, and you wonder what people are gonna think and wonder how they’re gonna take it or if they’re even gonna give a damn or if they are gonna get anything. I mean you don’t live in New Orleans. So that you can experience it and feel it and get it really makes me feel good and I appreciate it very much.
Kyle M. Palarino is a contributing editor to BluesWax. Kyle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.