As a member of the family band, The Cowsills, Susan Cowsill could have ended her musical career at 12-years-old with a place in the pop-culture history books with hit singles and as helping to inspire The Partridge Family.
She recently released Lighthouse, a record with its roots in the aftermath and devastation experienced as a result of Hurricane Katrina.
Susan was able to take some time to speak with us about the record, growing up as a child star and a potential Burt Bacharach covers project.
Q: You’ve got a new record out, what are some of the highlights for you?
A: I’m happy it’s even coming out, it was a long time in the making. It was a four-year process of writing it, most of the songs are centered around recovering and rebuilding our lives in New Orleans and it took a while to get my head on straight enough to finish he writing apart and proceed with the recording.
We recorded it in Dockside Studios in Maurice, La., and we hit a stumbling block in the mixing process but, we got that figured out. It really should have been out last year, but it wasn’t ready. It’s like a baby, it comes wen it wants to come. The end result I’m very happy with, and very proud of it.
I was happy to be able to record my brother Barry’s song, “River of Love.” My brother also lived in New Orleans and he passed away in the wake of Katrina. It was nice to be able to memorialize him. Anther highlight was being able to do a duet with a longtime friend of mine, Jackson Browne, he sang with me on “Avenue of the Indians,” that was way cool.
Q: Did you go into the process with a solid idea of what you wanted to create or did it come about organically while recording?
A: Totally organically, I was staring songs all thorough it—from the storm to the recording. I would start a song and couldn’t finish it because of emotional and psychological blocks trying to cope with everyday life and putting one foot in front of the other. Finally I had a handful of songs that were a quarter or a half finished and my husband, Russ Broussard—he’s my drummer, co-writer and partner—was saying if we put a deadline on it, maybe that will help to expedite completion of songs.
Q: Did the songs follow that same pathway?
A: The nature of all the songs were also very organic, they were things that come to me thinking i’m doing something else. A thought will come and then some more thoughts will happen and there seems to be a soundtrack to it, that’s how it happens in my head. I don’t consciously sit down and intentionally write much of anything.
Q: What was it like growing up in the environment of being a Cowsill?
A: It was pretty cool, there was awhile that I thought everybody did it. I was so young and I had no perspective otherwise. It was an experience, to be on Ed Sullivan show when you’re 8-years-old and travel the world, we went to Europe and every state in the union and to be engaged and connected to the entire human race in some form or another was one of my favorite parts. I learned a lot from my brothers, we’re all tuned to a musical frequency. It was exciting, it was fun and it beat the hell out of going to school.
Q: After the Cowsills did you consider another career path?
A: No, aside from childhood “I want to be a vet, or a kindergarten teacher, or a nurse,” those things that everybody tinkers around with in their head. When the Cowsills were over I was 12.
I spent so much of my young life in music and quite honestly, our educational and aspirational needs were not really prioritized, so when it was really over I was more inclined to keep playing music, it’s all I knew how to do. I’m a musician, I’m an artist, it’s unfortunate but it’s true.
But I want to do other things, I wanted to be an archaeologist, and I still do, when I grow up I’m going to become an archaeological, medically-inclined, teacher of four-year-olds, and pets.
Q: Besides your instruments, what are the top 5 things that you must have while on the road?
A: Good snacks because you eat crap out there. I like to bulk up at Whole Foods before we go out so I can get as long of a supply of nuts and seeds and healthy food as I can because it’s not out there. I have to have knitting and a deck of angel cards at all times.
Russ needs to have bananas and oranges in his bag, he also needs a sudoku magazine. We need an atlas and a Garmin, and we need to take a break every once in awhile and see something pretty. That’s a big one. Cell phones are important and gas money is also rather imperative.
Q: Who would you cite as your big musical influences?
A: I was a big Monkees fan when I was a little girl. I don’t know that they musically influenced me but I was in love with Davy Jones. When I was a teenage girl I listened to Carly Simon and Cat Stevens and Joni Mitchell.
But somebody I was drawn to and decided that I would like to be like this person was Karla Bonoff. She wrote a couple of hits for Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton. She was an amazing singer and I love her versions of those songs, she hit a nerve with me, I don’t know what it was.
Q: Where did you play your first concert?
A: In 1968, at a place called the Hatch Shell in Boston, there was 30,000 people to see us. That was impressive, there were crying, screaming girls and all the rock ‘n’ roll stuff.
I couldn’t figure out what they were screaming about, it couldn’t have been my disgusting brothers, but lo and behold, it was. All these girls, if they really knew how horrible they were they’d be screaming and running away, not after them. That of course was my young mind, they’re all actually quite handsome and adorable and worthy of teen idol status.
Q: What’s the one song you’ve always wanted to make your own but never have?
A: I’m a pretty big Burt Bacharach fan, and a Jimmy Webb fan. I scratched my Jimmy Webb itch on Lighthouse because I did “Galveston.” It was between that and “Witchita Lineman.” In the Burt Bacharach zone, there’s so many to choose from but I would like to do an album of Burt Bacharach covers.
Q: Is there anything people listening to your music need to know?
A: I really have a great hope that this record will hit a chord for people across the globe and that certainly it is for us a record made of love and loss and survival. Primarily, if somebody is in need of some healing and a way out of their loss and hopelessness I think that this record could provide a little help that way. That would make me happy, for it to server a purpose and help some people along the way.
And any upcoming projects?
Well, I’m making a record with Freedy Johnston and Jon Dee Graham—The Hobarts—it’s a fictitious family made of Freedy, Jon and me. I am their adopted long lost sister, it’s hysterical but the music is really great. We’re still recording but keep your ear out for it.
Visit SusanCowsill.com for tour dates and more info.