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A whole new start: Susan Cowsill rallies after Hurricane Katrina, reflects on tragedy with 'Lighthouse'
September 10, 2010
The Birmingham News
Birmingham, Alabama

Susan Cowsill is best known for her work with the Cowsills, the Continental Drifters and her own solo band. She's also performed with acts ranging from the Smithereens to Hootie and the Blowfish. (Special)

If Susan Cowsill has anything in common with Courtney Love, it might be a basic philosophy: Live through this.

Both women — Cowsill, a sunny jangle-pop singer; Love, a trash-talking punk diva — have survived personal tragedies, using music as an expressive tool for catharsis and healing.

Share Most music fans have heard Love’s splashy story, which involves voluminous amounts of drugs and the death of her husband, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain.

Cowsill’s tale is quieter, less Hollywood, but just as devastating: Her New Orleans home was submerged and ravaged during Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath of the 2005 storm, two of her brothers died — Barry Cowsill disappeared amid the floodwaters in Louisiana and Bill Cowsill succumbed to illness in Canada.

"The first year (after Katrina), I don’t remember," Cowsill says.

But she endured the crisis and eventually began to thrive again, relying on the help of family and friends, some of whom live in Birmingham.

"Birmingham became a comfort zone," Cowsill says. "It was a community we could adopt for a while. Everyone was gracious beyond words. Birmingham gets the gold star."

Tonight, Cowsill returns to the city where she and her husband, drummer Russ Broussard, sought temporary shelter after their evacuation. They’ll perform a 9 p.m. concert at The Red Cat coffeehouse with the rest of the Susan Cowsill Band.

On the agenda: music from Cowsill’s new album, "Lighthouse," which finds her taking stock of Katrina and looking to the future.

"All of the songs on ‘Lighthouse’ are a culmination of the last five years," says Cowsill, 51. "I write therapeutically, first and foremost, to make myself feel better. But I had a hard time finishing anything, because of the fallout from that experience. I was going right back into the hole and trying to figure out what it all meant."

Some might expect the resulting material to throb with pain and loss, but that’s not the Cowsill style. This singer-songwriter, after all, started her career at age 9, performing bubbly pop and cheerful rock with the Cowsills. (Yes, that’s the real-life group that inspired the Partridge Family.)

Even more important, though, is Cowsill’s grown-up conviction that music can be thoughtful and emotional without plunging listeners into despair.

The Cowsills were wholesome and cute. They also had lots of talent. (Special)

Tunes such as "Crescent City Sneaux" and "Onola"are like love letters to New Orleans, tender and bittersweet. Another original from "Lighthouse," "Could This Be Home," reflects Cowsill’s search for a haven after the storm.

"Without a doubt, Katrina was a great inspiration, and I’m grateful that I was given a gift from the universe and from God," she says. "I have a way to express it through music, and even better, share it with others. Everyone has challenges. These things happen and these things hurt. The choice you’re given after the situation occurs is, what are you going to do with it? I’m constantly trying to promote surviving and thriving. I have a fatally Pollyannic view of how things turn out."

Another Cowsill trademark is her skill at interpreting the songs of others, infusing those covers with a resonance that’s all her own.

For "Lighthouse," she chose Jimmy Webb’s "Galveston" (a 1969 war ballad that includes references to crashing waves and aches with longing for home) and "River of Love," written by her late brother Barry. (The narrator reflects on a failed relationship, but remains optimistic that love will prevail.)

Cowsill admits that, in the past, tears have accompanied her stage renditions of "Crescent City Sneaux" and other songs. But she can get through those now without sobbing, and jokes that it’s a very good thing for audiences.

"Barbra Streisand and Julie Andrews, they can sing when they’re crying and it sounds great," Cowsill says. "But when I sing that way, I’m not singing. I’m just crying."

"Crescent City Sneaux" actually made its debut in Birmingham when Cowsill’s emotions were at their rawest — a December 2005 show at the former Moonlight Music Cafe, as she continued to travel with her band and hunt for her missing brother. (Barry’s body was found about three weeks later, in the water under a wharf in New Orleans.)

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