Vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Susan Cowsill wasn’t born in New Orleans, but she has made her home there for the past 17 years. Over that time, Cowsill’s life and music have been profoundly affected by events in her adopted home – especially by the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.
Cowsill, who performs at Off Broadway Thursday, July 1, as well as at a house concert in the area on Wednesday, June 30, recently released her second recording as a leader, “Lighthouse.” The new record is Cowsill’s first since her initial solo recording, “Just Believe It,” which came out a few months before Katrina swept through New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
As you might expect, the music on “Lighthouse” – and the story of how the recording project evolved –underscore the effects of Katrina’s tragic aftermath and the physical and spiritual rebuilding that have marked the lives of Cowsill and all of New Orleans over the past few years.
Cowsill’s musical roots go back much further than her move to the Big Easy. She made her professional debut as a musician in 1968 when she joined her five brothers and mother as a member of the Cowsills. Seven-year-old Susan’s voice fit right in to the family’s tight vocal harmonies and poppy Beach Boys-influenced sound on hits such as “We Can Fly,” “Indian Lake” and “Hair.” Susan recorded, toured and made TV appearances with the Cowsills for three more years before the band broke up. Interestingly, the decline of the popularity of the Cowsills happened at the same time the TV series the group inspired, The Partridge Family, became a major hit.
But Susan Cowsill’s musical career was just beginning. Following high school, she began to make a name for herself as an in-demand backup vocalist, recording with everyone from Dwight Twilley, Steve Wynn and Jules Shear to Hootie and the Blowfish, Nanci Griffith and Zachary Richard.
In 1992, Cowsill and her husband, Peter Holsapple (former member of the legendary power pop band, the dBs), became members of the alt-country band, the Continental Drifters, in Los Angeles. The Drifters relocated to New Orleans a year later, and Cowsill has made her home there ever since.
The Drifters gained considerable critical acclaim for self-released recordings such as the band’s 1994 self-titled debut, and 1998’s “Vermillion.” But by the time the band finally lined up a recording contract, the run was basically over. Cowsill and Holsapple ended their marriage. She left the band along with drummer Russ Broussard, and the two of them married later on.
Cowsill’s first solo recording, 2005’s “Just Believe It,” received high praise across the board for her songwriting skills and vocal expressiveness. AllMusic.com called “Just Believe It” “… masterful music from a major talent,” and Rolling Stone labeled the CD as “…the heartbreaking sound of a woman in the prime of her singing and songwriting life.”
Cowsill and Broussard were on tour promoting the CD when Katrina hit New Orleans, and they soon found out their house and the belongings were lost. They spent four months living with various friends, before deciding to move back in September to enroll their child in school. For Cowsill, the natural answer to Katrina and its harrowing aftermath was to document her emotions through song. But it took four years to finish many of those songs and record them on “Lighthouse.”
“The record definitely took its time in terms of a gestation period,” explains Cowsill during a recent phone conversation from her home. “It felt to me like having a baby. It was a long haul back from Katrina. Things that used to be simple just weren’t so simple anymore. It was a very weird state of mind. Decision-making was very hard to do. For example, if you were low on milk or were out of something else you needed, it seemed like it took hours to decide when you were going to go to the store. And it was that way for four years. And it was the same for my songwriting. I was starting songs. But I wasn’t finishing them.”
Cowsill also had to deal with the death of one her brothers, Barry Cowsill, who had moved to New Orleans to continue his career in music. Barry stayed in New Orleans after Katrina, but by the time Susan returned to the city, he was missing. Barry’s body was found in the Mississippi River that December. It’s still unknown whether he accidentally drowned or committed suicide. For Susan Cowsill, it was another painful addition to Katrina’s aftermath. But eventually, healing and rebuilding happened for her and her family physically and emotionally – as well as for her music.
“After four years, we came to a point where things stabilized, and I felt it was time to get back to work and to record an album,” she states. “We set a deadline and a schedule and made it a priority to take the time to finish those songs and go from there.” Cowsill’s friend since childhood, Jackson Browne, was instrumental in adding his assistance to the final mixing and mastering of Lighthouse, helping Susan overcome production delays that seemed to plague the project. Other musical friends such as guitarist Waddy Wachtel and Susan’s surviving brothers Bob, Paul and John also contributed to the project.
”Jackson and I have been longtime friends. I’ve known him since I was 14. He came to the rescue for us, helping us mix the record and singing on “Avenue of the Indians” as well.”
According to Cowsill, "Lighthouse" is not meant as a concept album about Katrina. But it clearly captures all the pain and depression – as well as the subsequent rebirth and rebuilding of the human spirit that followed. From an understated cover of Jimmy Webb’s “Galveston” to her own songs such as “The Way That It Goes” and the moving “Crescent City Sneaux,” there is an organic feel to the music that creates an inspired flow.
Perhaps the most emotional moment on the CD comes when Susan, her brothers and the band sing “River of Love,” a song written by the late Barry Cowsill. They perform it with raw emotion and over the top energy, building the intensity to a spine-tingling and dramatically moving level. And all the songs on “Lighthouse” seem to capture the essence and energy of life – with its ups and downs, its pain and joy.
“I do feel a sense of accomplishment in getting this music recorded and released,” concludes Cowsill. “Writing these songs and recording them helped me feel better. And I hope it will help other people who went through it personally or had friends who went through it feel better as well. Now going out to play these songs live and share them is the focus for me.”