Though only 51, Susan Cowsill's musical life spans four decades — from her childhood with the family band, the Cowsills, to her solo career and backup work in the '70s and '80s, and from her storied collaborations with the Continental Drifters to her own resurgence as a solo artist once again. Cowsill survived the hurricane that devastated her New Orleans home and has returned this year with Lighthouse, a confident but reflective album that's as musically satisfying as anything she's ever cut. B-Sides reached Cowsill at her home in the Crescent City for a conversation about her musical beginnings and the context for her latest project.
B-Sides: Do you remember your earliest attempt at songwriting?
There was one song that I wrote for a friend who had passed away, but my first real, decent song was "The Rain Song," which I did with the Continental Drifters. I say that's my first song.
Was that a case where the band said, "OK, Susan, you have to pull your own weight here and write a song"?
In a way, but fortunately it was a little more loving than that. They were the first people to encourage me to write songs and learn an instrument. I was just a singer, but they said, "Come on, you come from a world of music and your brothers write." But because I couldn't play an instrument, I couldn't write a song. The Drifters were very inspirational in that way, encouraging me to do it.
Tell me about Threadheads, the nonprofit that funded your new album.
We lovingly refer to it as a record company, but they're not. They're a group of people who had come to know each other as Jazz Fest fans. It was like a club. They'd come down to Jazz Fest from all over the country, and they came up with this idea to ask local bands to play parties they'd have. Paul Sanchez from Cowboy Mouth kicked off the whole idea. They asked him when his band would have another record. He said the band was broke and homeless after Katrina. So they said, "What if you had the money?" So that's the origin. The handshake deal. It's donational with the intention of being paid back. They loan it to you, and then you pay it back and donate 10 percent of what you borrowed to the Musicians' Clinic in New Orleans. You own your own record after that. It's a real labor of love.
Did it feel different recording the record because of that?
Without a doubt. There was no pressure from a record company, having to have it at a certain time, and knowing in the back of your mind that the label is getting a piece of the cake they're not baking. The Threadheads thing is different. You're beholden to them, but you want to be. It was a feeling of great gratitude, wanting it to be special for them.
The title of the new record and the title song, "Lighthouse," could be ironic. In New Orleans, during Katrina, a lighthouse wouldn't have helped.
My partner and husband, Russ Broussard, we were talking about our evacuation days, when we were out for four months in our Kia Sedona. We were looking for something to help us get home. And if we weren't going home, we didn't know where we were going or what we were doing. Russ said something about a lighthouse. That was the deal. We needed something to follow, something to set our sights on that would lead us back to where we were supposed to be.