"It's never been a problem being a Cowsill," said singer/songwriter Susan Cowsill recently. "I think if people remember the name, they associate it with cool pop music, or some happy time when they were young. They also probably know I'm doing a different, more grown-up thing now. But the name is not a hindrance or a help. It just is."
Cowsill's voice is warm and womanly, tinged with melancholy, but more importantly, bordered by mirth. She laughs easily, seems much more concerned for others than herself and is justifiably proud of her fine new record, "Lighthouse."
Cowsill and her band play Maxwell's Thursday night. Her "other" band, The Cowsills—made up of Susan, her brothers and her mom, Barbara—were a pop sensation in the late 1960s. They had four pop hits, including two number twos ("The Rain, The Park And Other Things" and "Hair"). They performed on The Mike Douglas Show, made small talk with Ed Sullivan and sang a country number on TV with Johnny Cash.
They still do plenty of gigs every year, but without mom Barbara and brothers Billy and Barry, who are now deceased. But, for Cowsill, the present is the thing. And her new record, is, mostly, on her mind.
Stocked with strong melodies, rife with guitar riffs that stick in your head and lyrics reflective of a life fully-lived, "Lighthouse" sounds like the best thing Cowsill has done to date.
Many of the songs she will be performing at Maxwell's have been written in the last four years, Cowsill said, and many of them are inspired by her living in—and later, leaving—New Orleans when Katrina hit.
"I lost most of what I owned in the flood, but more importantly, Barry died in it," said Cowsill. "It took a while before I could even begin to focus on songs and what I wanted to say about loss and love. But slowly, I began to pull things together, musically."
They say hard times make for great music. "Lighthouse," certainly seems to bear this axiom out. From the fizzy pop of "Dragon Flys," to the stoically-sad soul tune, "Sweet Bitter End," to a spare, maybe definitive take on Jimmy Webb's "Galveston," Cowsill's barely-weathered voice imparts a moving, almost zen-like take on her material. Yes, there's been early success, but also the sad implosion of the Cowsills in the early 70s. There's been marriage, death, divorce, but also motherhood (she has a daughter and a stepson).
Add guitar licks from legendary axeman, Waddy Wachtel and harmony vocals from one Jackson Browne, and "Lighthouse" becomes a beacon that can guide you through your own tough times.
When Cowsill comes to Hoboken this week, expect things to sound pretty much like the record. Intentionally so.
"I always sort of hate it when you go see an artist and they play solo and it sounds nothing like the record," said Cowsill.
"I'm touring with a whole band, including my husband, Russ (Broussard) on guitar," Cowsill said. Of course, touring with a band is kind of costly and my rent's a little behind, but, as a musician, I'm sort of used to that."
When talking to Cowsill, one can't help talking about her life's ups and downs.
"Believe me, I know how amazing and strange my life has been," Cowsill said, chuckling mordantly. "I mean, I was hanging at the Grand Ole Opry when I was 9. And I knew who Minnie Pearl and Roy Acuff were when I met them. I was a very aware little kid and I knew how special this was."
She paused, as if getting her breath to go over the harder stuff.
"I think I've never expected life to be easy and simple. It's long, complicated, beautiful and sad. And there's much to be learned on the journey. All the success I've had, as well as the heartbreak, makes us what we are."
The Susan Cowsill Band will be at Maxwell's on Thursday October 21, along with The Jefferson. Tickets are $10. The begins at 8:30. For more information call 201-653-1703. Susan's new album "Lighthouse" is out now. Go to susancowsill.com for more information