To spend time with Susan Cowsill and Vicki Peterson together is to always feel just a little out of step. The two women, friends and musical collaborators for close to 25 years, operate as a unit, trading glances, riffing quickly on each other's jokes and one completing the thought the other started. It's like watching the kind of easy, insular secret code of intimacy that best friends use in childhood, or that sisters do (and indeed, the two are sisters-in-law; Peterson has been married to Cowsill's brother, John Cowsill, for a decade).
Cowsill and Peterson have just released "Up on the Chair, Beatrice," their first album as the Psycho Sisters and a project over 20 years in the making – and even the title of it requires a fluency in Psycho Sisters lingo that few possess.
"Some of it can't be explained," Peterson said. "Beatrice just is. She was sort of our third ghost member who we would conjure every now and then. She'd get unruly, and we'd need her to just stop. Get up on the chair, Beatrice."
The songs on "Up on the Chair, Beatrice" are the fruits of Peterson and Cowsill's earliest collaboration, written together in the early 1990s when both were living in Los Angeles. After a public musical childhood in the Cowsills, Susan was venturing out as a solo artist. Peterson had just finished a run in her own family band of sorts; the hitmaking Bangles, which the guitarist founded with her sister in the early '80s, had recently disbanded. Both women were part of a California folk-rock scene that blended vintage psychedelia, Americana roots and garagey pop sounds, and had been writing songs together with no real plan for what to do with them. Singing together, they realized quickly, was something special.
"Susan and I were best girlfriends and had known each other for many, many years already," Peterson said. "There was a bit of a light bulb moment when we started singing together, because we seemed to have this sibling blend that normally only occurs in blood families."
"We both come from family bands, so we both know what that is," Cowsill added. "So when it happened with the two of us, oh yeah. It made it fun for us to sing together – it was so effortless."
As the Psycho Sisters, Peterson and Cowsill toured Europe and the U.S. along with Giant Sand and Steve Wynn in the early '90s, but soon got waylaid by joining the all-star Americana gang Continental Drifters, which took up the better part of a decade. Peterson joined the Go-Go's for a tour and reunited with the Bangles; in New Orleans, Cowsill focused on solo music. Until 2012, the Psycho Sisters were on pause.
"Up on the Chair, Beatrice" opens with "Heather Says," a song about an iron-fisted fourth-grade bully that Cowsill sang on her family band's 1971 album "On My Side," which was creepy and dark as sung straightfaced by a 12-year-old, and gleefully disturbing as performed by grown women.
"It brings you into the Psycho world," Peterson explained. "We're starting in the fourth grade together, and it's only going to get weirder." It closes on another Psycho-bent whim; a shambling, lightly roughed-up cover of Harry Nilsson's "Cuddly Toy," a hit for the Monkees on the 1967 "Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd." and the result of some frantic misdirection on Peterson's part during the making of "Up on the Chair, Beatrice." Davy Jones, Cowsill's favorite Monkee, passed away while the two were ensconced at Dockside Studios in Maurice, La., making the album, and Peterson managed to protect her friend from the news for three full days. When the bomb finally had to drop, the musicians processed together by waxing the song.
The rest of the album's 10 tracks are the kind of bright, jangly powerpop that Cowsill and Peterson have long done well – rootsy strings and the spookily glorious twining of their vocals, weaving together as naturally as the two finish each other's sentences. They're also all vintage to the era that they first started writing together – no new material – songs in the voices of women in their twenties and early thirties, full of lots of romance, angst and vigor.
"We decided back then that when we make a record - who knew it was going to be a century later - but we decided it was going to be called up 'Up on the Chair, Beatrice.' When the moment came to do it, we decided to just use those songs, those songs that never had a chance to be fleshed out and brought to forefront," Peterson said. "It seemed more fun."
"Those songs - when I'm singing them, I remember exactly what I was on about," said Cowsill. "I enjoy that at our age we're singing these songs, I think it's hysterical. I imagine someone hearing us who doesn't know, and thinking, what are these women singing about? They sound like they just started dating, did they just get out of a convent?"
Also, Peterson added, for all intents and purposes the band was put into suspended animation 22 years ago; though the two musicians have played on and off as a duo since then, the Psycho Sisters have only just been reawakened.
"We haven't been this band all those years," she said. "So who are we? We're still those girls, we're still them."