A Conversation with The Psycho Sisters' Vicki Peterson and Susan Cowsill
Mike Ragogna: Finally, after twenty-two years in the making, The Psycho Sisters' album Up On The Chair Beatrice is released. So was there at least a teensy respite between when the recording started and finished?
Susan Cowsill: Well, about two of those twenty-two years. We actually started this process in the Spring of 2012. [laughs]
MR: So what is this twenty-two years stuff? Is that when you were starting to create the material for this?
Vicki Peterson: Yes, it was. We started writing it twenty-two years ago, and did a couple of demo-type recordings. We recorded a forty-five, which actually exists out there in the world and we did do one session with Kevin Salem recording a few of these songs for fun, with no thought of releasing that or anything.
MR: How far back does your friendship go? What's the origin story of said Psycho Sisters?
VP: I'll give you the quick chronology. We met in 1978, but really became lifelong friends around 1988.
SC: Wasn't it '85? My mom was dying.
VP: No, it was after that.
SC: Huh. I believe her, she's the smart one.
VP: It was around when we were making that last Bangles record.
SC: Right, I remember now. But the "in the making" thing is that we fully intended every single day of every single year to make the record. We wrote all these songs and every day we said, "We've got to make this record," and every day we didn't, so that's in the making, isn't it?
VP: That's totally in the making.
MR: That's pretty cool. But both of you have been working with your other groups and affiliations. Do you think those projects got in the way of finishing this record?
SC: Well, sure. Life gets in the way of life, every minute. You can quote me on that. We're best friends and we're sisters and it leads to this, "Oh, we'll just do it later," kind of thing.
VP: I'm the kind of person who would fret about, "We're never going to make the Psycho record are we. It's just never going to happen, we'll never do it," and Susan would say, "It'll happen when it's supposed to happen." She was very Zen about it and I think in the end she's absolutely right.
SC: She's the smart one, I'm the Zen one.
VP: That being said, nothing does happen until you decide that it's going to happen. It really wasn't until V and I both said, "Hey. Let's get 'er done."
MR: Finally, after everything that's gone into it, the time devoted to it, how do you view this Psycho Sisters project in the end?
VP: I think it's a very happy completed circle of something that has existed for a long time. I think Susan has said before that these songs deserved their day. That's one of the reasons we didn't just say, "Oh forget all that, let's just write all new stuff." We really decided, "No, these songs existed for a reason, we've never given them a chance to be heard. I also believed firmly that the first time you hear a piece of music, it's brand new. It's brand new to the listener. We didn't shape these songs in any particular way sonically, we didn't say, "Okay, we want these songs to sound as if they're twenty years old." Some people react to it and say, "Wow, it sounds like the nineties," and I'm not quite sure what that means.
SC: [laughs] I don't either! I've been reading that, too.
VP: But that being said, that might just be an implied thing because we're acknowledging the fact that that's when they were written and created originally.
SC: The truth of the matter is that they are. I wonder if people didn't know it took twenty-two years.
VP: Yeah, that's what I'm wondering; if they all thought this was completely brand new material would they still all have that resonance? But to us it's a beautiful thing to say, "Okay, we have done this." It's as if you were working on a novel for twelve years and you finally get to a point where you say, "Okay, I'm ready to have this read by the world."
SC: For me, it's interesting because through the years as an artist you're creating content and whether you want to or not it's just one of the evil aspects of being an artist is this little creature lives in your head and says, "Is this viable? Is anybody going to want to hear this? What is the point of this?" I really put a big mute button on that guy because he bugs me. I don't think art is something we should judge. It's like judging somebody's emotions. That being said, these songs aren't rocket science, they aren't going to save the planet, but they are where we were at that time. Preserving an emotion and a moment in time and like Vick said I said, giving it its due. So when I'm listening to it I say, "I remember that," and "Oh wow, how cute," or "Aw, how sad, poor her." It's like looking at a scrapbook.
VP: A scrapbook of former relationships as well, because many of these stories are based on people we used to date.
SC: Oh God, some of them are dead!
VP: Oh, yeah, there's that too. Some of them are dead! [laughs] Oh, well.
MR: Are there a couple of stories on this record that are particularly endearing to you?
VP: We're both still laughing.
SC: Wait! I want to know what you're laughing about. What story are you laughing about?
VP: Oh God, there are several. Here's a safe one. It's the song "Heather Says." The reason that is a favorite of mine is that this song goes back to when both Susan and I were eleven years old. Susan was recording this song, I was at home trying to figure it out on guitar. For my little fingers and my little brain at that time it was a mindbender. I couldn't wrap my head around where those changes were going.
SC: It was pretty sophisticated.
VP: It was confusing to me. It was one of those songs that I always wanted to master and I think all these years later I can finally play this bloody thing without making a mistake. It's also this funny thing where when that was recorded in 1971 it was a familiar story to any young girl, the schoolyard bully, the person who commanded attention and obedience from her classmates. Now it's much, much more topical because the whole idea of bullying young children is much more discussed and not something that is just dealt with on an individual basis. We talk about it now.
MR: I have a kid, and I had to have him switch schools to keep him away from bullies. But in the beginning, I admit that I was one of those people who said, "Oh, it's just one of those things that kids have to go through." It's so out of hand now.
VP: It is so out of hand. Maybe it's gotten worse, but at least we're paying attention now.
SC: I think it probably always has been going on, just like any less-than-charming aspect of a human being that's been going on forever but now we're more educated, aware of it, and look for solutions to it. That's a lot heavier than what I was going to say! [laughs]
VP: What were you going to say?
SC: Oh, no, no, no, I wouldn't want to sully this conversation!
MR: [laughs] Susan, what is your favorite song?
SC: I always find "Timberline" to be a rather amusing story.
VP: Ooh, "Timberline," that is a good one.
SC: It is a good one. Really "Timberline" never even existed until one afternoon when I was in this bad relationship. I needed to get out of the house I was in because the person I was with just wasn't cool and I needed to get out immediately. Vicki had just come out of a relationship where she had a wonderful fiancé--I say "wonderful" now but he was a pain in the ass. But I loved him. His name was Bobby and unfortunately, Bobby passed away from which cancer, Vicki?
SC: He had Leukemia and he had passed away recently and I was in a pickle at my house because I was staying with this person that I shouldn't have been in a relationship with. I called Vick and I said, "I've got to get out of here and I have to have a story," because he liked her. I don't know whose idea it was but we concocted that Vicki was ready to spread the ashes of her fiancé and I had to run immediately to be with her, we have to go up to Big Bear like now. That was all a lie. We took him with us, just to make it half-true, did we not?
VP: We did.
SC: We took the box with us. We drove up to Big Bear and we stayed in a cabin--was it called Timberline?
VP: No, no, we made that up.
SC: Okay, cool. We did go to Big Bear, we did keep the ashes of her fiancé in the car with us because we're both catholic and we stayed in a cabin up there, just chilled our heels and I did a little bit of thinking about what I should do about this relationship/non-relationship. In the process, we wrote "Timberline."
VP: We also brought the Ouija board.
SC: Yeah, we brought the Ouija board because we had some recent dead people.
VP: We talked to them!
SC: We did! In fact a lot of the lines of "Timberline" are from the Ouija board. So yeah, "Timberline" came out of absolute desperation. I think we stayed longer than we said we would and I told him, "We're writing, we're being creative, it's helping her move through grief." It was all a pile of s**t.
VP: It was one of the first songs that we wrote together, as well.
SC: That's true.
MR: Susan, you had another family member pass recently. Are you okay?
SC: Yes, I'm very okay.
VP: We're putting a big pause in the brothers going.
SC: There's been a twenty-five year moratorium declared by my brother Bob.
VP: Thank you, I appreciate that.
SC: No problem. Richard did just pass on July 8th, but yeah, I'm okay. The alternative is to not be okay and I find that tends to be a waste of energy and rude to the universe and God, to remain in a perpetual state of "not okay." I'm certainly allowing myself, in the time that it is, to be as sad as I am, but I'm certainly going to be okay, and Richard was okay. Richard felt he had done everything that he needed to do and he was ready to rock. That being said, our age group says we should all be around hanging out with each other and we're not. I can't control the universe and what it does, so the only thing I'm in control of is myself. That's all any of us has. We're all okay, in fact I'm fairly glad for him because he was in a rough spot.
MR: I was lucky enough to see all of The Cowsills--well, your mom had already passed--but I saw you guys at the El Rey in 1999 or 2000. Shirley Jones was there as the substitute mom, I guess.
VP: She's the other mom.
SC: That was the last time we were all together.
MR: Wow. So speaking of family, Vicki and Susan truly are close sisters-in-law, psycho or otherwise, huh.
VP: We truly are. I can say that for our name... We absolutely own it, live up to it, nurture it, and it gets more authentic every day.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
SC: Run away! [laughs]
VP: I don't know that there's any advice I can give because I think most young artists who are coming up today who really want to do this thing have every tool at their command to take it as far as they can. There's so much available now that wasn't available when Susan and I were first starting this, either individually or in different groups, because there's so many different ways to get your music out there. That being said, it's in some ways more complicated and difficult because of the fact that everybody can get their music and there are no gatekeepers anymore, there are very few to filter things through. I say if you really want to do this, put your heart and soul and energy every day into it and figure out what you really want to do and who you really want to reach and then just go for it. But it ain't easy, baby.
SC: I agree with everything my sister just said, but I would add to it that I concur, we are in a different time, we have eight hundred thousand more options but we also have that many more people on the planet and creative, beautiful, artistically talented, should-be-heard young people. It's a bigger, bigger world, making it harder to be individualized and heard in that way so do everything she said but bottom line? Do it because you love it. That's what you're really going to end up with the most gratification from is making the music because you have to, you need to, it's what you love, it's how you feel yourself and how you express yourself. Do it because of that first. Then you've got a shot at the rest of it following. If you're doing it just to get famous or rich or noticed or whatever those things are, you'll never be satisfied, even if you get that. It's a heart moment. You've got to love what you do. It's a long road.
MR: Futuristic social media and technology aside, are the basics of that what you would have told both of yourselves way back when, also?
VP: The lesson I keep thinking to tell younger Vicki is, "Really trust your instincts." It's something I went along with for a long, long time and a few times disregarded to my own detriment, I believe. I think listening to your instincts, and that includes what Susan was saying about following your heart and doing things because you love them, that is your truest path and that's what will get you where you need to go, whether that means you're top of the pops or not. It may not be, but it's going to be where you're supposed to go.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne