Gwen: From WWNO this is Music Inside Out. I’m Gwen Thompkins. This and every week we talk to people in Louisiana who have devoted their lives to music. We want to listen to their experiences and listen to what they are listening to, because that’s where our music comes from. This hour, singer/songwriter Susan Cowsill talks about growing up with THE Cowsills, a family band that became the prototype for televisions Partridge Family
Susan: Without The Partridge Family, I darn well tell you that nobody would remember who The Cowsills were and I did watch it. I had a crush on one of my … I had a crush on David Cassidy. This is creepy.
Gwen: Join us for “a love there is no cure for,” Susan Cowsill on Music Inside Out. ….. On the cover of the 2010 CD Lighthouse is a little girl leaning against what looks like broken brickwork on the side of an old building. The girl can’t be more than 9 or 10 years old. She’s wearing jeans and a western style shirt and tennis shoes. And she doesn’t look happy that someone is taking her photograph. She’s not smiling. That could be any little girl. In fact, she looks like the girl who played Scout in To Kill A Mocking Bird. But, it’s not Scout. It’s Susan Cowsill.
Song: Lighthouse (live)
Gwen: The irony of this beautiful song, the title track from Lighthouse is that at the time the photo we see was taken, Susan Cowsill – that tough and maybe lonely little girl – was a singer in one of the nation’s most successful musical families. The Cowsills had hits in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. But between songs like “The Rain, The Park and Other Things” and “Lighthouse,” Susan Cowsill found her way to New Orleans, where she now lives and writes songs and performs. Susan Cowsill joins us here at Elephant Quilt Studios. Not many singers have the moxie to go acapella.
Susan: You know it looks like I’m being moxie but it’s my out because I’m really not a studied instrument person. My instrument is my voice, but it looks like I’m just showing off, it’s me backing out. (chuckles) It’s like “I can’t play that but I can certainly sing it.” So, thank you and that’s the truth. I mean I didn’t write songs or learn to play the guitar till I was 30.
Gwen: And that’s well after your hits.
Susan: Correct. Well lets … do we ….
Song: Hair/We Can Fly/Love American Style
Gwen: Do you still remember the words to “Love American Style”?
Susan: Are you kidding me???? “Love Love Love, Love Love Love” We still perform it, with my brothers and people love it.
Gwen: Now that’s a great song. It really is.
Susan: Of course it’s a great song.
Gwen: It makes you cheery. I don’t know, it kind of makes you happy. The thing is, your particular lot in life, and we all have one OK, it that as a former child singer, you have to publically reconcile your past and your present. What do you think of that little girl in the picture on the cover of Lighthouse?
Susan: Well what I KNOW about her is that her brothers had a 4-piece band and wanted to be The Rolling Stones and my Dad was touting demos up to New York for them. But in the in-between times we were wild little Indians living in – on the bank of an ocean.
Gwen: You’re from Rhode Island.
Susan: Yes Ma’am That’s my other soul home. And that little girl had just learned to swim without the intertube. It wasn’t floaties, we didn’t have floaties in ’64. We had intertubes. Literally the black things with the little thingie poking up.
Gwen: And Darwin. You’re either going to make it or you’re not.
Susan: Exactly And I was just being that bad ass little girl leaning up against the rock going “Yeah, no tube.”
Gwen: No tube (chuckes)
Susan: And that followed me through my life.
Gwen: You remind me of that little kid, I don’t know if you’ve seen this movie Beast of the Southern Wild. But there’s a kid in it that is so tough. And in one part in the movie where she says, “I’m the man.”
Susan: And she goes all muscle?
Susan: I just saw it with my mother-in-law at the Britannia. I can dig it.
Gwen: Yeah, you’re tough. I like that. Ummm But the thing is The Cowsills as a band are a very interesting collection of people. As you said it began with a few brother - four brothers performing. And your Dad is sort of the manager - the guru sort of trying to steer you all. And then it ended up with six kids and your Mom and you all became the prototype for The Partridge Family.
Susan: Yes, and I’ve been trying to get in that band since I was five.
Gwen: Since the intertube.
Susan: Since the intertube. I can swim now, come on everybody. And then one day, thank God, right before The Ed Sullivan Show, YES, evidently we were in the car together and – me and my older brother Bill – and I was harmonizing to a Monkees song and he went, “OK you can sing now.” I was like, “Yea! Can I be in the band?” And so I got slung in 3 months before Ed Sullivan.
Intro to Ed Sullivan and he introduces The Cowsills Also Grey Sunny Day
Gwen: Not bad
Susan: Smart girl
Gwen: Smart girl – you have good timing.
Susan: I didn’t know I was doing it. It just kind of worked out.
Song: Indian Lake, Come On Get Happy
Gwen: The Partridge Family That was a weird, really weird
Susan: You think it was weird for you ?!! It was weird for me. I was hooked on that TV “I’m going to sit here and watch the pretend of my family, every Friday night at 8 o’clock.”
Gwen: Yes, everything was so serene, but the truth of the matter is that while that show was on, you guys were playing 200 dates a year.
Susan: We were. The Partridge Family took about 2 or 3 years to come to fruition and that show was literally suppose to be us. It wasn’t “modeled by” – it ended up modeled by. But it was our ….
Gwen: You were going to star in that show. OK
Susan: Yes And then Screen Gems came out to our house in Santa Monica and realized that it was 3 years later, number 1, so those cute little, buttoned nosed are now smoking “you know what” back in the cottage and oh they’re not really actors. I mean we weren’t. They considered myself of course and my brother Barry for actually being in it, but they also – and they’d said this from the get-go – wanted a ‘named’ actress to play the mom. And my Mother was like “Thank God.” She was not that girl. But Dad kaboshed the whole thing. It’s like “You’re not using the Mom, you’re not having the …. If it’s not our show, not it’s not our show, then give me $5 and go ahead and do what you’re going to do.” I love The Partridge Family and I did watch it. I had a crush on one of my brot… I had a crush on David Cassidy. OK this is creepy.
Gwen: How many years of therapy did that take …..
Susan: Oh honey, I’m still in. I go over in ______. We work with chakras.
Song: I Think I Love You
Susan: And you know what? And I want to say this in conclusion of The Partridge Family, I darn well tell you nobody would remember who The Cowsills were. We had a four year run, not nobody but the masses that do remember us is due to The Partridge Family.
Gwen: Yeah, but the thing is on the other hand, the songs that you guys were singing, is it humanly possible to be as happy as some of the Cowsills songs suggest? Like “The Rain, The Park, and Other Things” is happier than sunshine, pure oxygen and Santa Claus rolled up into one.
Song: The Rain, The Park, and Other Things
Susan: I’ll tell you what, I think it’s common knowledge that our lives were a dicotoment, as every one’s is. No – the fact that we were the sunshine family band makes it a little more compelling to “Holy ummumm” But happy? Yeah, that’s the deal. When – it’s music therapy. When you’re singing, playing this kind of music, that’s the joy moment and that’s the saving moment, right? I mean, “The Rain, The Park,” Artie Kornfield wrote. My brother Bill and Bob produced it
Song: The Rain, The Park, and Other Things
Susan: I mean I can’t tell you how luscious it was to stand there and sing that stuff. You know what it’s like. Music – what it does for you. So, imagine doing it and having all these people go “Oh I feel so good now.” I was like “Me too yea !” It is in that moment. That’s a real moment. You know the rest of it … life going on.
Gwen: Exactly that’s it. Life going on.
Susan: Is it possible? You’re damned skippy it is.
Gwen: I love that. Gosh I was expecting you to say something very different and I glad you said what you did.
Susan: Oh yea.
Gwen: Well let me ask you this. I know you still perform some songs with The Cowsills, what are the songs you look forward to singing?
Susan: The hits that we had were not written by us. None of them. On all the albums were interspersed orginals. And there are a couple B songs that Cowsill fans know and one of them is called “What is Happy?”
Gwen: Can you do a little bit of that for us?
Susan: Yeah. Hold on. (yaaaaaaa)
Song: What is Happy?
Gwen: Susan Cowsill is happy, baby. Stay tune for more, after the break. This is Music Inside Out. I’m Gwen Thompkins. Susan Cowsill wasn’t going to be a child star forever, so she became a singer/songwriter. Cowsill’s songs can be highly autobiographical. What we’re hearing now is called “Real Life.”
Song: Real Life
Susan: Thank you. It felt good just singing it.
Gwen: It’s true and you have a really interesting quality to your voice where you’re a woman, but as a listener I can hear a little girl as well.
Susan: Yes she’s still hovering.
Gwen: She is.
Susan: She is very annoying.
Gwen: But it’s nice. It keeps you young, I have to say.
Susan: No actually I take that back. She’s all upset now.
Gwen: Oh no is she in the room now?
Susan: _______________ I have been tested for multiplicity. Legally when I was in therapy and I started speaking this way and the woman went “Legally I have to test you for multiplicity.” I was “Go for it.”
Gwen: OK and so talk to us. We want to talk about harmony because this is something …. Uhhh …. It’s a fact about you. You’re know as one of the great harmonizers.
Susan: Thank you
Gwen: You’ve played with a number of different artists, including your family, and you have a great knack for it. And The Cowsills, as a group, had a great knack for harmony. And that’s saying something considering how many of your there were at that time.
Susan: You know you wouldn’t think the odds were in the favor.
Gwen: Exactly Why is it that .. family acts often have great harmony. Why is that?
Susan: OK My theory – I always sound like I know what I’m talking about - is that if you got the musical gene, OK, and it isn't always passed through everybody. In our family it was it was a majority, so I think if you have the musical gene to begin with and you have the kids and it gets passed then comes this magnificant DNA moment where family bands - Beach Boys, Bangles, Wilson-Phillips -
Gwen: Jackson Five
Susan: Jackson Five, The Osmonds. There’s this great DNA moment that doesn’t happen with harmonists from three different families. I think that’s the uniqueness of a family band. I mean, The Carter Family, you just name it. Name any family band and I dare you to tell me that there isn’t something incredibly, specifically unique about their blend. And how it happens? HELLO That’s a God moment. I mean you know
Gwen: One of the great mysteries.
Susan: The great mysteries, yes.
Gwen: So you just felt it.
Susan: Oh my goodness yes.
Gwen: I wanted to learn something from you, well because you’re smart about this kind of stuff. And probably lots of other stuff too. But you not only harmonize with your family. You’ve worked with Hootie and the Blowfish. You’ve worked with Jackson Browne. You’ve worked with so many other artists and some people are just damn good at it. Like Emilylou Harris. When Emilylou Harris sings with Graham Parsons you just want to stop and shut up and never sing again because they just sound like they are the same person.
Susan: I know the feeling.
Song: Love Hurts
Susan: Emilylou and Graham are a really good example. I mean he wasn’t the worlds greatest singer, and she’s awesome and very unique unto herself. OK, so coming up where I came up you learn to follow somebody in a really cosmic kind of way. Like I just shut my eyes and I just listen and I trail ‘em like a dog on a duck. You know what I’m saying?
Gwen: So romantic.
Susan: Oh you know what I mean. I’m tracking ‘em. Or here’s a much more lovely metaphor – a moonbeam on a star.
Gwen: OK so let’s say some kid comes up to you and says, “Look, I really want to learn harmony, what do I do?”
Susan: It’s the saddest thing and something I do regret from not having any professional training. I don’t have a clue.
Gwen: I’m going to ask you at least until you give us a little demo then of harmony.
Susan: Oh I feel like we’re on a game show now. Do I get a prize?
Gwen: I know but if you could just sort of show us.
Susan: Do I get a TV or a trip somewhere if I do it?
Gwen: Anything is possible on WWNO
Susan: OK Can you send this to The Voice when we’re done because I could use a record deal.
Gwen: We could totally send it to The Voice. Whatever you’re comfortable with fine by me.
Susan: What works for you?
Gwen: I can’t really sing that well. I mean, what’s a good song? A mean something very simple. What’s a good children’s song?
Susan: I like me some … “Twinkle, Twinkle” is always fun.
Song: Twinkle, Twinkle by Gwen and Susan
Susan: That’s our demonstration
Gwen: That’s amazing!! You can really …. You’re good !!! You can – Doppler radar or something.
Susan: Man I’ll tell you what, yeah …… it’s a joy.
Gwen: Tell us about that song “Avenue of the Indians” that you sing with Jackson Browne.
Susan: “Avenue of the Indians” was a song … actually the music part my husband, drummer, co-writer, Russ Broussard, he wrote the music. The song is about right before we got famous. We lived in Middletown, Rhode Island, on a street called Indian Avenue.
Gwen: You as a member of The Cowsills
Susan: Correct Me as a member of the Cowsills before we hit the road and everything went crazy. And it was our favorite last place. Where we lived on the ocean and we had the woods. And we were some grimy, gruff little urchants running. We would go out in the morning and come back when the whistle for dinner came and we built tree houses and we caught bees in jars and mashed them on the rocks and we made war with red berries and built snowmen and built tunnels and just were these kids and living like wild Indians.
Song: Indian Avenue
Susan: The song is also about the dicotamy the beautiful surreal life we were living and there was a situation going on in the family. My Dad had some major issues with alcoholism and anger. So greatest of times, scary times and then the beautiful part though, which is the bridge of it, is my brothers Bill and Barry are gone. Barry passed away during Katrina. Took a swim in the Mississippi. That’s always a good idea. And my brother Bill actually passed away the same day of Barry’s memorial. And he’d been sick for a long time. He lived up in Canada and was a great mentor, musical mentor to many and anyway so we had sort of a double wammy going on. And the guys were cremated and we took some of their ashes down to the Avenue of the Indians cuz that’s our soul spot. That’s our family soul spot.
Song: Avenue of the Indians
Gwen: That’s gorgeous
Susan: Thank you
Gwen: And Jackson Browne’s voice is easily discerned. I mean we know it’s Jackson. But you guys have a nice filigree.
Susan: It turned out and I think much to our surprise. Like I said, we were friends all through the years. Music was not our bond, until recently and it was really cool. I got to play with him at Floyd Fest, which was a first. We sang “Mouhammad’s Radio”, a mutal friend Warren Zevon song.
Gwen: Maybe you’ll do more together.
Susan: Who knows.
Gwen: Well we’re going to take a little break. This is Music Inside Out. We’re talking to singer/songwriter Susan Cowsill. Try saying that three times real fast. (chuckles) This is Music Inside Out. I’m Gwen Thompkins. Susan Cowsill is with us. We’re going to hear about the Continental Drift that brought her from Los Angeles to New Orleans for good.
Song: So Deep
Gwen: You are associated with a lot of bands but two very famous ones. The Cowsills and The Continental Drifters. And The Continental Drifters are what I call The Advengers of indie rock. Like super friends.
Susan: Uh huh Sweet.
Gwen: Like everybody come from another famous band. You’ve got somebody from the dB’s.
Susan: It’s like we’re super heros or somthing. (chuckles)
Gwen: Yeah like Wonder Woman and Batman
Susan: That’s hysterical. I could be Wonder Woman
Gwen: Why not Wonder Woman
Susan: I was trying to think who I was going to be. Keep going though.
Gwen: But there’s some body from the dB’s. You’ve got Dream …
Susan: Dream Syndicate
Gwen: Dream Syndicate, exactly. And someone from The Bangles and a Cowsill. You’re kind of a big deal.
Susan: Yeah we were …. Uh haaa … Not a big enough deal evidently, but we got together for not big deal reasons. So that’s OK. We were just a bunch of nare-do-wells living in LA and it turned into this wonderful band. My ex-husband, Peter, would have called it the ‘Buss Man’s Holiday.” And we really played our music …..
Gwen: This is Peter Holsapple
Susan: Holsapple yeah. One of my dearest, bestest friends and the father of my beautiful daughter, Miranda. And the idea was, we have a Bangle – Pop. Cowsill – Popper. We got a Dream Syndicate – ooooo underground. We got dB’s – Pop underground. All these. And then we got Carlo Nuccio, from New Orleans and Ray Ganucheau from New Orleans, so now we’ve got Louisiana.
Gwen: That’s right
Susan: And I don’t know if any of y’all heard these records, but they’re amazing.
Gwen: They are.
Susan: We were critically acclaimed. THE END.
Gwen: There you go.
Susan: And you know I – other than The Cowsills I pretty much thing that’s going to be, you know, my deal.
Gwen: Your legacy you mean?
Susan: This thing … I don’t know … maybe people get a two-timer. Fortunately or unfortunately. Probably fortunately, because I’d probably be dead by now. Because I used to be a wild child. I think you get that moment and mine came when I was 8. But my love for music, and the making a living of, which up until the last couple of years I’ve pulled off. Rent paid, kids fed, car, phone, pretty good. Camping every once in awhile, has worked out. But the Drifters rock. We re-union every once in awhile.
Gwen: Exactly. To sold out crowds I might add. But the thing is that this is a band of songwriters. So in Beatles-speak, were you John, Paul, or George
Gwen: Yes because you wrote some songs there.
Susan: I think … ooh God if any of the Drifters are listing to this – this is a toughie. Not like I say I’m like any one of them, but if I was one, I mean I wrote the least because I had just started writing and these guys, they were crazy prolific. But I think, oh God this is so hard, I feel like I’m on the Newlywed Game. I’m so afraid to say the answer in case we don’t get it right. But I feel like I was more of a George. … I won
Gwen: Yes, good answer. I thought you were George too.
Susan: You know I was just … and the Drifters there was just so many great and knowledgeable writers, I was definitely the novice, not quite like the rest of the guys kind of songwriter.
Gwen: Do you still sing “The Rain Song”?
Susan: Yes ma’am I do. It’s my “thanks for the memories,” like Bob Hope. Everybody has a signature song, right?
Gwen: Well can you sign?
Susan: I can. This song, holy moly, was one of the first songs I ever wrote. And I wrote it about this guy, who is happily married to my ex-best friend. So, figure that out. And was also covered by the Bangles and also covered by Hootie and the Blowfish, all when they were NOT having their Grammy award winning album, of course. But I like my $4.75 checks just the same.
Gwen: There you go.
Song: The Rain Song
Susan: Watermelons Sorry I do that when we’re recording _____ if I wait long enough. I know the deal
Gwen: Excellent Thanks. Know the deal That’s wonderful. What’s so interesting about your music is the fact that you’ve been in New Orleans as long as you have – is the fact that it really demonstrates that Louisiana music is all kinds of music. It’s not just R&B
Susan: Amen. It’s all kinds of people.
Gwen: or carnival music or jazz...
Gwen: or whatever, it’s part of rock and it’s fantastic
Susan: I have to hope that the rest of the world knows that, you know what I mean. And good Lord knows we love our indigenous sound but But and all music is bread out of an indigenous sound. Right? Starts in one place and the melding of it is beautiful. I mean there are so many songs that I would have never written in my life had I not moved down here and hung out with Carlo and Ray and sat in with all these people here. I mean it’s been quite an education. And sometimes it’s hard to be here. Especially after you know what.
Gwen: The hurricane Katrina experience.
Susan: Yeah Hurrican Katrina was pretty intense and it was already a pretty intense city. I mean it’s not an energy that is – which I think is part of the magic.
Gwen: There is a song on Lighthouse, one of the reasons I just love this album is that it captures what it is like, not to live with hard times, but what it’s like to live with catastrophe. So, there’s a song on it that you sing called “Oh NOLA” it is – it’s at a perfect pitch.
Susan: You know we’re here rebuilding and I was really having a tough time. And so was Russ. So Russ and I discussed – you know we were going to go to Pennsylvania and build Amish furniture and home school the children and eat off the land. And we really made a decision to go and so I started writing this song as a kind of ‘Dear John’ letter to New Orleans because I felt terrible about it, but felt like it was the right thing to do. So that’s “Oh NOLA” and the story goes I know cuz we never left. No crying.
Song: Oh NOLA
Gwen: That was great. How do you know when you get a lyric just right. That last line that you have “Maybe I’ll find another way” that’s your way out.
Susan: I had to find a way out.
Gwen: You know. Everybody feels that way about New Orleans who have lived here, really lived here, like it will try your last nerve. For one reason or another. OK
Gwen: And you are basically packing your car and then all of a sudden you’re thinking welllllllllll
Susan: And turning back around.
Gwen: In that little line, you introduce hope.
Susan: Correct, cuz there’s always hope.
Gwen: There’s always hope
Susan: That’s the bottom line.
Gwen: Well with that in mind I want to ask you this next question, which we ask all of our guests ….
Susan: Uh oh I forgot about this.
Gwen: … to think of a song you heard a lot coming up that you particularly loved. Somebody else’s song. You’re not receiving any royalities from it. You’re not going to put it on your next album. Something that meant something to you and maybe still does and help push you in the direction that you ultimately find yourself as a singer/songwriter
Susan: OK Well my first favorite songs that made me feel so good, that just felt so good to sing along with this guy on the radio and the emotion that I had from it and the joy, and it’s kind of a sad song, but that’s neither here nor there, is called “This Guy’s In Love With You”
Gwen: I love that song
Susan: OK Everybody kneel and pray right now.
Gwen: I love that song. So that’s Burt Bacharach and Hal David, right?
Song: This Guy’s In Love With You
Gwen: Susan Cowsill, singer/songwriter long time performer – life long performer and survivor.
Susan: That would be me
Gwen: And that concludes this weeks’ edition of Music Inside Out.