The way Susan Cowsill tells it, she spent much of her life running — from her past, from her personal relationships, from finding her own voice. She remembers life in Los Angeles when Peter Holsapple, later her husband, asked her to go into therapy, a first. She agreed. The routine went like this: He dropped her off, she waved goodbye, and then she’d walk around and return an hour later when he’d come to pick her up.
How was therapy? Therapy was just super, she’d say.
Many years later, after her divorce and the breakup of their band the Continental Drifters, Cowsill showed up in therapy, this time hauling herself in. And there, she stayed put. The process helped bring forth the songs of Just Believe It, her debut solo album, released in October on Blue Corn Music.
“I just stopped,” she said. “I put my feet on the ground and I took a deep breath and asked, ‘Who the fuck am I?’”
The album’s complex emotions, alluring pop hooks and rootsy instrumentation reflect a lifetime in music that traces back to when she was seven and sang in the Cowsills, a family band that included her five brothers and their parents.
Although the TV treatment of their musical household translated into the wacky predicaments of the Partridge Family, real life was not as cheery. The band had four Top-10 hits in the late ’60s, but while Cowsill, now 46, remembers a childhood full of “beauty and joy,” there was “also a lot of terror and chaos,” she says. “Dad was an abusive parent. The irony isn’t lost that the happiest band in America was getting their asses kicked.”
Cowsill grew up a self-confessed “wild child” in Los Angeles, collaborating with her brothers on projects that were either shelved or little heard. She never set to work on her own set of songs, though she had the opportunity. In 1978, when she was 18, Columbia approached her for a solo album, an opportunity she turned down. “Had I taken it, I would be dead right now,” she says. “They also didn’t want my brothers, and I wasn’t about to abandon that ship.”
In the late 1980s, after singing on albums by Nanci Griffith, Dwight Twilley and others, she joined the Continental Drifters, a group of mostly New Orleans expatriates interested in roots rock, 1960s pop and multiple harmonies. The group relocated to New Orleans thirteen years ago. She and Holsapple married, but later divorced in the wake of the band’s third album. In 2001, Cowsill left the Drifters along with drummer Russ Broussard; they married soon afterward.
The personal and professional upheavals drove the pair to Bourbon Street, where they joined the Bonoffs, a band with a wide repertoire of tourist fare. In quick time, Cowsill became the leader. For two years, night after night, she sang “Brown Eyed Girl”, “Jambalaya” and other standards.
Although her friends cringed at the gig, for Cowsill it was a catharsis. After a lifetime of contributing to bands, she was finally stepping up front and center. “I learned a lot about being brave and standing up and leading,” she said. “I lot of people said, ‘That must have been awful.’ But it was like school.”
Soon, she knew it was time to record her own album. “I had to live the story before I could write it,” she says. She and Broussard raised funds for the studio time; though there were supplemental sessions in Los Angeles and New York City where friends Lucinda Williams and Adam Duritz recorded guest vocals, most of the recording was done at Dockside Studios in Maurice, Louisiana. Throughout the process, they had a single directive: Can we make as good a record as the Drifters? “That’s a tall order,” she acknowledges.
Today that leisurely time in the Louisiana woods seems like a lifetime away — Cowsill, Broussard and bandmembers Chris Knotts and Rob Savoy are currently on a never-ending tour outside New Orleans as the city is caught in a stranglehold of hurricane destruction and disease. She and Broussard lost countless personal possessions — photographs, instruments, clothing — that were stored on the first floor of their house, and they’re afraid the upstairs will be stained by contamination upon their return. What’s worse, she reported, is that her brother Barry, also a New Orleans resident, remained missing as of late September.
For now, there is talk of temporarily relocating to Nashville while playing shows with instruments loaned to them by Jackson Browne, a friend. “What we can do is play our music and try to soothe the hurtful souls,” she says.
Cowsill said she recently went to a flea market and purchased a single Christmas ornament. “For our new life,” she said. “That’s our hometown. I am going back.”