For their debut full-length recording Up on the Chair, Beatrice - due Aug. 5 via RockBeat - the Psycho Sisters chose material dating from the early ’90s −− their fledgling days of writing and performing.
As member Susan Cowsill says, “We don’t do anything in a normal way.” She was in the 1960s family band The Cowsills and teamed up with friend and Bangles’ guitarist Vicki Peterson in 1989. In the early ’90s, as the Psycho Sisters, they toured Europe and the U.S. with Giant Sand and Steve Wynn.
In demand as celebrity background singers (Jules Shear, Belinda Carlisle, Hootie and the Blowfish), the Sisters were not focused on their own recording career. For a decade, the two were members of the all-star Americana ensemble the Continental Drifters, which included the Dream Syndicate’s Mark Walton, guitarist Robert Mache, the dB’s’ Peter Holsapple and New Orleans drummer Russ Broussard (Cowsill’s husband).
By 1994, Peterson replaced a pregnant Charlotte Caffey on a Go-Go’s tour, and soon after returned to performing and recording with the newly reunited Bangles, while Cowsill began a solo career.
Over the years, the two would occasionally talk about recording, but the timing was never right. Finally, in 2012 they found themselves, in Cowsill’s words, “not doing anything for a minute.” They convened to make a Psycho Sisters album. Cowsill found the process “sweet and cathartic,” while Peterson describes the recording experience as “absolutely magical.” The resulting album conveys that enchanting spirit.
When the pair first started singing together, they marveled at the way their voices effortlessly formed a sibling-like blend. It was “seamless and freakish,” says Peterson. She confesses that she sometimes has a hard time deciphering who’s singing what when listening to old cassette recordings of their songs.
Peterson and Cowsill were digging through those old cassettes after deciding to record only earlier songs for their debut instead of composing new ones. “It was something we needed to do; they deserved their day in the sun,” Cowsill states, adding that the CD serves as “a memory book of our time together.”
The “bittersweet romantic” tales address a young woman’s struggle to find the right guy (“Never Never Boys,” “Timberline”) or move past the wrong one (“This Painting,” “What Do You Want From Me”). The playfully twisted love song “Fun To Lie,” meanwhile, exemplifies, in Cowsill’s words, “our smart aleck pixie selves.”
Cowsill compared the early writing sessions to a sleepover party for 14-year-old girls. They would get together and talk for hours, fueled by popcorn, cookie dough and champagne.
Beatrice begins and ends with two tunes — “Heather Says” and “Cuddly Toy” — that nod to the past in other ways. Cowsill sang the fourth-grade-bully tale back in 1971 and Peterson notes, with admiration, that her “sister” still sings it in the same key. Cowsill had a life-long crush on Davy Jones, who sang the Nilsson-penned “Cuddly Toy” in the Monkees. Jones died just a few days into the Psycho Sisters’ recording sessions, so they decided to include the song (which they’d performed in live shows) as a tribute to him.
Peterson and Cowsill wanted Beatrice to feel like it had been created in 1992 −− as if it were, according to Peterson, “a ghost album, lost in the ether for 22 years.” In fact, the only band photos on the CD are from the Psycho Sisters’ 1992 European tour with Giant Sand. Both women acknowledge, however, that the disc would have been very different if they’d actually recorded it in 1992.
“We would have had different expectations and worried more back then,” Cowsill admits, adding, “it wouldn’t have sounded as authentic.” Peterson says that the songs have grown up along with the women themselves. Cowsill’s vocals, she explains, hold just the right touch of world-weariness now to make “Never Never Boys” work in a new way.
While Beatrice shimmers with a ’90s-jangle rock feel, the music also projects a vibrant freshness, reflecting the fact that most of these songs were previously only performed by the duo. Fleshing out the songs with a full band in the studio was a creative delight.
A big dilemma for Cowsill and Peterson, who co-produced the disc, was deciding which drummer should play on which song. Both are married to drummers: Cowsill to Broussard and Peterson to John Cowsill, Susan’s brother. Cowsill jokes that Peterson married her brother so that the Psycho Sisters would actually become sisters.
The band name came about by accident. When Peterson and Cowsill played their first gig at Los Angeles’ Roxy Theater in 1991 (sharing a bill with the Cowsills and Shonen Knife), they hadn’t yet chosen a name. The two, however, did perform in their nightgowns — although neither woman remembers exactly why. The late L.A. music scenester Bill Bartell (to whom the CD is dedicated) dubbed them the Psycho Sisters that night. Peterson thought it was “too good to change,” while Cowsill states, with a chuckle, that they certainly have “lived up to their name.”
The ladies used Kickstarter to help fund this CD, and their campaign exceeded its goal. “It was very gratifying,” Peterson says, “to know that people remembered the Psycho Sisters. It’s almost like we’ve been this mythical being and now we’re real.” They are thrilled with Beatrice −− “we made the record we wanted to make for ourselves,” proclaims Cowsill −− and hope that the music resonates with listeners.
In the future, the pair plans to tour, although they admit it is unclear as to how they will be performing (as a duo or with a larger combo, acoustic or electric). One thing is certain, however: it won’t be another 22 years before the Psycho Sisters return with their sophomore album.