The two long-time friends--now family members--revisit The Psycho Sisters on their new album, "Up on the Chair, Beatrice."
The Psycho Sisters have existed in theory far longer than in practice. Susan Cowsill and Vicki Peterson were friends at musical loose ends in the early ’90s in Los Angeles, and singing together seemed like a thing to do. The duo was sidelined when Cowsill and Peterson became members of The Continental Drifters, but they occasionally played Psycho Sisters shows after they moved to New Orleans. More than 20 years later, they finally got around to recording their first album, Up on the Chair, Beatrice, and they’ll play their New Orleans CD-release party Friday night at Chickie Wah Wah.
That capsule history makes everything sound more intentional than it was. Both agree that there has been little deliberate about The Psycho Sisters, starting with the duo’s origin. “My band of the previous 10 years had broken up, by fiancé had just died, Now what next?” Peterson says. “It fell into this lovely moment where we both did need something.”
Cowsill’s career has never been overplanned, and she laughs when she describes their writing sessions: “Four hours of talking, then Oh yeah, let’s write a song.”
The Psycho Sisters are the natural extension of their friendship, which dates back to the late ‘70s. Onstage as in conversation, the two riff off each other, cracking each other up with jokes that have years-old roots in their history together. That has given Psycho Sisters shows a very casual vibe until the two start singing. Even then, things don’t get serious but their voices come together with precision and personality. “We had what sounded like a genetic blend from the first time we sang together,” Peterson says, and on Psycho Sisters songs, that creates a two of us against the world effect. They sang back-up with friends—The Continental Drifters, Giant Sand, Steve Wynn—but those gigs were also more about hanging out than career maintenance.
Cowsill and Peterson only did four Psycho Sisters shows in Los Angeles, one of which had them opening for the Japanese all-woman punk band Shonen Knife. “It was the two of us on guitar which means it was really her on guitar since I was just learning how to play,” Cowsill says, laughing. “We relied heavily on our vocals.”
When The Continental Drifters invited Cowsill and Peterson to join, “The Psycho Sisters took a back seat in our world at that point,” Peterson says, but the musical entity remained a part of their identities. They revisited it occasionally, whether to play in New Orleans or to talk about doing more Psycho Sisters stuff some time in the future. When Peterson moved back to Los Angeles to reunite with The Bangles in the early 2000s, The Psycho Sisters went on a hiatus from the stage but not from their minds. “We will do it when it’s right,” Cowsill would say, and they’d talk about it periodically, but the time never quite seemed right. Peterson married Cowsill’s brother John in 2003, so the two are now genuinely related, but schedules, lives, and logistics conspired against a Psycho Sisters album until last year when the two went into Dockside Studio in Abbeville to record Up on the Chair, Bernice.
“The one intentional guiding standard we applied to this record was that we didn’t want to write new songs,” Peterson says. Both felt it was important to put the first songs they wrote in the world so that there’s a context for future Psycho Sisters songs. New songs “would reflect us now,” Cowsill says, and they both thought it was important to give the songs that had been such a part of their lives their moment in the sun.
The songs don’t show their age. There’s certainly no attempt to make them au courant, but neither are the lyrics obviously the product of women 20 years younger. Some songs jangle, others are strummy, others have moments that crunch, but Cowsill and Peterson love pop music first, and their choice to cover Harry Nilsson’s “Cuddly Toy” says much of what you need to know. The arrangements flesh out the songs with just enough additional instrumentation to give their voices proper support, but the voices are the show, and the two found it easy to pick up the songs where they left off.
“As difficult as it was to get to the moment when we said, Okay, let’s do it, once that happened it became a very natural process,” Cowsill says. Recording didn’t require them to plug into their younger selves; it only needed them to tap into their relationship. “I keep thinking about it as a ghost record that always existed in time; now it’s materialized,” she says.
“It’s like Christmas decorations!” Peterson says, laughing.
They did have to go through the old cassette tapes with demos of the songs to make arrangement decisions, but even that was fairly simple and required only one pass through. Cello here? Yep. B-3 here? Yep. “It was the easiest record on many levels that I’ve ever been on,” Peterson says.
Now that The Psycho Sisters have one album done, they’re thinking about another. The time they’ve spent working on Up on the Chair, Beatrice and listening to it has fueled their songwriting. Peterson has some new songs that she thinks are probably Psycho Sisters songs, and even though Cowsill’s writing for a new solo album, some of her new ideas sound like songs for her and Peterson.
“That’s inappropriate and quirky,” she says, dramatizing the decision-making process. “Psycho Sisters!”