Jon Dee Graham, Freedy Johnston and Susan Cowsill have acclaimed solo careers, but in their debut as the Hobart Brothers and Lil’ Sis, they were average. “It was our first time playing together,” Cowsill says. They had recorded their album, At Least We Have Each Other, a year earlier, but they’d never played live together, much less with a rhythm section. Cowsill had come to Austin for South by Southwest 2011 with her husband, drummer Russ Broussard, and Graham was there with his bass player, Andrew Duplantis. “He’d been having his eye on the gig all along and asked, ‘You want some bass?’” Graham says.
Playing through a PA-on-a-stick in Mother Egan’s, an Irish pub by virtue of the Guinness wall hangings, even the best musicians can seem ordinary as they work out rhythms on the fly in a room whose cement floor blurred the words. Still, it worked well enough. Fans, writers and industry types hung around to talk with them after the set.
The Hobart Brothers and Lil’ Sis story started two years before when Johnston moved to Austin and started playing. Graham was a fan who wore out his vinyl copy of Can You Fly—one of the great guitar pop albums of the ’90s—and invited himself onstage to play lap steel at one of Johnston’s gigs. “All of a sudden, I had Jon Dee Graham in my band,” Johnston says. “It was beautiful.”
They bonded over weekly gigs and war stories. “We would talk about our days working in restaurants,” Johnston says. That led to the band’s family name, in honor of the industrial dishwasher both had worked at in restaurants.
The Hobart Brothers moved from a cool idea to something to act on during 2010’s South by Southwest, when a friend brought Cowsill to see Johnston and Graham. She had met Johnston during her Continental Drifters days, and he knew of her. “I’ve never heard anybody sing like that,” he says, and he thought of trying to get her for his 1999 album, Blue Days Black Nights, but nothing came of it.
“I saw on his list that he had ‘Wichita Lineman,’ which got me excited because I’m a huge Jimmy Webb fan,” Cowsill says. She sang it with him, then when Graham started to perform Big Star’s “13” in tribute to Alex Chilton, who’d died just days before, Cowsill gestured and he invited her up to sing as well.
“It was beautiful,” Graham says. “We were both tearing up onstage. At the end of that night, she was a member of the band. That’s when the record became serious, when me and Freedy brought Sis on board.” She met the occupational requirement, having worked two weeks waitressing at an IHOP, including a pick-up shift at the Hobart.
The recording session followed shortly with the three holed up at Top Hat Recording in Austin. None are eager or easy collaborators, but they found a way to write together anyway. Graham and Johnston had a head start; they’d begun working some songs out via email after Johnston moved to New York City. “He writes in a different way than I do, and these were full lyrics that he didn’t have any music for,” Johnston says. “I’ve just never been confronted with something like that, so that was the creative and the growing part on this project for me. I was thrown into a completely different role.”
“I write in all different ways,” Graham says. “A lot of times it’s lyrics first. I think that was the surprising thing for Freedy because he’s melody first. He and Sis both are these brilliant natural singers, so melody occurs to both of them first. I’m not a brilliant natural singer. I have to hew it out of stone, so the words frequently are the easiest part for me.”
For “I Am Sorry,” Johnston had a starting point: “Can you come get me / at the Citgo by the airport.” That started the ball rolling. “We all got our note pads out and went in the studio and sat around, and there are photos of it actually,” he says. “It’s funny. We were like first graders bent over our pages.” They worked through the narrative as someone literally and figuratively tries to undo the moment when he stormed out of the house.
“Fred came up with the line, ‘Forget everything I said,’” Graham says. “I looked at Fred and went, ‘You know on his way out the door he broke something. Maybe a window or a wedding picture. And Fred was like, ‘Hell yeah. He threw the wedding photo through the window.’ That’s where that line, ‘I’ll put the frame back together / if I can find all the pieces’ came from.”
“Fred had the line, ‘This is just a promise,’ and I added, ‘and I am just a man,” Cowsill says.
“Then Sis comes up with the melody for the chorus part and it was done in 45 minutes,” Graham says. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Each one of us contributed equally to this amazing thing that didn’t exist 45 minutes before. It was just like that, written in real time,” Graham says. “It was pretty incredible.”
For Cowsill, the moment of truth came on the last day when Graham and Johnston had exhausted the lyric fragments and unclaimed melodies they brought to the session and told her it was time for her to write a song. Unaccustomed to writing on demand, she balked until Graham sent her to her room to try. “J.D. wrote up this little cartoon—he does these things with bears—and slipped it under the door admonishing me,” Cowsill says. “The bear is saying, ‘I’m Susan Cowsill and I’m scared and I’m nervous and I can’t write songs like this and I’ve been on Ed Sullivan.’ It was like the first time my brothers told me to jump off a pier in Newport. Everybody was swimming and I’d just learned to swim. They were all at the bottom of this pier saying, ‘If you don’t jump in, you’re not a Cowsill.’”
She emerged with “I Never Knew,” which addressed the new family she’d found in Graham and Johnston. “That song makes me feel like I really love life,” Johnston says. “The record is lifted up by it.”
The album’s title reflects Graham’s tendency toward gallows humor, and the desperate place that sparked it.
“When we started making the Hobarts, Jon Dee and I were kind of pissed off at the world,” Johnston says. “When I was living in Austin, I was kind of on this odyssey trying to get my life back together.”
“It got very personal in that week and a half,” Cowsill says. “There were a lot of needs being met that weren’t all professional.”
After the Hobarts’ first gig at Mother Egan’s, they played a few more shows before a Friday afternoon party at the Continental Club. That afternoon at the club on South Congress, the songs and the band came to life. They knew the songs well enough to add new details in their performance, and the rhythm section added muscle. Graham’s “Almost Dinnertime” told the chilling tale of how someone starts out playing tag as a kid and ends up sleeping in a car in New York City, but the song found solace when the three textured voices came together in harmony for the chorus. It was clear that they’d found something with the addition of Broussard and Duplantis. “I remember looking around at the others onstage, and thinking, ‘Fuck, this is actually working!” Graham says. “I think this might leave the ground!’”
But that posed a problem: What to do with the album they’d cut?
Graham didn’t want to recut it. “The recording process is supposed to be a snapshot of a particular intersection of time and talent,” he says. Johnston felt strongly that they had to. “We are a band,” he says. “It’s truth in advertising.” Cowsill was ambivalent, but the attempts to find someone to put out the album made the decision for them. “One label dismissed it as demos,” Cowsill says.
They raised money through Kickstarter to return to Top Hat, with Broussard and Duplantis. The results aren’t as intimate, but they’re also less demanding, not relying solely on the voices and words. “When we went back in and recut tracks with Russ and Andrew Duplantis, undoubtedly those are superior versions,” Graham says. “The accurate snapshot was the one that we did in the lounge. I certainly see how it works in our favor to put something out that’s a little bit more polished, complete.”
Now, At Least We Have Each Other is out on Freedom Records, with both versions included on the disc. The band played Fitzgerald’s Fourth of July Festival in Chicago last year and is back at SXSW this year. They plan to play more gigs as their schedules allow, but what’s more important is that Cowsill, Johnston and Graham have gone from a conceptual family to a real-enough one. In conversation, Graham regularly refers to Cowsill as “Sis.”
“I’m back on my feet and life is great, but that was a passage there,” Johnston says. “The Hobarts started at a low point for me, but it’s the best thing in my world right now.”