New England native and nationally renowned singer-songwriter Paula Cole started singing around the house even before she began to talk, making up her own nonsensical lyrics as her musician father played blues progressions on the guitar. Cole believes every voice is unique. She says, “I’ve just been trying to find my voice all these years. Music has always been my first language. Music is the language of all species, from birds to peeping tree frogs. I sang before I spoke, so it’s natural that I am who I am doing what I do.”
Not unlike other singer-songwriter-musicians, Paula grew up in a family among a generation of musicians where music was fun and self-made. That was the initial spark and driving force behind her pursuit of a musical career. According to her, this allowed her to achieve the unfulfilled dreams of many former family members, especially the women, who never got to achieve their dream or their own voice to which she was very aware.
Paula Cole was born and raised in the seaside town of Rockport, Massachusetts. The daughter of an artist/schoolteacher mom and a biology and ecology professor dad who also played bass in a polka band. She attended Rockport High School, was president of her senior class, and attended Berklee College of Music where she studied jazz singing and improvisation under jazz scat vocalist Bob Stoloff. After a quick listen to Bob Stoloff Teaching Scat Singing one can then begin to appreciate the connection between Cole’s vocal origins at home and her studies at Berklee. Inspiration was key to her success. According to Cole, growing up in such a small town was a bit isolating but that boredom, frustration, and isolation was exactly what generated a fire under her that eventually spawned a storied and stellar career.
Post-Berklee, Cole moved out to San Francisco to begin working on song ideas and to build a home studio, the result of which led to her 1997 top-ten Billboard Hot 100 song, “Where Have all the Cowboys Gone” that reached number eight. That song ended up on her second album entitled This Fire and was nominated for a Grammy which Cole doesn’t consider her favorite accomplishment in life and in fact, she recalls, “That night was laden and confused yet amazing.”
Before all that began, her first big break arrived when Peter Gabriel invited her to perform on his 1992-1993 world tour which helped catapult her career into the mainstream. Shortly thereafter, she recorded her 1994 debut album Harbinger on the indie label Imago. That album featured local guitar genius Kevin Barry and Maine-born session drummer Jay Bellerose, both of whom were fellow Berklee students with Paula. Shortly after its release, Imago folded and subsequently promotion for Harbinger was almost non-existent, shattering her expectations.
One poignant, self-reflective, and noteworthy song from that album was about heartbreak and loss which Paula delivers with convincing emotion with just voice and piano. The song, “I Am So Ordinary,” was released as a single. Another noteworthy song from Harbinger was “Hitler’s Brothers.” While not particularly destined for the Billboard Hot 100, Paula manages to hit the current political climate square in the gut with lyrics such as “Hitler’s brothers are on the rise, they’re wearing everyday disguises, in camouflage or business suits, checkered aprons, combat boots.” It was powerful then and even more so nearly thirty years later.
Looking back at that debut, Paula reflects, “I was depressed, but ultimately learned that it was me and the music and I loved to be in that place. I think music keeps us childlike and open to new experiences. I look back at Harbinger and I see the poignancy and I feel its adolescent point of view. The flower has opened, been in the sun, and is unafraid. I’m taking more chances and I’m bold and proud.”
That pride and boldness took shape in a more distinctive form with her next and first major-label release, the aptly titled This Fire, which Cole self-produced and again not only included local musicians Kevin Barry and Jay Bellerose but also Brookline native and bassist extraordinaire Tony Levin. That album propelled her into the spotlight driven by her hit song “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone,” which looks at marriage from a woman’s perspective along with much acerbity and wit. Verses are witty and spoken, the pre-choruses are quite acerbic, and the chorus is sung with fervor demanding an answer to the main question posed by the song’s title. According to Paula, she was listening to XTC at the time and appreciated their wit, cleverness, and sarcasm and thought it would be interesting to use those qualities in a woman’s point of view in a song. That same year, she scored another hit from this album with the single “I Don’t Want to Wait,” popularized as the theme to the television hit Dawson’s Creek.
Paula’s career also took flight on another venture she participated in between the summers of 1997 to 1999 along with Sarah McLachlan and Lisa Loeb called Lilith Fair, a concert and traveling music festival. Lilith Fair raised over $10 million for charity. Artists that appeared with Lilith Fair over that period numbered in the hundreds, but the concept eventually faded away by 2011 as audience views and expectations changed.
Even with all that exposure and a hit record, Paula claimed she didn’t feel famous and that has caused her to look more inward. Her third album, titled Amen, was released in 1999. That found her broadening her sound with more hip-hop styled textures but it wasn’t as popular as This Fire. That, along with more inward soul searching and reflection, caused her to decide to drop out of the musical limelight and focus on raising her daughter. Thus began a seven-year, musically dry period apart from a greatest hits album entitled Postcards From East Oceanside, released in 2006 and which contained two new songs – “Tomorrow I Will Be Yours” and the title track.
In 2007, Paula released her fourth and modestly popular album Courage, after which she began touring more regularly, and then recorded her fifth album entitled Ithaca in 2010 for the Decca label. Her next album project in 2013, entitled Raven, was crowdfunded and self-released on her own 675 Records label. This was a turning point in terms of recordings and in 2015 Paula released the album 7, a live in-the-studio acoustic session with her original band members and which she considers her favorite album – enough to re-release it as an LP in opaque white vinyl. According to Cole, “I’m very proud of it. These are entirely live performances, without overdubs by the band. The only overdubs are my vocals, and my requisite Albert Hitchcock appearance, my clarinet.”
In 2016, she released another live album. This Bright Red Feeling, and in 2017 she released the crowdfunded and jazzy Ballads, an album chock full of cover tunes that have influenced her over the years including a moving and hauntingly smooth and sensual version of “Blue Moon,” the Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart classic from 1934. That album debuted at number ten on the Billboard jazz albums chart. In 2019, she recorded the human-rights driven album entitled Revolution, an acclaimed collection of original tunes.
That brings us to her most recent release entitled American Quilt. Here’s another covers album with elements of blues, jazz, rock, and country that harkens back to her beginnings. A tapestry of songs as Paula explains: “I wanted this album to reflect a patchwork of music from the cities and the mountains, the fields and the rivers from movies to melodies that traversed oceans, centuries, cultures, and continents – sewn together with our collective heartstrings.” As on previous albums, Cole was joined by her longtime family of musicians, including drummer Jay Bellerose and guitarist Kevin Barry, collaborators since the trio’s early days at Berklee. Says Cole; “We toured all through the ‘90s together and they’ve been on most of my albums and tours. They’re truly my family. I wouldn’t be who I am without Jay Bellerose and Kevin Barry. They’ve given me bravery and given me heart.”
Hard to pin down in terms of musical genres, it seems Paula has experimented with them all throughout her career. Like abstract painting, there’s no explanation necessary except to listen and draw from her work whatever inspiration you may derive and simply enjoy the journey. And here’s hoping that her musical journey continues to expand. For those interested in further detail, there’s a great 2018 interview with Paula from News Center Maine: New Center Maine – 2018 Conversation with Paula Cole.
Paula Cole’s Discography
|Seven Year Gap
|Postcards From East Oceanside
|This Bright Red Feeling
(by Karl Sharicz – September 2022)