June 12, 2018 Interview – Paula Cole
Winning a Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 1998, Singer-Songwriter Paula Cole is a name nearly everyone is familiar with. Known for her distinctive singing voice and true to life songs, Cole’s talents found her major success with major hits such as “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” and “I Don’t Want to Wait.” Carving a place in music history, even still, there is more than Pop stardom to the musician as she continues to write her own story 2 decades later, creating music on her own terms and in her own light.
Returning to the music business after taking nearly 10 years away to raise her child, Cole has been more prolific than ever, releasing 4 albums since 2010, with her most recent being 2017’s Ballads. Now set to spend the summer of 2018 performing live around the USA, Cole is excited to share all of herself with listening audiences as she continues to write the next chapter in her songbook. Recently, we caught up with the multifaceted artist to talk the early days of her career, her return, her latest album Ballads, plans for a new album, plus more.
CrypticRock.com – You have been involved in music professionally for over 2 decades now. Attaining platinum-selling albums, chart-topping singles, and touring the world, briefly tell us, what has this journey been like for you?
Paula Cole – On one hand, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone I love. (Laughs) That is because the music business is perilous and hard, but I was born with this need to sing, write, tell my story, and share. It is what I am and what I do, I could not imagine another life. I have had to clearly mark out time for a personal life. My daughter, I wanted her to have a safe, loving childhood where I wasn’t taking her out on the road for me. It felt really good to take that time away from the music business. All in all, it has been a real blessing, a perilous and fantastic journey. I don’t know if I could have it any other way.
CrypticRock.com – It certainly has to be a very interesting ride. It was back in 1993, prior to your 1994 debut album Harbinger, that you went out on tour with Peter Gabriel. Looking back, what was that experience like and did it change your perspective moving forward?
Paula Cole – Yes, that tour, and knowing Peter, was a teaching experience for me. It was very humbling because I was an ardent fan, I adored his music, I adored him. I came to the conclusion swiftly that I didn’t want to be a backup singer, I wanted to be my own artist. So I would stand back and learn in every way. Of course I started with 5-star touring – being flown in business class, seeing the world, playing arenas. In one sense it was all downhill from there. (Laughs) I would come to coffee houses where nobody knew me as I sang my own material. Also, it was just eye-opening being 1 of 4 women total on that tour, there were over 60 men. Then that acclimated me quickly to the music business, as did Berklee College of Music, whose ratio at the time was 13 to 1, men to women.
I was swiftly learning many things, I was saying yes to opportunities, I would tour with Peter, come home to The States, and I didn’t stop touring for 7 years. In that time, I released my first 3 albums, toured with Peter, we released Secret World Live (1994), and I stopped when I had my daughter. It was a tremendous learning curve. I was singing and playing music I adored. I just looked at it as tremendous learning, even when it was profoundly difficult.
CrypticRock.com – You did go on to build your own name as a solo artist. It was in 1996 you released your sophomore album, This Fire, a record that really took off for you. Was the success surprising and at all overwhelming?
Paula Cole – It’s hard to know when you are in it, but now I can see I was so stressed out and was heading for a huge precipice when I see myself in videos. (Laughs) My first album, Harbinger, had some good critical acclaim. It had airplay on tastemaker radio stations, it wasn’t a huge hit, but my label folded. I didn’t have the setup to have a hit with my first album, even though I was touring with Melissa Etheridge and opening for Sarah McLachlan on the Fumbling Toward Ecstasy tour, as well as The Counting Crows.
Since my label folded, all of that critical success and hard work kind of had a temporary dip. I kept touring, even though I didn’t have a label. Coming out of the gates with my second album, I had a sense of “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?” Just based on the nature of its lyrics, which were so zany, complex, and unusual, plus the song was so hooky, I just had a sense it was going to be something.
It felt like the planets and the stars were all aligning and out came “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?” and it just kept going. “I Don’t Want to Wait” was even a longer lasting hit, it didn’t chart as high, but it was much longer lasting. Then there was the Grammys, it was all very much a sudden rush, and I’m an introvert at heart. I didn’t particularly love the loss of anonymity and all the follow-up that was going to follow having hits. Like Emmylou Harris said to me, “It just all happened too fast Paula.”
I think knowing who I am, I am very much a career artist and a live performer. Who I am, that would have been a longer, slower plateau of upward curve. It was a lot, I am lucky, but it was a lot. Anyone who knows what it’s like, it’s not so great, it can be hell. I kind of got rid of it pretty fast, I released an album that was not like This Fire, Amen (1999) was very social political, spiritual album coming from Hip Hop and Soul influences. Then I went away for motherhood. So I changed my career, and I needed to grow it again for my second career and my second adulthood, which all feels much more authentic.
CrypticRock.com – It is very interesting to hear about the roads you have taken. As you stated, you stepped away for around 7 years. Being a parent can certainly change your perspective. When returning to music, what changed for you as a songwriter?
Paula Cole – I realized that I was very blocked and spiritually, creatively, psychologically blocked. When I started writing again, it helped unblock me. I needed the writing to be my free, most empowered self. When I began writing again, I quickly realized I needed a divorce – I needed to get out of my ridiculous, unhappy marriage, and make changes to my life. With writing, you must be in a fearless zone to face yourself – it is like staring into a psychological mirror, you need bravery and that’s what the writing does.
I am very much an autobiographical writer, I worship artists like John Lennon and Joni Mitchell, and I usually write in that vein. When I started writing again it was like a profound colonic of sorts. (Laughs) I needed to make changes. I moved back to the east coast, became a single mom, and geared up to make my life right again so I could be the right kind of parent to my daughter who needed me, yet get back out into my career.
The irony was on me then, because it all happened so easily and quickly the first time. The second time it has been arduous. I couldn’t get out there, my daughter needed me, my divorce was protracted, times were changing, I had smaller audiences. It’s been so much more challenging the second time as I establish this career now which I want people to know me for the development of my catalogue and all my character. I want people to know I am an activist at heart, I stand up for social justice, I put on really great live shows, and it’s not just hits. It’s not shallow like that, I am very much a musician’s musician. I take it profoundly seriously, probably too seriously. (Laughs).
CrypticRock.com – As a songwriter, you have always come across as revealing and honest. Your most recent album, Ballads, came out in 2017 and this is really a beautiful collection of songs. Songs that are more than likely very dear to you, what was the recording process like?
Paula Cole – This was something that was on my bucket list for years. I started as a Jazz singer, I went to the Berklee College of Music with the intention of being a Jazz singer. I wanted to vocally improvise, and that is something I still work out privately. I worship at the altar of Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald – if there ever was a genius, it was she. Also, Nat King Cole too. These songs, I heard my father playing, I learned them from the Great American Real Book of Standards. I’ve had 2 record deals offered to me from Jazz labels, I’ve spent a lot long time here. I listen to Jazz a lot, I am a profound lover of it. I have been wanting to make a Jazz album for a long time.
This is not even so purely Jazz. Whatever Jazz is, that is a mystery, and open to interpretation. I wanted a rootsy take on Jazz. I wanted almost like a Muscle Shoals assembly mixing American classics, whether they be by Bobby Gentry or Billie Holiday. Most are from the ’30 and ’60s – times of hardship and change in America. Most of these were written in that period and they are songs that are not patronizing towards women like so many Jazz standard lyrics can be. They are songs that can be sung by women for women, they are just beautiful classic melodies. I dedicated it to my dad who was a musician. It was important I get this off my chest. We recorded 31 songs in 5 days, and I still have 11 songs that have not been released, I will follow-up at some point with a Ballads II album.
For now, I am working on something else, which I hope to get out in 2019, another album of originals. This is the most prolific I’ve been, when I am independent, when I didn’t have majors slow me down. On one hand, it may make your life easier, because you can just go into the studio and have it paid for, but you have to leap through so much red tape. They own everything. Now that I do it by myself it’s been good, it makes me entrepreneur-ally aware, flexs my spin in that sense. I’m free creatively, so I can generate much more quickly.
CrypticRock.com – That is positive that you have that artistic freedom. You have the ability to create and release material as you want. It will be exciting to hear new original material too.
Paula Cole – Yes, 2019, I am going to be aiming for that. I am doing pretty well, I have written 7 songs already and have already started recording. I am excited about it, it’s looking good for sometime in 2019.
CrypticRock.com – Fantastic! You have a list of shows coming up this month through July. Will the set concentrate mostly on Ballads or will it be a mix of your material?
Paula Cole – Yes, I have a lot of summer tour dates. I will be mixing Ballads with my classic hits. A little bit of a teaser, I am drawing from some songs from Harbinger and Amen that I haven’t touched on in a while. Come 2019, it’s going to be the 25th anniversary of Harbinger and 20th anniversary of Amen. It’s going to be a mix of catalog across the board – from Ballads to Harbinger.
CrypticRock.com – That sounds like it will be a very balanced show of material. Last question. We also cover Horror and Sci-Fi films on CrypticRock. If you are a fan of either or both genres, what are some of your favorites and why?
Paula Cole – I’m sorry I don’t like Horror. (Laughs) I love Science Fiction, I was a Science Fiction reading geek as a girl. I tore through every series – Foundation, Dune, The Lord of the Rings. I loved Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury. I love Star Wars, I was a Star Trek: The Next Generation geek.
As far as films, I don’t know if you would consider Horror, but I really did like Get Out (2017). It combined all these different themes and messages, I appreciated that. I feel like The Handmaid’s Tale is kind of like a Stepford Wives renovation. I think that could be cool if we made that even more Sci-Fi, I would love to do the music for that. (Laughs)
I love John Williams music, the way he created themes for each character in Stars Wars, and how much they made you feel each character. I thought that was brilliant.
CrypticRock.com – Those are all good selections. The soundtrack makes a film that more effective, there is no question.
Paula Cole – I head some interviews, and George Lucas was saying how in those early Star Wars films, it looked like these styrofoam, toy ships on the screen. Then they added the John Williams score and suddenly it became this dramatic battleship war – before it looked like a bunch of toys. (Laughs) It’s profound what it does.