April 23, 2009

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Doesn’t have to wait
Paula Cole finds new direction — on stage and off
By Katie Beth Ryan music@hippopress.com

A decade ago, Paula Cole was in her early 30s and thriving in a music industry receptive to soulful female artists in the wake of the Lilith Fair tour. “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone” and the string of hits that followed — including “I Don’t Want To Wait,” cherry-picked by Kevin Williamson as the theme song for WB teen drama Dawson’s Creek — made Cole a constant presence on the radio and on the road, and earned her a Grammy for Best New Artist. Her life then took some unexpected turns. Her third album, the spirituality-infused Amen, didn’t resonate with critics as her earlier work had, and her daughter Sky, now 7, was born with severe asthma, requiring Cole’s constant vigilance. Now Cole is living with her daughter in her hometown of Rockport, Mass., and fashioning new music with friend and manager Bobby Colomby. On the eve of her shows at Tupelo Music Hall (Thursday, April 23, and Friday, April 24), Cole spoke with The Hippo about her struggles of recent years and the direction her career is taking.

Your most recent album [Courage] marks a softer trajectory that began with Amen. Has this been a conscious move away from the raw emotion of your earlier work?

It’s funny, because now I’m starting to write material for another album and I find myself getting back to more raw feelings and raw expression. I think when left to my own devices, I tend to go there. Courage was a much more collaborative effort with Bobby Colomby…. I had left Warner Brothers and was on a hiatus, which would turn to be a seven-and-a-half-year time away from working. He coaxed me out, first singing with Chris Botti, some standards, which was just pure fun. I guess I was psychologically fragile …. Courage ended up forming itself in this gentle and eclectic way. Even though I was going through a lot, I wrote those songs when I was still married, and those songs were little white flags from the unconscious saying, “Get out.” They don’t have vitriol in them, and I was proud of that. I also enjoyed having some of my jazz influences to kind of embroider my other influences, and Bobby helped to bring that out.

You originally intended to be a jazz singer, right?

Yeah, I wanted to be a jazz singer. When I was in high school, I was a senior in high school at Rockport Public, and I would drive into Boston and I would take lessons with a faculty member at Berklee College of Music, and that’s really when I started to teach myself jazz standards, and starting to improvise, and learning chord changes to standard songs. Then, most of my time at Berklee, I was really focused on jazz, listening and transcribing Miles Davis. I thought, “I wanna be the shit” [laughs], like a female Chet Baker or something. But it just felt too difficult and it felt wrong, and I even tried writing jazz, and it didn’t come out that way. It came out more pop and modern. My first record deal offer came from a jazz label. I turned it down, and kept pursuing a more major label deal. So there you go. It’s part of me, and I very much plan on making an album of jazz standards. It’s part of me. It’s like I really am a jazz singer in a way. When I write my own original material, it’s eclectic and blended.

There was a seven-year hiatus between Amen and Postcards from East Oceanside. What was going on during this time?

I was trying to make communications with Warner Brothers and trying to make an album for them. I guess it just wasn’t meant to be. … Those songs never saw the light of day, although ... “Tomorrow I’ll Be Yours” ended up being on the greatest hits. So I wasn’t totally shut down musically … I very much felt the need to back away. I wanted to have a child, and I did, and I ended up marrying the man who made the child with me, but it was not a happy life equation at all. It just took a long time to get myself free of that. And also Sky, my daughter, she had really bad asthma [and] I just couldn’t even think about working. I had to take care of her. We were visiting the ER and I was toting around a nebulizer, and she was on four meds. It was an awful, awful time. … And now she’s better. I’m able to work, and I want to work. I need to work. I need it. I need it for my own health, my own happiness, and I won’t ever take a hiatus like that again. It’s going to be different now. I think at the age I am — I’m 41 — and it’s a different music business. I don’t think I will have a career like that ever again, and I don’t really want a career like that ever again. I want it to be more intermittent, mixed with motherhood, and more eclectic. But I’m going to keep working. I don’t want to stop again.

Tell me a little bit about your relationship with Bobby Colomby. How long have you known him and when did he come back into the mix?

I first met him in ’94. I was performing at the Roxy and there was an aftershock from the ’94 L.A. earthquake. Literally, the moment we met, we were … standing under a doorway ’cause there was a quake. I thought, “Who is this obnoxious person?” [laughs] Then I ended up doing him a favor. I sang on a jazz tune — he was producing a jazz album for a friend and I ended up singing this standard called “Call Me Irresponsible.” I didn’t even know the tune, but I was just so familiar with learning jazz tunes that I got the lead sheet and I learned it in the studio before performing it, old-school, reading it and learning it off the page. And he’s a real jazz guy. I guess he made up his mind that day that he would just help me somewhere down the road, because there were sparks in the studio that day. We had something special in our artistry together. So fast forward to, I don’t know what year it was — 2004 or 2005? Maybe it was 2005. He e-mails me out of the blue and asks me how I am. And I say, “Well, I’m OK. But I don’t have a deal anymore and I don’t know if I want to do this anymore.” That’s when he started reaching out and asking me to sing on Chris Botti’s albums, and befriended me and lured me back out and helped me find the joy in singing again. Then he single-handedly got me signed to Columbia and we started collaborating. Then I found what a musician and what a passion he has. I wasn’t even aware of that.

You’ve been through your fair share of label shakeups. How has the move to Decca gone thus far?

It’s great. I like their history — talk about eclectic! “White Christmas” is the number-one selling single of all time in recorded history. That’s a Decca record. They’ve had jazz artists, the Stones, The Who, classical. It’s a very musical label, and probably more adult label, which I like, too. I mean, labels are going extinct. We don’t know what the future holds. I just gotta keep doing what I’m doing and try to be the best I can be, and let the landscape change, and try to survive as a species.

In general, how do you think the music industry’s attitude toward women changed in the years since Lilith Fair?

I feel a little bit on the outskirts of the music business now, which is fine by me. I still think it’s a really hard place to be. This is not for the faint of heart, and it takes all of my strength sometimes to be good at this job. I’m naturally an artist. I have a basic talent, but there’s a whole other inner strength that’s required to be in this business. And it’s hard. It’s still really hard. I think it just comes in waves, and probably someone like Gloria Steinem could comment on that more eloquently than me, because you see it everywhere. I think the music business is a very non-boundaried place. It’s a place where there’s loads of potential lawsuits, so it’s probably worse and more flagrant than if you worked in software. But it comes in waves. There are times where I think it’s had a more renaissance, golden day of sisterhood and respect. It seems like the airplay lists on radio station feel a little broader. And then it gets tight again another decade or another half of a decade. I don’t know. I think that it’s just purely a reflection of the struggle that women go through their whole lives. I think we’ve seen eras of consciousness and then eras of not-so-conscious, even within my lifetime. I think it comes and goes. ... I don’t know if you’ve read Girls Like Us, a Sheila Weber book. It’s really interesting. Carole King, Joni Mitchell, they had to go through things that we didn’t have to go through, certainly, but they also got to experience a better time in music and the music business. It was a more prolific time. Gloria Steinem sometimes thinks that things have gotten a lot worse for women. So I think it’s more of a larger statement, and the music business is just some sort of crystallization for that. It will be a lifetime issue. I think being born female comes with its challenges.

How important is fan accessibility to you?

I’m not one to Twitter or Facebook yet. I need some kind of privacy, but when I reach out in my notes online, yeah, that’s kind of the only way I know to be. I usually take time after shows to meet with people … and thank them. A lot of people tell me about themselves and what the music has meant. It feels to me that there’s a really important connection there. The music is my therapy and … it becomes other people’s therapy. Music just helps all of us. Music helps people. It helps heal us. It helps us to dialogue with our unconscious. It helps us to connect with our feelings. It has a healing power that’s mysterious. It’s as though we’re all part of it at the shows. There is like this little community of love at the shows, I’m happy to say.

You’re living in your hometown of Rockport. How is it being back?

Sometimes it feels like a spiritual full circle, and that’s great, and other times I cannot believe I’m back here. And I can’t have judgment about it. I am back here, and I’m back here because of family, and that’s the most important reason. … That’s more important than being in a major city because it’s close to the music business. It means I have to schlep more to cities to make my career run. I find some kind of poetic meaning in it. I think it’s lovely.

Do people still recognize you from Dawson’s Creek?

Thankfully, that song still gets played a lot. I’m just so impressed with how the song lives on. People know the songs more than they know me certainly at this point, and I’m happy with that.


Paula Cole
When: Thursday, April 23, and Friday, April 24, at 8 p.m. (Thursday’s show also features special guest Lori McKenna)
Where: Tupelo Music Hall, 2 Young Road in Londonderry, 437-5100, www.tupelohall.com
Tickets: $45 (see Web site)