Interview with the incredible Paula Cole

My love for Paula Cole began in 1994 upon hearing her debut album “Harbinger” with the songs “Happy Home,” “Ordinary” and “Watch the Woman’s Hands.”  And then in March of 1995 I saw her for the first time live opening for Sarah McLachlan at the State Theatre in Portland, Maine. My friends and I were right up front and our jaws collectively dropped hearing Cole sing and bang on something like a pizza pan. It was a “holy shit” moment I’ll never forget and to this day I still maintain that Cole has one of the most powerful and gorgeous voices I ever hope to hear.

In 1996 Cole released the self-produced album “This Fire” and it won her a Grammy for Best New Artist. The album tore up the charts with “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” and “I Don’t Want to Wait.” And the single “Me” is still a personal theme song.

“Amen” followed in 1999 with the song “Pearl” which is even more a theme song for this writer. The album’s single “I Believe In Love” is still is a contender for a planetary national anthem as far as I’m concerned.

A lot has happened since then. Cole took a several year hiatus to care for her daughter who was born with severe asthma, went through a rough divorce and stepped way out of the spotlight. When she came back to the music world it was in a much quieter way but with no less impact in terms of the music. 2007 brought with it “Courage” followed by “Ithaca,” “Raven,” “7” and the live “This Bright Red Feeling” in 2016.

This past August, Cole released a glorious double-album  called “Ballads.” It’s all songs she loves from the 30s to the 60s from artists including Rodgers & Hart, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Bob Dylan and Bobbie Gentry to name a few.

Photo courtesy of 675 Records

I saw her play the entire album live in Massachusetts last summer and the show did not disappoint.

This brings us to now. At present, Cole is on faculty at Berklee College of Music in Boston, plays shows regularly and lives on Massachusetts’ North Shore with her family.

I got her on the phone the other day for a candid chat about music, life and turning 50  and it is with sincere joy I share this conversation.

How long have you been teaching at Berklee School of Music and what specifically do you teach?

I’m in my 5th. It’s hard to believe. I’m in the voice department. I teach singers all kinds of things; how to relate to the rhythm section, things about the voice and learning new material. The most specialized thing that I do is my songwriting class. They are very wonderful to me and I can tour as I need to.

“Ballads” has been out in the world since August. What’s your favorite song to perform live from it?

“I just know “God Bless the Child” inside and out so well it feels like hand in glove and it’s like swimming, it feels so great. And the lyric writing on those two Bob Dylan songs is so wonderful (“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “The Ballad of Hollis Brown.“) I love those. The lyrics are like mini-novels. I felt like they could be re-interpreted and blended into some of these other writers’ work. Interestingly, most of these songs are from the 30s and the 60s. With maybe just a couple falling outside those boundaries. Those were such times of social upheaval in America and great content was written through all of our suffering. I’m drawn to the angst and the suffering and the meaning.

I really appreciate that you care so much about these old songs and wanted them to have another lease on life. I can’t imagine my favorite not ever being “Ode to Billie Joe” because it’s such a good song but then I hear on ones like “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and that’s pretty awesome too and “Skylark” too. It’s just such a great record.

I can credit you for inspiring me to record “Ode to Billie Joe.”

I don’t know if you should give me that much credit.

Yeah, I would.

I’m flattered. That’s one of those songs that just never really gets old and to hear you do it is the combination of her lyrics and your vocals it’s incredible. Every once in a while, I dip my toe into a bunch of her other songs like that record she did with Glen Campbell. And I just love the fact that Bobbie Gentry’s out there somewhere. Who knows what she’s doing; if she’s a recluse or what’s happening with her but I love that somewhere out in the world Bobbie Gentry is somewhere sitting at a table drinking tea right now for all we know.

I heard she was in the San Fernando Valley somewhere.

Why hasn’t there been a documentary done about her? Or maybe there is and I don’t know about it.

I just want to give her a hug and just thank her.

And speaking of other people’s songs, did my eyes and ears deceive me or did I see a recent clip on YouTube of you covering Aerosmith’s “Dream On?” It’s fucking awesome. How long have you been doing that one for and what inspired it?

It was a Kickstarter pledge finally manifesting. It’s really fun and the audience loved it. I guess when you step over lines and barriers, you know a woman doing a big cock-rock song or a woman stepping into classic rock, it’s just much more of a man’s playing field and it used to happen when I sang “Black Dog” a lot as well. It just gets a lot of attention.

That’s awesome. I listen to some of the big classic rock stations around here sometimes and it’s awesome but it’s also frustrating because hours can go by without hearing a woman artist.

That’s right. It’s a desert. They might play Stevie Nicks but that’s it.

Or a Heart song. I love it but sometimes the feminist in me roars.

I love hearing stuff. Robert Plant when he sings and Steven Tyler when he sings, that so works for me.

Maybe I’ll start a secret fund for your next Kickstarter campaign and I’ll have you do “All My Love” because that’s my favorite Led Zeppelin song.

You’re turning 50 on April 5. What are you going to do to celebrate? But don’t jump out of an airplane, that scares me too much.

The closer I get to it the more pressure I feel. I don’t want to do anything typical. I’d like to do something that allows me to stretch and grow into some areas where I have not had growth; learning more things. Because you know in mid-life we’re kind of patterned to stay in our groove and make income. But what I’d really like to do is shake some of these chains and learn and one thing I’d really love to do is learn more whole systems design and permaculture, especially with this author named Ben Falk. He and his wife Erica have a farm in Vermont and a learning center. I tried to register for the course but I can’t because I have gigs and I can’t pull out of the shows. I decided instead of going to Paris or something I wanted to do that; I wanted to learn. I think what I’m headed for once the kids start stretching their wings and flying off independently from our nest, I would like to move to an era of more social justice work. I would like very much to work for sustainability and less plastic, less petroleum and less pigs. The three Ps; we’re addicted to those things; we’re addicted to meat eating, we’re addicted to plastic, we’re addicted to petrol. I think being a vegan – and sometimes I struggle because I fall off the wagon with dairy- but I think being a vegan is one of the most awesome and  subversive acts someone can make that creates real change. So if I can even continue that and influence more people to see the light  in that movement where you’re not participating in the holocaust of animals and you are being more conscientious about your waste and your food and what you do. I want to be on that trajectory. Yes, I’ll still make music but something is gonna shift and I feel 50 is a doorway for that. I can’t be doing back-breaking work, I’m feeling it in my body for sure. But I’m in good health. I’m very aware of my lifetime being finite and I want to be meaningful and purposeful. I’m tired of being as quiet as I’ve been quite frankly. The planet needs more advocacy and I’ll probably move into that role a little more.

The two aren’t mutually exclusive though as I imagine organizations like P.E.T.A. and people involved with Earth Day would love to have you play benefits for them and such.

Definitely. I play benefits every year. It’s hard to choose. I tend to be a bit of a hermit because people ask things of me and it’s hard balancing all the things in my life, whether it’s teaching or touring, even a Kickstarter campaign, I’m still not done with that fulfilling all those pledges. And then of course being a homemaker and a mom. I’m pretty domestic when I’m home. Getting older is nice, you take less bullshit on, you feel more entitled to your opinions, I definitely would not want to be 25 again. Or 35. So far I really like myself at almost 50. I’m fortunate to have my partner David and my sweet kids and my sweet fans. I’m so lucky to be healthy. I’m really aware of that. And I feel like, well, if I’m still here because so many in the music business aren’t. Look at Dolores O’Riordan and Prince and David Bowie. All these heartbreaks. But I’m still here and there’s something to be said about that. I think my trajectory was too fast in the pop world; it was inauthentic then. I pulled myself back and it’s been very slow and small since but it’s real and still here like the tortoise. I’m still here and I think it’s actually manifesting well for me. I think I’ve got more so much more creativity in me yet.

I love to hear that. Let me ask you this final question. This is going to sound cliché but I’m genuinely interested in your response. I’m wondering what bums you out about the current state of affairs with the music business  and what makes you still feel hopeful?

What sucks is that musicians are the most beautiful species of homo sapiens in my opinion. We’re sensitive, we design and and we make something from nothing and yet I don’t feel that our gifts are appreciated enough by our society the way say Finland supports their artists or Canada. Musicians struggle to exist in this society and more so now than ever with the digitization, distribution, Spotify; a single stream is .0005 cents. It’s a non-money amount so how are these sensitives, with a very gifted and specific skill set, how will they have time or make the very thing that heals us in our pain. It’s proven again and again. You look at the data; music heals society, where there is music there is healing and there is less crime, there’s more  business fruition. The whole society is healthier. So I travel the world and I see the societies where art is supported and everyone is supported, it has an effect on the whole. That bums me out that our American society does not support that arts sufficiently compared to the rest of the world. It’s a shame.

What gives you hope? Maybe your students?

Yes. I’ve gotten close to enough millennials now through teaching and even through touring with younger players now.  They show me something, they’re learning in a principled fashion that inspires me. It’s less materialistic, it’s more about seeking meaning and I really respect that. They are inheriting a more difficult workplace, a more fraught world, a more polluted world with less natural resources. It’s really different. It will be harder for them. You and I are luckier in many ways even just that we listen to vinyl. Maybe we have a hope of Social Security, maybe not. They’re looking at it in a more spiritual, more holistic way and idealistic way. I appreciate them. They’re open to listening to all kinds of music. They’re listening to their musical ancestors.

cole two mcdonald
Photo by Erica McDonald

2 thoughts on “Interview with the incredible Paula Cole

  1. For me there is no doubt that you (Paula ) are the best. I have been here since the beginning. I always look forward to what you will do next. There is no one song that is better than the other as long as you are singing it. I really enjoy each interview as well. Thank you so much for sharing with us. Mike

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You’re a national treasure. So sorry to miss you in WA State as I’ll be in Mexico. I’ll never forget you reaching out in voice and a touching hand at Womad in Seattle whenever that was.

    Liked by 1 person

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