Luminary: Interview with Grammy-Winner Paula Cole

By Fred Cummings

Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Paula Cole live in concert (photo courtesy of Ms. Cole).



As soon as you think you know Grammy-winner (and 7-time Grammy-nominee) Paula Cole, she goes and changes it all up. Having released six solo albums over her 18 year career, one would think you could find a genre you could pin her down to.

She’s performed with icons in every category on the musical map from Peter Gabriel to Dolly Parton and her songs have been covered by legends from Herbie Hancock to Annie Lennox. Yet, she continues to crash every boundary you put before her. Most notably known within the folk scene, she’s dabbled in electronica and reveled in her first love, jazz. She’s the only woman in history to solely produce and receive the Best Producer Grammy nomination for her release, This Fire. And even though she’s clearly really good at it, breaking boundaries is not what makes her such a singular artist. It's that poet that lies deep inside her soul that takes every opportunity, no matter the genre or the platform, to spill out with such authenticity that it melts every heart in the room.

I had a chance to ask Cole a few questions about that amazing career of hers. And I found that that authenticity and sincerity that everyone always talks about, it’s the real McCoy.  

What were your musical influences, growing up in Rockport, Massachusetts?  

My primary musical influence was my family.  My father was fantastic; he played (and still plays) several instruments: upright and electric bass, guitar, banjo, piano, harmonica, even mouth harp and nose flute and handbone. He could just hear the chords and had wonderful rhythm. He knows so many American folk songs and great jazz standards.  I learned (from him) that music was to be self-made, and most importantly, fun.  

How impactful was being raised in such a musical and artistic environment to your decision to pursue music as a career?  

Well, my father was the heart of joy regarding music.  And then my mother had a wonderful ear, too.  Everyone had some musical ability and it was de rigeur to provide one's own healing and enjoyment by sitting down and expressing.  I heard stories about other family members in older times—the women of my earlier generations were totally discouraged (from playing) professionally for fear of bringing shame to the family.   

Females were to not go on tour or play music with men (for shame! for shame!).  They were expected to be servants and make babies and make a nice house—meh.  My great grandmother Charlotte never fulfilled her potential and so I had a cross to bear with all those unfulfilled dreams extending into my psyche.  I still do it for so many who can't.   

So tell me about what it was like opening up for Peter Gabriel that first time in 1993?  

It was early November…I flew to Mannheim, Germany, had one rehearsal with the demi-god himself and then was flung in front of 16,000 people on two stages.  I rehearsed with "Don't Give Up”—it was terrifying and electrifying and totally wonderful. I was ready. I was truly a fan, with the humblest spirit of support for his beautiful music and band. The band and Peter, himself, could see and hear that I was in it for the love of the music, that I was more than capable, and it was fairly easy from that point onward. It was a deep learning lesson from a master, a kind and inventive man with a boy's twinkle-in-the-eye. Ultimately, after many concerts performed in the capacity of background vocalist, I yearned for my own career.     

One of the hallmarks of your work over the past 18 years has been the searing poetic voice you bring to your music. Many artists struggle with the freedom in communicating poetically. Where does your freedom and poetic voice come from?  

How does one define where one's freedom comes from?  That is the beauty of music—the mystery, the God-given soul of it.  I think I need it badly—singing,  writing has been my redemption and salvation.  It is the universal language.  I feel so fortunate to feel this beautiful feeling within music, even if it's fleeting. One must be humble. One must continue learning. Musical greatness comes from reverence and humility.    

You have been broadening your artistic focus in recent years with projects delving into contemporary pop, electronica and even making your way back to your origins in jazz. How has that been artistically for you?  

For the record, I love real instruments played by real musicians. I love single-take performances, even when someone is flat or sharp.  I love the life and the imperfection of live performance.  Jazz?  - I started there.  I wanted desperately to be a female Chet Baker; to improvise effortlessly in the chords as he did. Of course, it was so effort-ful for me.  But he and other greats were my beacons.   

I've had two jazz record label deal offers and I've turned them both down.  Neither felt right.  One of these days I'll make that album.  In the meantime I'll sing a standard live, and I've recorded standards with other artists on their albums. But my focus, while I'm still fairly healthy and kicking, is to honor the original songwriting that comes through me. I need to record it for posterity.  I hate labels and despise compartmentalizing music. I listen borderlessly across music styles.  Music diversity equals psychological/musical health to me: Ella Fitzgerald to Bill Withers to Kate Bush to Miles and Peter Gabriel and Emmy Lou and Dolly and Neil Young and so on...  

If I'm burnt on more modern music, I'll listen to acoustic, traditional West African music, like Oumou Sangaré from Mali.   

It's important to be diverse in one's listening lest we become boorish and brainless demographic targets for advertising.    

Cole’s most recent album, Raven, was a return of sorts as well, but back to her origins of musical storytelling. In it, she seems to pull inspiration from some incredibly emotional places.  You can take the journey when Cole plays City Winery October 26 this fall.