Pop singer, songwriter
Paula Cole says her primary influence is her family. Her mother, a visual artist, and her father, a musician, taught her that music should be homemade and experienced directly and personally. “My Dad used to play bass in a polka band,” Cole said. “He put himself through college, earning a masters and then a Ph. D. in entomology, while supporting two children with his earnings from musical gigs as well as other part-time jobs. He used to walk through the house playing blues progressions on the guitar and I would vocally improvise…. I started singing and making up my own nonsensical songs before I could speak. It’s like food. It’s like language. It’s like the air. It’s something I do and need everyday.”
Cole grew up in a small Massachusetts town of Rock-port—a place she contrasted to Christ’s birthplace in the song’s “Bethlehem” and “Tiger.” “I’ve left Bethlehem and I feel free,” Cole sings on Tiger, from the album Harbinger, “I’ve left the girl I was supposed to be.” After graduating from a small public high school (there were 68 students in her graduating class; Cole was prom queen), she studied jazz singing at the Berklee School of Music in Boston. It was a period during which she was “a fragile, naive, young woman,” Cole once said. “I was 18 and it was hard to be such a minority amidst so many men. The ratio was 13-to-1.” That professional training, however, helped turn Cole into a masterful vocal stylist and multi-instrumentalist.. She also has the musical understanding to craft songs which deviate from traditional pop music structure. “I believe every voice is unique,” Cole has said. “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.”
Cole toured as a back-up singer with Melissa Etheridge, Sarah McLachlan, and Peter Gabriel (she replaced Sinead O’Connor on Gabriel’s tour) and landed a recording contract with Imago Records in 1992. Her first album, Harbinger, showcased her jazz-pop style and personal, confessional tone on songs which addressed date rape, interracial love, her mother’s strength, and coming of age. The album’s sales were disappointing, however, and Cole’s expectations were shattered. “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,” she told fans during an Internet chat sessions. “I look back to Harbinger and I see the poignancy; I feel its adolescent point of view,” Cole has said. “Now the
For the Record…
Born in Rockport, MA. Studied music at the Berklee School of Music in Boston.
In the early 1990s, producer Kevin Killin shared Cole’s as-yet-unreleased first album, Harbinger, with Peter Gabriel. Gabriel recruited Cole as a backup singer, replacing Sinead O’Connor. Cole’s second album, 1996’s This Fire, spawned the hit single “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?,” and catapulted her to fame.
Addresses: Record company —Warner Bros. Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY, 10019.
flower has opened, has been in the sun and is unafraid. I’m taking more chances, I’m bold and proud.”
That assertiveness is felt on This Fire, Cole’s major-label debut and breakthrough album, which she produced herself. “With a nude cover shot and the lyrical and vocal teeth baring in the first track, “Tiger,” piano pounder Cole announced she’s cast off the sweet safeness of her 1994 debut,” Beth Johnson wrote in Entertainment Weekly. “A feisty poet with a soaring voice and a funky groove, Cole seems to be nipping at Tori Amos’ heels.” This Fire was propelled up the charts by the hit single “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?,” which looks at a failing marriage with irony and wit. The song came to Cole during “an ascetic, hermit-like songwriting phase of my life,” she said. “I was thinking of songs everyday. I 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. Several days later the pen in my hand wrote ‘where have all the cowboys gone?’ on paper and it demanded to be a song.”
The album earned both popular success and critical acclaim. “Cole has released an often powerful collection that examines the emotional facets of being a woman,” Amy Linden wrote in People. “Even when she aims for the mainstream, Cole, who has a lovely, unfettered voice, doesn’t sacrifice the artist within…. There are songs with non-traditional structures, songs with spoken passages, and then songs with sing-along choruses.” Cole, who plays piano, keyboards, clarinet and other instruments on the record, chose not to include a lyric sheet with the album. “I relate to Pablo Neruda (the poet) in II Postino when he says that by explaining his poetry he nullifies the very purpose of its existence,” she said. “I feel the joy of creation also lies in the many differences of its interpretation.” She is equally adamant about being labeled:! believe categories are limiting and I’ve never been able to describe or categorize me easily, at all,” she says.
Even after a hit album, Cole said she didn’t feel famous—although she has expressed a strong responsibility to the public: “Because people heed what I say more now, I feel I must be kind with and responsible with my actions. This job forces my soul to evolve—even though it’s a difficult journey.” One part of that evolution has been Cole’s onstage attitude. “I used to be extremely shy on stage,” she once said. “My eyes would be shut the entire time. Sometimes I would open my eyes and find my back to the audience. With the repetition of performing, I was coaxed out of my shell and found an indescribable freedom. Then being an underdog … opening for artists and playing to audiences that were talking and distracted and getting beer made me angry sometimes and I would vent my anger in the music.”
Besides her family, Cole’s musical influences include a diverse collection of artists including Aretha Franklin, Annie Lennox, Chet Baker, Sarah Vaughn, Kate Bush, Miles Davis, and Bob Marley. In her spare time, she lives simply. “I love quiet, I love to garden, I love to do yoga,” she says. “I like to hang out with my pets.”
I Am So Ordinary (CD single), Imago, 1990.
Harbinger, Imago, 1994.
This Fire, Warner Bros./Imago, 1996.
Audio, October 1994, p. 61.
Entertainment Weekly, December 13, 1996, p. 83.
People, March 17, 1997, p. 26.
Stereo Review, October 1994, p. 93.
Additional information from Paula Cole cyberchats with fans on November 18, 1996 and March 24, 1997 and from Warner Bros, publicity material.
Born: Rockport, Massachusetts, 5 April 1968
Best-selling album since 1990: This Fire (1996)
Hit songs since 1990: "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?" "I Don't Want to Wait," "Me"
The classically trained multi-instrumentalist Paula Cole is perhaps best known for writing the song "I Don't Want to Wait," which became the theme song for the popular Warner Bros. network teen soap opera Dawson's Creek.
Cole had a somewhat unconventional childhood; her mother was a visual artist and her father an entomologist who also played bass in a polka band. She officially started her musical career in Boston at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, studying voice. Initially, she thought she would become a jazz singer, but she began writing songs. After graduating, she moved to San Francisco and eventually played her songs for Terry Ellis, the president of the now-defunct Imago Records. He quickly signed her, passed on her album to Peter Gabriel, and she was asked to tour with him in 1992–1993 in support of his album Us.
After the release of her thoughtful, introspective debut album Harbinger (1994), which received some airplay on the country's Adult Album Alternative stations, the piano-playing former choirgirl Paula Cole broke through with the multiplatinum album This Fire (1996), which earned her seven Grammy nominations, including the distinctive Producer of the Year. It was the first time a woman received that honor in Grammy Award history. Cole also won a Grammy for Best New Artist, disproving the dreaded sophomore slump. "I Don't Want to Wait," a single from the album, was picked up as the theme song for Dawson's Creek shortly after its release. The New York Times called her "a rising talent with tremendous artistic potential," while Entertainment Weekly praised Cole as "a feisty poet with a soaring voice and a funky groove."
Sultry, feminist, and dramatic, with a powerful voice that can climb from a whisper to a near scream, Cole exercises the full range of the piano's capabilities, creating percussive, explosive songs on This Fire. Cole's sense of freedom and spirituality pervades her songs. In the personal anthem "Me," she admits that she is her own worst enemy, a sentiment that many young women can relate to, and sings, "It's me who is too weak / And me who is too shy / To ask for the thing I love." Lyrics such as those earned her a spot on the groundbreaking Lilith Fair tour in the mid-1990s.
The release of her third album, Amen (1999), which she also produced, suffered from overwrought, didactic songwriting that was not nearly as commercially successful and did not come close to the overwhelming beauty of This Fire.
Paula Cole is an unusual talent, with an uncompromising streak, a powerful voice, and a maestrolike command of the piano.
Harbinger (Columbia, 1994); This Fire (Columbia, 1996); Amen (Columbia, 1999).
Cole, Paula, Grammy-winning singer who combines confessional lyrics with a slightly jazz-flavored delivery; b. Rockport, Mass., April 5, 1968. Paula Cole’s somewhat bohemian parents didn’t have a radio and rarely turned on the TV. Instead, her father, an entomologist who taught biology at Salem State Coll. and played bass in a polka band, and her mother, a visual artist, would sing and make music together.
Through high school, Cole was class president, a straight A student, and even prom queen. She enrolled in Berklee Coll. in Boston, studying voice. She also began writing songs at this time. When she graduated, she moved to San Francisco, holing up like a hermit and working on the songs that would become her debut album, Harbinger. She played a special showcase for Terry Ellis, president of Imago Records, who quickly signed her. She passed an advance copy of the record to a member of Peter Gabriel’s band, and Gabriel asked her to tour with him. With this exposure, Harbinger was set up for great things. Unfortunately, just as Harbinger came out, Imago lost its distribution and eventually went out of business.
Cole signed with Warners Bros. They reissued Harbinger in 1995, but it received little attention. While working on her next album, she convinced the label to let her scrap $80, 000 worth of work with a producer, and make the album herself. The record, This Fire, came out in 1996. The song “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” became a hit, becoming the first video to be heavily promoted on VHl’s “inside track.” The song reached #8 on the charts. Although Cole meant it to be bitingly sarcastic, many interpreted the song as a nostalgic anthem to the barefoot-and-pregnant housewife. The producers of the TV show Dawson’s Creek chose her song “I Don’t Want to Wait” as its theme song, making the song ubiquitous during the show’s high-profile launch, and it rose to #11. This Fire topped out at #20 and went double platinum. Cole also performed as part of the first Lillith Fair tour, which helps promote female singer / songwriters.
Cole earned seven 1998 Grammy nominations, becoming the first woman to be nominated as best producer. Performing on the awards program, more notice got paid to the fact that she didn’t shave her armpits than to her performance. She took home the Award for Best New Artist, ironic as she had released her major label debut recording four years before.
Harbinger (1994); This Fire (1996).