Hard as it is to believe, 2017 marks 20 years since Paula Cole’s commercial breakthrough. This Fire, her sophomore album, technically came out at the end of 1996. But it really caught fire (no pun intended!) the following year. The album produced two huge hits in 1997 (“Where Have All the Cowboys Gone” and “I Don’t Want to Wait”) and Cole wound up winning the Grammy award for Best New Artist — despite the fact that Harbinger, her debut, was actually released in 1994.
Over the last two decades or so, the Massachusetts-based Cole has carved out an interesting path for herself. While she has never again hit the commercial heights of This Fire, there’s no question that she has remained true to her muse as an artist. Cole has released five more studio efforts that have touched on everything from hip-hop to more folky, singer-songwriter fare. She also took an extended hiatus from recording (2000 — 2007) in which she laid low and concentrated mainly on being a mom.
This year is a significant one for Cole — and not just because it’s the 20th anniversary of her best known album. She is planning to return in mid-August with a double-disc set of covers. Cole actually started out as a jazz singer, and many of the songs she interprets on the new album were made famous by Billie Holliday, John Coltrane and other legends of the genre. But before that happens, she is slated to do a special one-off show at New York’s City Winery. On June 19th, she will perform the music of Joni Mitchell and John Lennon. BUST caught up with Paula Cole this month to discuss the upcoming City Winery show, among other things.
I wanted to start by asking you what people can expect [at the City Winery show]. Is it going to be solely be Joni Mitchell and John Lennon covers? Will it be with a full band [or] acoustic? What can we look forward to?
This is a very different gig for me (laughs). I mean, I’m gonna be 50 next year, and I’ve been performing professionally for decades now. I worship at the altar of music [but] I need to keep it fresh for myself. So I wanted to do something different. I play City Winery a couple of times a year. They had a Monday night open, which is quite random, so I thought, why don’t I honor two of my greatest influences and two of the greats period? John Lennon and Joni Mitchell. So the entire set is songs [by them].
It’s a full band. There’s an amazing guitar player who’s 26 years old [and] blind. His name is Noe Socha. I met him four years ago, heard him and was blown away. He lives in New York now. He’ll be [part of] the gig, as well as John Evans on upright and electric bass. John was touring with Tori Amos for over a decade. And I know him [anyway]. We were in a little jazz combo together in the early 90s in San Francisco! And Max Weinstein [will be] on drums. He’s a beautiful player. He’s also 27. John and I were Gen X but I’ve [also] got two millennials in my band. I’m starting to reach out to younger players, and it’s wonderful.
And myself. I’m playing piano on most of the John Lennon songs. I’ve got a few of his Beatles songs, but [it will be] mostly post-Beatles, autobiographical songs. I’m having a blast with it. I care about the music profoundly, so I’m taking it very seriously. I’m gonna be playing about 16 covers — which is challenging to do because I normally just play my own songs, which I know like the back of my hand. But the band is gonna be righteous. And the music... you know, it touches on hope and longing and hurt and healing.
[Lennon and Mitchell] are two of my favorite songwriters too... Tell me a bit more about how you discovered them and what each of them means to you.
I’ve been listening to Joni longer than I have to John. I arrived at The Beatles very late. My childhood was in the ‘70s and I lived in a little town that didn’t even get FM radio signals! My parents were musicians [but] I grew up more on the Great American [Songbook]. Standards and folk classics from my Dad... So I arrived at The Beatles — and a lot of great music — late.
I found Joni’s Blue album in high school. And it shaped me, as a writer, to plunge into autobiography. And also as a singer, to kind of embrace my soprano and melismatic singing. I found soul singers more in my 20s. But [Joni] was so many things... I loved that she took risks. Even to her own detriment, losing audience [in the process]. She wanted to change to remain vital, to still be in love with music. If you keep repeating the same thing, you may as well be making doughnuts or shoes. If you’re there just as a businessperson, yes — you need business skills [and] entrepreneurship. But it’s not really the path of an artist; an artist needs to change. And she did that. So I take great heart in role modeling from the metaphor of her life.
I love John so much. I teach at Berklee College of Music; I’m a professor at my alma mater. And the first thing I do is I have everybody watch the making of the Plastic Ono Band album! You know, the video documentary. So they can start listening beyond the junk food that is Top 40 [today]. [Lennon] also needed to change. He needed to shed the snakeskin that was The Beatles and [he] needed to heal. He needed to have relationships with women that weren’t abusive. He needed to find tenderness and love and the female side of himself. He became a Dad and it healed him. He went through primal scream therapy; he’s literally screaming on Plastic Ono Band! He was living his music... And he was so brave. His lyrics are twisted with Lewis Carroll, so he’s literary — and yet he’s just so simple and raw sometimes.
Last week happened to be the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s release. I was curious [whether] you had any thoughts about that particular album.
Of course I do. I’m so deeply influenced by that album. And again, it’s a lesson for us all. They were all sick of being The Beatles. They took a year or so off, and they decided they didn’t wanna tour anymore. They rejected the confines of what The Beatles [had been, and the] screaming girls. They couldn’t even hear each other onstage! [So] they quit that version of The Beatles and they became Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. They lived in alter egos. Paul [McCartney] was extremely creative that way [but] they all did something else.
John refers to that period before Sgt. Pepper as his fallow season. He only wrote four songs [on that album], which was not prolific for him. But those songs fucking transformed modern music! You know, everyone at that time was influenced by that album, those songs, the production... I love it.
In terms of your own career... Obviously, This Fire is a little over 20 years old now. That album was huge. But if I’m not mistaken, you’ve released five studio albums since [then]. If the average listener said, “Okay Paula, which album after This Fire should I listen to?” Of those five, is there one you would say [they should] go out and buy?
Nothing else is like This Fire. Every album is a snapshot, like a Polaroid of where I’m at in the autobiography of my life. And I take my cues from Joni and John to be autobiographical. So to me, This Fire is me getting rebellious and exploding and being a feminist and being sexual and being in my 20s, in the 1990s, in New York City. It’s allowing anger to have its place where it’s not going to hurt anybody. A woman being angry? That’s so unacceptable in society. [But] I can be angry in my music and it doesn’t hurt anybody; it helps so many people, especially women. So there isn’t any other album like that.
On Amen, I was a little more influenced by soul and hip-hop musicians. It was really misunderstood, that album. And then I disappeared for eight years. I think that Seven, the last album I made, is the least commercial. It’s gentle and it’s really organic. I have a real soft spot for that [one]. I think I like it because it’s less produced; it’s not as raw and rockin’ as This Fire but the songs on it are really special.
Aside from Joni, what women have been big influences on you over the years? Other musicians, artists [or] just women that you’ve known personally.
Aretha [Franklin] has been my greatest vocal teacher. And she’s such an amazing piano player. Kate Bush gave me courage to be brave, and to self-produce.... Thinking here... There’s a group of women that let their hair go gray, and they’re honest as they get older. Patti Smith and Joan Baez and Jane Goodall. And I love them for that.
And of course my own mom, who is an artist. A beautiful artist.... She had kids really young. So she was very repressed in a way; she didn’t get to have that expression in her art, and be recognized by the world. And I think, like Carl Jung says, I fulfilled the unexpressed dreams of my parents... I know I’m living out some of my dreams for her.
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Dave Steinfeld has written about women in popular music more than any other male journalist in America. In addition to BUST, he has contributed to Curve, Bitch, Rockrgrl, Essence and all the major radio networks. He grew up in Connecticut and is currently based in New York City.