Interview with Paula Cole (1997)

“It was almost like I grew up in another generation musically,” recalls singer-songwriter Paula Cole of her small-town childhood in Rockport, Mass. “Music was something that my family always did together. It was a living art form and a way that we all expressed ourselves. If my dad was feeling happy, he’d go and look up a certain folk song and start playing it on the piano and I’d sing it with him. And we’d sing three part harmonies in the car with my mom, who also had a really terrific ear. Everyone in the family was really musical . . . and so I didn’t really listen to the radio or any records at all until I got to be old enough to drive myself up the line to the mall to check out the record stores that were there.”

Cole is mixing the best of both worlds these days: still making music as a living art form and a way to express herself, but offering those expressions in concert halls instead of back-seats, preserving her art on record instead of in the family musical scrapbook. She will be performing at the Park West tonight (Thursday) in support of her recently-released sophomore album, This Fire . Warmup will be provided by Holly Palmer, who studied jazz singing and improvisation with Cole at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Cole reflects on that Berklee training during a recent phone conversation. “I was sheltered in my little town, so I really needed to have a musical community, I needed to learn a lot. Berklee was my watering hole. I went there just so I could find people. And I learned so much from my fellow students; I learned as much from them as I learned from my teachers, if not more. The only problem was that studying the academic side of music made me terribly aware of myself, it encouraged that little devil up in my brain that analyzed everything that came out of my mouth and off of my fingertips. I was always: ‘Oh no! That was terrible!'”

And you know, that academic approach can make you stop listening to music as an complete entity; you find that you’re only listening to yourself, and you can become very egocentric from that. I personally found that the more I pursued my own virtuosity as a jazz vocalist, the more I kinda lost the point of what I was doing. So when I realized that I had reached that point, that’s when I decided to start writing and performing my own music. I still loved jazz, but I just couldn’t do it anymore at that point.”

Cole began honing her ethereal, emotional, pop- and soul-based songs in the East Coast coffee-house circuit shortly thereafter. By 1993, her strong word-of-mouth following had won her a recording contract with Imago Records; she recorded a collection of her works with esteemed producer Kevin Killen that year, but like many up-and-coming artists, Cole found herself frustrated by a perceived lack of urgency on her label’s part in getting that first record, Harbinger , into the racks.

“It’s always a bad time for a new artist to be released,” she recalls, laughing, but the unexpected year-long delay proved serendipitous after Killen passed a prerelease copy of Cole’s completed album to his guitar-playing associate David Rhodes, who in turn passed the tape to his singing band-mate and employer, Peter Gabriel. The unexpectedly bedazzled Gabriel was so impressed by Cole’s ability that he immediately tracked her down and drafted her into his Secret World touring band, allowing Cole to supplement her American coffee-house gigs with an eye-opening set of European stadium performances.

“Peter Gabriel asking me to join his tour really started to open me up,” reflects Cole. “It helped me to become a little bit less rigid, a little bit less lacking in confidence, a little bit less mean to myself up in my own mind. I saw that I was doing a good job and that I was on equal footing with all these other musicians up on stage. So that helped my self-confidence problem a lot, and got me to be more expressive and alive as both a performer and a human being.”

The confidence garnered from the critically-acclaimed Gabriel tour appears again, matured and full-blown, on the vivacious, self-produced This Fire . “I always wanted to produce myself,” Cole confesses, “but I always lacked the courage up until now, so by standing up to that fear I think that I’ve become a little bit better as a human being and an artist.”

Cole is quick to elaborate on her palpably organic production aesthetic. “I wanted live performances as much as possible. Emotions, mistakes, very earthy recording techniques, the human spirit, not technology. I wanted passion . And as a result I think This Fire is a much more brazen record than Harbinger , which was a more delicate and shy kind of album. On This Fire I’m more in my own self; I overcame a lot of personal insecurities in its making, so once again music has proven to be such a good teacher for me. And I have to say that I’m just really proud of the way the whole album turned out. I’m proud of all the work I put into it.”

Cole is equally quick to dissemble when I ask her to explain some of This Fire ‘s evocative, emotion-saturated lyrical imagery. “I hope people will just try to think about it and figure it out,” she notes. “Because it’s almost too sacred for me to talk about it. It’s like a puzzle, a poem, a holy fire, something that’s inside of us all.”

Cole pauses. “I really just want all of my songs to have some reason to exist,” she explains, finally, quietly. “I can feel it when I’m just writing lyrics to write lyrics . . . so I stop. I don’t want to be eloquent for the point of eloquence. That’s so masturbatory to me, and I really prefer a more humble, but profound, writing style. That’s why I like Bob Marley so much, because his songs have such a reason-to-be, and they’re very humble and to the point, yet very profound and eloquent in their own way. My favorite art is all about feelings. My favorite art is not clever. It’s not about the masking of feelings. I like emotions, and I like people who are bold enough to express them.”

Does Cole feel bold herself when she takes This Fire ‘s highly charged material to the stage? “I’m just putting myself on a platter out there these days,” she concludes, “to show people that we can all so easily overcome our limitations and become so much better than we ever believed we could be. I see how music has helped me grow so much as a human being and I hope other people can see that my record and my songs and my performances are just metaphors for what every one of us is capable of. I just hope that my work gives some people the inspiration to live mindfully. That’s all.”

Interview with Neal Peart of Rush (1997)

Teenaged Canadian school-mates and rock star wannabes Gary Lee Weinrib and Alex Zivojinovic made their first semi-professional forays into the Toronto club circuit in the late ’60’s. Within three years, the persistent (if cumbrously named) twosome had transmogrified themselves into Geddy Lee (bass/vocals) and Alex Lifeson (guitar), front-line of a power-trio called Rush and regulars on the North American arena warm-up circuit. Lee, Lifeson and drummer John Rutsey issued a self-titled 1974 debut album that was cut from a James Gang-y mold and loaded with stock rock n’ rollin’ ’70s lyrical concerns. Rutsey, claiming musical differences and health considerations, left the band shortly thereafter.

His replacement, Neil Peart, had a radical and immediate impact on the band’s sound. Where Rutsey had been something of a stodgy banger, Peart favored an aggressive, adventurous rhythmic style that blended the Keith Moon’s frenzy with Bill Bruford’s adventurous musicality. Peart also made significant changes in Rush’s voice — not as a singer, but as a lyricist whose second-and third-person narratives touched more on man vs. man-nature-self themes than they did on I-me-my-boy-girl-guitar fare.

“I’ve always really disliked the kind of confessional approach to lyrics”, Peart tells me when I reach him by phone to discuss Rush’s upcoming show at the Knickerbocker Arena. “I think that’s kind of egocentric. Why should anyone be interested in my subjective little whinings or whatever? Sometimes I’ll create a personal side, so I can invent situations or conversations that people may think are confessional. I find that’s a really friendly way to write: I don’t have to be didactic or cold and the lyrics don’t have to read like an essay, but at the same time I can get across those observations about human nature.”

Peart’s cohesive lyrical style and Rush’s penchant for side-long songs give many of the band’s records a concept album flavor, particularly the vintage late-70s trio of 2112, A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres and 1991’s Roll the Bones. Peart good-naturedly disavows any intentional conceptualizing when I ask about uniting themes on the band’s new album, Test for Echo. “I never approach an album with a grand theme,” he said, “but since my lyrics reflect my thinking over a certain period of time, certain common themes do emerge. On Test for Echo the theme of affirmation — calling out and wanting to hear a response to know that someone else in the world felt the way you did — appears in quite a few different songs.”

The three-year time span between Test for Echo and its predecessor, Counterparts, was the longest album gap in Rush’s career (they’ve released 20 records in 22 years). I ask Peart what drove that break. “It was just a chain of circumstances”, he replies. “We ended the Counterparts tour because Geddy was going off on paternity leave and then I went off and did a Buddy Rich tribute and Alex started working on his solo record. After that, I started working with a master drum teacher by the name of Fred Gruber; I got all fired up about that and wanted to let all that new information mature in my head.”

Peart won Modern Drummer magazine’s “Best Rock Drummer” award every year from 1980 to 1985, at which point he was delegated to the Honor Roll list, so someone else could win something. I ask what drove such an accomplished performer to seek instruction from Gruber. “One of the reasons I was interested in getting outside help was because my pursuit of perfection was leading me toward rigidity,” he answers. “I was getting perfect metronomic time and was able to play along with click-tracks and sequencers and all that, but it had a by-product, it had a side-effect: I was getting more and more rigid. My work with Fred was mainly about movement and developing a new physical approach to the drum set more than nuts and bolts of beats and notes.”

Peart elaborates. “If you think of the process of lifting your hand and bringing it down on the desk top in front of you, most of that motion has nothing to do with the hit. So that was the revelation: What happened between the beats and while the sticks were in the air and while my feet were off the pedals was way more important than how I hit the drum or cymbal. So now I still have the accuracy and precision but I come about it through a whole smoother way, so that the sticks just flow around from place to place. If I hit the wrong thing it doesn’t matter because it still happens in terms of the time flow. It makes the physical act of drumming less stressful and angst-ridden.”

Peart recently returned to the studio to record his first instructional video, focussing on his new-found technique and how he used it in creating Test for Echo . He also recently consummated his long-time literary aspirations by publishing his first book. “The Masked Rider“, he tells me, “is built around a cycling trip I took in Cameroon, with any number of tangents based on the experiences I had there. The nice thing about travel writing is that it encompasses anything you damn well want to throw in there. So I like that aspect of it: It’s loose and I can go off into essays and little rants about any subject that appeals to me.”

One of Peart’s favorite current rants centers around what he sacrilegiously calls the Inert-net: “I’ve become the Salman Rushdie of the Internet lately” he laments (half-heartedly), “because I dare to make fun of it. I’m not a Luddite or anything, but I do see the limitations of the thing. I mean, the World Wide Web? Really now, that’s a joke. More than half the countries in Africa have no Internet connections at all — not even the governments have them! So all the hype’s just a joke to me. Or I guess I can’t call it a joke because that’s like making fun of religion, and I’ll get excoriated for that.”

Peart and his band-mates are also inviting excoriation from music industry and promotions types this year, as the long-time arena openers have finally decided to tour in an “Evening With Rush” format, i.e. sans opening act. “We’ve resisted that approach for many years”, Peart explains, “because our route to the big-time was as an opening act, and we know how important that can be for a band without radio and media exposure. But we decided it would be great for our audience to finally get more scope in our shows. For example, the suite from 2112 has never been played live in its entirety because we were still opening a lot of shows back when it came out. We were playing 40 minutes a night and we couldn’t really give 20 minutes of that to one piece. We have an abridged live version, but we just finally decided that we wanted to do it all. Having more time gave us the scope to do things like that, plus give a really nice sampling of the new album.”

When Peart looks out on the audiences this year, does he expect to see the same people who bought 2112 way back in 1976? “I don’t know!” he laughs. “It’s always interesting for me to do a little demographic survey at our concerts. We’ve got people who grew up with our music, and people who discovered it a various times, even in the 90s. I get letters from people sometimes that say ‘Aren’t you going to make more records like Hold Your Fire or Power Windows?’ Well . . . that’s only ’88! When people are thinking that our glorious past was only that far back, that’s pretty funny to me. So I would expect to see a spread of all ages — but I suppose time will tell.”

Post-script: The Rush at Knickerbocker Arena show mentioned in this interview turned out to be truly epic. I named it one of my “Ten Most Memorable Concerts Ever” in a piece written some years after this interview. You can read about it, and the other nine, at this link