“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.”