Born in 1963, in Halifax, Nova Scotia; daughter of Leon (a Canadian Broadcasting Company executive) and Carolyn (an arts administrator) Cole; Education: attended Halifax West High School; briefly studied voice at Humber College, 1981. Addresses: Home--Toronto, Canada. Record company--Alert/EMI Records and Metro Blue/Capitol Records.

While Holly Cole's rebelliousness and eclectic taste may irritate some jazz purists, they have made her a cult figure in other circles. She can turn a piano bar standard like "I'll Be Seeing You" by Fain/Kahal- -which normally evokes nostalgia for the "old familiar places" lovers have been--into a slow dirge about love's futility. When her ballad "Calling You" hit the airwaves in Japan in 1992, it quickly became the most requested song on Japanese radio. Cole attributes these different reactions to the anti-authoritarian subtext in her work, especially with regard to sexual politics. As she explained to Maclean's writer Nicholas Jennings, "I love it [in Japan]....The fans perceive me as a strong, independent woman who's in control of her career. That's not too shabby." Still, her attitude would not carry her far without the artistic gift of her voice. She complements her eccentric interpretations with a fluid vocal spectrum from low growls to a soaring upper register. In this way, her style is reminiscent of Ella Fitzgerald, one of her idols. For a jazz artist, Cole has always sold a lot of records--a fact that may also annoy aficionados of a more esoteric jazz style.

Holly Cole was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1963. She is the only daughter of parents who were both business managers and enthusiastic amateur musicians. Her father Leon was a child prodigy on the piano and now hosts a radio show, RSVP, featuring classical music. He formerly worked as a radio executive for Canadian Broadcasting. Holly's mother Carolyn is a classically trained pianist and the director of the National Exhibition Centre, an arts ceter in Fredericton, New Brunswick, where Holly and her family lived during her youth. In Cole's family, music was as much a part of the daily routine as dinner or brushing your teeth. Other relatives shared the musical bug. Her grandfather, Bill "Bompie" Underwood, entertained the Canadian troops during World War II, and one of Cole's first memories was of Uncle Bompie playing "The Tennessee Waltz" on the accordion. She recorded that song later on the album Don't Smoke in Bed. This tapping of personal childhood memories is characteristic of Cole.

Holly was a wild child, the kind who did cartwheels in the house to shock the grownups. "I used to think it was great to see the reaction I could get," she told Maclean's in 1993; "Singing jazz got a similar response from my parents at first. I think I maybe did it partly out of rebelliousness." Her father tried to teach her the piano, but when she refused to practice, he eventually gave up trying to teach her the instrument. In school, she made teacher-parent conferences an ordeal for her parents. Holly's childhood friend Grace Bauer recalled her as loud and funny, a born troublemaker. Once Holly tried to get Bauer to drink unreconstituted lime juice to see how she would react. Her childhood friend also remembered an incident at a McDonald's restaurant when Holly asked to taste the milkshake of the man ahead of them in line. When the man hesitated to give it to her, Holly grabbed it and took a swig. The horrified patron got himself another drink.

During her childhood Cole found solace with the horses at a local stable. She got up at 6:00 in the morning to visit a horse that her parents boarded there, and after school, Holly would return to the stable and stay until nine o'clock. She loved the stable's equestrian events, and would sometimes camp out in the stalls overnight. As she said to Michael Posner of Chatelaine, "I was really in my own little obsessed with riding as I am with music now." She had hoped to become a veterinarian.

These circumstances were disrupted when Cole's parents divorced in 1977. Consequently, the 14-year-old Holly was left without the refuge of her parents' musical home. Her initial response was to pay more attention to her horses and to deny the reality of the breakup. After a year, she moved to her maternal grandparents' home in New Brunswick. Perpetually dissatisfied, Holly took off to live with her 26-year-old boyfriend, a nonconformist who had built his own house in the woods. Once, she hitchhiked to Halifax West High School, but the distance and her lack of enthusiasm soon caused her to drop out.

Cole's continuing relationship with her brother Allen steered her back to music. On a trip to visit him at Boston's Berklee College of Music, where he was studying jazz piano, Holly first heard Sarah Vaughan and other female jazz singers. Now 17, Holly was infatuated. "I couldn't believe it," she recalled, according to Chatelaine. "I don't know what it was. Part of it was I needed a female role model, especially at that age." She listened to German cabaret music and began to envision herself as a performer. When Allen moved to Toronto, Canada in 1981, Holly moved there to stay with him. Although she originally intended to study voice at Humber College, she instead began to sing at local clubs.

Holly was a hit on the bar scene in Toronto. She had finally found an outlet for her image-breaking spirit. Her interpretations were imaginative and impressed the musically knowledgeable Toronto crowd. Pianist Aaron Davis heard her sing in 1985 and was so taken with her that he obtained her number and planned a meeting. Holly beat him to it by calling him the next day and setting up a gig. Holly was great in duets with the piano, scatting in and over the chords. Davis called his friend David Piltch, a bass player, and together they formed a group called the Holly Cole Trio. They began at the Stage Door Cafe in Toronto and soon had a devoted following. Holly's brassy and sassy onstage presence cemented the group's inventive jazz appeal.

The singer's social awareness is evident in her unsentimental treatment of classic love songs. The group's first album, Girl Talk (1990) features a cover of Lerner and Loewe's "On the Street Where You Live" that uses mechanical sound effects to give the song an ironic twist. Some were annoyed by the iconoclastic pose. Down Beat delivered a scathing review to the group's second album, Blame It on My Youth (1992), in which Cole's eccentric intonations struck the reviewer as amateurish. However, such criticism did not stop the album from finding an audience on three continents. In particular, Japanese listeners embraced the Holly Cole Trio; Japanese sales of Blame It on My Youth exceeded 100,000 copies. The group won the Best Jazz Album and Best New Artist awards at Japan's 1993 Grand Prix Gold Disc awards, the country's equivalent of the Grammys. Cole was even hired to do a jingle on Japanese television for an automobile manufacturer.

Onstage, dressed in a black evening gown, Holly Cole comes across as a sultry lounge singer with a wry attitude. She has found an audience that otherwise listens to pop acts. "I try to find the middle ground between the Judy Garland pool of tears and the completely controlled, robotic performance, " she told Maclean's; "And I think that the subtext that Aaron, David and I bring to the songs is often a lot more interesting than the in-your-face text." In 1995, the group released the album Temptation for Capitol Records, which continued her exploration of a surprisingly fertile commercial niche for off-beat jazz.

by Paula Scott

Holly Cole's Career

Began singing in Toronto clubs, 1981; formed the Holly Cole Trio with pianist Aaron Davis and bassist David Piltch, 1985; premiered at Toronto's Stage Door Cafe and developed a cult following; first album, Girl Talk, went gold, selling 50,000 copies, 1990; signed with Manhattan Records and EMI Music; second album, Blame It on My Youth, also went gold, 1991; toured in Canada; released third album, Don't Smoke in Bed; won Japan's Grand Prix Gold Discs awards for Best Jazz Album and Best New Artist for Don't Smoke in Bed, 1993.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

April 4, 2004: Cole's album, Shade, was named vocal jazz album of the year at the 2004 Juno Awards. Source: Globe and Mail, April 5, 2004.

Further Reading


Visitor Comments Add a comment…

about 13 years ago

I believe unexpected life experiences will lead you to what you will inevitably become.Sometimes twists and turns in the road can form one into a very marketable commodity...unique, sought after. Holly IS that commodity.I love her work and the presentation of it. "Delivery Divine" I have taken in MANY shows.Lastly, Holly, if you EVER need a fill in Pianist,simply let me know.I'll cover ALL of my own expenses, and will ask nothing for my efforts.To play even one song in your presence would be payment enough.(This is real) GodBless,JohnC xo