Paula Cole was born and raised in the small New England town of Rockport, MA. She studied music at the Berklee School of Music in Boston. Addresses: Record company--Warner Bros. Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY, 10019.
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 home-made 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 non- sensical 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 Rockport--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, inter-racial 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 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 Il 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:"I 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 on-stage 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."
by Dave Wilkins
Paula Cole's Career
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.
- Selective Works
- 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.