Paula Cole Biography
Last updated: 11/05/2012 10:58:01 AM
SOMETIME in the middle of 1997, Paula Cole began to sense that her relative anonymity was becoming a thing of the past. "People would say to me, 'You look so much like Paula Cole!'" remembers the singer, songwriter, and pianist. "It happened around the corner from me here in New York City, and it happened to me in Orlando. The first time I was very honest: 'Oh, well, I am Paula Cole.' The second time, I played it cool — 'Oh, really?' — and moved on."
These days, millions know who Cole is, thanks to the ubiquitous pop-noir hit, "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?," off her arresting and million-selling sophomore album, This Fire. Her profile received another major boost last summer through her prominent involvement in good pal Sarah McLachlan's inaugural Lilith Fair tour. A major feature in People didn't hurt either. But the fact that Cole has really arrived became readily apparent in early 1998, when she was nominated for seven Grammy Awards, just one nod shy of leading nominee Babyface. "It doesn't surprise me," Cole says of her seemingly sudden critical and popular success. "Hopefully that doesn't sound too pompous. I've always felt instinctively this would come to me. I knew it inside. It just feels like I've been working for many, many years on my music, and this [recognition] is a positive return."
Cole was born into a creative family that called the small rural town of Rockport, Massachusetts (population 5,000), home. Her amateur musician father, Jim, played bass in a polka band, while studying entomology (he's now a quality-control executive); her mother, Stephanie, was a visual artist. The Coles didn't own a color TV set, and they seldom played the radio; instead, Paula and her older sister, Irene, were encouraged to entertain themselves by making up games and singing along to their father's guitar accompaniment. Despite a lack of exposure to the mainstream media influences that tend to be developmental staples for most teens, Cole was quite popular in school. Yet, the straight-A, junior-class president and prom queen still found her teen years awkward, particularly so as her body began changing. "I started feeling really uncomfortable with myself," Cole related to People. "I had to guard my precious sexuality, so I began hiding, wearing really baggy clothes."
During high school, Cole took voice and piano classes at Boston's prestigious Berklee School of Music. After graduation, she enrolled at Berklee full-time, studying jazz singing and improvisation, and "becoming a sexual being." She was quickly disabused of any notion that jazz would earn her a living, as she found herself reduced to covering Anita Baker songs in a wedding band and performing to septuagenarians in the lounge of Boston's Logan Airport Hilton. "There was that side of it that made me think, 'How am I ever going to live like this? It's so depressing,'" she once said of her unfulfilling early performances.
Cole had begun writing self-reflective songs at Berklee, and after she completed her music degree, she moved to San Francisco, where she persevered in performing her own material and writing more music. Her efforts were rewarded in 1992 when she landed a deal with Imago Records. She recorded her first album, the disarmingly emotional and bleakly autobiographical Harbinger, but its commercial potential was disastrously stunted, as Imago lost its distributor and collapsed. Luckily, Cole's creative storm cloud had a silver lining in the person of Peter Gabriel, who was so impressed by what he heard on Harbinger that he asked her to come aboard as featured backing vocalist on the last two legs of his 1993-94 Secret World tour.
The auspicious gig with Gabriel provided just the opportunity Cole needed to rekindle her solo career. She signed a new deal with Warner Bros. which included the reissuing of Harbinger as a prelude to the late 1996 release of her self-produced second album, This Fire. Gabriel returned the favor by appearing on the album with a guest vocal on the song "Hush, Hush, Hush." Around this time, Cole moved to New York, where she began studying yoga and the tenets of Buddhism from a Vietnamese monk named Thich Nhat Hahn.
Like Harbinger, the feisty, funky This Fire showcases Cole's wide vocal range and emotive, evocative delivery, which marries melody with swoops, shrieks, and murmurs. She is quick to point out that these vocal percussive flourishes are usually the result of spontaneous, improvisational instinct: "I don't think, 'Oh, I'm going to do a swoop here for drama'; that would make singing become really boring and pedestrian and cerebral. Things just happen synchronistically, sometimes. It's later I realize they make sense." The unique sound of "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?" — an irony-laden study of gender stereotypes — resulted from just such a creative process. "I was listening to XTC at the time," Cole once explained. "I really appreciated the cleverness and sarcasm in their songwriting. It just made me want to try my hand at a sort of sarcasm, but using a woman's perspective. A few days later, my pen wrote 'Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?' and it just demanded to be a story."
Unfortunately, the resulting story has been misunderstood by some people, including a number of critics, who haven't quite grasped the irony and have consequently indicted Cole's hit for shrugging off feminism. Maybe they should have taken a clue from This Fire's album cover: its tastefully nude photos of Cole suggest that she just might have a less direct, more artful way of expressing her ideas than, say, Courtney Love. But her unapologetic, boldly personal manner of expression has nonetheless registered a sizable impact with an ever-growing audience. Although she is aware of skeptics who consider "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?" nothing more than a one-off novelty hit and who speculate about whether they'll ever hear from her again, Cole, of course, holds no such doubts. "Hopefully good art will appeal to many different people, and people will realize I'm not just about 'Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?,'" she told Request magazine. "There's a lasting artist here. In a decade, I think that will be pretty