Paula Cole is a piano-playing poet and provocateur, a loving daughter and mother, a Grammy winner and seven-time nominee, a dramatic voice of affliction and affection, a risk-taker in a risky business.
These days, though, she is mostly a fighter. On and off four major labels over a 20-year career, Cole admittedly felt ashamed at first to try what most of today's independent-minded artists wouldn't think twice about doing — ask her devoted fan base to fund her next project.
The rewarding result is the self-produced Raven, her sixth studio album, an April 23 release she produced that's the first on her 675 label after a successful Kickstarter campaign raised $75,258, more than $25,000 above her goal.
With intimate songs such as "Life Goes On," "Strong Beautiful Woman" and "Imaginary Man," still provocative and relevant for these times, it's a powerful testament to talent rising from the scattered ashes of a career that was in danger of burning out almost as quickly as it ignited.
The personal touch and intense feelings are signature elements of her everyday life, whether she's playing tennis again after recovering from a torn gastrocnemius muscle in her calf, conducting a phone interview, singing in cozy settings like the Soiled Dove in Denver or making records.
That universal symbol of love is an interwoven theme for a determined but composed Cole, who remains as outspoken as ever while thankful for a second chance in several forms.
"What I want people to know is that I'm in it for the long haul," she said near the end of an hourlong conversation, engaging and animated while going far beyond discussing her latest project.
"I love music terribly. I've been popular and I've been unpopular. And I've been cool and I've been uncool. And I've had my ups and downs and I'm committed to the music. And I want desperately to be seen for the content of the catalog."
Only days before turning 45 in early April, Cole was excited about her plans that included a date at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and a "proper family party" with funny hats, then wryly summed up the significance of the milestone:
"Puts me dead center at midlife, right?" she laughed.
Yet she wasn't joking while reflecting on her meteoric rise in the 1990s with hits such as "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone" and "I Don't Want to Wait" and impending fall that was "a total recipe for a midlife crisis."
Cole called from her residence in Beverly, Massachusetts, a 20-minute drive from the Rockport home where she grew up and her parents still live. It took a nasty divorce finalized in 2008 to get her out of New York City and back to her roots.
"That wasn't a happy equation for my daughter (11-year-old Sky), raising her on my own in New York," Cole said. "I wanted to come back to my family, with such wonderful family at that. It's an interesting step to take because on the one hand it's like the death of young dreams. ...
"In the OCD sense of going out in the world and trying to slay your dragons and your monsters and achieve your dreams. And then wanting to come home, come full circle. I'm home and it's somewhat comforting to be No. 2, and my daughter's No. 1. I feel like my life is more properly prioritized now. My family is truly the bedrock of my life. And it just wasn't that way before."
Cole confessed to putting her family on the back burner while "pursuing my career full throttle," which challenged the relationship with her mother Stephanie, whom she now calls "one of my best friends."
"I had kind of a retarded rebellion period in my 20s," she said. "Like I didn't do it properly in my teens. I gave her some grief in my teens but I didn't ... I think I needed to outlet a lot of songs and a lot of angst in my 20s."
That changed for the better when Cole's daughter was born in Los Angeles. "I just saw how amazing she was with Sky," Cole said. "And what a tender heart she is. And yet, so strong."
Stephanie Cole actually contributed indirectly to Raven. Unlike most mothers who throw out their children's possessions as soon as they move out, Stephanie locked away in a vault some cassette tapes of songs her daughter wrote but never released. Now without most of her masters, Cole was elated to receive a package of those tapes, not only bringing back memories, but also some pretty fine tunes to her consciousness.
Two of those — the explosive "Imaginary Man" (written in 1991) and fiery "Manitoba" — were, Cole related, rescued from obscurity because "my mom was thoughtful in archiving it properly."
Cole has backstories for every song. Among them, "Eloise" was resurrected after she originally wrote it for Solomon Burke. He didn't use it, so she changed the key and tempo, kept the gender subject and embodied the spirit of Springsteen after a failed Silver Bullet Band attempt.
The sultry "Secretary," which she played open-tuned on a Les Paul Epiphone electric guitar, rounded out the 12-song album, completing an eclectic mix of music connecting Cole's past and present.
Her father also played a part in the process. Paula describes Jim Cole as "complex, a renaissance man," a college valedictorian who became a professor of biology and ecology. Yet he can also fix a car and is skilled on a number of instruments, having played bass in a polka band called Johnny Prytko and the Connecticut Hi-Tones.
He made music fun for his young daughter, who started learning by osmosis. "And I was this little canary and I was happy to sing along. (laughs) So he's this bright, complex figure, perfectionistic, critical and brilliant, brilliant. And kind of a hard act to follow."
Around 2000, Cole said she wrote "Life Goes On" about her relationship with her father, a wistful appreciation for the years when a "more intimidating figure becomes an older man. I think there's a universal softening that happens to men as they age that is actually quite lovely."
Shortly after composing the song while living in Los Angeles, Cole took a walk in the woods with her dad, seeking his approval.
"And I said, 'Dad, I wrote a song about you, about us. And before anybody else hears it, I need you to know the words and I want you to hear it. Because I need to know it's OK.' And so I told him. And he loves me. He releases me in that way.
"He said, 'I release you. You do what you want.' "
Her sentiments are beautifully conveyed in the last verse:
I'm looking back on the younger me trying so hard,
A fragile bird in the golden girl seeking love,
Her father's child; walking in his stride.
And I'm looking now at the older man you've turned out to be,
The hardness has softened to empathy,
We've made amends, we're better friends.
More than a rough-and-tumble decade later, those warm feelings are finally on public display as Raven's opening song. Equally hard to top.
Positive vibes are a constant force in her life these days, but Cole has no problem taking on her tumultuous past.
After achieving success at a couple of music summer camps, including a jazz program at the University of New Hampshire, she received a scholarship to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. It was an eye-opening introduction to a male-dominated music business that she said was "maybe one step up from setting up a carnival somewhere."
The circus tent almost collapsed before it was assembled. Cole's debut album, Harbinger (with the hit "I Am So Ordinary") was released in 1994, and she performed with Peter Gabriel and toured with Sarah McLachlan and Melissa Etheridge. When BMG axed Imago, her first record label, Cole found herself suddenly scrambling — "I wasn't in a single record shop back in the day when there were record shops" — before being scooped up by Warner Bros.
Cole rebounded, but discovered she was tiptoeing over "this terrain that was about CEOs you would rarely meet. I would walk into these large buildings and the conversations would largely be about golf and not music. And it was an intimidating process."
Recommended by Ashwin Sood, McLachlan's drummer and future husband (they eventually divorced), Cole opened during the Canadian songbird's Fumbling Towards Ecstasy tour in 1995.
"Yeah, those were good times and sweet times," Cole recalled. "And I was aware of the fact that there just weren't a lot of women being played next to each other on a Triple A radio station.
"But it was disheartening to see the marketplace being kind of actively seen from my gender instead of my music. And I was happy that (McLachlan) wasn't being competitive with me. That she was welcoming. And that felt really good. And I would thank her every night from the stage. And I think that the consciousness and the dialogue around that started to grow. Because it touched a nerve."
That commonality led to "a celebration of women in music" known as Lilith Fair in 1997, and Cole appeared on the main stage the first two years.
While she appreciated the sisterhood spirit behind it, the visibility for female artists, the swelling support from loving, "left-of-center" audiences and the charitable acts that benefited local women's shelters (watching the check presentations "had me in tears every single time"), Cole concedes she has mixed feelings about Lilith's overall impact.
"I'm not gonna stand here and just go, 'Woo-hoo, Lilith Fair!" she said. "I think there were, looking back on it, there's a lot of Lilith UnFair, you know?"
Asked to elaborate, Cole paused, then proceeded.
"Well, no matter .... uhh (laughs) I don't want to damage myself here. But, you know, one person owned it, one person headlined, one person really was the benefactor of all of that. And there was a lot of backlash. So I don't know. I think that some of the female artists that declined Lilith Fair, I think that might have been a smart move. ..."
Moments later, Cole added, "I don't know if Lilith Fair ... it didn't really add up to be tremendously beneficial to me. It's an experience I'm grateful for. I love the people. ... And I wish Sarah well. But I feel like ... when people describe me as being influenced by Sarah, that couldn't be farther from the truth. If you listen to our music, they are radically different. That's just comparison by association."
The decision for Cole to not be part of a Lilith reboot in 2010 was a collective one, she initially said, later offering that she declined a spot on that tour, which was plagued by show cancellations, artist dropouts and sluggish ticket sales. Since then, she and McLachlan haven't kept in touch.
If Lilith wasn't a fulfilling experience, Cole admits other events in the '90s caused more grief than relief.
There was the rise of pop princesses Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Jessica Simpson ("I was probably the darkest of (the era's) female singer-songwriter solos"); 1999's Amen, Cole's adventurous album "that got lambasted" for attempting to blend spiritual, R&B and hip-hop influences ("I'm still proud of it"); and her everlasting association with a TV teen phenomenon after licensing "I Don't Want to Wait," a touching tribute to her grandfather that brought out the Dawson's Creek haters ("I was at the front of the curve and got criticized for it").
Since song placement is a commonplace practice accepted as smart business today, Cole felt "a little beat up" after getting caught in the crossfire for a song off 1996's This Fire, her most commercially successful album, but can laugh about it now. "How would you know this TV show would become so colossally huge that it would usurp my career? So huge. And frankly it helped me live while I had to take care of my daughter, so I can't complain, really."
The renegade rocker with an operatic voice and a heart full of soul still can't get over "touching a social nerve" by displaying armpit air at the Grammys, where she was named Best New Artist of 1997.
"There was a lot of hate," she said of the reaction. "It's almost like, I don't know, I was wearing a burka and I was walking into Sarkozy's office or something (the former president of France banned the garment in 2011). There was a gender expectation for what I was supposed to look like. And I didn't fit it. And there was a lot of wrath and meanness and jokes and it really affected my business. And I think that's a shame that that kind of superseded the music."
Cole eventually disappeared from the public eye while taking care of her daughter, who battled asthma for years but now is completely healthy, more drawn to computer animation than music.
A self-described introvert who struggled with the spotlight anyway, Cole made only two albums (2007's Courage and 2010's Ithaca) after the turn of the century. "I feel like I kind of went the way of the dodo a bit," she said.
Fortunately, Cole found a more formidable bird to emulate.
Quoth the Raven
"It's just an icon that's with me," Cole said of the album title. "That's a very right-brained, intuitive choice. I can't figure it out. Of course, there's a lot of symbology that works. ... I feel like I am the Raven in this context."
Wishing now that her professional evolution had taken longer to develop, Cole took solace in the comforting words of Emmylou Harris, whose slow-burning yet remarkable career set an example for many.
"She said, 'I'm lucky this has always been a nice long plateau. It just happened too fast for you,' " Cole recalled. "And she encouraged me to hang in there. And I will always love her for that. Just kind of seeing in that way. And it did happen too fast. So now, I had to overcome the worry of 'Will anyone be there for me?' "
Inspired by Amanda Palmer's Kickstarter venture (and her subsequent "Art of asking"), Cole's question was answered with a campaign that launched on September 22, 2012, and far exceeded her October 29 goal, finishing with 911 backers, including a $10,000 pledge for a private house concert.
With help from a circle of friends along with life and business partner David Twomey, Cole already has started shipping the album to her Kickstarter donors, chatting with others on Skype, making videos and performing fans' personal favorites such as Van Morrison's "Tupelo Honey."
A lot of work, she acknowledged, but a lot of silver linings.
"So now I can kind of have a slower build," she said. "It's a second career. And I feel like it's a more authentic one. Humbler, indeed.
"My eyes have been opened," Cole later added. "I'm so unbelievably heartened," by the fans she prefers to call her folks. "I love them so much. They're like my second family. Gigs feel like family reunions." (At left, Cole performs last September at the Soiled Dove in Denver.)
Cole recorded most of the album in one week at a barn in Massachusetts with co-producer/drummer Ben Wittman and guitarist Kevin Barry, two L.A. musicians she has worked with since she was 19, and enlisted bassist Tony Levin via the technological wonder of email.
"I felt like I wanted this album to be a little bit Emmylou and a little bit PJ Harvey," Cole said about combining intense rock, acoustic storytelling and beautiful harmony with a little bit of soul.
Mostly, though, Raven is Paula Cole, survivor.
"I'm still here," she proudly stated, trying to get the message out to Triple A radio stations while "hoping, praying" they will support her.
No longer on the fast track, Cole finally seems comfortable in the Middle Lane, her aptly named, too infrequent blog that only confirms what her fan base already knows —the wonderful wordsmith still has a lot to say.
"We're just taking it month by month, looking long," Cole said. "I don't want to give up on music. I wouldn't be alive without it. I love it. I need it."
Publicity photo by Erica McDonald. Concert photo by Michael Bialas.