Paula Cole Folds History and Music Together for ‘American Quilt’
Photo by Ebru Yildiz
In the patchwork of American history — and American music — not every piece is pretty. There’s pain woven in, and Paula Cole wanted to reflect that as she chose songs for her new album, American Quilt, out this Friday.
The album features Cole’s interpretations of songs from the Great American Songbook — well-loved numbers like “What a Wonderful World” and “Wayfaring Stranger” alongside others that Cole might be bringing to some listeners for the first time.
On the album’s lone original song, “Hidden in Plain Sight,” Cole taps into a songbook tradition of blending emotion with history. Verse by verse, she describes the quilting patterns women once used to covertly direct enslaved people toward freedom via bedding hung out to dry in the sunlight. A whispered chorus conveys the message behind the surface of the colorful quilt pieces: “Hidden in plain sight / hidden in plain sight / memorize the pattern / take flight tonight.”
“It didn’t feel complete to talk about America without some of the sadder and more serious aspects of it, and that’s our history of slavery,” Cole says in a video call from her home in Massachusetts.
In researching the slavery-era quilts, she could find lots of information about patterns like Flying Geese (instructing those planning to flee to look to birds to find north) and Drunkard’s Path (a reminder to avoid walking in a straight line to throw off trackers), but she couldn’t find any songs about them. “So I wrote into that vacancy,” she says, “which I felt was needed to make the patchwork more complete and true. To discuss that uncomfortable thing was necessary, I felt. To liken America to a quilt, well, we must represent it all and we must talk about the painful history.”
Cole’s own family history is sewn into American Quilt as well. “I am a patchwork of heritage, a typical American,” she says in a press video, describing her Irish, Swedish, Italian, Polish, English, and Native American roots. The music she heard growing up reflected those roots and reached out for more.
“I grew up with a father who played bass in a polka band on weekends and played a multitude of instruments. And I was raised with country music, jazz standards, folk songs, everything,” she says.
Cole attended Berklee College of Music to become a jazz vocalist but confronted what she characterizes as “impostor syndrome” in the face of interpreting songs created and perfected by Black artists. Her own songs were welling up inside her as well, so she turned her focus to songwriting, finding enormous mainstream success with her second album, 1997’s This Fire, which included the hits “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” and “I Don’t Want to Wait.” She was nominated for seven Grammys for that album, including Producer of the Year, the first time a solo woman was nominated in that category.
Songwriting was then and has remained a key part of Cole’s musical expression, but her love of jazz and the standards never left her, and in 2017 she released Ballads, a double album of classic jazz, country, and folk songs intended as a tribute to her personal influences. American Quilt continues that homage, highlighting songs and artists that have resonated in Cole’s life and career.
“I need to represent all that I am,” she says. “I know I started as a jazz singer, but I’m not [just] that, I’m a diverse patchwork, just like America.”
Despite her jazz training, she admits to some nervousness (and a flare-up of that old imposter syndrome) as she recorded “Bye Bye Blackbird” with a generous dose of vocal improvisation inspired by some of her musical heroes, like Ella Fitzgerald, Chet Baker, Louis Armstrong, and Sarah Vaughan.
“Even though I do it a lot on stages, like at jazz gigs or with my band, there’s just something about me that has not yet relaxed,” Cole says of improvising. “It’s a life goal for me to do it a little more and to relax, to find relaxation in it. And I think I’ve found it on this particular take of ‘Bye Bye Blackbird.’ I just kind of shut the world away, closed my eyes, and got really close to the microphone and thought about simplicity and space, like learning from Miles Davis and Chet Baker, both trumpet players. … It’s like surfing a wave, you’re in the freedom, you’re in the unknown.”
She also drew inspiration for American Quilt from Bessie Smith, on the tracks “Nobody Knows You (When You’re Down and Out)” and “Black Mountain Blues.”
“Bessie Smith was a huge influence to me on this album, such a mother to us here in music — to Janis Joplin, Bessie Smith was her favorite singer, to Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith was Billie Holiday’s favorite singer,” Cole says. “And so she is a font, and many waters flow from the great Bessie Smith.”
Besides Smith’s vocal talents and perseverance as a bisexual woman of color in an era when each of those statuses were perceived as obstacles, Cole loves that she often performed songs that called out injustice and in some cases added lyrics aimed at empowering women. Cole, too, has often blended messages of social justice and feminism into her music, most famously as one of the original artists booked for the Lilith Fair tours of the late 1990s. But those priorities are in her songwriting, too, and in the song selections she’s made for her standards albums, which especially on Ballads favored songs written by or about women.
Music that Bridges
American Quilt closes with “What a Wonderful World,” a song Cole says “bridged a lot of things that I wanted to bridge.” It bridges the jazz sounds on the album with popular music, she says, but it also connects audiences.
“It was written for Louis Armstrong to specifically bridge Black and white audiences because his fan base was mixed,” she explains. “It’s just part of our DNA and collective consciousness.”
Cole’s delivery of the song is somber, her voice allowing for a question to creep in among all the beautiful imagery of the lyrics. Recorded with her band in January 2020, it was impossible for her to ignore the deep divisions that had taken root in America as she sang the live vocal that ended up on the album.
“It was just a very honest reading in which I think we all got into a very contemplative place,” she recalls. “We had been through a nation divided and difficult election, a lot of fear and division, and I think everyone was feeling that. I love sad music. And I also love irony and deeper shades of meaning. So that was just an honest place and it felt right. And I do appreciate that it’s a little ironic or there’s a deeper shade to it.”
She adds with a laugh: “I don’t know if I do happy music very well.”
Happy or sad, Cole plans to continue writing her own songs (“I feel some songs burgeoning,” she says. “It’s kind of a pregnant feeling”) and also is writing a book on creativity and songwriting. But the Great American Songbook still beckons.
“I’ve only scratched the surface of my folk start, my seeds of folk music and American music,” she says. “My dad has fake books of folk songs, and he’s still alive and on the planet and I really need to pick his brain more. I want to go through some of his favorite folk songs and learn more about that. I feel like I’ve tapped into some nutritious, fertile soil with the folk and Americana songs.”