Songwriter Interviews

Paula Cole

by Carl Wiser

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Paula Cole never watched the Grammys, which made it a little weird when she won the award for Best New Artist in 1997 (also weird, her first album was released in 1994). She made history that year, becoming the first woman nominated for Producer of the Year without a male accomplice. It was one of her seven nominations.

Her album This Fire, which earned her the Grammy love, contains two hits: "Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?" and "I Don't Want To Wait," which in 1998 became the theme song for a new show called Dawson's Creek. The following year she released her third album, Amen, which deals with religion and our place in the universe. Rolling Stone reported her having a spiritual breakthrough and quoted her saying, "It led me to the understanding that God doesn't exist." Except she didn't say that, which kinda changes the meaning of the songs, especially the title track, where she says "Amen" to Marilyn Manson, Saddam Hussein, Gloria Steinem and Ronald Reagan.

The album underperformed, and Cole didn't release another until 2007, taking an extended hiatus to raise her daughter and sit out her record company's upheaval. A lot changed in those seven years, but Cole's focus remained the same: making meaningful music. Her latest is a live album called This Bright Red Feeling (available on Spotify), which includes new versions of her two big hits.

In this candid conversation, she deconstructs the songs that have told her story, and explains why Lilith Fair may have hurt her career.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): One thing that's interesting about you is how your songs have charted this course through your life. You have a song on your first album called "Happy Home" which is about your mother, then you became a mother yourself and went through some similar situations. Can you talk about that?

Paula Cole: Sure. Carl Jung said the single biggest influence on a person's life is the unfinished dreams of one's parents, and I really felt the weight of my mother's unfinished dream of her art making it out to the world. She raised us and was busy with us but would frequently be inside working on something. There was a period where my dad was going to Cornell trying to get his doctorate in Entomology. We were living in Ithaca, I was a little kid, and just for sanity she would tie me to a tree and go inside and work on her art projects. I would just spend the day alone outside - there's pictures of me. This is like the late '60s and the early '70s, just a radically different time when you could do those things.

But I was acutely aware of my mother desperately wanting time for her vision. There are stories of my great-grandmother, Charlotte, who was asked to be part of a touring symphony and had to decline because it would have caused shame on our Victorian family. Ridiculous! And my other grandmother, my paternal grandmother, Helen, was a real feminist, a real Rosie the Riveter type who did work in the factories during World War II, who just was brilliant. A brilliant woman and ahead of her time, and frustrated.

So, I'm inheriting all this. I have a musical proclivity that's come through my dad – he's infused the joy of music in me – and I'm singing not just for myself and I'm writing not just for myself but this legacy and needing to go out in the world for the women behind me.

Then I reached the Grammys and a level of success that came very quickly, and it felt very empty and lonely. I backed away from it and I shed all that like an ill-fitting snake skin. I had my daughter - it was wonderful. We had such a wonderful infancy together. I think we healed each other. She certainly healed me a lot.

Things took various turns, so I wrote about them. Then I found myself in the shoes of the mother and I wrote about it because writing is my therapy and my dialogue with the unconscious. I see my songs as these strings of polaroid snapshots, this whizzing journal as I write out my life.

Songfacts: That Grammy Awards was really bizarre. I remember Shawn Colvin winning some big awards and Ol' Dirty Bastard coming up and interrupting her on stage.

Cole: It was strange. That was a strange Grammys. There was the Soy Bomb dude. Bob Dylan won three and Shawn Colvin won a couple of them in the same categories I was nominated. I think Puff Daddy and I were both nominated for a lot of Grammys. It's all kind of silly and wonderful and chaotic and strange.

Songfacts: As much as you've written about your parents, your grandparents are also a very big deal.

Cole: Yeah, my family are all woven into me and my songs and my consciousness.

Songfacts: A song that is about your grandparents is "I Don't Want To Wait." Could you talk about that song and how you put it together?

Cole: Sure. My grandparents, this is my father's parents, they lived right down the street from us, so they were a huge part of my upbringing. It was a multi-generational street and we saw them many times every week - we were very close.

I had a sense that my grandfather was getting towards the end of his life and I wrote "I Don't Want To Wait," which was so prescient in a way. I wrote that song and it was released after his death. Even though it's very catchy and melodic and it's a bit of an earworm, for me it's a very personal song that's looking at my grandparents, specifically my grandfather, Everett, who fought in World War II, his unhappy marriage to my grandmother - the firecracker, Helen - their influence on my father and then that influence on me.

When you grow up with your grandparents you can really see the generations and the energy of the parenting. I was looking at it and thinking, "I don't want to make some of these mistakes. I really hope I don't." Wanting to take that Atlas globe off of my shoulders that felt like each female generation was passing, like you have to just stay married, you can't be happy, you can't have a career. I just wanted to shrug it off and I wanted happiness for my life, my generation.

Of course, I go about making all kinds of different mistakes in reaction to that and ironically I come back to my hometown and full circle of living by my parents now, with my daughter. So, that song follows me. It's a song from my life. I think about my family in it, I think about generations, the way they've informed my dad and me, but really I wrote it for my grandfather and I feel like his spirit is still in that song. The song has wings.

Songfacts: Is that his voice when you sing, "I don't want to wait for our lives to be over"?

Cole: No, I was thinking about more my voice.

Songfacts: There's a line where you sing, "Will it be yes or will it be..." and then you pause and it goes, "Sorry." What's going on there?

Cole: Do you say yes to life? Do you embrace the things that give you joy? Or do you cower back in fear or by culture's machinations keeping you small? That's what it really means to me.

And I want to say yes. I don't want to have regrets. Of course, I do. Now I stand here in mid-life and I look at my song I wrote in my 20s and it's joyous and wonderful and of course I have regrets. Of course.

Paula's first hit was "Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?," which reached #8 in May 1997. "I Don't Want To Wait" followed, climbing to a peak position of #11 on the chart dated January 17, 1998. On January 20, Dawson's Creek debuted on the WB network, creating a sensation and launching the careers of Katie Holmes, Michelle Williams and James Van Der Beek. Throughout its six-season run, "I Don't Want To Wait" was the theme song.
Songfacts: How did that song end up in Dawson's Creek?

Cole: It was such a lark really. Kevin Williamson, who wrote Dawson's Creek, was a fan and asked my manager. I said, "Sure."

We had no idea that it would be such a hit that it would usurp the brand name that was Paula Cole. We had no idea it was going to be so huge.

Songfacts: I was thinking how the Barenaked Ladies, no matter what they do they're going to be most famous for The Big Bang Theory theme song, but they had been around for a decade or so. This was pretty early in your career.

Cole: I know. It was a hit. It was a #1 radio song on a couple of different formats, and "Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?" had been a big hit. So, people who belonged to the Gen-X generation or if they were just paying attention to radio or MTV at that time, they knew me.

It was unusual at the time for a show to use an existing hit, and it just took over. It gave it a new life for another younger generation and that generation wasn't aware of the fact that I had had a career before that, really. So, it's been up to them to discover it via the internet, I guess.

Songfacts: A lot of the really popular TV theme songs, Friends for instance, were written specifically for the shows, and clearly crafted. But "I Don't Want To Wait" gave Dawson's Creek a certain authenticity that you would never get by assigning a task to a writer.

Cole: Oh, absolutely. I didn't write that song for Dawson's Creek. I wrote that song, as I write most of my songs really, for my life. I'm writing out my life.

Paula attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where John Mayer, Kiesza and Gillian Welch all took classes.
Songfacts: You admitted that you can write the catchy earworm – there's nothing wrong with that, it's good songwriting. Is that something that you learned at Berklee?

Cole: No, I didn't take any songwriting at Berklee. I was kind of a mutant in that I didn't want to be part of the songwriting program. I didn't want to be influenced. I felt it was a highly personal process and I just didn't want to share that vulnerability with anybody at that formative time. I was also really focused on being a jazz singer when I was at Berklee and it was towards the end of Berklee that I realized I didn't want to pursue jazz at that point, and I was getting tired of singing other people's songs. And my songwriting was this highly personal blood-letting, really. It was therapy and it wasn't something that I wanted to craft or homogenize as part of a program.

I just avoided that, but then you continue years into your art that is songwriting and you do your life craft. I did do life craft, but I really appreciated pop gems and the economy of pop writing. So, it was in the back of my mind, I guess, wanting to combine that economy and lift and anthem of a pop song but with depth of art.

Songfacts: And, for the most part, you did it very much on your own. Your most successful album was self-produced, so you didn't have somebody giving you feedback and telling you what to do. I don't think you produced your first album - can you talk about that transition?

Cole: Sure. I was a musician's musician and I knew how to play instruments and write. It was a hermetic process, like a very ascetic process of going inside and writing out my truths. It was awkward for me to translate my music through a producer. I learned a lot from the first producer I worked with, who is brilliant. His name's Kevin Killen, and he produced Harbinger, my first album. I learned a lot from him and I felt ready to do it on my own. I'm so glad I did.

There were very few women doing that at the time. I couldn't find women who had that vision in the production. The only one that I could find was Kate Bush. I loved Hounds of Love so profoundly. I loved her music so much and I would turn over those cassette tapes and LPs and CDs and it would say, "Produced by Kate," and it made so much sense to me because the music was unusual, it didn't sound like anything else. It wasn't some star producer dude coming in Svengali-like and dealing with the young female artist. No, it was Kate expressing her truth, not only in the songwriting but in the production, in the sounds. Her hands were on that console.

I loved it and she gave me hope and motivation to do that myself, except I was in an American climate of big labels and it was difficult to achieve. I just had to continually self-advocate and work hard, nose to the grindstone, and make a good piece of work, under budget, in a very short amount of time. I did it and it went on to be successful, thankfully, so I could continue self-producing, because that freedom was vital to me as an artist.

Songfacts: A wonderfully produced record is "Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?" There are so many little hooks and textures in that song, so you can listen to it over and over. How did you do that?

Cole: Well, "Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?" was a song that had been kicking around in my home demo coffers for many years, but I had written it with a rumba feel, which is really strange, right? Nobody paid any attention to it with a rumba feel, and that bothered me. For some reason the song was speaking to my unconscious and was saying, "Believe in me. Hey, I'm down here, I'm good." It bothered me enough that I re-demoed it with like a Ringo Starr reprise of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." On that album, Paul McCartney counts off at the last song, "One, two, three, four... [drum beat]." That's Ringo.

So, I sampled Ringo and looped it for just home demo purposes, not for the recording, and then I put on the catchy BVs [backing vocals] and added a bridge and suddenly everyone was really over the top about the song. And I knew going into This Fire that it was an important song and it was probably going to be my first single.

I loved the way "When Doves Cry" sounded, from Prince, and the lack of bass and how it sounded coming through a piece of shit car stereo system all high end. It translated beautifully. I wanted it to translate to radio without bass muddying this particular song. I wanted crowd noise throughout the track to give it feel and ambience. I wanted the catchiness of the background vocals, and most of all I wanted humor and wit, like XTC of England, that wonderful British rock group. I was really in admiration of their wit and their humor and I thought, "What do I need to write with some wit and humor and irony."

So, it's so many things woven together: wit, irony, humor, melancholy, and gender role examination. It's all these things put together musically in this plaintive, Americana pop way. Then I have Greg Leisz on a million guitars. That guitar comp took me through the entire night. It took forever to put that guitar comp together. All of his pedal, his lap steel and acoustics and electrics, it's just lovely, and that gorgeous à la Ringo feel by Jay [Bellerose].

Jay and I, we tracked the whole album in a couple of days. We did all of the songs – drums, piano, keyboards, vocals, and me with my bits and bobs like didgeridoo and clarinet – in a couple of days because we played together and we've been playing together since August '90, so it was really fast. We still play together.

On one hand the raw performance of "Cowboys" was fast and raw. The whole album is raw: no automating or time grids. None of that nonsense - it's really rootsy. But Greg Leisz, his guitars, they took time. There's a lot of guitar work on that song.

So, that part took production, and there's thoughtfulness in the details, like the crowd noise, the lack of bass, the craftsmanship of the production for radio. And the writing of course. There was a lot of thoughtfulness in those aspects.

Songfacts: One of my favorite little bits is when you flip it around after, "you pay all the bills," and then it becomes, "while you go have a beer." When you play it live, you can hear it in the crowds - they get that line.

Cole: It's funny, they do and sometimes they don't. People have their own interpretations of the song, I swear to you. The conservatives really think I'm just being literal, and most other people understand the multi-layers of it.

I've just re-recorded "Cowboys" and "I Don't Want To Wait" so I can own the masters of these, and it was an interesting process. I really learned more about the tracks again, just by going in and learning all the parts. We cut them pretty meticulously, except I switched up some lyrics of "Cowboys" for an independent release called This Bright Red Feeling. We're at the 20-year mark of This Fire, so I have nine live tracks and the re-records of these two hit songs.

Songfacts: How did you change the lyric?

Cole: Well, after all these years I flip it and I say, "You go wash the dishes while I go have a beer." Just a wink-wink-nudge-nudge feminist kind of flip there.

Songfacts: I'm trying to picture the conservative interpretation of this song.

Cole: It's pretty simplistic. Rush Limbaugh really loved this song and he would play it on his radio program because I guess there wasn't much in-depth listening and it was just a skimming of the surface of:

Where is my John Wayne?
Where is my prairie son?
Where is my happy ending?
Where have all the cowboys gone?


That meaning, "I'm sitting at home and I'm pining for my masculine man." That's it. Just like the Reagan campaign used "Born in the USA," they didn't bother listening to the verses, I suppose.

Songfacts: Well, Rush Limbaugh's theme music is a song written by Chrissie Hynde. It's "My City Was Gone." And then Sean Hannity uses "Independence Day," which was written by a woman who's staunchly anti-Hannity. So, that happens a lot.

Cole: You've got McCain using "Running On Empty." I mean, Jackson Browne is uber-liberal. He shut that down in two seconds.

This passage appears in Paula's 1998 interview with Rolling Stone:

After the tour, Cole had a spiritual breakthrough. "It led me to the understanding that God doesn't exist," she says. "I don't want to get too into it. It's too private. But I knew it with every cell. If you look at any leaf, any blade of grass, you can see that all things are interrelated... And my life had meaning."
Songfacts: Something I read a while ago from you is that you had this revelation that God does not exist, and I hear a lot of this in your song "Amen." Can you talk about that?

Cole: Oh, that's so interesting that you're going there. Well, that's a quote from Rolling Stone and it's... [pause]

OK, I was thinking a lot about my spirituality. I was raised in an atheist household and I felt the presence of the divine - the mystery, for lack of terminology - the universal force. And I remember asking my parents if they believed in God, and my dad said no, he was a scientist, and my mom needed to think about it and come back to me. She said, "Well, if I believe in God, I believe it's love," and I really appreciated her thoughtfulness. So I went kind of rudderless, without religion, which now I appreciate very much because it allowed me to have my own personal space with my spirituality.

Paula's Grammy nominations:

Best New Artist (won)
Album of the Year (This Fire)
Best Pop Album (This Fire)
Record of the Year ("Cowboys")
Song of the Year ("Cowboys")
Producer of the Year
Best Female Pop Vocal Performance ("Cowboys")
But when I did the Rolling Stone article they misquoted me and it was corrected, of course, in the editor's notes the following issue, which nobody reads. I believe God does exist, and they misquoted me on a most important detail so it just made my heart sink in that moment.

God, for me, it doesn't mean anything literal and it's even banal to talk about it. I believe in the mystery, I believe in the unifying force, and it took me many years of living away from my parents' upbringing. I don't belong to any religion, still. Not at all. My partner in life is an atheist but I do believe in the mystery. Maybe it's because I need it, but I believe.

And it was a very explorative time for me when I made "Amen." I was coming off the heels of This Fire. My life was taking a really interesting turn with success, becoming a young woman in the world, losing my anonymity briefly, hating that, questioning everything, rejecting my fame and looking for greater purpose within my writing and my career. I looked to artists like Bob Marley and Marvin Gaye, his What's Going On album, and even some hip-hop artists of the time. They were combining spirituality and social justice and groove, and that's what I wanted to do.

There was a lot of simplistic gross generalization imposed upon the reception of Amen. It wasn't successful and they just heard me singing about God in some kind of Santa Claus ridiculous way instead of a more layered and socially/spiritually conscious way that was totally accepted in other art forms like hip-hop or soul music. But, if you're a white woman, it just didn't go down at the time.

So, that's a very fraught thing you just brought up and I feel like I've been misunderstood, misinterpreted, misquoted, as I grapple with these existential questions: Who am I? What is my purpose? What is the meaning of my art? I want it to benefit other life, I want it to serve a purpose that's beyond my own therapy. I want it to also serve the purpose of some social and spiritual healing. It gives that to me and I hope it elevates other people too. My heroes, John Lennon or Marvin Gaye or Bob Marley or Bob Dylan, they were singing about those things, so why couldn't I?

Songfacts: I can see how all of this led you to take a significant amount of time off.

Cole: Oh, yeah. Misunderstood. Flop. My manager said, "Time to sell the house" - basically, give up. My heart hurt so much and I hated the fashion statement element of pop. That's not who I am, that's not who I was. I'd never even watched the Grammys before I was on it and then I had hairy armpits and they made such a big fuss about it. I was touring in Europe where they don't even give a fuck about that. I came back and it was just weird, and I said, "Fuck this!"

I didn't want it. I wanted to live my own life, privately, and make meaningful music. And if it sells, it sells, and if it doesn't, it doesn't, but I didn't want to be part of that anymore.

So I had my daughter and I took seven-and-a-half years off and that's partly because I wanted to and partly because I had to because my daughter, Sky, had asthma. It was really bad, and I needed to be there for her - I couldn't think of touring. I tried to make some albums in that period. I worked with Hugh Padgham and Don Was, and we made several songs, like a couple of albums worth of material, and it just wasn't released.

I don't know what was going on. AOL was merging with Warner and with Britney and Christina Aguilera and NSYNC and Backstreet Boys it was just a different time. I kept taking another year off and another year off and the executives at Warner Bros were too busy playing golf and not even replying to emails. It was spectacular how bad they ran their business. There was no communication, so I just stayed out of it. I didn't want it anyway. I wanted to make my music and if they wanted it, great, and it they didn't...

So, I finally figured out a way to get off the label, and in 2007, I put out some new music on a different label. I've been on four major labels because I'm just of that age, Gen-X, we're part of the big label game. And now I've been independent for a few albums and I've had real freedom. I can do what I do. It's a much smaller marketplace now that streaming has taken away artist revenue. We have to be smart and we have to figure out how to monetize what we do.

Prince was fighting for this before he died. I'm baffled. I care about music so much. I have not diversified: I've not acted, I've not sold perfume or a clothing line. I've not done those things for money. I've been really, singularly focused on the music, much to my detriment.

Songfacts: That time period also coincided with the rise of the internet, so suddenly you're out of the game and going on around you is this new form of communication, and who knows what they're saying about you on there. How did that affect you?

Cole: I was curious about it, frankly. I was there at home in my hermitude, mothering and taking care of my daughter, and when my life was stable in that time I would be curious and I'd go online and I actually released a couple of songs just free and out into the internet.

I wanted to know about it. I wanted to be in touch with my fans. I missed the music and I missed my fans. I didn't like the photo shoots and the video shoots and the game and the promo and all that but I missed the goodness, so I was curious about it.

But, again, I was part of that generation that was a bridge between big labels and big deals in the '90s to the independent reality that is now. And what's interesting is they still hold us accountable for those big budgets that were spent really stupidly with lots of overhead. They'll never make that money back because now you can stream for free. There's no such thing as catalog sales anymore really, except for those few that still buy physical product, I guess.

It's such a radically changing marketplace and I think we're all mystified as to how to continue. I just know that I must and I'll keep writing and I'll keep doing it because I must. There are many times I've felt like saying, "Fuck this" again, Carl, I have. I do it because I love it, because I love the people on the other side when I play concerts and we have this music in common. It's like a reunion, really. It's a very special thing, the concerts. Just a lot of love in the room.

I feel there's increasingly few women artists who are still out there touring. I'm 48, I'm getting close to 50, and that voice, there's just not a lot of us. Not a lot of us who are moms and were somebody in the music business and were a voice for all of us at that time and that are still touring. So, I go out there and now a lot of the women – and men – that were fans of This Fire, they've raised their children and their children are out of the nest and they can finally go to shows again. It's really wonderful - it really feels like a reunion.

So, that part is enjoyable to me and I'd like to write a book or two or three. I feel like I have that in me. And I've embraced Kickstarter, the online donor paradigm, basically. I've financed two albums that way and I'm currently at work on my first jazz album, 30 years later. So, I'm making an album of standards for my Kickstarters and for anyone else who cares. So, I'm still doing it and I'm finding ways to stay alive out here in the marketplace.

Songfacts: One of your more popular renditions is "Autumn Leaves," which is a standard. I'm kind of surprised you haven't made a whole album of these already and that some record company executive didn't jump on that.

Cole: Well, thanks Carl. Remember I started as a jazz singer in college and I've been offered two jazz label deals over the course of my career. I said no both times because they just didn't feel right at the time and I wanted to sing my own songs and write my own truths, but now the time is right. It's just right, and I feel like maybe I needed to live half a century worth of wisdom and pain and tears and soul to put into these beautiful, classic chestnuts.

So, yeah, "Autumn Leaves" was right up my alley. That was for the Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil soundtrack. But I've just recorded 30 songs this August – standards. I feel at home in these standards. That's what I grew up with and I'm psyched to finally, 30 years later, make this album.

I've been on four Chris Botti albums, singing standards for him and selling his records, and I've sung with Herbie Hancock and Terri Lyne Carrington and other jazz artists. I want to make my own album so I'm doing that now.

Paula toured as Sarah McLachlan's opening act in 1995. When McLachlan launched the Lilith Fair two years later, This Fire was hot on the charts and Cole was a big draw, bolstering a Main Stage lineup that included Jewel, Sheryl Crow and Emmylou Harris. Cole returned the following year, but wasn't part of the third Lilith Fair in 1999, the last one until a 2010 reboot.

McLachlan said the impetus for the festival came from those 1995 shows when she got pushback from concert promoters leary of two women on the same bill. Also, Lollapalooza had become almost completely male; by 1997 there were no females among the Main Stage acts.
Songfacts: You were talking about how the women of your generation, they're not out touring anymore. That got me thinking back to the Lilith Fair and how huge a movement that was. What are your thoughts on that and how it worked out?

Cole: It was fun at the time. It was really wonderful - audiences were fantastic and I loved that we raised money for women's shelters in every community we played. In hindsight, I think it might have been better just for me to have continued on my own path and not blended it with the movement because I got lumped in. And, in reality, my music is nothing like Sarah McLachlan's. Hers is very peaceful, kind of Enya-like, and I'm really dark and intense and raging and it's very different.

It's so ironic to me that I was lumped in with the movement when really I was uniquely my own person. And I wish I hadn't, to tell you the truth. I loved the experience and I share that with everybody, but for my career it would have been better just to have continued my own thing, like the way Tori Amos did. See, we all have regrets and we all learn.

So, we all raised the consciousness of what was going on at the time. There weren't a lot of women being played after other women on radio or any other programming, really. You might have a couple of women and like 12 male artists on a radio station, but they just wouldn't program you back to back and they wouldn't have a woman opening for a woman. It sounds so weird now.

Remember too, there was the Riot Grrrl movement and Sleater-Kinney. It wasn't just Lilith Fair, it was all around. It was Missy Elliott in hip-hip and Lil' Kim. A really bright time, musically.

Songfacts: I actually worked for a radio station that had that rule that you were not allowed to play two female artists back-to-back.

Cole: Really? That's so awful.

Songfacts: Yeah. It would have been late '80s, early '90s. It existed - it really did. It was in pop radio.

Cole: Isn't that sad.

Songfacts: When you said, "I'm a dark, intense, raging artist," I thought of your song "Tiger" and how that opens up your live album with a catharsis. That was from This Fire, but when you perform it, that emotion is clearly still there. Was there really a sex-starved teacher trying to touch your ass?

Cole: Oh, yeah, like multiple times. That's the thing: We're part of a generation that just had to silently deal with all these horrible things. You just want to be a person and be seen for your inner life, your mind, not for your ass. And, sure, lots of experiences like that on the road.

Paula's song "Bethlehem" from her first album describes the misery that can come from growing up in a town that gets a little too familiar (Rockport, Massachusetts). "Trying to be class president and get straight As," she sings.

"Tiger" finds her liberated: "I've left bethlehem... I'm not that straight A anymore."
Songfacts: I assume you were the class president and got straight As?

Cole: I was. I was class president for three years and I was third in my class. In all the plays and all that. In a positive sense, I really did love my community and I really did care about them in a spiritual way, so I think we all kind of agreed that I'd lead the class, for better or for worse. I am a natural leader: I like being self-employed, I lead a band, I have a couple of small businesses.

If you are a singer-songwriter and a bandleader, you have to be entrepreneurial. You need to have good emotional intelligence, social intelligence, in order to be a leader, and I think it's just part of who I am, my Aries leader-self. I guess that manifested itself as being class president for three years in high school.

Songfacts: But still there was no star above your Bethlehem.

Paula from her Harbinger photo shoot
Cole: Ultimately, I wanted to break free from my self-imposed good girl expectations. I was a bit of a repressed goody two-shoes, you see, and I needed to bust out of that in my 20s and I needed to rebel.

Songfacts: Then when you returned to music in 2007, the tiger showed up again in your song "14." Can you talk about the significance of that song and the title?

Cole: That period in my life was frustrating. I wrote that song during my hiatus. It was on my Courage album - I had a few albums before Courage was made that never came out. I struggled to finally release that album, and a lot of the songs were co-writes. Courage was really the only time I've done that, because that was the producer's cup of tea, and I was open to it. I had nothing to lose. His name is Patrick Leonard. He wrote with Madonna a lot. Very talented.

I was frustrated and that's what came out. I guess I was looking back at who I was at 14 and, again, wanting to break out of molds. I was mostly a lyricist and a melodicist in that song. It's funny, because the ones that I co-wrote I remember less. They're not as stark for me. I can't grasp them as well as I can the ones I wrote by myself.

Songfacts: Have you ever looked to see which of your songs are the most popular digital downloads and streams?

Cole: Well, if I go on Spotify there's always a list right at the top, but other than that I don't.

Songfacts: Well, the first two are kind of obvious, but then at #3, which surprised me, is "Feelin' Love."

Cole: Oh, alright. See I'm learning things. This is very good.

Songfacts: Yeah, I was really surprised, but that's one of your most popular songs and it's really held up over the years. What was going on that led you to write that one?

Cole: Well, I wrote "Cowboys" thinking how there's just not a lot of wit and humor coming from a woman's perspective, and after loving and listening to a lot of Prince and soul music like Al Green, I felt like there weren't a lot of songs written by women and divulging a little bit about their sexual feelings, and I felt like that needed to be expressed for me and for other people.

Men appreciate that song so much. After concerts, a lot of people take that song home with them, if you follow.

Songfacts: It's a baby-making song.

Cole: It really is.

Songfacts: You talked about how you don't like the whole visual presentation aspect, yet your videos are pretty popular.

Cole: Are they? I have no idea.

Songfacts: They did well at the time, certainly. I remember MTV playing them a good amount. I guess I'm trying to get a sense for how you approached making a music video when you were resistant to this type of thing.

Cole: I would have a conversation with myself and I would tell myself, "Get over it. Get over yourself, get over your fear, get over your hate. You're wasting everybody's time and money. You need to just try to embrace this." And I would try to dance or try to move.

So, if you see like in "Cowboys," sometimes I do sing at the camera. I can do that kind of confessional, really looking straight at the camera, and I can dance. I would just flow with the music that way.

Same with "I Don't Want to Wait." There's a version out there that's very complicated and high-budget and I'm playing a woman who never ages and she basically kills off all her lovers. It takes me through European 1700s to Victorian era in England - it's kind of over the top.

But I think I'm my best when I'm just feeling the music and moving to it or looking at the camera. So that worked for me, and you know, I needed to embrace my reality at that time. I knew I had to do it. I had to suck it up and get over myself, my fear and my introversion.

It's funny because I just finished shooting another video for "Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?" with Melora Hardin, who's an actor in LA - she plays Tammy on Transparent and she played Jan on The Office. She's my best friend and she directed the re-do, this second version of "Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?" that I'll probably release in January. And all of that came up for me again. All of that fear and loathing, and it's even worse now because I'm middle-aged and I'm thinking, "Who wants to see a middle-aged woman starring in a romantic video?" Because Melora made a very sweet and charming love story out of this. And at some point I thought, "You know, fuck it! Women need to be the middle-aged stars of some romantic videos." We need that. It's not out there very often. So, once again, the introvert just needs to get out there and try.

Songfacts: Well, many of the artists who relish making music videos are the ones who can take on characters, either as a singer or a songwriter, so they're the people who can sit down and write not from their personal perspective but get into the head of somebody else.

Cole: Oh, really? That's an interesting observation.

Songfacts: You're such a personal writer that putting a camera on you and asking you to basically do acting has to be unnatural.

Cole: Yeah, very well said.

Songfacts: Whereas somebody like Dee Snider who can write from the perspective of anybody just loves that kind of stuff.

Cole: Right, or they're extroverts that love being the center of attention. They're nourished by it. But I thrive in the writing and the making of the art. Doing shows. I think the videos were OK considering I was such an introvert, but I don't really do much of that anymore.

Songfacts: Well, it's tough to be an introvert in your business, especially when you're not in a band. There's nowhere to hide.

Cole: I know it. My younger self definitely longed to get out there and express - I had some expressing I needed to do. I had to get that globe off of my shoulders, remember? But once the success came, I saw the emptiness of it. I see the meaning in smaller things now, my personal relationships and my family and love and the positive effect that, hopefully, one's art can make in the world.

So, I'm not as good at the commerce. I'm not as good at the image making. I struggle with all of that. It's odd, isn't it? I hear that Al Pacino is also quite an introvert. There are some very good actors that are high introverts.

Songfacts: Well, it's also challenging in the days of social media because that type of personality doesn't lend itself to a high-profile Twitter following. [Paula does Tweet: @paulacolemusic]

Cole: Right. Can you imagine Kurt Cobain?

Songfacts: That's interesting. Kurt Cobain in the age of Facebook and Twitter. Yeah, he probably would have just stayed off of it.

Cole: Or Kate Bush. These are the people I love. Peter Gabriel. He has a regular audience that he reaches out to, he calls them his Lunatics. He puts out content according to a lunar cycle. He's always embracing the feminine.

A standout track on Peter Gabriel's 1986 album So is "Don't Give Up," a duet with Kate Bush. Before she released her first album, Cole joined Gabriel as a vocalist on his 1993 Secret World Live tour, where she sang the Kate Bush part in "Don't Give Up." One of these performances (from Modena, Italy) appears on the live album and concert film released in 1994. Tony Levin, who was on that tour, played bass on This Fire.
Songfacts: You were the one who did the Kate Bush part for Peter Gabriel on his tour.

Cole: Yeah, he wrote that part, he told me, for Dolly Parton but she said no. And so, he had Kate Bush and that was a revelation - that touched the world. I think Dolly would have been amazing, too. She is absolutely one of my heroes as well.

Songfacts: Yeah. Apparently, he doesn't see the genre. He can just hear something and it doesn't matter if you're a country artist or if you're a British pop star.

Cole: Yeah, just a voice, absolutely. Those genres and labels are so limiting and ridiculous, really. If Dolly Parton sang that melody you'd just hear it, you'd know it.

Songfacts: You were talking before about being your own producer and how hard it is to find a female producer. The ones who are really high profile are also the artist, like Kate Bush or Lauryn Hill. Why is it so hard to find a female producer?

Cole: I don't know. I don't know why I haven't been considered as a producer. I'd be interested in working with someone I believed in.

I've seen people falling over themselves to ask some mediocre guitar player dude to produce. I don't know. Why haven't there been any female presidents? I just don't think the world has conceived of it. They're out there, but there's only a few. But I would love that, especially now in the middle of my life.

I think a producer also is a very mysterious, open and complex role, and sometimes producers are more like engineers and sometimes they're more like arrangers and sometimes they are the social intelligence of a band. Sometimes they're leaders and ideally they're a couple of those skill sets. I like to work with an engineer and be producer in the arranging and songwriting and social intelligence aspect, the instrumentation aspect and the album concept. That I love, and I would love to do more of it if - big if - I believed in the artist.

Songfacts: I think we're starting to see more young females take on that role of what they would call in the business world "consulting," which in the sense of producing can be adding to the product in any number of ways, like what you described. It could be the presentation, the artwork, hearing hooks or just improving it one way or the other. But that's something I think would be a terrific role for you.

Cole: Sure. I believe it will change. I believe it is changing, it's just that I've been part of the change. The landscape was different when I entered and hopefully I'll leave it a little bit better when I die.

Songfacts: I'm sure you will. Your songs have certainly moved people in many ways and that's something that very few people can claim.

Cole: Aah, thanks Carl. You know, I don't know what to say. I'm here and I care very much. I care too much. Sometimes I'm too sensitive for this world. That's how it feels at 4 a.m. when I'm worrying about elephants and I can't sleep.

But I care a lot. I hope that people come back to my music. I hope they find it again. That it doesn't take Dawson's Creek or hits. I hope they find the catalog. There's seven albums worth of original music and I'm working on my eighth album of standards and I hope that they come back and they regard me for the content of my catalog.

December 22, 2016.
This Bright Red Feeling is available at Paula's website. Images are from her Facebook page.

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 4

  • Rhoda from UsaWatch this/ It's magical Paula's voice ---> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R9h9WU2q9pc
  • Karl B from Pacific Nwregarding the last section -- singer/songwriter laura marling recently interviewed a number of women in the music business, producers and engineers as well as performers: http://www.reversalofthemuse.com ... just thought you might be interested. thanks for the great interview with paula!
  • Denise K from Chicago IlThank you for such a wonderful and thoughtful interview with my favorite artist, Paula Cole. I have been a fan for 20+ years and I learned so much from this that I hadn't from any other content before. Thank you.
  • Carlos Jones from Jonesplus@gmail.comCarl, I just wanted to say thank you and your cohorts for Songfacts! It has been a great source of so many insights, and reading the Paula Cole interview just now was such a revelation. She expressed so many of the same sentiments I have felt as a songwriter and artist in my nearly 40 years of being in the business, as well as her take on personal spirituality. It must have been so exhilarating talking with her. Although I have never attained the level of fame or notoriety as many of the musicians profiled on your site, I find that we all relate to the same things as human beings in our experiences and the things that inspire us to create music and channel those vibrations that are flying all around us. Bless you guys for what you do in the service of the magical, miraculous force we know as music.
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