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Interview: Paula Cole

11 min read

Singer-songwriter, poet, mother, entrepreneur, visionary – these are just some of the words used to describe Massachusetts-born musician, Paula Cole.

With her mark engraved on the nineties thanks to hits like Where Have all The Cowboys Gone and the incredible, I Don’t Wanna Wait, a penning that was recognized around the world as the theme song to hit teen drama, Dawson’s Creek, Paula earned herself a Grammy Award for Best New Artist in the late nineties for her craft.

Over the last 20 years her songs have become renowned for their thought provoking and engaging sensibilities and a quality that has refused to wither over time.

Paula is back this month with a brand new studio record, her first as an independent artist, Raven. The new collection combines Paula’s seemingly effortless songwriting skills with a voice drenched in both familiarity as well as a fresh quality from an artist who has grown into her musical skin over the course of a successful 20 year career.

We were given the opportunity to talk to Paula this week about the new record, her fans and the humble musician’s journey toward the release of Raven. Here is what she had to tell us:

BV: How are you Paula?

PC: I’m well thanks Brendon.

BV: Where in the world are you speaking to us from today?

PC: I’m calling from Beverly, Massachusetts and it is nice and sunny here finally.

BV: You are going to be releasing your new album this on the 23rd April. The record is called Raven. First of all can you tell us a little about the record?

PC: I’m starting to get some feedback because this has been an independent, Kickstarter fan club adventure. I’m off the major labels. My Kickstarters – they were there for me. They were my core fans and with their help I exceeded my goals. So, my Kickstarter folks I have already sent off the albums too and I’m starting to get feedback.

You know, there’s what I think and then there’s what my folks think. I always trust them more than myself, really. I am pleased so far with the feedback because the record is really true, it’s very honest, it’s rocking and it’s storytelling at the same time.

BV: Would you say the new album contains a similar sound and style to your previous records of have you changed direction on Raven?

PC: I always wanted a little bit of Emmylou (Harris) and a little bit of PJ Harvey, some Americana storytelling, which is elemental to me in some of the writers that I love like Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash and Paul Simon but I also love art-rock like Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush. I am influenced by that kind of music also and much more conceptual, art-rock types of music and it’s all woven in there. With Raven I got to be free and not be terribly influenced by a label. I got to produce the album myself also which I love to do so it’s honest and it’s a nice blend of all of those elements.

BV: Raven is your first independent release. What is it like to be and independent artist these days as opposed to being under a major label?

PC: I will probably be able to articulate that a whole lot better in about one year but at the beginning of things it has been pretty fascinating. I’m spinning more plates, so I have been really busy. I’m wearing my entrepreneurial hat which, you know, about time. I think, now I’m in my 40’s I’m good at what I do, I’m comfortable with what I do.

I’ve always felt a little fettered by major labels. I’ve always wanted to be more involved in the decision making and how to make it more about the music and less about the image, right? That was always a really difficult thing to do in ‘the system’, especially when you’re female.

I’m not on my album cover for the first time and I know that’s weird but I love that. I didn’t want to be on the album cover – I want it to be about the music. Also, I’m smart. I should be making these decisions by myself. So it’s all good. I’m busy. I’m learning a lot more about business which I want to do anyway. Record companies are dying, basically. I was a part of that and it was good – it’s still good for some artists but birds like me, it makes so much more sense to fly free and just own it.

BV: Why Raven for the album’s title?

PC: It is still something that I am trying to figure out. I did know that it was kind of intuitive, the right kind of motivation, the icon, the vision of it was in my mind all of the time while I was making this album. I love what it (the title) evokes. Sometimes album titles are just there for me and I don’t know why.

BV: It is quite a powerful title!

PC: Yeah and I really do feel I am in that strong, transitional place right now. I wanna fly and I wanna be free. I want it to be my decisions. I don’t want to be treated like a little girl (laughs).

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BV: Are there any standout tracks on Raven that hold a special place for you over others?

PC: That’s really hard to say, like, what child do I like best but some of them are older songs that have been in with me for years and they just needed to break out and some of them are new songs so was interesting and curious because the sound of them all together – they were recorded in a barn in Massachusetts with musicians I have been playing with since the nineties so we were super solid together – we made the heart of the sound in there. Then I had some amazing musicians like Tony Levin on Bass and a couple of my L.A friends participate on the album. But the heart of it was started in Massachusetts with this collection of old and new – it happened very quickly and spontaneously.

These songs spoke to me and wherever there was a hole, I would write into the hole. Like, Secretary was the last song written for the album because I knew that there was something a little more rocking and dark and edgy left to compliment the sequencing so I wrote Secretary last and it was really fast and natural.

BV: Your songs are known as being quite thought provoking as well as poetic. Where do you draw your inspiration from when you sit down to write a new song or album?

PC: It comes randomly. It’s such a pain in the ass (laughs). I need to be disciplined by it. For instance, Strong Beautiful Woman was born from me saying to myself, “You know, you should really try some new ways of writing. Think of the old masters like Burt Bacharach. He wrote the melody first. Ty to write a melody first and shake it up, just shake up your process a little bit”. So I was walking, taking my morning walk through the woods and, with the rhythm of my footsteps, that melody formed and then the chords came later so I am proud of that – I am happy about that.

Other times it was like, “Oh, I need to write about my relationship with my father”. It came from a feeling. Other times it was fingers on ivory or going to places on the keyboard. I don’t know, it’s a mystery – I’m chasing a mystery.

BV: Is songwriting a natural thing for you or does it take you a while to mold a song and get it to the point of recording it for a new album?

PC: It’s both. I remember being a little girl and doing it. It comes from this dreamy place, being a dreamer and staring out of windows and coming up with little songs and I’ve been doing it my whole life. You also have to exercise your craft. You have to come to the table and collaborate with somebody at a certain time, or, you have to challenge yourself and come up with something because you’ve got a deadline, right?

I’ve been doing clinics and I teach sometimes too so I’ve had to form a vocabulary and the best I can do, about describing the writing process, is likening it to a left and right brain process. It’s partly dreaming, it’s intuitive as part of the right brain process and then it’s partly practical and orderly with the left brain process.

BV: You won a Grammy Award back at the end of the 90’s. How did that moment feel for you and what did winning the Best New Artist Award mean for you?

PC: That moment was so terrible and so fraught. On one hand it was a pinnacle and so wonderful – deeply humbling, right? It was terrifyingly humbling because there was Aretha Franklin, presenting me with my Grammy and I was up against wonderful talent, but on the other hand, you definitely need to sacrifice to be up there.

I had been touring for about 7 years solid up to that point and my personal life was very strained and I was very unhappy, so I tell myself “If I ever go back to the Grammy’s I wanna be happy god dammit” (laughs). But that is the hardest thing of all – finding that balance.

BV: You are most widely recognized for songs like Where Have All The Cowboys Gone and I Don’t WannaWait which was of course the theme song to Dawson’s Creek. How do you feel about those songs today and are they tracks that make you smile or cringe when you hear them?

PC: I’m happy. It really makes me happy. I look at those songs as being like little kids. They are like little intellectual properties that went forth into the world and they are still there – they are still part of consciousness and that makes me so happy.

I’m so happy that my daughter can hear it in the grocery market and I know that I wrote both of those songs with good intentions. I was just trying and seeking something. I believe in my work and I am just happy that it is standing the test of time.


BV: How do you balance your time between being an award winning, record and touring artist and being a mother?

PC: It really does feel impossible sometimes because doing something creative requires long thought. You need a long stretch of space to conceive ideas, to follow through with them and to be in an imaginative space. It feels like an attack; all of the multi-tasking and needing to put dinner on the table.

It is nearly impossible but we, as parents, our hearts get larger. We are capable of more, simply because we must.

I was never a morning person. I was the Keith Richards schedule. 12 midnight to 4am was my prime time. I felt most inspired and felt most prolific in those times and now, that just can’t be. I have to be a morning person and I have forced my creative time to be after I drop my daughter off to school.

We adjust because we must. We must rise. It’s hard, it really is. I’m trying every day and yes, I was prolific but my daughter is eleven now, getting older and more capable and I already have more freedom than I did two years ago so it’s getting easier.

BV: You have been busy on the road this year and you have shows throughout the US right through to the end of the year. What can fans expect from one of your performances these days?

PC: Yeah, we have a whole bunch of Fall dates and we are booking right through 2014. I’ll be working for about a year solid.

I just do what I’ve always done – I just go out there and I bleed, I feel and I connect. I touch the feelings and the fans are still with me. The fans aren’t there because of some hit on the radio now. They are here because of the contents of my catalogue and their belief in me. The live shows feel like family reunions or something – they are so loving. The band and I, we have been playing together for years and it is very emotional and there is a big range – it gets really rocking and intense and also very tender and quiet so it is kind of an emotional ride.

BV: How have your fans been responding to the new songs in you live shows?

PC: They are the ones that love it. They are letting me know and they’re the ones that are telling me that it reminds them of fire a little bit.

I was really aware of the fact that I’ve been doing this for 20 years. When I was finishing up Raven, my mastering engineer, he brought out my first album, Harbinger and he showed me the date which was 1993 and I was in the studio for the first time, it was 20 years ago. So, I felt I had a duty to underscore and highlight the fact that I have been doing this for 20 years.

You know, we were all in this process together and I wouldn’t be without my fans hanging in there for me. I think I would have just retreated under my rock and not come out but for their love and for their belief in me, you know?

I’m here, 20 years later, and I wanna make great music. That’s my intention. I’m not here to sell a perfume line, a clothing line, to act – any of that bullshit. I’m in it for the music and I want to leave good music behind me as a legacy. I know that is super-intense and kind of dark but that’s just who I am (laughs).

Paula Cole’s new album, Raven, is out on April 23rd 2013.