A Q&A with Paula Cole
By Geoff Gehman
I once crawled across Paula Cole’s desert of desire.
My erotic odyssey unfolded during her 2011 concert at the Sellersville Theater. We all sweated up a storm as Cole and her band mates slow-burned through “Feelin’ Love,” an erotic ode that revolves around the lusty line “You make me feel like the Amazon’s running between my thighs.” After the orgasm was over, after Cole burst into a post-coital laugh, the room felt 20 degrees hotter. The heat wave cooled only when someone yelled “Smoke break!”
Cole specializes in turning cool halls into hot houses. Her arsenal includes songs that explore sorrow, ecstasy and wise resignation; a voice equally at home in jazz, opera and gospel; keyboard chops both sexy and searching, and an adventurous, open-tuned attitude. Her shows are part therapy session, part soul revue, part spiritual striptease.
Cole returns to the Mauch Chunk Opera House on April 11, this time with a new record and an old partner. She’ll be joined by her original drummer, Jay Bellerose, back in her wheelhouse after a 14-year hiatus during which he became a go-to guy for the likes of Elton John and Ray LaMontagne. She’ll sample her self-released CD “7” (675 Records), which doubles as her seventh album and a lyrical account of a seven-year life cycle. Characters range from a noble fisherman’s wife to an inspiring grandmother who became a vegetarian at 83.
Below, in a conversation during a drive to a Manhattan gig, Cole discusses her roles as musician, fan, friend, teacher, student, muse and, yes, siren.
Q: You know, Paula, I have to tell you that your performance of “Feelin’ Love” in 2011 at the Sellersville Theater is not only my favorite Paula Cole concert experience, it’s one of my favorite concert experiences of all time. It was the first and only time I swore I could feel the sweat of the people around me. It made me think: Man, Barry White can’t carry this woman’s torch!
A: [laughing] Thank you for that; that is so good to hear. When I wrote [“Feelin’ Love”], I was thinking we certainly have many [erotic] songs from the male perspective–I grew up listening to Prince—but, man, wouldn’t it be refreshing to hear something like that from the female perspective?
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that turned you upside down and inside out?
A: When I think about it deeply, the one song that has the most lasting quality, the most profound quality, is “Don’t Give Up” by Peter Gabriel. I thought it was so soul stirring. By the time I ended up singing it [with Gabriel on his 1993-94 tour], I had been living with it, and living it, for many years. I had a sense of owning it; I really thought that song was mine.
Growing up I wasn’t exposed to a lot of popular music because my family made so much self-made music. Still, there are so many songs that still come flooding in and give me “A-ha!” moments. I loved Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again.” That one was pure joy and still is. I put it on now and it takes me back to dancing around the room. I loved Simon & Garfunkel’s “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme” album. I can remember “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac coming through the AM station on the car radio. I can remember hearing John Lennon’s “Woman” around the same time and being aware that he had died; that had a big impact on me. His solo work from the late ’70s and the early ’80s had a profound effect on me. He’s still one of my forever heroes.
Q: Speaking of heroes, you’re back in the saddle with Jay Bellerose, your original percussionist and musical soul mate. Why did you bring him back, along with Kevin Barry, your original guitarist, to help you record “7”? What makes him your musical soul mate?
A: It just feels like home when we play together. We met in 1987 and we were best friends and actual partners. We [Cole, Bellerose and Barry] informed each other, we raised each other musically. I am who I am thanks to them just as much as I am who I am thanks to John Lennon, if not more.
Jay and I played together until about 2000, when I took a seven-year hiatus [from the music industry]. He moved to LA briefly and ended up being discovered by producers. He worked with Larry Klein a lot and became T-Bone Burnett’s first call. He kind of became the king drummer. We remained very close even when he was playing with Elton John and Ray LaMontagne.
I met both Jay and Ben [Wittman, her other longtime drummer] when I was 19 and I performed with both of them for years. They’re very different musicians: Jay is much more into soul and Ben is more a Ghanaian 12/8 ambidextrous player. I love them both. Ben is busy supporting his wife [jazz singer/songwriter/pianist Laila Biali]’s new project, so the time was finally right for Jay to come back to playing with me without hurting anybody. Jay and I were longing to play together again. He’s probably played with me longer than anyone, apart from his wife Jen[nifer Condos], who plays bass with Ray LaMontagne. Jay and I have the same spontaneity, the same synchronicity. We feel time the same way.
Q: One of the tracks on “7” is “The Book of Dorothy,” inspired by your grandmother. Did you discover anything about her while writing it?
A: When I was writing it I would try to inhabit her mind and try to imagine what America was like when she was born in 1912. Imagine the amount of natural space at that time; imagine all the free-roaming places. She saw the first radio, for goodness sakes, and then the first television and then the Internet. She was a very open-minded person. She became a vegetarian at age 83; she didn’t want to contribute to climate change anymore. She was always seeking a better life, and that was very inspiring to me. So I wanted the song to be joyous and sloppy and Beatles-esque. I didn’t discover the Beatles until I was in my early 20s–my parents listened more to Ray Charles and the Kingston Trio—but I adore them.
Q: Why is “Goodnight, Irene” the farewell track?
A: It needed to be on the album because it’s a very loved song by my family and because it’s all about my family. My father used to play it on the piano, the guitar, the banjo and the ukulele and we’d break out into three-part harmony. He named my sister Irene after the song. I think that irks her a little, so I cut out all the depressing parts [laughs].
Q: “Gloucester Harbor Shore” is another song rooted in your home area and home experience.
A: That came together quickly. I was channeling the life of a Gloucester woman waiting for her fisherman husband. Fishing has always been very important in Gloucester. It’s the oldest commercial seaport in the country. [Sebastian Junger’s book] “The Perfect Storm” is based in Gloucester. There’s a promenade on the boulevard overlooking the harbor with a statute of the Gloucester Fisherman. When I was a girl they erected the statue of a wife, a mother, waiting for a fisherman. It really hit my heart and years later it came out of my heart into a song; it bubbled up from my subconscious.
My songwriting process is highly autobiographical. I’m most moved by musicians who write and sing about their lives: John Lennon, Joni Mitchell, Peter Gabriel, Bob Marley, Neil Young. Writing songs is an intuitive process, sometimes tempered by craft and intellect. You sometimes have a fallow season that lasts for years. You can’t beat yourself up. You just have to live as a human being first and hope your writing will improve as a result.
Q: What’s one thing you miss and one thing you don’t miss about being famous?
A: Well, it was nice to sell more tickets and make more money [laughs]. But I wouldn’t go back for anything. I’m such an introvert and I so struggled with the spotlight and the loss of anonymity. I hated the machine around me. I hated too many cooks in my kitchen telling me things to do. I felt like I didn’t have my own life. I was estranged from my family. I wasn’t Paula.
I tried to handle it in number of ways, everything from mood swings to just disappearing. Maybe I got a reputation for being hard to work for; I was an outspoken female and that was threatening. I wasn’t a good little girl. I didn’t appreciate being infantilized by that attitude. There was a part of me that said “Fuck this!” and I walked away from music more in the direction of life. It was ironic because music was my dream. I won’t forget being at the Grammys and receiving so much attention and feeling so empty and so unhappy.
Now, I’m happy to be in my 40s. I’m happy to have freedom of expression. I don’t have to have an A&R man standing over me at the console. I like riding my own ship and being my own captain.
Q: In his autobiography Carlos Santana writes about trying to overcome bad sound mixes by finding a sweet spot between the drummer and bassist. When you’re feeling physically at odds, emotionally out of sorts, how do you find the sweet spot? How do you align the chakras?
A: Well, Carlos is playing larger stages where it’s harder to hear, where you’re at the mercy of the monitors, where you have to trust your monitor engineer. When I performed with Peter Gabriel I had to wear those inner-ear monitors. That doesn’t work for me; I need air molecules moving between the sound source and my ears. I’m extremely sensitive to sound vectors, partly because I have some hearing loss.
When things are not going well for you emotionally, you have to check in with yourself immediately. I take my responsibility as the singer seriously; when you’re projecting any negativity, it’s awful, it’s irresponsible. Sometimes I feel as if I’m leaving my body. If it’s a song I’ve played a million times, I’ll let my consciousness float up into the stratosphere. Another thing that helps me is if I focus on my lyrics. I try to be like Billie Holiday and adhere to the words; we forget she was a singer-songwriter. That helps me find my humanity and my way.
Q: I’m always fascinated by the afterlife of songs, how they zag when you expect them to zig after you release them to the world. Can you think of a song of yours that’s traveled a surprising, even shocking, path?
A: The song that comes to mind is “Me,” and the story that comes to mind is sad. In the ’90s a mother wrote me a letter telling me that the song had made her daughter pluck up her courage to go sky diving. It was sad because her parachute failed to open and she fell to her death. When her parents got back to her bedroom they found that the lyrics of “Me” were written in lipstick on the dressing-table mirror.
I lost the letter during the blitz of touring. I wish I had kept it; I wish I could reach out to that woman’s parents and tell them how sorry I am that they lost their daughter and how glad I am that “Me” inspired her to embrace her passion.
“Me” has had a profound effect on people. I’ve heard that it has helped people through cancer and divorce and abusive relationships, that it has helped them overcome fear and instilled courage to seek a better life. People talk to me about it through tears and through hugs; I hug a lot of people after shows [laughs].
Q: Let’s end on a nicer note. What do you listen to when you want to feel joy?
A: I listen to my old favorite, [Dolly Parton’s] “Here You Come Again,” and my new favorite, Bessie Smith’s “Kitchen Man.” It’s so juicy and shocking. Oh my god, you just have to listen to it!
Paula Cole: The Scoop
She grew up in Rockport, Mass., the child of an elementary-school art teacher and a professor of biology and ecology.
She received the 1997 Grammy for new artist and was the third woman nominated for Grammy producer of the year.
Her song “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” has spun off comic elegies for political conservatives and white professional basketball players.
She funded her 2013 album “Raven” with a $75,000 Kickstarter campaign.
A limited-edition version of her new CD “7” has a cover stamped by a number press owned by her mother, who saved cassette tapes of two of her daughter’s unreleased songs, “Manitoba” and “Imaginary Man,” that ended up on “Raven.”
She teaches courses in songwriting and rhythm section at the Berklee College of Music, her alma mater. “We talk about everything from count-off to setting up gear to lighting charts to not being intimidated when you’re a female singer performing with male rhythm players to the importance of being good teammates.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. While he seriously digs Paula Cole’s “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?,” he’s glad he didn’t ask her a single question about her biggest hit, just like he’s glad he never asked Jonathan Edwards a single question about his calling card, “Sunshine.” He can be reached at email@example.com.