Paula Cole

Valiant uprising

On tour to support her first new studio album in almost 11 years, Paula Cole is shrugging off her career of old and rediscovering music’s joys.

By Naila Francis

Paula Cole is a woman and artist emerging. It may seem a strange assessment for the singer who earned a 1997 Grammy for Best New Artist on the heels of her breakthrough smash, “This Fire,” which yielded the plush pop anthem “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?” and the ubiquitous “I Don’t Want to Wait,” which would become the theme to teen soap “Dawson’s Creek.”

Yet with three albums behind her, including her 1994 debut “Harbinger” and 1999’s “Amen” — and three record labels, too — the 39-year-old is surfacing, with steps both tentative and bold, as if for the very first time.

After a seven-year hiatus from the music business, Cole is back with a new album, “Courage,” released in June, on a new label, Decca. And with her own frank offering of where she’s been these last several years — leaving New York for Los Angeles, having a child, getting married, nursing that sick child while struggling through her crumbling marriage and the abandonment of her former record label — it seems the fresh start is duly warranted.

The album title itself is a sign of where Cole’s been and of where she’s heading.

“I knew it was going to be called ‘Courage.’ I needed that as my mantra and I needed to tell myself that so I could kind of grow to a happier place,” she says.

The disc’s 11 songs are as arresting as the voice that delivers them, as Cole allows the abrading of her still-sore heart in her search for answers, spiritual sustenance and the empowered and joyful woman she senses beyond the ache of what has been.

“I knew I was going through a really hard time and I was searching and that’s my favorite music — people who dare to search,” she says. “Even though it was a painful time, I wasn’t vindictive or angry. (The album’s) actually gentle and I’m proud of that.”

From the striking supplication of the opening “Coming’ Down,” where she invites the liberation of her heartache, to the confessional tenderness of “El Greco,” where she catches a fleeting glimpse of the “woman in red, living her dream,” and the compelling sparseness of “It’s My Life,” which finds her opening to fully embrace that woman’s boldness, “Courage” is an intimate invitation to journey with Cole. The singer-songwriter, who performs Sept. 13, appearing with Mandy Moore, at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, grows more confident with each song, her rich vocals fragile and breathy one moment, raw and fervid the next, lighting the way to strength, contentment and ultimately a willingness to again surrender to love. With jazzy elegance and bossa nova flair, delicate simplicity and reggae-tinged buoyancy, “Courage” moves from necessary soul excavation to glowing optimism.

It’s a searingly personal portrait that some may find surprising given Cole’s retiring nature.

“I’ve been in an introverted place for a long time in all these years and now that I’m back out on the road, I must socialize, I must talk to people, I must be asked questions, and that’s the hard part for me,” she says. “I was not comfortable with losing anonymity in the past. Not that I was that famous but just the little experience I had — I struggled with it. The promotional aspect of this job, that’s the part I struggle with. Even though I can work a room after I perform, I’m hopeless at a cocktail party.”

But music, she has learned, is where she transcends that diffidence.

Wilting in the frail infrastructure of a new life being rebuilt in New York after leaving Los Angeles with her daughter Sky and pondering a career change to academia, Cole was approached by an old acquaintance, Bobby Colomby, co-founder of Blood, Sweat & Tears, to sing on trumpeter Chris Botti’s “To Love Again” duets disc. Reluctantly coaxed into the project, she found herself rediscovering her joy in music.

“Suddenly, I was singing music with these top-of-the-crop musicians and I was having profound fun. I hadn’t had fun like that in ages,” she says. “And that was my roots — I’d wanted to be a jazz singer. That’s what I went to Berklee College of Music for.”

Ever persistent, Colomby, who would eventually produce “Courage,” convinced Cole to begin working on some new material with a group of select songwriters — she had staunchly avoided co-writing in the past — and also got her a record deal.

“Bobby definitely helped to infect me with the sound of music again because I was heartbroken by the business. The music part I’ll always love, but the music business left me kind of devastated, so I thought maybe it would be healthier to educate myself in a new field and try something else where I’d be more valued in the prime of my life, but I couldn’t turn my back on music,” she says. “Bobby kind of pushed my envelope. I had nothing to lose. I was pretty much at rock bottom anyway, so I didn’t need to be the more controlling and freakish hermetic songwriter. I was willing to be vulnerable and open and try co-songwriting and it really expanded the music.

“I was afraid I would be criticized and be defensive, and I was criticized, but I would learn to get over it and get back on the horse and it was extremely healthy to do that —  to be afraid and be there still and keep on.”

With her daughter, now 5, having outgrown the severe asthma she suffered with as a toddler, Cole was ready to return to her music — or rather to allow its return to her.

“I think I’ve arrived at this knowingness that the music isn’t really me. I have to keep a healthy body, spirit, heart, mind, to be the purest vehicle for the music and I have a responsibility to the music, but when the music comes through me, it heals me and in my responsibility to it, it leads me to serve others,” she says. “I like others who also have discovered that social responsibility. Whether they do it in a way that’s highly personal songwriting like Neil Young or more like socially conscious writing like Bob Marley or Marvin Gaye, I find more meaning in that. That’s what I’m stumbling and aspiring to in what I do.”

This time around, however, her edges have softened as her perspective has broadened.

“I’m supported and there’s vision behind me. I don’t feel like a rape victim in the music business. That’s a heavy thing to say, but it’s kind of true,” she says. “I don’t want to complain because my songs brought many blessings to me. I was able to take time off and have a daughter because of those songs, but I do long for something more stable and lasting and long so I can be the dignified racehorse that I am. I’m not meant to plow fields. I’m not meant to play those crappy rock dive clubs.

“I’m meant to be in theaters and have a personal life and be a mother and make meaningful artistic music. That’s the career I’m meant to have. It feels like this is a better time for me, the second time around. It just feels more authentic.”

– The Intelligencer