Paula Cole has long explored the musical territories that inform her work, making it nearly impossible to define her. Singer-songwriter? Yes. Pop star? Yes. Interpreter of jazz standards? Yes. She’s collaborated with country legends, toured with internationally acclaimed artists, and occasionally dropped completely out of sight. Because she’s so hard to pin down creatively, Cole has managed to transcend her commercial zenith of the ’90s, when songs like “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone” and “I Don’t Want to Wait” were inescapable.
Twenty-five years later, Cole is in the spotlight again with American Quilt, which sets her impressive vocal range to standards like “Bye Bye Blackbird” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” It isn’t quite a jazz album, and although her writing skills are on display in “Steal Away/Hidden in Plain Sight,” it isn’t quite a folk record either. Instead it’s a reflection of the influences that shaped her musical direction early on.
“Even when I explore jazz, I like it to be a little more raggedy and raw and rootsy,” she says. “I just wanted the album to reflect all that I am, and I realized, gosh, all of these songs are different from another. How do I unify it? That’s when I remembered my mom, who is a visual artist and she’s a quilter. And I realized that the quilt is the perfect metaphor for the album, that they’re all patches of an American quilt. That’s how the title was born.”
The metaphor works for the spectrum of songs on the album, yet it’s also appropriate for the warmth and comfort it provides. Some songs are more familiar than others – and her rendition of “Shenandoah” is particularly exquisite – but it’s an album best enjoyed as a whole. By dismissing the expectations of how long a song should be, and by showing reverence without replicating what everybody else has already done, Cole has produced a sweeping and immersive listening experience. She called in to BGS from the music room in her Massachusetts home, with a photo of Dolly Parton smiling over her shoulder.
Paula Cole: I learned of it through listening to Emmylou Harris, and loving and adoring her. Her Roses in the Snow album was really important to me developmentally. We were on Lilith Fair together in the ‘90s and would sing on each other’s sets. And I’ve been on a few benefit concerts that she’s asked me to play. I love her so dearly. I think she’s an important American voice and we should all be talking about her much more. She kind of saves music because she brings it back to the traditional aspect of it. She keeps us whole and she keeps us real by bringing integrity back to the music.
The song came to me very intuitively and I thought, “A ha!” I can reveal some of my influences and also bow to someone who was important to me. Also I was so fed up and traumatized by the music business and it was Emmylou who told me, “Don’t quit.” You know, I took a seven-and-a-half year hiatus and thought about leaving the music business, but she was the one who said, “Hang in there.” It just happened too fast. She had this motherly wisdom for me and it made sense, and I’ve thought of her so much over my life. I love her very much.
Roses in the Snow is a familiar bluegrass album for a lot of our readers. Are you a bluegrass fan?
I just love music. So, if you asked me, “Do you like jazz?” I would say, “I love music.” [Laughs] My dad played bass in a polka band on weekends when I was little, then he would go home and play Duke Ellington on the piano or he would play obscure folk songs on banjo in my house growing up. It was always a mixture. I love all music. I love bluegrass. I love acoustic music. I love music where musicians are playing real instruments, so that’s one defining factor to me — real instruments! I’ve been touring with upright bass now for several years and I can’t go back.
Did your dad teach you how to play banjo?
No, darn it! [Laughs] I guess I could have picked it up. I mean, he played everything. He could do hambone and play nose flute and upright bass and guitar and banjo and piano. Just really a renaissance man. He exposed me to all music and there were no classifications. That was something more that non-musicians did. Musicians would fluidly move from music to music and just find the joy in all of it. He taught me that.
When I was listening to “Nobody Knows You (When You’re Down and Out),” I was curious, does that mirror your own experience to some degree? Like, you’re living the good life as a millionaire, then you find that your friends vanish when the circumstances change.
Oh sure, I’ve known that. False friends, false fans, false everybody comes to you when you’re successful. They’re flattering and they’re obsequious. They have ulterior motives, so it’s hard, and of course I’ve experienced that because I’ve been up and down and side to side…. [Laughs] All over the business! And I wanted to come back home and have a personal life and have truth and family and let the trappings fall, and to be honest.
So, I chose to walk away in a sense from that shiny pop world because it wasn’t me. I was introverted and shy. I didn’t feel like this big pop star. I was very much a musician of integrity that wanted to have a long career and a rich catalog. I had to walk away to reset and reinvent myself. So, yes, of course I relate to that song. Also I relate to Bessie Smith, and so many fantastic singers are coming from the river of Bessie Smith. You hear Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin — Bessie Smith was their favorite singer. She combines all of that beautiful roots music. And the songs from the Prohibition era speak to me, those hard times, they speak to me.
Sometimes I will ask musicians about their first guitar, but for you, I’m wondering, do you remember your first piano?
Yeah, I remember the first piano, oh my gosh. It was covered in chipped, baby blue paint. I grew up in Rockport, Massachusetts, and my dad was a teacher at a state college, and we did not have much money. I wore hand-me-downs and we got things at Goodwill. In New England — freezing cold New England — we would really skimp on the heat to save money, and they put the piano in what they called the cold room. It was like a mud room. You walk into that room and take off your coat, and the piano was in the back. And it was cold! It was cold-ass cold! And there’s my first piano.
I was quite dedicated to music, to be playing in a freezing cold room in New England. Literally, we had some fish at one point and they froze! That’s how cold our house was. We had a potbelly stove and it was just hard. We were looking for ways to save money. It wasn’t always that hard. My dad ended up changing jobs and doing better, but my childhood was formative for me. I started working at a really young age. I was waitressing at 14 and I’ve always worked. It’s not nice, struggling like that, but that piano is indelibly etched in my mind with the back of the cold room. The chipped blue piano, out of tune! [Laughs]
Did you grow up with a lot of songbooks around?
Yes, and one of my missions while my father is still alive on the planet is to comb through his fake books and real books, especially of his folk standards. He has some really interesting, cryptic and eclectic, folk books that I would love to go through. That’s on one of my do lists of life.
To me, “Good Morning Heartache” sounds like it could be a sad country song, but it was made famous by jazz singers. How did you learn that one?
It’s in the real book of standards. Those books were around, and I have a real book of standards on my piano now. Even when I was touring, or had hits, or didn’t have hits, or mothering and not being in music, I would go back to the real book just for comfort and learning. I’d let my hands go on the piano and the shapes of the chords and learn songs. I first learned “Good Morning Heartache” by reading it out of a book but then I heard Billie Holiday and even modern singers do it. A lot of people have done it. But I love it because it feels to me like one of those songs that crosses genre, just like you said. It feels to me like it could be a jazz ballad, a country ballad, a soul ballad – and often it’s recorded by R&B singers. I love that it’s universal, and I love sad music. I’m not very good at happy music. [Laughs]
You close this album with “What a Wonderful World,” which offers a lovely and optimistic message. Was that an intentional decision for you to wrap up the album with that song?
Sequence is extremely important to me, so I probably spent at least a month listening to heads and tails of the songs, and all the different possibilities and combinations. And yes, it is the perfect punctuation of the journey of an album format. I love albums – I think in albums. I don’t think I’ll ever be a singles releaser. I’ll always be an album writer and album producer. I love the art of sequence.
Again, this is a song that transpires over genre and it appeals to all audiences. It unifies people. And it was written specifically for Louis Armstrong because he unified Black and white audiences. He was a genius if ever there were one. His ability to improvise within chord changes was profound. He was joyful and elevating. I play it in a somber way, and I hear sadness in my voice, and I think it’s melancholic and ironic in a way, but yeah, we must hold on to hope. We must hold on to that thread of hope for our children and our grandchildren to make this world better.
Photo credit: Ebru Yildiz