MOST PEOPLE DON’T KNOW what to make of Paula Cole. Some know that her album This Fire nabbed a whopping seven Grammy nominations. Others know she was a standout at last year’s Lilith Fair. Her image seems to be a bit murky, however. The combo plate of luxuriant armpit hair and stylized, glossy videos tends to confuse. Is she that sexually swingin’, crazy art chick you knew in college? A rage-filled, piano-poundin’ El Niño? A Betty Friedan-readin’, bra-eschewin’ activist? Or is she a yoga-practicin’ Earth mama who wears Celestial Seasonings tea bags as earrings?
“Well, I do sip herbal tea,” she says. “I am someone who likes to garden, talk to my cats and be wacky hippie bird lady. I am intelligent. I am a feminist. I never wear a bra – it’s too binding. And I do swear and smoke pot and shake my ass.” She nods thoughtfully. “So I’m all that. I am all that.”
IT IS THE DAY BEFORE THE GRAMMYS, AND COLE is at the MTV studios in New York for MTV Live. This is not her bag. In fact, she looks distinctly nauseated. Cole is seated next to Meredith Brooks, who is not a big hit among the staff. With her litany of complaints and demands, Brooks has been much more of a bitch than a mother or a child or a lover.
“You have nine Grammy nominations between the two of you,” host Carson Daly says. Cole looks at the floor. Brooks smirks. To worsen matters, a viewer poll predicting the Grammy winners is posted. Hanson score big.
Daly asks Cole and Brooks about how their lives have changed in the past month. “My phone rings about every minute,” says Cole. “So I’m avoiding the phone. But, you know, in the big spiritual picture, it doesn’t matter.”
Finally the show is over, and Cole heads out to a waiting limo. It is dark and rainy outside, silent and cozy in the car. She scrunches herself into a corner and stares out the window as the rain dribbles down. “All those bright colors and everyone in your face and having to condense your personality into these little sound bites,” she says. “You know, I never even watched the Grammys. We didn’t grow up watching TV.” She is quiet as the limo glides toward her Manhattan apartment, where her boyfriend and her cats and her wood-burning fireplace await. “My life has changed so dramatically,” she adds. “It’s really bizarre and abnormal. I miss my parents. And there’s no time. I mean, I had to pee in a cup the other day.” Well, that’s just wrong. “It is. I miss my friends. And I have to be more mean and … strong, because people are so demanding of me right now.” She sighs. “I feel like I’m mourning the loss of my little girl inside, you know?”
The metamorphosis began in 1996, when This Fire, Cole’s intense second album, was released and slowly racked up platinum sales with three solid singles: “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?,” “I Don’t Want to Wait” – the theme song for the series Dawson’s Creek – and the most recent, “Me.” Lilith Fair brought more Cole fans (who will rejoice at her return engagement this summer), and this whole seven-Grammy-nomination business closed the deal, famewise, for Paula Cole of Rockport, Massachusetts, former hotel-lounge singer and card-carrying soul-sister woman.
WELL, WE ALL KNOW HOW THE GRAMMYS turned out. Cole got herself one Grammy, for Best New Artist. “About halfway through, I was getting filled with dread,” she says. “I really thought I wasn’t going to win anything.” After she accepted the award, she went backstage and sobbed. “As much as I want to say it didn’t matter, it really did,” she confesses. Cole is standing on Fifth Avenue in New York, squinting a little in the bright sun.
“Let’s walk,” she says serenely, slipping her arm in mine and heading into Central Park. As she strolls along, folks check her out and occasionally point. She is tall, strong and straight-backed, glowing with vegan health and moving confidently through the crowds in her all-black ensemble. In videos and photos, she looks like she has a prominent jaw, but in person it is much softer, as are her other features (Windex-blue eyes, glossy black hair). Her voice is gentle and melodious, and she looks you square in the eye when she speaks.
She is much more relaxed today, having unleashed her churning emotions upon the Grammy stage. It was a rocking minute-and-a-half performance, beginning with a flash of serious armpit growth and ending with Cole’s trademark human beatbox. “I’ve been doing that for years,” she says. “It brings the house down. It’s just this paradox coming out of this little white girl.” She laughs. “Thank God I have music to vent my emotions. My mom says I’d be in prison if I didn’t have it.”
Cole, 30, is an interesting paradox. In person she excudes a Zen-like calm, yet she has a deep well of anger, which is usually unlocked by music. “I’m a bit of a live wire, and music stirs up my energy inside,” she says. “If something is wrong with my emotions, my feelings instantly turn to rage.” This comes from a life-time of struggling to please people, which, she says, “partly disgusts me. I tried so hard to please everyone that I would lose myself – which I think happens to a lot of women. I was the golden girl as a kid.” Although the former prom queen has left her strait-laced Yankee past behind, she still feels that pressure to be Miss Perfect. “I may not be class president, but I am Paula Cole, and that’s kind of similar,” she says.
Often she will release this typhoon of rage onstage, but occasionally she finds herself being “snappy and curt” to people she doesn’t mean to be snappy and curt with offstage. The pressure now is unending, and she doesn’t like the way it makes her feel.
Even as a young child, Paula Cole was percolating with feelings.
She spent her earliest years in Ithaca, New York, in a trailer park with her sister, Irene; artist mom, Stephanie; and father, Jim, who at that time was studying for his doctorate in entomology (bugs, to oversimplify) at Cornell. “His life became so miserable, staring at a petri dish under a microscope fourteen hours a day, that he had an epiphany slash nervous breakdown,” Cole says, “which was probably one of the best things that happened to him, because we left that life.” He took a job as a biology professor at Salem State College (eventually leaving to become a quality-control manager), and the family moved to Rockport. “They bought this 200-year-old colonial house that was in the crappiest condition, and they were constantly renovating it,” Cole recalls. “I just remember growing up amidst insulation and sheetrock, and it was so fucking cold in my house.” (The lyrics to “Bethlehem,” on her debut album, Harbinger, include the lines “It’s my birthday next week, and what I want, please/Is to turn on the heat so the fish won’t freeze/The fish in the tank froze and died last week/Oh, I want to be a dog or I want to be a leaf.”)
The family ate a lot of mac ‘n’ cheese and franks ‘n’ beans, so a repulsed Cole ate “cereal for my entire youth – breakfast, lunch, dinner.” The household, she says, was “rich with music. My dad played a lot of folk songs – Buck Owens, Johnny Cash – people that told stories. And I was a little canary.” Early song-writing efforts included “My Name Is Paula” and the Ominous-sounding “God May Take the Earth.”
“My sister was literally able to sing before she could talk,” says Irene, now a nurse in San Francisco. “She really had this God-given talent. I remember her singing in school plays and just being so, so good – so beyond what the little town of Rockport could offer.”
In her small high school, Cole was an honor student and was actively involved in chorus, musicals (“I sang all those sexist songs like ‘I Enjoy Being a Girl'”) and cheerleading (“I liked the musicality and rhythm of it; also, I thought it would help my popularity”), and she was class president for three years. Oh, and junior-prom queen. “I put together the prom, so I think they made me queen as a sympathy vote,” she says. “I went with a friend.” She says that nobody asked her out. “Actually, if they had, I think I would have been terrified,” she recalls. “I don’t think I was comfortable with my sexuality at that point. I was still very tender and afraid. I was a fragile young bud in a hostile world.”
You may have noticed that some of the things Cole says are the kinds of tremulous, corny things that twelve-year-old girls say before they learn to be self-conscious. “I just go with the flow,” she’ll say. “Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.” This takes getting used to, but, rest assured, it is not a pose.
“Paula really is that person who comes through in interviews and who she portrays onstage,” says Irene. “She’s very real.”
Anyhoo. When Cole made her way to the Berklee College of Music, in Boston, the aforementioned young bud burst all over the damn place.
I DIDN’T BECOME SEXUALLY FREE UNTIL I LEFT my parents and left Rockport,” Cole says. “I made some mistakes, that’s for sure. I just went with the way my body felt. I definitely was not prepared to be a woman in this world. Like so many of us.” We walk briskly as a breeze picks up, lightly scented with duck shit, which, Cole points out, “makes life.”
At Berklee, Cole took classes in jazz vocals, and she supported herself by singing in hotel lounges and weddings, “in some bad dress, singing Whitney Houston or something.” She also sang backup for Dale Bozzio of Missing Persons during Bozzio’s previously-unremarked-upon solo stint.
“Back then, she was staring at the floor, closing her eyes or even turning her back on the audience,” says her longtime drummer, Jay Bellerose. “So many teachers would tell her she had to make eye contact.”
During her time at Berklee, Cole suffered through an emotional breakdown and entered therapy. “I was having a lot of sinister thoughts,” she says quietly as we stop by a rippling pond. “I grew up in a really Yankee, repressed white culture. I had so much emotion bottled up inside. I did contemplate suicide regularly. If you have any sensitivity, and I think that’s a requirement for an artist, then you sense a lot of pain in the world. The first time I went to therapy, I cried the entire time and didn’t say anything.” In that period she wrote dark, introspective songs, including “Bethlehem.”
“My father asked that I not put it on the album,” Cole says. “It was one of the few times that we really yelled at each other. He felt a sense of panic that people would think he was a bad father. I said, ‘You can’t censor art, and you can’t censor truth.'” That night, Cole took mushrooms and had what she calls “the worst trip of my life.”
Around this time, Cole met boyfriend Seyi Sonuga, a Nigerian musician and filmmaker who grew up in London. “All I can say is, his aura appeared to me,” she marvels. “I felt his soul.” After graduating, Cole moved to San Francisco and wrote furiously. In 1993 she was signed to Imago Records. A pre-release copy of Harbinger reached Peter Gabriel, who asked Cole to join his 1993-94 Secret World tour.
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.” A trip to Rockport for her ten-year high-school reunion gave her another boost. “They were so sweet and loving and proud,” she says of the good citizens of Rockport, who keep some of her lyrics in a display case in the town library.
Onstage, Cole made a transformation as well. “After she came back from that tour, she was just bigger than life,” says Bellerose. When it came time to record This Fire, Cole had lined up Harbinger helmsman Kevin Killen to produce, but she canned him midway through and took over herself. “I wanted a more organic sound, a more old-fashioned record,” she says. The results earned Cole a Best Producer Grammy nomination, the first time ever, sadly enough, that a woman has been nominated in that category.
This Fire has more confidence, and more joy, than its predecessor. Cole has a gift for melody, but throughout the record there is that raw, messy emotion that might make some folks uncomfortable. “Nietzsche’s Eyes” ends with Cole nearly shrieking. “It’s like a wounded-animal cry,” she says. “That’s the very moment of the album that most critics lambaste. It’s like anal-retentive people who think when you talk about poo it’s the most hysterical thing.”
We stop to admire some more flowers. Cole has been striding purposefully through the park for two hours without breaking a sweat. Maybe there is something to all of that vegan business.
LET’S STOP AT AN ITALIAN PLACE FOR A dairy-free meatless meal, shall we? “I like knowing I don’t eat animal products,” she says, digging into a salad. “I don’t really drink or smoke cigarettes, either. Occasionally I’ll have a toke of herb. That’s my little vice. Marijuana is like a lens – it intensifies wherever you’re at.”
She stretches out in her chair, savoring her few days of relaxation before a European tour, after which she is thinking of doing “a really groovy remix” of “Feelin’ Love.” “I’d like a hip-hop slant to it or a jungle groove underneath,” she says. “I’m talking to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.” Then, starting June 19th, Cole will once again join Lilith Fair, alongside Missy Elliott (!), Sinéad O’Connor, Erykah Badu, Sheryl Crow and Natalie Merchant. Cole agrees with the criticism that last year’s bill was too homogenous. “I was right there thinking that since Day One,” she says, nodding vigorously. “But that’s the music that Sarah [McLachlan] likes. I mean, she’s from Nova Scotia. There’s not a lot of hip-hop and rap coming from there, you know?”
Cole is full of plans for the coming months. “I have such an interesting life ahead of me,” she enthuses. “I want to be like Tina Turner, shaking my booty when I’m forty or fifty. I want to stand up for some causes. And I’m busting at the seams to do the next record. I have so many songs in me.”
A more immediate goal involves her shows. “I really want more black folks in my audience,” Cole says. “They’re the best audiences in the world, anyway. And it’s my favorite music, whether it’s jazz, hip-hop, rap. I have a lot to learn from the hip-hop world.”She signals the waitress for the check. Before she gets up to leave, talk turns briefly to cats. Cole helpfully provides a recipe for all-natural cat food (organic beef, brown rice, grate in some carrots, add an egg yolk and vitamins), then we share a cab. She is dropped off first, after she politely thanks the driver.
“That was the girl from the Grammys!” says Jacques, the Haitian cabdriver. “She was a nice lady. Nobody is nice to the cabdrivers, you know.” He rounds a corner on two wheels. “She is a performer? In the show business?” He marvels for a minute. “But she is so quiet, no?”