Paula Cole enjoyed an international breakthrough in 1996 with her second album This Fire which spawned the hits Where Have All The Cowboys Gone? and I Don’t Want To Wait, which was later selected as the theme to hit TV show Dawson’s Creek.
In the years since that success Paula has experimented with her sound, battled with insecurity and taken time away from the spotlight to deal with personal issues. Now she’s back with her new album Raven, her first since 2010’s Ithaca, which was funded through the Kickstarter platform.
We called Paula to talk about Raven, find out more about the meaning behind the tracks and to discuss different stages of her career to date. Enjoy our in-depth interview with Paula speaking candidly about her work and being as charming as we’d hoped she’d be.
Let’s start off by talking about your new album Raven. You funded the project through Kickstarter. Why did you decide to do that?
That was a decision to stay off of labels. I had been on four major labels and I really was a child living out her young adulthood in the 90s and a product of the large label business. Just as I took my seven year hiatus, largely for my daughter and her health, and getting myself back up on my feet after that, I emerged in a different music industry. It’s been like a pre and post Internet bookended career for me.
I emerged in this different landscape and I was still connected to labels at that point. I was briefly on Columbia then went to Universal Decca. They do make things convenient in that everything is arranged and they pay for your album making. You emerge with your album but you don’t own it. You don’t usually see anything after that financially.
I was yearning all these years to have a little more creative freedom so watching the landscape change I thought ‘I’m old enough now, I should be able to pick myself up by my bootstraps and let me try walking forward without the labels and doing it myself. Perhaps it will be a humbler path, probably it will be, but at least I’ll own it’.
I was encouraged to try the fan-funding route, ironically by my former label Chris Roberts, who just happens to be a truly good human being in the music business. I realised there was no shame in doing so. It’s something that’s more de rigeur these days. You build team energy, you fun your project and you emerge owning your intellectual property. It’s a triple win so I did it. I called upon my fanbase feeling vulnerable doing so, but they were there for me, and I’m very touched. I asked for a certain amount and I ended up get 150% of my target.
That’s an amazing achievement…
Yes. It told me my fans are very much there for me. I love them very much. I need them and they love me. I love them back hard, passionately (laughs). Now I’ve finished my album and I’m using that money to help it have a life and give it fuel.
What inspired you to call the album Raven?
I’m still trying to figure that one out. These things come slowly (laughs). It was very much an intuitive right-brain choice. The visual is just iconic. Of course there are meanings, Native American meanings and probably in any country where ravens exist there is symbolism. It spoke to me more visually and I still don’t understand why. It’s like I feel that I’m the raven and I’m trying to unravel the mystery. It will come to me. I know it has a lot to do with transformation as the raven is a symbol of transformation in Native American culture. It’s so beautiful and intelligent; it’s the wolf-bird. I guess I feel a little bit like that, like I’m going through some kind of transformation myself.
What we love about the album is that is recalls the early days of your career around the Harbinger and This Fire era whilst standing strong against the modern sounds in the charts. What was your intention making the record?
I don’t know if I had an intention. My first manager, his name was Carter, died and I miss him terribly. He’s with me still. He’s a big part of my songwriting because he would eagerly anticipate my next song and he was a writer himself. I was thinking of him a lot when I put together Raven. Some of these songs are older, they come from the coffers.
For example Eloise is a song that I wrote for somebody else. I wrote it for soul and country legend Solomon Burke as I was asked to write a couple of songs for him. Don Was was producing him before he died. I did write him a couple of songs but they weren’t recorded. Eloise was one of them and it just remained dormant in the coffers. It bothered me that it was sat there, it bothered my unconscious so I went back to it. I thought there was a good story so I moved it out of 3/4 time, changed the key and kept that same gender. In a sense I’m a narrator and it could be for a woman and a man, or a woman and a woman, and I like that. This is an example of a song that is older, there are a couple, and there are newer ones from my most recent writing.
All I can say is it’s a very intuitive process putting together a body of songs. You play them and as a producer I enjoy the sequencing aspect. This is a collection of some storytelling and some more artistic pieces that lean almost to more alternative rock or soul influences. My musical influences are so diverse that categories are always difficult. My first record label was a jazz label. I’m asked all the time ‘what kind of music do you listen to or sing and make’ and I’ve always struggled with that. I can’t help I love Miles Davis, Peter Gabriel, Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, Aretha Franklin and Dolly Parton (laughs). It’s very diverse. I think this album is indicative of that diversity. It’s just a collection of my work spanning years that felt it should emerge.
We love the variety on the record. Red Corsette reminds us of Nietzsche’s Eyes but our favourite is Secretary. We love how you can go from the quiet whisper to the full-on belt in the same sentence. What’s behind that song?
(laughs) Oh no I don’t want to talk about that one (continues laughing). It was the newest song on the album. I had written everything and gone in and recorded the basics; it was shaping up to be done. I felt like it just wasn’t done and there was this hole. I couldn’t define it. I found myself drawn to an electric guitar and I’m not a guitar player! This came from a very muso-right-brain intuitive place and not from a left-brain analytical one. I was drawn to this electric guitar and down-tuned it to an Open D tuning, very low and play around.
This song came out which of course is extremely private and embarrassing to talk about but it felt like it needed something dark, sexual, intense, furious, quiet and all of that. I guess the quietness and the belting is the sadism and masochism (laughs). It just happened and I recorded it in my home studio. We very quickly added it like an addendum to the album.
Another track we love on the record is Scream. It’s not what you expect from the title. Tell us a bit about that one…
My intention was to sing the whole song in a whisper (laughs). To denote how it feels to be sitting on a ticking timebomb inside your heart wanting to explode, wanting to fall off a building because it’s just so sick and difficult in your home. You’re longing to scream. It was my intention to sing from a whisper.
What’s your favourite song on the record? Do you have one?
That’s always a hard thing to do – identify which child you like the best (laughs) – but there’s something about Red Corsette. It’s the most artistic and most out-there song. I love it. I don’t expect it will be many people’s favourite. It’s a piece, it’s not even a song. That one just popped out. I love it when that happens, when music comes like a flash and a lightning bolt has just hit you and something just comes out.
There are other songs that were crafted much more meticulously but that one came out like a lightning bolt.
The songs where it’s just you and the piano are always the most emotive moments on your records. When you’re writing those songs do you just sit with the piano, play around and see what happens?
It starts usually with a feeling, like you’re pregnant with a feeling and it needs to come out. If you’re fortunate enough that you don’t have to be multi-tasking and doing mundane stuff with your life, and you can follow through with that feeling and get to a keyboard or guitar or whatever. That’s how it is for me. If something feels emergent like Red Corsette did, it starts with a feeling like I have a large bubble in my throat and I need to sit down and let it out.
Fingers go on keys, often like old dogs go to same places. You have to fight that a little bit so you’re not repeating yourself. Fingers go to keys and maybe your left-brain enters occasionally to guide you out of patterns. I remember when I was writing Red Corsette I thought ‘I want to go somewhere different this time and I also want to hold a note and sing a word melismatically over a series of notes’. That song has some classical influences I guess.
There’s been a real progression over the course of your albums to date. Harbinger was more traditional singer-songwriter, This Fire was bolder and Amen was much more experimental…
Thank you. I’m glad you see that.
What are your memories from that time in your career?
I was coming off of the heels of success of This Fire and was therefore given the most freedom I had encountered in the studio. More trust from the record label so I felt free to express some things that I needed to get off my chest. I don’t think it was so common at that point for a white girl, an American singer-songwriter, to honour her hip-hop and soul influences. It’s been interesting to me to see that coming out more from England and America seems to embrace it more subsequently to Amen.
At the time maybe they were just ready for a backlash with me because they were so over Lilith Fair and we had that crop of blondes like Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson and Christina Aguilera coming out. It was a different music scene at that point and I was probably the darkest of the singer-songwriters of the 90s. Coming out with some spiritual themes and my soul influences, I don’t think they appreciated that (laughs).
Even though I felt that I’d made a work that I was extremely proud of, and I stand by that, it did disastrously. It felt like the floor fell away from my feet. Because it was such a big flop I took that to heart badly and that’s one thing that I’ve been working on over the years is to get back on the horse a little sooner. Just let it flow and don’t take it so to heart but I did. I think I got very depressed and I just went away from music business. I needed a break. It had been seven years solid of touring as well. I think I was a bit of a nervous wreck and I was an introvert thrown out into a larger spotlight than I could handle. It suited me to withdraw and then I had my daughter.
Looking back I think I was artistically true to myself and I’m proud of that. I think perhaps it was a little ahead of its time because it was blue-eyed soul that wasn’t embraced. I’m not just going to sing and write the same songs over and over. I’m an artist that’s going to mutate over the years; those are my favourite artists who have done that and experimented. It represented a doorway into a very different part of my life that was time away from the public eye.
Following Amen and your break from the spotlight you returned with Courage through Decca. The album had more of a jazz influence to it than your other records…
Yes. I went to Berkley College of Music and studied jazz pretty intensely and was offered a jazz deal when I was still a student there which I turned down. The producer of Courage, his name is Bobby Colomby, heard me sing jazz and I sang on some Chris Botti records, he’s a trumpet player and he’s big in the States. He has a lot of vocal guests sing standards with him so I sang standards with him. I was happy to do so because I was still in my hermit period of withdrawal from the music business. Bobby was hearing me singing these jazz songs, and he’s a jazz lover and manages Chris, and he wanted to get me back out into the public eye and into my career. I think I was longing for it but I lacked courage and that’s why I named it Courage because I needed Courage. It was a mantra to myself.
Bobby producing it had definitely a strong influence in bringing that jazz sound more out and obviously to the fore. Herbie Hancock is on it, Chris Botti is on it and Billy Childs. It’s a little more eclectic, refined and gentle. It wasn’t that raw Paula Cole and I don’t think I was brave enough to be in that place. I was coming out of a seven year hiatus and I had a daughter who had asthma. I couldn’t go back to my career. I was married and then divorced, and moved a couple of times. My personal life had been a real struggle. I didn’t have the confidence to get back to my career myself and Bobby helped me. I will always be grateful for that. However there’s a lot of him in the album. My fans are so smart and they know me. They could hear it even before I could.
It took me a long while to get to Raven is what I’m saying.
What about Ithaca? That album moved closer to the sound we that we knew to be distinctly Paula Cole…
Ithaca is kind of a nod to The Odyssey; going out into the world, slaying some monsters and coming back home to my Ithaca which was my hometown in Massachusetts. That fool’s journey of coming full circle and being back home is a humbling and profound cycle. I really talked more about my divorce and the personal things I’d gone through on Ithaca.
Ithaca was still on a major label and there were major label influences. It’s larger budget and the production is more sparkling. Raven is me truly the producer again and it’s a little more raw. I think that’s a good thing.
Now that you’ve had the experience you’ve had funding Raven through Kickstarter, is it something you’d do again?
I think so, if my fans feel up to it. I don’t want to ask too much of them. I’m still in the middle of fulfilling the donor pledges and packages (laughs). Next week I’m going to be seriously doing hundreds and hundreds of mailout. I’ve got quite the mountain ahead of me. I think if they would have me and they would support me, and I’ve got a feeling they would, then absolutely!
Would you come back over to the UK and play some live shows in the future?
I want to come back. In fact I did have a booking agent back in the 90s and we recently reached out to him. I want to go back and I long to come back. I feel understood there. Pray to God and I thank you for your support because I would love to try and gather any audience that would still be there for me. I would love to come back. I’m hoping 2014 that will be a reality.
We’re keeping our fingers crossed.
Yes fingers crossed!
Paula’s new album Raven is released 23rd April 2013. You can pre-order the album and find out more about it at www.paulacole.com. Watch the video for her latest single Eloise: