Every music aficionado finds multiple albums they love, but it’s not often they find an album that changes the tone of how they listen to music. These albums are few and far between, but sometimes there are facets of our mind we don’t realize need to be unlocked. When this happens, it creates a vacuum of self-exploration, a new favorite album, and often another favorite singer.
Recently, I found an album that did just that. Ballads by Paula Cole has taken my complete music world by storm and has caused me to explore a layer of my mind I didn’t know existed (Read my review on Ballads here).
Many of us know Cole from her renowned album This Fire, which sparked the top ten hits “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone” and “I Don’t Want to Wait.” She went on to win the Grammy for Best New Artist in 1998 and This Fire was certified 2x platinum in the U.S.
It is not often you get to speak to the artist that touched your soul, but I had the opportunity to speak with Paula Cole about her new album, what she is doing now, and how to define Jazz.
Before our conversation got underway, I had to tell Ms. Cole exactly where I was coming from. I have literally been a fan of hers for almost two months now, but I could not be a bigger fan today. Her music is fresh in my mind. After I fell in love with Ballads, I quickly and consistently listened to Cole’s complete catalog of releases, beyond her two biggest hits, finding multiple gems in each album.
That is my story in a nutshell. People think of me for those hits, then they move on. They don’t give it another thought and yet, I’m grateful for the hits, but there is so much more to what I am. I mean it was even ill fitting at the time when I was in the spotlight for one minute. It felt ill fitting and I needed to go away. I have always felt I was more of a catalog artist. That was odd, the whole hit thing anyway.
Cole started out as a jazz singer when she attended Berklee in the early 1990s. She was offered a few record contracts at the time, but she turned them down. She felt that she wasn’t good enough to sing Jazz and that she did not meet the standard it took to sing Jazz professionally. This surprised me, as I would not think a vocalist as talented as Cole would have this level of insecurities.
That’s definitely one of the reasons. I had 3 or 4 reasons…It’s a waste of one’s life. It’s a tragedy to be that cruel to one’s self and deprive yourself of artistic expression, for what? I needed to get out of that loop and try and I knew that now having lived at least 25 years in the music business and nearly 50 years in life, I know I can do this. I know that I was being unnecessarily mean to myself, and that I have something to say here…It’s time to just try.
Although what I quickly realized, as our conversation evolved, was that turning these deals down wasn’t just a case of the butterflies, it was a part of Cole’s artistry. There was going to be a time to make a Jazz album, and when it was, it had to be done correctly. She knew what she wanted from her own Jazz album.
The two Jazz deals that I got…I wouldn’t have been able to make this album [Ballads]. I think that I would have been pushed by A&R at the record company, and the producer that they were selecting for me, to make it much more shiny and polished and piano based, even choosing some of the songs, and walking into the control room of the studio and requesting certain changes…I wouldn’t have been able to stand my ground. You learn that when you are young and you get your first record deal, that you have to make some compromises in order to stay in that place of fortune and power of having a record deal…You have to make compromises, so if I had taken the Jazz deal then, it would have been thick and I wouldn’t have been proud of what I really wanted in my heart. I knew who I wanted to work with. I wanted it to be rootsy…So finally under the right conditions, me being the record company, me being accustomed to producing myself, and having fans that funded a Kickstarter project, I was able to make it the way I wanted it to be all this time.
If Ballads had been made 25 years ago versus today, it would not be the same album. Cole would not have been completely satisfied with it, although she did tell me it would have been beautiful in its own way.
Now, I wanted to get down to the essence of Ballads. It’s a mystical album that takes you on journeys through songs from the 1930s through the 1960s. Not only does she take classic Jazz standards and make them her own, but she also takes classic American songs and turns them on their head. At this time, I asked her how she arrived at ballads at this juncture in her life and why it had to happen now.
I have several items on that giant to-do list in the sky, well actually on my notepad on my iPhone, that are life items, things on my bucket list, and making my own Jazz album was one of them. It was uncanny the way an attempt of a Jazz album would manifest and it would go away, manifest and go away. So I knew I needed to do it for me and do it the way I wanted it, which was rootsy and blended genres that I think really stand side by side with Jazz and what Jazz is. I think it is also because I’m doing a lot of reflection right now in my life. My kids are growing up and they’re out of the house a lot. I’m feeling a bit of empty nest. My parents are getting older, more fragile; I have a sense of their mortality. I’ve lost love ones and I feel a sense of my own mortality and my dad is still here and I want to thank him while he is alive.
This album Ballads, dedicated to her father and his musical influence on her, was just as much retrospective as it is a modern take on iconic songs. Ballads was a completely new concept for Cole in many ways due largely to the fact, that she didn’t write any of the songs. Her catalog is vast and covers many genres, topics, and styles; yet now she was honing in on one genre with covers of well-known songs.
Did she have struggles making this album without having any writing credits? Was she intimidated by covering other musician’s music?
I think that I sing them as myself and I’ve arrived at many of these songs without even hearing these famous singers’ versions of them first. Many of them I came to myself by reading the music at my piano and learning them and teaching them to myself … I was able to find the song first myself…
Cole, being a professor now at Berklee and a music scholar, had a deep connection to these artists she was covering.
I have been listening to Billie Holiday so much. I have so much profound respect for her and she could quite possibly be the best Jazz singer that ever lived…I can hear her influence more on “I Cover The Waterfront,” but in general I think it is more of a spiritual connection. I didn’t worry about sounding like other people. I feel pretty well formed as a person and that’s probably why I could make the album now. I trusted myself. I didn’t feel nervous in the way that you are asking. Yes, I’m singing these legends’ songs. I’m doing it because I love them. I love them. I’m channeling them and worshipping at their altar.
My next question dealt with Cole’s song selection. As I mentioned earlier, the songs on this album range from the 1930s to the 1970s. Some of these songs would be completely misplaced on a Jazz album, like “Ode to Billie Joe,” which is considered country.
What struck me the most was Cole’s choice of “protest” songs. The three songs that stood out for me was “I Wish (I Knew How It Feels to Be Free),” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” and “The Ballad of Hollis Brown.” I had to know why she made these unconventional choices for an album categorized as Jazz.
I’m white. I’m from a little New England village called Rockport, MA. I knew kindness from my parents…I went to Berklee at 18 and I joined the gospel choir…I had never ever been in such a world like that. I was now the minority. I wish every white person could have that experience and what that feels like. I was so humbled and so moved. It really changed my life…I was in a much more diverse community that opened my eyes and that started me along the path of the music business and where I was able to live in a much more mixed way.
Now I’m here, a mom to a biracial daughter, and I care very much about race and it needs to be a conversation. I’m moved by these songs because they speak to me and the way I feel. I think they are as relevant today as ever and I wanted to underscore that by including them in this collection.
Music is a pioneering place, but I remind myself always of a quote Picasso said, “Artists are the politicians of the future.” We have to be that voice, that love, and sometimes I stumble into uncomfortable conversations, sometimes I stumble into awkward places, but we must try.
It is here that genres and musical categories began to blend in our conversation. Earlier, Cole had already shared her dissatisfaction with being categorized as a certain musical genre, but now I didn’t even feel like we were talking about Jazz anymore. What I found out though, was that I really didn’t understand what Jazz and even music as a whole was, and neither did Cole. This brought me to the simple question of how does one define Jazz?
I really don’t think I can answer that question. It’s something I’ve been searching for my whole life. I’ve been one to transcribe horn solos and learn Miles Davis and John Coltrane and they are my heroes, but so is Billie Holiday, and she never improvised a note. I think of her as one of America’s great singer/ songwriters and yet, she’s Jazz. Nina Simone to me is gospel and classical and folk and a little bit of Jazz, but yet she is categorized as Jazz. I don’t understand what Jazz is. Maybe it’s a sense of freedom and the ability to improvise. I’ve always been drawn to that. Maybe it’s deeper musicianship, that you care about chord changes and the ability to be free within the confines of traditional music. Maybe that is Jazz to me, exploring the boundaries and being freer in what we understand as music. That’s Jazz to me.
I then asked, “so Jazz is a loaded word?”
Yes. I have this book of interviews with Jazz musicians and the question they pose at the beginning of every chapter is, “What does Jazz mean?” Jazz has no etymological roots that they can trace. People have every different understanding of what Jazz means. A lot of times what people come back with is “fucking,” a brothel word from the brothels of New Orleans. So who knows what it means? Who knows? It could mean that, maybe something else. I think it’s fantastic. And that’s kind of where we are at with it. I worship at the altar of several Jazz musicians and also Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris and Bobbie Gentry. And you know if Johnny Cash could sing Shel Silverstein lyrics and Nina Simone could cover Bob Dylan songs, then what is it? Why are we categorizing?
I then had to touch on Cole’s vocal technique and approach to this album. Anyone familiar with Cole’s catalog knows that she is a vocal acrobat. She can sing the softest love song, croon a torch ballad, and compete with the greatest belters of the past.
Although on this album, Cole took a rather reserved approach to her vocals. Her voice was retrospective. Was that intentional? Had she created this formula before going into the studio?
No, it was not any kind of executive decision at all. I think it comes from an internal, personal place where I’m just not wanting to scream as much. I have been doing some retrospective shows where I play This Fire and frankly, it’s exhausting. I can feel my 20-year-old self and I feel my anger and my frustration, especially in kind of being treated a little second class in the music business. I don’t want to sing like that on Ballads. Sometimes I do. It’s absolutely liberating. It’s victorious and I find the audience loves it. There is a time and place for that, but it wasn’t on these songs. No, no. I wanted something more gentle. I wanted to sing for the lyrics not for vocal prowess. I wanted to sing for the lyrics and the stories of these songs now.
There is so much to the album Ballads. So much, that I can’t even begin to describe what the album means and what one is supposed to take away from it. The album is transformative as Cole weaves in every genre, sings in sync with the greatest artists of all time while conveying a message of strength, social injustice, and self-worth.
Lastly, as a teacher at Berklee, I wanted to know what Cole had to say in regards to millennials and this album. What was she wanting my generation to take from this record?
I want millennials to listen to the masters in music and I want them knowing that history to go forward and be a voice that the world needs. They need to stand up. They need to make this world better. We’re counting on you. We as “Xers” or “Boomers” above you need to walk the walk, too, but we need you now because you’re young and you are relevant and you are forming the modern pop society right now. You’re forming the modern culture right now. We need you to look back and hear our stories and bring it into the light and be the politicians of the future through your art.
That call to action has been rolling in my head since this conversation. Now, in the light of the recent tragedy in Vegas, it seems to ring even louder. It’s time for everybody, but especially young people, to stand up and stop hate. We have to look at the legacy of our family, country, world, and humankind and move forward. I believe we hold the answers, finding them is the difficult part.
This album has moved me in many ways, freeing my mind to think on a larger scale. Cole achieved this through song selection, vocal style, and never putting up walls to categorize music. Her vision is clear and she is using the only universal tool known to mankind, music.
As I contemplated my interview with Paula Cole, I listened to Ballads again. Her words inspired me, many of which are not written here. Her album has given me a clearer direction on what music is, especially Jazz; yet, it has completely muddied the waters. This album is retrospective in both music, cultural issues, and situations each individual faces. This album is also innovative due to its musicality and message. This album simply transcends time, genres, categories, and ideas.
What I have learned from Cole is that music truly has a home in every heart surpassing time. It’s artists like Paula Cole that bring that universal connection together in all of us.
Visit Paula Cole’s official Website here.