Paula Cole Says Her Students Helped Her Rediscover Her Identity

The 56-year-old singer-songwriter spoke to Jezebel about learning from Gen Z and touring her first collection of entirely original compositions in nearly a decade.

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Paula Cole Says Her Students Helped Her Rediscover Her Identity

Paula Cole comes right out with it: “I deeply resent when I’m associated with just a television show.” The singer-songwriter and I had only met minutes earlier but Cole’s an Aries (as am I) so I was looking forward to this no-fucks-given frankness.

Nine out of every ten Gen X-ers and a modest number of Millennials are likely familiar with the television show Cole is obliquely alluding to. Dawson’s Creek would jumpstart the careers of Katie Holmes and Joshua Jackson in 1998 and keep the walls of teenagers across the country covered in Tiger Beat pin-ups until 2003. But its theme song—Cole’s 1996 anthemic and sneakily existential “I Don’t Wanna Wait”—would endure in ubiquity for decades (especially if you happened upon Delilah’s late-night radio show). Only, the song wasn’t created for a series about hormonal teenagers in New England. Instead, “I Don’t Wanna Wait” was an ode to the life and death of her grandfather and the questions she was faced with in the aftermath.

“Do you say yes to life?” Cole reflected in an interview in 2016“Do you embrace the things that give you joy? Or do you cower back in fear or by culture’s machinations keeping you small?” Nearly 30 years later, the now 56-year-old singer-songwriter is once again squaring off with those same questions as she tours Lo, her first collection of original songs in nearly a decade.

We met on Zoom on a Tuesday morning in early May. When I asked where exactly she was these days, she gestured to her background—all sun-drenched wood, complimented by the occasional appearance of what appears to be a lone cat wandering in and out of frame. As it turns out, that’s another loaded inquiry. Physically, she describes herself as “planted” on the north shore of Massachusetts, a mere twenty minutes from where she was raised by educators and musicians. Mentally, though…well, that’s a longer answer.

Though she never quite stopped making music, it’s been a minute since Cole has been out on the road sharing it like this. In the mid-2000s she stepped away from the industry to raise her daughter (and later, step-children), and to teach at the acclaimed Berklee College of Music as a visiting scholar in performance studies. But practicality wasn’t the only instigator of the pause.

“It took a while to get a softer place,” Cole tells me. “I love music passionately, but my career has been like…I really hated my career. And so I left it.”

@paulacoleofficial

If you watched TV in the 90’s and early 2000’s you might remember DawsonsCreek! That was acthally my song, I Don’t Wanna Wait, that was used for the theme song 🙂 #90skids #2000sthrowback

♬ original sound – Paula Cole

Cole found success hard and fast in the mid-nineties with her sophomore album, The Fire, which featured the triple-Grammy nominated, “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?” and, of course, that follow-up single, “I Don’t Want To Wait.” The record catapulted Cole to the 1998 Grammys stage where she scored six nominations including Best New Artist, Record of the Year, and Song of the Year. Before it was respected by the general public for a woman to produce and record her own music, she also became the first female solo artist to be nominated for Producer of the Year. Ultimately, she took home the trophy for Best New Artist. But if you read any story about Cole that year, her wins were superseded by denunciations of her visible armpit hair.

“I got very overexposed and misinterpreted,” Cole says of that period. Exhibit A? This 1998 Rolling Stone story in which journalist Jancee Dunn interrogates Cole’s “image” rather than just writing that she transcends marketability or something: “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?”

“At some point I just didn’t want anything to do with it,” Cole says now.

She often sought comfort in women-centered spaces like Lilith Fair, Sarah McLachlan’s “girly show” that would become a top-grossing touring festival in the late nineties and a cultural touchstone for Gen X and Millennials with an appetite for, as Time magazine put it, empathy. Even still, a series of what Cole describes as “bad deals,” mismanagement, and an unfortunate lack of mentors made a fickle industry getting greedier for bubblegum pop that much harder to navigate.

“When I look at the landscape of artists, sometimes there’s luck involved but often there’s usually excellent management behind success stories. I just never…I never had that,” Cole explains. “The hits…they’re perennial, and I’m proud of that. But there’s more to me than that.”

As Cole stepped away and raised her daughter, she took matters into her own hands and quietly created her own record label, 675, under which her last three albums, Revolution, American Quilt, and Lo, were released. As of now, she’s the only signee but it’s her hope to one day bring on burgeoning female singer-songwriters. She’s an admitted (and enthusiastic) admirer of both her commercially successful successors like Miley Cyrus and Lana Del Rey and less so like, Fire Swimmer and Ezliyah. When I mention she might like Maggie Rogers’ latest record she makes a note. Hours later, her publicist sent me an email confirming she was listening to it.

But teaching, most of all, has clearly helped Cole feel as if she’s righting the wrongs of the industry not just by arming them with the wisdom she’s incurred from years in the business, but by empowering them as performers and thinking, feeling people. “I feel like I’ve probably gained more than they have in my years of working at the college, but their sense of like identity? It’s proud, it’s free,” Cole said. “It’s conversational, and it doesn’t necessarily reflect the one relationship that you’re in right now.”

 

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Cole thinks she’s learned a new language from her students, prompting her to reexamine parts of herself that she could never properly explain. Her sexuality, for one. Only recently did she begin publicly identifying as bisexual. On “Wildflower,” Cole acknowledges she’s always”feeling counterfeit” and grapples with “never fitting in between two worlds.”

It’s her students who have given her the courage to navigate what she calls “a minefield of self-doubt.” Regardless, the reviews of her recent tour stops don’t reflect any harm done by the industry. “Thank you for sharing your unparalleled gift and musicianship with us tonight,” one review from Minneapolis in April reads. “Paula Cole’s voice rings out strong,” lauds another in Santa Barbara. Still, she wrestles with the memories of more difficult times.

“My introvert self itself—who has trauma around the first incarnation in the industry—doesn’t want to go back out again,” she says. When I ask how she’s managed the ultimate act of vulnerability—making something and sharing it with a room full of people she again cites her students and the advice she’s repeatedly given them about performing.

“I would say be brave. There’s the trying and there’s nothing else, and I have to walk the walk. So, here I am trying.”

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