PAULA COLE HAS A VOICE that can wrap around a lyric and caress it one second and bludgeon it to death the next. Fortunately, she's chosen to use her formidable talents in a positive way because those vocal chords are powerful indeed, even when she's not singing. Not all that long ago, Cole was living the life of an introspective songwriter. That's understandable considering she grew up in an unconventionally cerebral family and then entered the quixotic curriculum at the Berklee College Of Music. So it came as no surprise that the adult Paula would turn out to be a deep thinker absorbed in her art.
"I was literally a hermit songwriter in my bedroom," she said. Then Peter Gabriel called. Cole had finished her album Harbinger and was waiting for it to be released. An advance copy of the record found it's way to Gabriel and he was so impressed he invited her to join his 1993-94 Secret World Live tour as a backup singer and duet partner. It was time for Cole to leave the safety of her bedroom.
"I was flown from my very small life to Germany where I had one rehearsal and was then thrown out in front of 16,000 Germans. Musically, I was ready, but socially, I was not." The tour was more than a learning experience for Cole; it was a revelation that gave her the tools to transform her career and her life. "I was like a student of life in a way, she said. "I learned that a lot of my insecurities were in my own mind. I was younger than everybody on that tour and I think there were three women and 60 men. It forced me to become stronger. It forced me to become more independent."
By the end of the tour, Cole knew much more about herself than she did before and it wasn't all esoteric psychological stuff, either. She knew she wanted to have success in her own career and she was motivated to earn it. She knew she didn't want to be someone else's employee; she knew she wanted freedom. This was not a naive artist waxing rhapsodic about her future. Cole was -- and is -- determined to stick to her ideals. She was serious enough to scrap her second album when she realized it didn't match her vision.
"We got $80,000 deep into the record and I wasn't happy. I had to go to my new Warner Bros. record company and say, 'I need to throw this away because I don't believe in it and I don't want to promote it for the rest of my life.' It was really scary, but because of that, I'm involved in my career as a business woman and I'm really proud of that." She went on to produce the album, This Fire, herself and judging from its success, she has quite a head for business. Cole said working in the studio is a private, internal process. It's the yin to the exuberant yang of touring.
"It's a whole other world live. Sometimes I think that my favorite thing is performing," she said. "Live, it's so momentary, it's so transient; that makes it precious. It allows me to let go of a lot of feelings and pent up frustrations. I really, really love it." During her recent stint on the Lilith Fair tour, a big dose of that love came back to her. Cole said the outpouring of acceptance and support from her fellow artists and the multi-generational audience was extremely uplifting. Beyond that, Cole saw Lilith as a jumping off point for her upcoming solo tour.
"I hope that I'm making new fans because I really, insanely love music. I want to be shakin' my booty up there like Tina Turner when I'm 50. So I really want to make that foundation now. This is the time, I believe, to make the foundation that will ensure a long career." Cole has been an opening act for years and she is looking forward to having more than 30 minutes to present her material and not having someone else's drum riser in her way. She's definitely up to the task. "I've learned how to win over audiences," she said. I know how to be really aggressive and I know how to grab people by the throat and say 'Listen to me.' I know I'm good, I believe in me, but I've had to wake people up."
With the popularity of her single, "Where Have All The Cowboys Gone," and the amount of exposure Lilith Fair has received, it's doubtful Cole will have trouble getting an audience's attention. Though her time with Lilith Fair is over, Cole is still part of the larger vision associated with the festival. She prefaced her comments on her Lilith Fair experience by saying she felt very honored to be part of its inaugural year. "I think it's a symbol of hope," she said. "Since art is usually a harbinger of change in politics and other aspects of life, I hope that we will see manifestations of this in other areas of our culture. More women supporting women."
Cole is currently preparing to tour Europe later this summer. When she returns, her solo American tour will be in place and she plans to stay on the road through 1997. "Headlining will allow me to give the audience the whole picture. I can show more of my sensitivity," she said. "It also gives me the chance to honor the fans who have been with me since the beginning. They're the ones who pay the bills."