As a Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter and boundary-pushing feminist trailblazer, Paula Cole has long incorporated powerful social statements into her emotional hit songs. Cole's latest album, 2019's Revolution, is no exception. Described as a social protest album, Revolution's songs tackle subjects like climate change and politics, which Cole hopes will inspire thought and conversation from listeners. "I felt the need to come out with some of my stories and my truths," Cole told NPR's Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg at the Bell House in Brooklyn, New York. "I was raised by silent generation parents. It's very difficult, but I really feel that we [Gen] X'ers, we Boomers, we do need to talk. We do need to have this conversation. And I'm trying: That's at the heart of the album."
Cole is perhaps best known for her 1996 pop hits "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?" and "I Don't Want To Wait" — the latter famously served as the theme song to the TV show Dawson's Creek. But she didn't always have a firm understanding on where her sound would take her. While a student at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Cole moonlighted at airports, hotel lounges, and weddings singing jazz standards. She said she wanted to sound like her idols, like Ella Fitzgerald and Chet Baker. However, Cole said she realized the lyrics of that earlier era often contained sexist and fraught messages, which inspired her to begin writing her own music that was more personal to her, and empowering to others.
That decision to go down her own path resulted in a long and successful music career. In 1998, Cole won a Grammy Award for Best New Artist and was nominated in the Producer of the Year category for her 1996 album This Fire. And Cole joined artists like Sarah McClaughlin, Lisa Loeb, Natalie Merchant, and the Indigo Girls as co-headliners at the first iteration of women-only music festival, Lilith Fair in 1997. "I was there for the first two years," Cole recalled. "And I'll tell you: It was the best audience I've ever experienced. We were there in a movement of peace and love. It felt like the original intention of Woodstock probably felt like."
For her Ask Me Another challenge, Cole requested a game about human anatomy. In her game, every answer was two rhyming words: a body part, and a music term.
On her realization that singing jazz wasn't for her:
"I had an Ah-ha! moment. I realized that I didn't want to sing these lyrics that were often very depressing. Like Billie Holiday's songs about being beaten — or worse. Like, [singing] 'I enjoy being a girl.' Or, you know, the bridge to 'Black Coffee' is like, [singing] 'Now a man is born to go on loving / a woman is born to weep and fret. / To stay at home and tend her oven and drown her past regrets in coffee and cigarettes./
A lot of these kinds of depressing lyrics... That was not my reality and I didn't want to perpetuate these realities being written by men in the '50s. I wanted my realities and I needed them like therapy. So I went into therapy. And I started writing songs, and the songs were really autobiographically, they're not jazz. I don't know, they're just me.
On going on her first tour with Peter Gabriel:
In 1993, Peter Gabriel left a message on Cole's answering machine, asking her to join his Secret World Tour as a backup singer. Despite having little time to prepare, Cole jumped at the opportunity.
"I had one rehearsal. I'm there standing in Mannheim, Germany at the rehearsal with my idol. And we sing 'Don't Give Up.' But I was such a fan. I was studied. I love him. I love his music. As we say in jazz '50s lingo — see, the Chet Baker in me is not dead — I shed his music."
On her controversial Grammy acceptance speech:
"I got a lot of backlash. I think I was just a lot for people to take. I was the first solo woman being nominated in the producer category. And that took a lot of fights just to get to that point, to be producing my own albums. And then I flipped the bird at the Grammys and they edited that out, and then there was the hairy armpit thing. I was just a lot... I think I just take time. Like a full-bodied red."