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."
JONATHAN COULTON, BYLINE: This is ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia. I'm Jonathan Coulton. Now here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Thank you, Jonathan. It's time to welcome our special guest. She is a Grammy Award-winning singer and songwriter whose latest album, "Revolution" is available now. Please welcome Paula Cole.
EISENBERG: Welcome to ASK ME ANOTHER, Paula.
EISENBERG: Thank you for joining us. You know, in researching you, I learned that when you were a student at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, you - yes - you also sang in hotel lounges and as a wedding singer...
PAULA COLE: Oh, yes.
EISENBERG: ...To make some extra cash.
COLE: Yes. I was working all through college. I would sing Thursday nights at the Boston Logan Airport, Hilton Lounge with Al Vega.
COLE: And I sang weddings all through college. And then I waitressed, of course. Yeah.
EISENBERG: Sure. What kind of songs were you singing at the hotel lounge at the Logan Airport?
COLE: Oh, everything. You know, (singing) the autumn leaves drift by my window.
COLE: Right? You know, to - everything. All those gorgeous standards. 'Cause I wanted to be a jazz singer. I started off fancying myself to becoming a female Chet Baker. Like, I would improvise over the chord changes and - or like Ella was another idol. And I was just not sounding like Chet Baker. I was not sounding like Ella Fitzgerald. I was so disappointed in myself. But that's another matter. I then started writing my own lyrics, and it became what it became.
EISENBERG: And you were like, I'm going in a completely different direction.
COLE: Yes. I had an aha moment.
COLE: I realized (laughter) that I didn't want to sing these lyrics that were often really depressing, like Billie Holiday's songs about being beaten and - or, you know, worse, like (singing) I enjoy being a girl. Woo-hoo (ph).
EISENBERG: Yeah. Right.
COLE: This kind of stuff. Or, you know, the bridge to "Black Coffee" is, like, (singing) now man is born to go a lovin', a woman's born to weep and fret, to stay at home and tend her oven and drown her past regrets in coffee and cigarettes - right? And it's - lot of these kinds of...
COLE: ...Depressing lyrics about being beaten or stuck in the house, or being a girl and...
EISENBERG: And swallowing your regrets.
COLE: ...Just objectifying...
COLE: That was not my reality. I didn't want to perpetuate these realities being written by men in the '50s, right? I wanted my realities. I needed them like therapy. So I went into therapy...
COLE: ...And I started writing songs. And the songs were really autobiographical and not really jazz. I don't know. They're just me. I don't belong in any one bin.
COLE: But, you know, at the end of a life - it's a good thing even now in - I'm 51, and I'm proud of that. I'm proud that I'm just me.
EISENBERG: So going back to the origin - in 1993, Peter Gabriel left a message on your answering machine, which I believe is the most '90s thing anyone...
COLE: For real, it's a real...
EISENBERG: ...Can say.
COLE: ...Cassette tape.
EISENBERG: And he left you a message saying that Sinead O'Connor had taken off from his secret world tour and wanted to know if you might fill in.
COLE: It was excellent timing. It was just one of those incredibly lucky things, I think, you know.
COLE: That was my first tour - imagine that - with Peter Gabriel in front of, like, tens of thousands in Europe and five-star, first-class everything. And it's all downhill from there.
EISENBERG: Right. 'Cause you have no idea, but also - it's your first tour, but you slip in halfway through.
COLE: At the very end, actually, and I had one rehearsal. And I am there standing in Mannheim, Germany, at the rehearsal with my idol who shows up, and we sing "Don't Give Up," you know.
COLE: But I was such a fan. I was studied. I love him. I love his music. As we say in jazz '50s lingo, see you on the Chet Baker (unintelligible) - so it's not dead. But, yeah, I shed his music.
EISENBERG: You know, I feel like you kind of are always ahead of the curve. 1997, you're at the Grammy Awards, nominated for several Grammys, but you won for best new artist. And you accept the award with noticeably hairy armpits, and this becomes the headline of the whole event. It was such a statement.
COLE: I was a natural woman. But...
COLE: But, yeah, I got a lot of backlash. I think I was just a lot for people to take. I was the first soul woman being nominated in the producer category.
COLE: And that took a lot of fight 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. And then "Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?..."
COLE: ..."Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?" was, like, really misunderstood, and understood in very different ways. So I think I just take time, like a full-bodied red.
EISENBERG: I mean, you were also one of the headliners at the groundbreaking Lilith Fair Festival...
EISENBERG: ...1997 to 1999. Lilith Fair was founded by Sarah McLachlan, who - you know, she founded it because she was repeatedly told by concert promoters that you can't put two women on the same concert bill because that would be poison to the box office. No one would buy tickets.
COLE: That's right.
EISENBERG: And I read that a lot of people - she contacted all kinds of artists to be part of it, and some of the women said no.
COLE: Sure. I was that other woman, by the way. 'Cause we were touring together in 1995 for her "Fumbling Towards Ecstasy" album and my "Harbinger" album. And I was the opener, and that was radical. I would thank the audiences every night - thank you for supporting us. And I want to thank Sarah McLachlan for having me on the stage because it's just very uncommon for two women to be on the same bill. It was very uncommon for radio to play a woman after a woman. It just didn't happen. You were given a slot like one every hour or...
COLE: ...You know, one every 13 men or something. It's just hard. It was just hard. So here she did that and supported me, and then just kept rolling with it. We realized there was a zeitgeist - when we started vocalizing our thanks, that people would really clap. They really knew it was unjust. There was something about it. And so she just kept rolling like a snowball into Lilith Fair. And I was there for the first two years, the first concert. And I tell you, it was probably the best audiences 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.
EISENBERG: And then your new album "Revolution," you've described it as a protest album. The whole album...
EISENBERG: ...Is protest album. So what are you advocating for?
COLE: There's a lot in it.
COLE: There's a lot - I mean, I'm singing songs about the planet. I don't feel we have enough songs about our climate, our beautiful Mother Earth. And I wrote some songs that touch upon race. I mean, my beautiful daughter's biracial race affects my life on a daily basis, and I think about it a lot. Being a woman. Being reminded that I'm a woman many times through life when it seemed unfair.
COLE: Right? You know, being a woman in the music business, hello. I felt the need to come out with some of my stories and my truths. The art of just speaking is so uncomfortable. I was raised by silent generation parents, you know. It's very difficult. But I feel that we X-ers, we boomers, we do need to talk. We do need to have this conversation. So I'm trying. That's at the heart of the album. But it touches upon politics, of course.
COLE: Politics, and many things all bundled together to make a social protest album.
EISENBERG: All right. Paula Cole, are you ready for an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?
COLE: Oh, dear. OK. I'll do my best.
EISENBERG: So when our producers asked about your interests, you said human anatomy.
EISENBERG: Is that real? Are you sure that's real?
COLE: Well, my dad was a biologist - biology and ecology professor.
EISENBERG: Yeah. OK. This game is called Macy Grey's Anatomy. Every answer is two rhyming words. For example, if I said the first word is where the esophagus and the epiglottis are found and the second word is a single musical tone, you would answer throat...
COLE: Oh, dear.
COLE: I got throat.
EISENBERG: We can...
EISENBERG: ...Do it together.
COLE: All right (laughter).
EISENBERG: We can do it together. And if you do well enough, listener Amanda O'Mahoney will - from Louisville, Ky. - will win an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's cube.
COLE: Oh, I want to do good by you.
EISENBERG: Oh, yeah. You're...
EISENBERG: ...Going to do great. OK. The first word is an organ that processes sensory information, cognition and motor functions. The second word is a repeated phrase in a song.
COLE: Brain, refrain.
EISENBERG: Yeah. Yeah.
EISENBERG: Feels good, right? Feels good.
COLE: Oh, dear.
EISENBERG: The first word is the back of the lower leg.
EISENBERG: The second word is the five horizontal lines on a sheet of music that notes are written on.
EISENBERG: I have seen that exact tattoo and placement.
EISENBERG: OK. The first word is an organ that filters blood as part of the immune system. The second word is a handheld percussion instrument with metal disks around the edge. You know one of them, right?
COLE: Liver, quiver?
EISENBERG: I'm just - I'm going to have to accept that. Yes. I feel like you figured out a different one. Yeah. I'm going to go with liver, quiver. We were going with spleen, tamborine.
EISENBERG: And, by the way, your spleen - being a flat, ductless organ - could be used as a tambourine. Just saying.
EISENBERG: The first word is a fancy way to say kneecap.
EISENBERG: And the second term is when you sing without instrumental accompaniment.
COLE: Patella, a cappella.
EISENBERG: Exactly. They lunge a lot, a cappella bands, don't you find?
EISENBERG: They do a lot of lunging - hard on the knees.
EISENBERG: Hard on their knees. I know. It's performative. Feel all the rhythms in the lunging. OK. The first word is short for a butt cheek muscle. The second word is a woodwind instrument twice as big as a piccolo.
COLE: A glute flute.
EISENBERG: OK. This is your last clue. The first word is the digit on your foot that contains just two phalanges because all of the others have three. And the second word is the speed of a musical piece.
COLE: Well - OK. The digit with two phalanges, is that what you said?
EISENBERG: It's the digit on your foot that contains...
COLE: Right, would be the pinky toe, I think. So and...
EISENBERG: Other end. Go on the other end of the foot.
EISENBERG: Go on the other end.
COLE: Big toe. And what was the second part again?
EISENBERG: Is the speed of a musical piece.
COLE: That's tempo. Big toe tempo?
EISENBERG: Big toe tempo.
EISENBERG: Yeah, that's where you keep it. Congratulations, Paula. You and listener Amanda O'Mahoney both won ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cubes.
EISENBERG: All right, Paula will return to play another game later in the show. Give it up for Paula Cole, everybody.
EISENBERG: Want our next special guest to play for you? Follow ASK ME ANOTHER on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.