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Paula Cole always dreamed big

Paula Cole
Ebru Yilidiz
Paula Cole

Paula Cole always dreamed big. In her song "Follow The Moon"—the opening track from her latest album, Lo—she sings about how her mother worried for her because she was always aiming so high. Her dreams paid off when she released her second studio album, This Fire nearly 30 years ago and found fame, commercial success, and won a Grammy for Best New Artist.

Just as notably, she received another Grammy nomination that year for producer of the year, which made her the first individual woman ever to be nominated in that category.

This Fire contained her two most famous songs, “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone” and “I Don’t Want To Wait,” which later used as the theme song for the TV show Dawson’s Creek. She followed it with a more experimental album called Amen, a major stylistic departure that experimented with neo soul and hip hop, and where she was joined by DJ Premiere and T-Boz (from the group TLC) along with her regular creative partners like Jay Bellerose on drums, Tony Levin on bass, and Kevin Barry on guitar.

Paula was so committed to her musicians that the album was officially credited to The Paula Cole Band rather than simply to Paula Cole. It was as if she was signaling to her audience “It’s a group! It’s a band! Not just me!”

But in some ways, it was just her. The album was not as commercially successful as This Fire, and it would be eight years before she released another solo album. She took time to raise her daughter and to reset. She says, simply, that she felt unseen for many years. During that period she recorded a record that her label refused to release. Not surprisingly, when she did return to making records again, she would eventually start her own label.

Since 2007 Cole has been on a steady schedule, releasing a new album every couple of years and solidifying herself as a truth-teller, a provocateur, a feminist, a rebel, and a brilliant autobiographical writer who has pushed for personal honesty and social change. She teaches singing and songwriting at her alma mater, Berklee College of Music. In 2016 she re-recorded her two big hits “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone” and “I Don’t Want To Wait,” recreating the sound of both songs almost identically, a practice that has gained more notoriety recently thanks to Taylor Swift.

Earlier this year she released Lo, her 11th studio album and her first album of original compositions in five years. It is a deeply personal statement, written and produced by Cole, accompanied by her excellent band. Some songwriters write autobiographical confessions. Others write poetic statements. Still others write political calls to arms. Paula Cole does all of the above.

The first single from the album, “The Replacements & Dinosaur Jr.,” processed the loss of her friend and early collaborator, Mark Hutchins, a companion who she had lost touch with for years only to reconnect shortly before he passed away.

Paula’s work can be serious—she often deals in heavy subjects. But she is also surprisingly light, funny, quick to laugh, incredibly self-reflective, a wordsmith who is herself an open book.

We met earlier this year to talk about her life and career, the power of “the beginner’s mind”, the distinction between being an artist and an entertainer, the feeling of being pregnant with song, speaking for those who cannot speak, navigating a life in the music business, and learning from younger people.


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Leo Sidran is a Grammy winning multi-instrumentalist musician, producer, arranger, composer, recording artist and podcast host based in Brooklyn, New York.