In Advance of Her Music Box Supper Club Concert, Paula Cole Talks About Her New Covers Album

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COURTESY OF SETH COHEN PR
  • Courtesy of Seth Cohen PR
Paula Cole knew she wanted to sing from an early age. Cole, a Grammy-winning pop/jazz/folk artist, says her parents told her she sang before she spoke.

“I would make up songs to go to sleep to,” she says in a recent phone interview. She performs at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 12, at the Music Box Supper Club. “I would sing in the stroller. It was this force that was pre-speech.”

Cole says she was “fortunate” to have the parents she did. Her dad worked professionally as a bass player in a polka band before taking on a teaching gig. His perspective on music proved to be an inspiration.

“It was a different generation,” she says. “He had two kids in his twenties and was living in a trailer park and going to Cornell and working on weekends. A lot of that work was musical. At some point, he became a professor, but he was a beautiful musician, and I learned from him that music was supposed to be self-made and fun and an expression of feelings.”

Cole could’ve simply come to town to celebrate the 20th anniversary of her breakthrough album This Fire. But last year, she launched a Kickstarter campaign, so she could record Ballads, a 20-song collection of covers of songs such as “Blue Moon” and “What a Little Moonlight Can Do.” She actually recorded another 11 tunes that have yet to come out, though she promises they eventually will.

The tour supports both This Fire's anniversary and Ballads' release.

Cole, who teaches in the voice department at Berklee, says she had wanted to record a covers album for some time.

“I was extremely pent up,” she says. “I’ve been waiting 20 years to make my jazz record. I sang on four Chris Botti albums and toured with Herbie Hancock. I sang on soundtracks. and underground people knew me as a jazz singer. I wanted it to be rootsy and folksy and guitar-based, not necessarily piano based. I wanted it to weave in American songs that would bust genre. I wanted to mix up songs from the city and country and hills. I wanted songs by Bob Dylan and Bobby Gentry alongside Coltrane and Billie Holiday.”

The album opens with a faithful rendition of Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child.” She sounds particularly soulful as she sings the refrain, "God bless the child that's got his own, that's got his own."

“She’s so profound and simple like masters tend to be,” Cole says of Holiday. “You hear her survival and sorrow in her voice. She illuminates lyrics. She’s the greatest jazz singer who ever lived, but she didn’t scat sing a note. And also she made political statements. She was one of America’s great early songwriters. A song like ‘God Bless the Child’ is just as relevant today.”

In fact, Cole says Ballads is “partly a protest album.” The release also includes her takes on Bob Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “The Ballad of Hollis Brown,” folk tunes that she sings with reverence.

“It could be a Black Lives Matter song,” she says of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” “There’s themes of poverty and disparity of wealth.”

“Blue Moon” has been covered by a range of artists, but Cole’s supple voice on her acoustic rendition distinguishes her rendition.

“I just love it because my dad loves it,” she says. “I know there are some doo-wop-y ’50s versions. I did that one for my dad, and I just sat down at the piano and found my own way with it. I just wanted to be sparse and beautiful and haunting.”

This Fire became your Cole’s big breakthrough, but Cole says the album almost didn’t make it out of the gates and initial recording sessions were scrapped.

“There was a false start to the album,” she explains. “It wasn’t feeling right at all. On take two, I went in with my drummer Jay Bellerose, who was my best friend and we’ve been making music together since I was 19. He has a whole career of his own now. We grew up musically together and made that album together in a couple of days. It all started with drums, pianos, and vocals. We had our parts done and brought in Greg Leisz, who added his guitar work. It was layered like that. The tracks were laid down live by Jay and I. It coalesced quickly. That’s the way it should be.”

The album yielded a huge hit with “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone,” a pop number that finds Cole alternately singing and speaking its sarcastic lyrics about a woman in search of her "John Wayne."

“It’s an older song that had been kicking around,” she says of the track. “I wrote it with a rhumba feel and nobody liked it and then I rearranged it and I added the background vocals and suddenly it took off. It took off out of the gate. It was unique at the time. It’s its own entity. It’s multi-layered with wit and humor and melancholy and gender role examination. I was listening to XTC and I loved their humor. I wanted to weave humor and sarcasm into a catchy pop tune. There’s definitely melancholy.”

Ballads features Cole’s take on jazz and folk classics, but that doesn’t mean the singer will ignore her poppier material when she plays the Music Box.

“For the live show, I’ll have an upright player and Chris Bruce, who is on the album,” she says. “He is like a secret thread to the album. He is not necessarily a jazz player but he infused it with soul and arrangement and simplicity and sound. We’ll play a handful of standards, and I’ll be on piano for most of them, and then we move into my catalog. We’ll just dip into that. It's funny. As I get longer in the tooth, the catalog just gets deeper.”

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