Paula Cole: Singer-Songwriter

PAULA COLE was the first artist, or person for that matter, interviewed on-camera for Paul Leslie Presents.  The resulting interview resulted in us receiving a lot of correspondence from her fans.

We thank Paula Cole very much for taking a chance with us and being the very first.  Listen to her newer work, like Ithaca for an appreciation for her newer work.  She meets the definition of true artist.  She has not stopped creating, and for that, we are thankful.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’m Paul Leslie. Today we’re going to meet an artist who’s had a career that’s spanned almost two decades. Her name is Paula Cole. No doubt you’ve heard her songs Where Have All the Cowboys Gone? and I Don’t Want to Wait. She’s a Grammy winner and seven-time Grammy nominee. She’s released six solo albums including her most recent album, Ithaca and has sold three million copies. She’s worked with artists as diverse as Peter Gabriel and Dolly Parton. We’re at the Variety Playhouse where we’re going to meet the woman behind the songs.

It’s a great pleasure to welcome Paula Cole. Thank you so much for joining us.

Thank you, Paul.

 Who is Paula Cole?

There’s the intimidating question that you ask. Paula Cole is intense, is an environmentalist, is intelligent, has always been a singer and had this burdensome musical proclivity. I’m a mom to a very brilliant 10½ year-old daughter. I’m loyal, uh, and that’s about as best as I can do aside from being a woman in mid-life trying to keep things in balance.

I think most stories are best from the beginning. What was life like growing up?

I grew up in a very musical home and now that I’ve gotten my rebellion out of my system, by my twenties, and now that I’m a mother I look back on how I was raised and I’m very grateful for my family. They are very involved now in my life with my daughter so I can come and work. So, life at the Cole family household was one where I would come home from school and I would play music and my dad played a whole bunch of instruments, and we would sing and make music as a source of fun. It was to be self-made. That being said, my dad was a professor of biology and ecology, a perfectionistic ‘Type A’ intelligent man and  I quested to do well. I was a straight A student. I was class president (laughs) and that’s partly because I was raised in such a place. But, a lot of pressure but no complaints. Really a great upbringing.

You studied at the Berkley College of Music. What was the most important thing you learned from that experience?

The most important thing I learned at Berkley was something I arrived at myself by being in that environment – and that environment is an oasis in the world for modern music – and that was, uh, to be myself. Because when I was at Berkley I was kind of woodshedding the masters – and that’s jazz language for just listening, drinking in, being influenced by musical greats. At the time I was going to be a jazz singer, I thought, so I was listening to Chet Baker. I wanted to be a female Chet Baker when I grew up. I was listening to Sarah Vaughn and Billie Holiday, and I worshiped at the alter of Miles Davis and I thought of my voice as an instrument, as a horn. And uh, but then I started needing to outlet my emotions because I struggle with kind of trying to figure out what I’m feeling? So songs to me are this life line and they just started coming up. And that’s when I realized I need to do this. I need to be myself. (Performance clip plays)

I read that you turned down a record deal from a jazz label. That’s so interesting. Was it from you following your heart? Was it gut instinct? What made you decide, when so many people are scrambling to get records deals?

Then (laughs), you know then – back in (laughs), back in the day a record deal was paramount. Now you can do it without it. Now you can be more self-made and that’s the road that I wish to go on now. I want to be more entrepreneurial and self-directed, but at the time? Yes, a record deal was an amazing thing. And it was an amazing thing, Paul, for my self-confidence. So, it wasn’t the right fit and I thought ‘Gee, this came really easily. It shouldn’t be that easy.’ And if it comes that easy then I want it to be right, and it wasn’t quite the right label and the right time. And I’m glad I said no. I wanted to be on a label that was broader with its genres of music.

Tell us about Peter Gabriel. What was he like to work with and be around?

Peter Gabriel is like his name. I think he’s kind of an angel among us. I had the wonderful fortune of joining his Secret World Live Tour, which was just rereleased, a newly mastered version this July, this month. And, uh, that was my first tour ever which is bizarre, to be flown to Europe and stay in five-star hotels and tour the world as your first tour but – it was all downhill from there, I guess (laughs) – but that was my beginning. And I joined these musical masters. Truly my influences were comprised of the band. And I was a true fan of Peter’s work. He was highly influential to me, musically. So there I am working with my little personal demigod (laughs), and then that filters through and you see him as a man and then you see him as a friend. And he’s a wonderful man and a wonderful friend. I feel very fortunate to have had that experience. And I would be on those large stages thinking to myself ‘What can learn from this? What can I take from this and bring it home?’

Well, on that note, what did you take away from Peter Gabriel? What did he teach you?

Hmmm, one of the greatest things he taught me was that the – to share the spotlight. That the strength of the band, um, blossoms when you share the spotlight, and you don’t hog it like some narcissistic diva. You, you celebrate the guitar solo. You give everybody time and lots of kudos. And I saw him be very paternal to his working family, the band, and I saw how magnificent that was, so that changed me. And I wanted to be that inclusive and loving to my band.

Your songs – there’s a couple that everybody knows. Everybody knows I Don’t Want to Wait. Everybody knows Where Have All the Cowboys Gone? and that’s something that some songwriters never get to experience, you know, for their message to be carried like that. But the thing about a lot of your lyrics is there’s a bit of mystery to them. Like, they could be interpreted a couple of different ways if you look at some of the lyrics. Is that intentional?

A lot of people know my songs, whether they want to or not (laughs) and I am, I’m really grateful for that. Uh, it’s funny. My career didn’t exactly turn out how I thought it would be. I thought it would be a much slower, longer build and it all happened very quickly, based on a couple of hits, uh, which is still very bizarre to me in a way. And I remember hearing like somebody singing my song with their Walkman on. I’m walking down the streets of  NYC and somebody’s singing along with Cowboys. And then I’m in another city and hear someone in a convertible with the radio on and there, my song is coming out of the radio. It’s fantastic. It hits you like a lightening bolt to the chest. It’s just unbelievable. And even today, if I’m in the grocery store or wherever I am and I hear myself, I stop and I feel really great and I thank oh sweet mystery of life, I thank you universe for that. That is one of the – I guess the great success I feel, is that I have intellectual property that continues to live and that’s quite a blessing.

Where’s the most bizarre place that you heard one of your songs being played?

Well, I haven’t heard – well, there’s some karaoke versions out there (laughs) and it’s on karaoke, and that’s a little funny but um – I don’t know. I’d need a minute to think about that one.

Tell us a little bit about – I wanted to show the new album Ithaca. What was the inspiration behind the title, Ithaca?

Thanks. Ithaca is my last album. That one’s on a major label, Decca. Ithaca comes from the Odyssey, Homer’s Odyssey, because Odysseus has just made this really painful long journey into the world. Something we can all relate to, right? Like, just moving through life. Fighting demons. Working in the world. Being a parent. For me, like going through my divorce, relocating, being a single mom and making the decision to come home to my Ithaca. And that was a hard decision to make. I was letting go of all my dreams of my twenties to live in the hip environment NYC – which I love and I miss – and to come back to suburban America and live near my parents so that I would have help raising my daughter. That’s a hard thing to go through but I knew it was my truth and I knew it was what I needed to do. So I kind of felt very much akin to Odysseus’s full spiritual circle of life and coming home to Ithaca. And I went home to my Ithaca. And I thought it was the right metaphor for that body of work.

What do you find is the greatest well of inspiration for your songwriting?

There seems to be an ever-present well. I don’t understand it but I have this well of  sadness and angst and intensity, and it doesn’t necessarily make for a happy life (laughs) but I feel like I’m an empath. I’m a sponge. I feel people’s feelings. I see what’s going on in the world. I want to know what’s going on in the world. I read the Financial Times every day. I want to, I want to know what’s happening. But it’s all of that. It’s feeling and seeing the world. It’s experiencing my life as deeply as I do and needing an outlet for it, or else I’d go insane.

As far as the songwriters that have influenced you the most, who would you say are the lyricists and composers that are the most in your work?

I love singer-songwriters because they are truth-seekers. And I should probably add that to the list of ‘Who is Paula Cole?’ – truth-seeker. And I think singer-songwriters who really arrive at their own voice are truth-seekers. So, John Lennon and Joni Mitchell and Dolly Parton and Bill Withers and Bob Marley and Marvin Gaye and Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush. Singer-songwriters. And it doesn’t matter what style it is. That encompasses a lot of styles but that doesn’t matter to me. They all arrived at – oh, Neil Young – really unique, they are uniquely themselves. They’re intelligent. They’re questing for their truth and they’re putting their pain out so magnificently, their joy. And, uh, so that’s really my favorite music.

There have been some great artists that have recorded songs that you wrote. What is the best rendition that you’ve heard – if you dare answer (laughs).

(Laughs) Oh, I know it, hands down. My favorite cover of my song – and I, and I, I still can’t believe it – but Annie Lennox and Herbie Hancock, they covered a song of mine called Hush, Hush, Hush which I’ll perform tonight. This was a song that I wrote because a friend of mine died of AIDS too young and I didn’t know what to do with those feelings. I was overwhelming by my feelings so I put them in  a song. And Herbie Hancock plays the piano and Annie Lennox sings. And it’s on Herbie’s Possibilities album and it’s on her Greatest Hits album. And they both did such an amazing job and I’m touched and like humbled that they did it. It’s incredible.

What’s the best thing about being Paula Cole?

OK, uh, (laughs) the best thing – you know, the best thing about being me is that I have this 10½ year-old daughter that is completely captivating to me. She’s so smart – she’s smarter than me – so I’m finding it a very fascinating ride to discover who this person is and that’s definitely the best part about being me.

Well, my last question is totally open-ended.


You can say anything you like. What would you like to say to the people who are watching?

Oh, uh, um … I would like to say that I ask you not to compartmentalize me, somewhere back on that shelf from the ‘90s. I am so much more than that. I had to take a hiatus because of my daughter and her health problems but I just ask that you keep an open mind and you check out my newer work too.

Miss Paula Cole, thank you very much for this interview.

Thank you.

It’s been a pleasure.


 (Video closing) Paula Cole is a true artist. She lives and breathes her work. We want to thank her very much for joining us on Paul Leslie Presents. Be sure and follow us on Twitter at thepaulleslie and visit us online at We’ll keep bringing you conversations with the great artists of our times. I’m Paul Leslie. Thank you so much for watching.


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