I’m not sure why this is the case, but I have a photographic memory for some pretty lame things I did while attending Saratoga Springs Senior High School. Exhibit A: Senior year, which would’ve been 1998, I watched several weeks’ worth of episodes of The WB’s hit series Dawson’s Creek, so that I’d have cued-up conversation-starters for the young ladies in my classes the following day. Spoiler alert: I was much too shy to ever deliver on my newfound teenybopper TV knowledge. But that’s how high school goes, right?
While I can’t say I’ve revisited that pickup tactic (I’m happily married now, thank you very much) or any of the show’s many episodes since ’98, I do remember being surprised by how much I dug Dawson’s Creek. I loved Creator Kevin Williamson’s writing—how his teenage characters effortlessly delivered their lines like verbose, educated adults. I also fell truly, madly, deeply—I see you, Savage Garden!—in love with actress Katie Holmes, who portrayed the show’s aw-shucks girl next door, Joey Potter. But above all else, I thought the show’s theme song, a snippet of Paula Cole’s piano ballad, “I Don’t Want to Wait,” was the catchiest of the era. (For all the naysayers out there: The Friends theme was catchy, but too fake-British-accent-y and Beatles-derivative; The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air‘s is a timeless rap classic, but melody-less; and Party of Five‘s, a Bodeans’ song, was just downright annoying.) Being a massive music nerd and recovering pianist, I couldn’t get enough of it.
When I finally tracked down the album “I Don’t Want to Wait” was on—Cole’s self-produced sophomore smash, This Fire (released on Imago Records in 1996, two years after the label released Saratoga rock band The Figgs’ breakthrough album)—I was flabbergasted to learn that it was a powerful story-song about love and war and had nothing to do with the implied innuendo of teenage lust that made it fit so perfectly within the confines of the opening seconds of Dawson’s Creek. “When you start examining the lyric, there’s a lot there in the verses,” says Cole. “It’s about my grandfather, Everett, who fought in World War II and came home a different man. I wrote it because I felt he was going to die [soon], and he did, just before the album got released.” How the song ended up in the opening credits of Dawson’s Creek, however, Cole describes as a “happy accident.” “I was coming off of a seven-year stint of [recording] and touring—just coming home for moments and then back out again—so I was on the downswing of [the] cycle,” she says. “Kevin Williamson, the creator of Dawson’s Creek, was a fan and wanted to speak to me [about using the song]. I remember we spoke, and he was very kind and respectful and [wanted to] honor the music, and I said, ‘Sure, what the hell.'”
A little more than a year before “I Don’t Want to Wait” was placed in Dawson’s Creek, it had been chosen as This Fire‘s second single. Bolstered by the show’s success, it stuck around on the Billboard charts for 56 weeks, peaking at No.11. The song, along with lead single “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?,” which charted three rungs higher at No.8, helped Cole enter the 1998 Grammy Awards with seven nominations, only to win just one for Best New Artist (among others, she’d been up for Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Producer of the Year, the latter being a rare nomination for a woman). Between 1997-98, she was also one of the headlining stars on the groundbreaking all-female tour, the Lilith Fair, and linked up with the H.O.R.D.E. festival in ’98 as well, iterations of which both touched down at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) in ’98. (Cole was on SPAC’s H.O.R.D.E. bill, but not on Lilith Fair’s.)
But Best New Artist awards can be misleading—especially in Cole’s case. By no means was this her first rodeo. After studying jazz at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and earning her degree in 1990, Cole turned down a record deal from a jazz label in order to continue making music on her own terms. To that end, she signed with the eclectic East Coast label Imago and in 1993, an advance of her ’94 solo debut, Harbinger, found its way into the hands of British pop superstar Peter Gabriel. He would invite her out on his 1993-94 world tour as one of his backing singers, raising her profile in the industry substantially; she was a clear standout, singing Kate Bush’s part in Gabriel’s duet “Don’t Give Up.” (Gabriel would end up returning the favor by guesting Cole’s song “Hush, Hush, Hush” on This Fire.) So she was several years into a career as a professional, touring musician before her solo star began to rise. And whereas new fans were champing at the bit for more of the same after This Fire‘s success, Cole had other plans. Shortly after the release of 1999’s follow-up, Amen, she got married, had a daughter and threw the majority of her energy into motherhood, putting her music career on hold for the next eight years.
When Cole reemerged in 2007, the music industry had undergone a major sea change. MTV music videos had been replaced by The Real World. The CD was in its death throes, with advertising-supported streaming services, such as Pandora, becoming the new gateway for musical discovery (Spotify launched a year later). Facebook, Twitter and Instagram had taken over where message boards had left off. And that year, one of the world’s biggest rock bands, Radiohead, had released their newest album, In Rainbows, allowing fans to download it from their website and pay whatever they wanted for it. (I bought it for the equivalent of two pounds.) It was a defining moment in the music business, to say the least. But Cole, not a stranger to adversity, forged onward, releasing a string of acclaimed albums, including 2007’s Courage (which featured Saratoga Jazz Festival vets Chris Botti and Herbie Hancock on it) and 2010’s Ithaca (the title’s a double entendre; Cole had spent some of her earliest years in Ithaca, NY; it also refers to the island in Greek mythology), both released by Decca Records; and then a string of records on her own 675 Records label, including 2013’s Raven, 2015’s 7 and 2017’s Ballads (a covers album).
Her latest, Revolution (2019), finds Cole experimenting with a number of different genres and styles—you can find spoken word, folk-pop, jazz and reggae all under the same roof—all in the context of raging, ethereally, against in the machine (Cole describes it as a “loving protest album”). But Cole’s not buying my attempt at classifying her album’s songs. “It’s all roots music, and it’s all music to me; it’s always been impossible to classify me,” she says, without a hint of immodesty in her voice. “And that’s always been a problem. What radio station do you play me on? Who are comparable artists? Well, they usually end up putting [me with] white females of a similar age.” She’s got a point. When she hit with This Fire, it was the alternative ’90s, an era defined by its eclecticism: She fit in, paradoxically, by not fitting in. But when that era came to an end, so did that ethic, and it didn’t bode well for her mixed-bag music. “I think it’s a good thing that I can’t be categorized; I’m just me,” she says.
Despite not having a single that’s charted since 1999, Cole continues to find a new audience for her music. Since 2013, she’s been a visiting scholar in voice studies at her alma mater, Berklee, where she says she’s gained quite a bit of insight from and respect for the millennials that have passed through her classes, calling them “enlightened” for their ability to speak up the way they do about the world’s most pressing issues. They were certainly an influence on her latest album. Running counterpoint to that is the fact that Cole says she grew up in a family where silence was golden, and Revolution is her way of saying, enough is enough. No more silence. (See the track “Silent” for more on that.) Also, a new generation of artists seems to be digging into Cole’s ’90s ethos: sister act HAIM recently covered “I Don’t Want to Wait” and “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?” at the Pitchfork Music Festival; and a gaggle of other artists, including They, Sego and Jamila Woods have either covered or tipped their cap to Cole’s work in their own. “I’m really grateful to still be seen, because sometimes you feel invisible,” she says.
Saratogians can thank Cole’s manager, who lives in nearby Hoosick Falls, NY, for helping get her booked at historic Saratoga venue Caffè Lena, where she’ll be playing a pair of shows on October 11. (Tickets are still available here.) I list off the famous names that have gotten their start at the Saratoga venue—Bob Dylan, Don McLean—and Cole is struck by the irony of her upcoming performances there. “Everyone else played there before they were famous, and I’m performing there after,” she says, with a laugh. (I remind her that the last time she played in town was at SPAC in the late ’90s, and she seems genuinely surprised.) “I’ve wanted to be brave in making music that challenges me and other people, but for sure, my audience is smaller now,” she says. The loyalist of fans have stuck around, though, the ones who are most passionate about her music, she says, and that’s all you can really ask for as an artist.
Earlier in our interview, Cole got reflective, saying: “One thing I can stand by is [my] work, and that’s really all you can do. If you meditate on your death which I do [Laughs]—[ask yourself] that when you leave your life, are you leaving behind good work? That’s what I’m aiming for.” Even if you only remember Paula Cole for those two songs—”I Don’t Want to Wait” and “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?”—I think she’s done her job.