On stage, in front of thousands is where she shines. But for singer and Rockport native Paula Cole the lure of home and the sound of the ocean prove perfect fodder for her new album, Ithaca. By Leslie Martini, photographs by Christopher Churchill.
If you thought for a minute that Rockport native Paula Cole had left us behind, think again. This Grammy-winning singer-songwriter has come back to her North Shore roots-the rocky coast where it all began. Over lunch at Cygnet Restaurant in Beverly Farms, Cole dishes on her summer tour, the string of sold-out performances, and the fervor surrounding the September release of her latest album, Ithaca.
From a distance, as she walks onto the outdoor terrace, there’s no mistaking Paula Cole. She looks like she did from the 90s, but better. Behind the understated, seemingly effortless style-black pants, tank top, and an oversized straw hat-is the recognizable ebullient smile. Her warmth is both contagious and disarming. At 42, the songwriter is ready to begin anew. She is youthful, energized, and glowing-but mostly, she is authentic. Rest assured-Paula Cole is home at last.
If our waiter recognizes Cole, he hides it well. He is more than happy to accommodate our mutual vegetarian diets by checking with the kitchen. Within moments we are deep in conversation, and when Cole speaks, or listens (and she does listen!) you become the most important person in the room.
Cole’s love for animals runs deep-she owned two rescue dogs while living in New York City-and she displays an impassioned tenderness when describing them. Whether discussing her music, animals, nature, her daughter, her sister Irene, or her parents, the same benevolence and genuine respect is at the core of Paula Cole.
Over lunch, Cole reminisces fondly about growing up on the North Shore. At age two, the family moved to the Rockport area, where Cole’s grandparents were well situated. Cole’s mother, a visual art teacher at Rockport Elementary School, and her father, a biology and ecology professor at Salem State College and a part-time polka musician, made music a way of life. Gathering around the piano and upright bass (both fixtures in the home) with a book of American standards was a ritual. “We had our own living language,” says the whimsical Cole. “My older sister Irene was a far better piano player, which made for good fodder to see who could get more practice time. I was a natural little canary.”
At Rockport High School, singing remained an integral part of her life, yet “a career in music seemed impractical,” Cole explains. Summer music camps, however, turned the impractical into the possible-the gifted teen was soon offered a scholarship to Berklee School of Music in Boston.
While studying jazz singing and improvisation at Berklee, Cole was offered a record deal with a jazz label her senior year-an unprecedented opportunity. “It just didn’t feel right,” Cole says, reflecting on the enormous decision she made to turn it down. A natural clairvoyance, it seemed, guided her, she says. The waiting paid off, and in 1992, the sound of her own ethereal, deeply poetic material led to a call from Peter Gabriel, who invited her to join him on his “Secret World Live” tour. She flew to Germany, and in front of audiences of 60,000, she began the process of stealing hearts.
More success followed in 1996, when Cole released a self-produced album that would ultimately catapult her to mega-stardom. This Fire was a smashing success, earning Cole several Grammy nominations, and the coveted award for Best New Artist. “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone” and “I Don’t Want to Wait” would become the most popular of the hit singles and the titles that would help This Fire reach multi-platinum selling status. Her bellowing, spine-chilling vocals broke down barriers and united vastly diverse audiences.
Cole possesses a keen sense of awareness when she looks back on the unremitting pace of working and touring during those first few years. “I never stopped,” she says. “I remember the advice of Emmy Lou Harris-she told me not to do it too fast. She has this motherly energy,” Cole says of her close friend and mentor. As for her other mentor, Tina Turner, Cole says, “She had the ability to come out of a dark place and to believe in herself in her 40s. It’s about staying positive.”
“This second career is more authentic,” Cole says with the easiest of smiles. Getting back to work took courage, and Cole is proud of her latest album, Ithaca, her first album since 2007’s Courage, which was preceded by an eight-year break in which she raised her daughter and went through a divorce. Included are 10 new songs, eight of which were written during Cole’s divorce. “The songs are about love, my child, self-knowing, and living an examined life. It’s about beginning again and the healing process,” she explains. “I set a new bar for myself. Back when I worked on Courage, I was a bit of a broken bird. I ended up co-writing, which was a great experience. This time, I wrote all my own songs again. I needed to prove this to myself and have a hand in the production.”
Here on the North Shore, Cole has many inspirations. Having access to the important things-family, nature, the environment, and the sea-keeps her grounded. She possesses the calm introspection of a disciplined yogi. But don’t seek her out at yoga studio near you-being seen isn’t her style. You’d be more likely to spot her photograph in the dictionary under the word, “authentic.” “Rockport is sort of my Ithaca,” Cole says, referring to the full circle-the journey to finding the inner peace and coming back to the start with her spirit intact.
So what does the future hold for Cole? “It’s scary to think about the impact of digital music, but when I perform, and people tell me the lyrics move them, or I did something for them, I know I have to keep writing.” Thankfully for the rest of us, writing music is what Cole plans to doÂ…for a long time.
While Cole hopes that Ithaca will inspire her fans and music lovers around the world, for those of us on the North Shore, it serves as a family reunion of sorts. Cole’s soul-stirring, poignant lyrics will be heard echoing across the mountain tops of North America, but here at home, merely listening to the crashing waves along our shoreline will remind us of the artist’s enduring presence.