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Up-and-Coming Singer Knows the Score

Paula Cole's fame has grown since her debut 'Harbinger.' Anger, pain and honesty fuel the songwriter's musical 'snapshots' of life.


Her mother reports that as a child Paula Cole sang before she spoke.

But, oh, what she has to say now.

The 28-year-old singer-songwriter, who gives an all-acoustic show with Sarah McLachlan and Suzanne Vega on Friday at the Starlight Bowl in Burbank, first turned heads two years ago with her aptly named debut, "Harbinger."

Her songs resonated with the pains of young adulthood, especially when growing up in a small town. In "Bethlehem," Cole sang: "Now I'm only 16 and I think I have an ulcer/I'm hiding my sex behind a dirty sweatshirt/I've lost 5 pounds these past few days/Trying to be class president and get straight A's."

"My albums are my working diaries, literally snapshots of my life," said Cole during a phone interview from her real hometown, Rockport, Mass. "I worked through a lot of pain for this [second] album. It's definitely pretty dark in spots, pretty angry in spots. I'm a little nervous about putting it out there--but it's honest."

In that forthcoming album, "This Fire," Cole literally--and musically--has moved on. In the opening track, "Tiger," she sings "I've left Bethlehem," and continues later: "I'm so tired of being shy/I'm not that girl anymore/Not that straight-A anymore/Now I want to sit with my legs wide open/And laugh so loud that the whole damn restaurant will turn and look at me."

Quite a snapshot. But Cole's songs are like that, specific in such a way that they convey universal emotions. Some, clearly, are drawn from her own experience. But others aren't, like "Hush, Hush, Hush," about the reckoning between a father and son as the latter is dying of AIDS.

"I think empathy is a necessary quality in being an artist--to see the work with eyes of compassion. I tend to feel things very deeply. When I feel anger, it's deep. When I feel sorrow, it's deep," she said. "I'm just lucky I'm an artist, so I can work through my feelings constructively."

Growing up in Rockport (pop. 7,500), Cole was a local in a summer resort village. Her father taught biology at Salem State College. Her mother gave up her art studies to help her father finish his schooling and raise two daughters. Cole was, indeed, class president--and junior prom queen.

At times things were rough financially (she sings about the fish freezing in their tank in "Bethlehem"), but Cole says her family is far and away her biggest musical influence. "Music, I was taught, is self-made. We rarely listened to the radio."

Her father, who plays several instruments and once earned extra cash by playing bass in a polka band, would play a blues riff while his daughter improvised. "We'd sing corny songs in three-part harmony. I took great solace in music. I loved it. I knew deep in my heart that it was my destiny."


As a senior in high school, Cole latched onto jazz and commuted to Boston to study with Bob Stoloff, a professor of vocal improvisation at Berklee College of Music. Already she was enormously talented, said Stoloff, who continued to teach Cole after she enrolled at Berklee full time.

"As a singer, she was all ready. She had a lot of focus and direction as a stylist. You could hear her just gliding through pop and rock with no problems. She had a beautiful sound and a beautiful vibrato," he said. "She knew where she was going and what she needed to do."

Berklee has turned out several successful women singers in recent years--including Melissa Etheridge, Aimee Mann, Julianna Hatfield, Tracy Bonham and Melissa Ferrick--but Steve Prosser, assistant chair of the school's ear training department, remembers Cole as "one of the best singers I'd heard come through in 15 years."

That didn't make her easy to teach. Cole quickly learned that she outpaced other students, Stoloff said, and in fact sang better than most of the college's faculty at the time. "Headstrong?" said Stoloff. "That's putting it mildly."

"She never wore a watch. She would always come to my rehearsals late. I remember yelling at her that if you don't learn to wear a watch, you're going to get kicked out of some session," Stoloff said. "In fact, I gave her a low grade in one of the choirs one semester because I was trying to teach her a lesson. She was pissed. She hasn't spoken to me since."

While teachers saw her as a bastion of musical confidence, Cole felt like she was struggling. Jazz improvisation was supposed to be the path to great musical freedom. But it wasn't coming to her naturally, and she was, ultimately, still singing other people's songs. She tried to compose her own jazz arrangements, "but it sounded horrible."

And then, in the midst of this frustration, her own songs came out.

"It was a really terrible time in my life. I was really depressed," Cole said. "Something literally grabbed me by the collar. . . . Fate was saying, 'Wake up. This is what you have to do.' "

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