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Paula Cole, After the 'Fire'

Lackluster sales follow sizzling debut. She tours as she tries to figure out next step.

August 03, 2000|RICHARD CROMELIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 1997, Paula Cole sang "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?," and it made her a star.

Three years later, she might be thinking, "Where have all the listeners gone?"

The transition from Cole's 1997 triumphs to the low profile of year 2000 marks one of the most precipitous drops in pop history. Cole's 1997 album "This Fire" sold 1.6 million, the cheeky "Cowboy" was a Top 10 hit, and Cole received seven Grammy nominations, winning the award for best new artist.

Then she released "Amen" last September and it barely made a ripple. To date it has sold fewer than 105,000 copies.

That hasn't stopped Cole from touring--she plays five Southern California shows in the next week, starting tonight at the Ventura Theatre--and it hasn't shaken her confidence, she insists.

But it did hit her hard.

"It's been very crushing, because I've just put so much of my life energy into this, and I thought it would be bigger," says Cole, 32. "But that's life, and we have to go on, and the universe had something else in mind for me, so I'll have to be open for that."

Cole, who brings a flamboyant theatricality and an element of spirituality to her folk-flavored, soul-spiced pop, mentions her own change of managers and some executive shuffling in the corporate suites above her label, Warner Bros. Records, as possible factors in the album's failure.

She's also willing to shoulder some blame.

"Perhaps I wrote music that didn't resonate with people. It could be that, too," Cole says.

But it's a halfhearted concession; she still can't understand why the album's "I Believe in Love," with its Barry White-like disco orchestration, didn't click. Says Cole: "I still feel in my heart that I wrote the biggest hit song of my career, but it just didn't happen.

"I like the album a lot, so I'm proud that I was honest with myself, because that's all I can really demand from myself, honest music. And I just realized that maybe in the end there's a greater good for this album falling on its face--that my career is meant to be spanned over a longer period of time. I demand longevity of myself, so I just see this as a little patch of hardship on the inevitable road to longevity.

'Adversity Is Always a Teacher'

"I very much want a loyal concert-going audience, so I'm not pandering to a record company about hits, so I don't have some 25-year-old A&R guy insulting me with what his opinion of a hit is." The shifting fortunes have dovetailed with other changes in Cole's life, including an extended hiatus from performing that will begin after the current tour cycle, and an impending move to Los Angeles from New York, where she has lived for seven years.

"I just want to focus on my personal life for a little while," she says. "Adversity is always a teacher in some way, and it just caused me to place emphasis on my life at home, and make me reevaluate things."

Cole will record a new album in Los Angeles next year, and she doesn't plan to do anything differently with the aim of returning to the charts.

"When it comes to talent I have no lack of confidence," she says. "There's just other phenomena to this career. I see so many people less talented than me or people I know, and you don't know why [they succeed]. But, no, I don't have lack of faith in myself. But sometimes it makes you tired. It makes you feel like you've been running on the hamster wheel for too long."

BE THERE

Paula Cole, today at the Ventura Theatre, 26 S. Chestnut St., Ventura, 7 p.m. $28. (805) 639-3965. Saturday and Sunday at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, 8 p.m. $29.50. [949] 496-8927; Monday at Humphrey's, 2241 Shelter Island Drive, San Diego, 7:30 p.m. $30 to $68.50. (619) 523-1010; Next Thursday at the House of Blues, 8430 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, 9 p.m. $25. (323) 848-5100.

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