by Eric Baylies
Rockport, MA, native Paula Cole has won a Grammy, sang with Peter Gabriel, toured the world as a solo artist many times over, and has two of the biggest hits of the past 20 years in “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone” and “I Don’t Want to Wait.” Her new album,Raven, is out now as she prepares to play a few New England shows. I spoke to her as she was preparing the tour.
Noise: Tell me about the album Raven, the production, the songwriting, anything you’d like to share.
Paula: Raven bubbled up from the unconscious very naturally. Raven was born quickly. Album-baby-making is an instinctive right-brain process—you need to know when you’re going to bear a creative body, what to name it, how the art should look, and the production should feel overall, what songs work together sequentially. It’s difficult to post-analyze with one’s left brain. That being said, I just sensed I had a body of work that needed to exist in the world, no matter the fanfare or lack thereof! I had some older songs that were languishing in the coffers—songs I believed in and new songs, of course. I’ve been writing my whole life. Sometimes I write for other artists and collaborate. Some of my songs have been covered. But principally I’m a self-producing artist. It made sense for me to be at the helm again—it’s natural for me to self-produce my work, because I tend to hear the whole of it in my head. I’ve self-produced now for most of my albums. What is different about Raven is that it’s my own record label now—675 Records—small but fierce! Given the climate of the business and my career, it was time to become more entrepreneurial.
Noise: How come you used a Kickstarter to help fund the album?
Paula: It didn’t feel good in my gut to go back to a major label since I’ve been on four (BMG/Imago, Warner Brothers/AOL, Columbia/SONY and Decca/Universal). Notice all the mergers there? And many more since I left each label! So much label change has been near career death, and a few times at that. Many artists lose the best years of their lives in the doldrums of music business dysfunction. I repeatedly told myself to be brave and leave. The music business is, sadly, the canary in the coal mine in the age of digital distribution, and it’s increasingly difficult to monetize our art, our recordings, our life work. Majors continue to merge, collapse, die like dinosaurs. Jay Z understands it’s the hardware, not the software content that’s selling and so he allied himself with Samsung. Since I’m not huge like Beyoncé or Jay Z, I’m not using music as a marketing arm along with other products (i.e. clothing lines, perfume lines, acting—TV hosting gigs, merch, etc.); since I am in it punishingly, for the legacy of the music itself, it made sense to NOT be on a major label. Frankly I don’t want to stand in front of any more wind machines, be told how to look or have some A&R dude in my studio control room. I created my own small label, 675 Records. I will sell less units and make more per unit. Simple. This is what artists should do if they want to own their intellectual property. It is what I should have been doing for years now. Kickstarter was a means to finance Raven without a label, to create team spirit with my fan folks through the pledge process, and to emerge owning my intellectual property. Triple win. I’m so grateful to my fans, I really love them for allowing me this opportunity.
Noise: Were you running over budget?
Paula: I had already financed a lot of the album out of pocket. But it takes a lot to give an album a shot. I needed the Kickstarter funds to help Raven fly farther.
Noise: Have you had much backlash from longterm fans? I’ve heard a lot of bickering in Boston that Kickstarter and the like should be for unknown bands. There has been a real backlash against Amanda Palmer, for example.
Paula: If a so-called fan shows backlash then I don’t consider them a long-term fan. I’ve been doing this 20-plus years. My fans are true and passionate: we’ve lived life together, from Harbinger to Amen to Raven and beyond. They are with me from their first live PC shows onward. They are multi-generational now, male, female, parents sharing with their kids, husbands sharing with their wives, wives sharing with their wives, and husbands with their husbands etc.—very diverse. They are an intelligent and feeling bunch. Now that I’m in the era of digital, participating on my sites and knowing my fans much more directly, I clearly see how fortunate I am to more intimately know this group of loving folks. If some people think, “Where did Paula Cole go?” then they aren’t looking—they’re probably just paying attention to the shallow aspects of media. I was in a media spotlight for one hot minute and I was miserable. I’m happily more underground and niche, and making my best music. I’m not interested in maintaining a high-visibility pop career. I’m interested in leaving a legacy of art.
Noise: Is this the wave of the future?
Paula: It is the wave of now. There will always be change in the music business. Artists must ride the first wave to stay relevant. Social media as we have come to understand it simply did not exist when I was a newer artist.
Noise: Is this a good or bad thing?
Paula: I don’t want to live in a state of mind where I’m viewing our new paradigm as a bad thing. I accept what it is and work with it. Even though the ’90s were generally a more innocent and lucrative time, there are huge positives about our now. I like that social media and digital distribution foster entrepreneurship in singer-songwriters. It certainly should, anyway. Even if an artist appeals to less people, sells less, an artist should own more of his/her business-pie and exert greater creative and business control over his/her life. That’s empowerment. It’s hideous to see young women pushed into objectifying themselves, cheapening themselves as someone else’s brilliant imaging idea. Doubly so when it’s a really smart gal with a lot to say. I watch this destroy females (crises in their 30’s; lack of self-confidence, longevity and creative proliferation) and that’s just not necessary or healthy. I long for more young women to fight for, and to be celebrated for their inner selves, their intellect, their fire, their ideas and leadership. This is more possible now with the DIY nature of the Internet as a music-business-foundation. I also appreciate that the Internet has made music more niche and cascades over generational boundaries.
Noise: I saw an article you wrote about Kelly Clarkson in her feud with Clive Davis on Twitter and I guess it’s positive in that case. She seems to have come out on top. The younger a musician is, the more potential damage control there can be, due to drinking or kids being kids or whatever. Do you think young artists should allow someone to view their Tweets or Facebook rants etc. before putting them out there? What would you advise a young band or singer trying to navigate their way to a career in 2013?
Paula: The artist is the money-maker, the source. It is the artist who makes something out of nothing. All the managers, agents, publishers, and record companies are looking to the artist for their future income. Be judicious and intelligent with your business. Build a website, participate in your social media sites every other day. Build your fan base online and over the course of touring live. Write your own songs, self-accompany—this gives you deeper musicianship, income, and greater freedom! Finally, and most importantly, an artist should ultimately be in service to the music: to be on this difficult artist’s path, one should be questing to make the best art one can muster in a lifetime, and give it lovingly to people! All the folks that support you, who show up to your gigs and buy your music are very dear, very vital, very beloved. One should never forget that, never take it for granted.
Noise: I was looking up some of your newer music on YouTube and came across some clips of you playing guitar and piano in a bedroom or living room. It was pretty cool to see clips like that of someone I’d seen on big stages and very pro-looking videos. For a second I thought it was someone covering you. I’m assuming you also set up the camera. What was the story behind that? Was that kind of a thank you to the fans, sneak peeks of the new songs, or perhaps something else? I wish more of my favorites would do things like that.
Paula: These video clips on YouTube were for my Kickstarter supporters. Their pledges drove me to new motivation—these were initially pledge fulfillments, but ended up being fabulous fresh content for my sites. Having an ongoing dialogue with my fans keeps my awareness heightened.
Noise: In the bedroom video for “Billy Joe” you have a very unusual fretting technique using your thumb. I’ve only seen Richie Havens play like that. Where did that come from?
Paula: The thumb-playing guitar style simply comes from the fact that I am not a good guitar player and I compensate by creative tuning. I have good time, good musicianship in my head, but lack proper guitar-playing-motor skills.
Noise: What is your favorite cover of a Paula Cole song?
Paula: Herbie Hancock’s and Annie Lennox’s cover of “Hush, Hush, Hush.” What a gift.
Noise: I’m not sure if you lived in Boston or commuted when you went to Berklee but… what are some of your favorite and least favorite things about living in and around Bostion? Did you gig much there as a student?
Paula: I grew up in Rockport, MA, went to Rockport Public Schools K-12, then attended Berklee and lived in Boston ’86-’90/91. I sang weddings in the Boston area as a Berklee student, performed at jazz clubs when I was highly focused on jazz (Ryles, 1369, the Logan Airport Hilton Lounge with Al Vega etc.). Then I began writing my own material and began performing at T.T.’s, Middle East Café, etc. Going forward, I moved about in my adulthood, primarily living in New York City, where I spent the bulk of my formative adult years. So even though I’m from Massachusetts, I often feel like a displaced New Yorker—that city moves my soul. In general I have found Yankees fans to be friendlier to Sox fans than Sox fans to Yankees fans. Boston could lighten up, like, a little. I am from a family of die-hard Red Sox fans—my grandparents used to go to Florida just to watch them train. All that being said, I now choose to live my life on the North Shore, near my family, walking my girlhood beaches. I am so fortunate to be back in my home of Massachusetts, and to have been raised in this amazing sweet-spot on earth.
Noise: Thank you very much for your time. Paula Cole will be playing live at the Natick Center for the Arts on September 20 and the Narrows in Fall River, MA, on November 2.