Q&A: Paula Cole

Paula Cole -- the '90s-era Grammy winner who is known for her lofty soprano voice and inspired songwriting skills -- is striking out on her own. For the first time in her career, she has shed the sometimes overbearing demands that can be foisted on an artist by a record company.

To achieve her break as painlessly as possible, Cole in short order completed a self-funding campaign for her newest project, "Raven," which she is expecting to release in early 2013. In just 18 days, and with nearly three weeks to spare, Cole exceeded her Kickstarter fundraising goal of $50,000.

She raised much of the money from individuals who kicked in sums from as low as $15, which entitled them to an advance download of "Raven" plus bonus tracks.

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Paula Cole

Cole also sweetened the pot measurably for those with some serious money to invest. Donors were invited to be featured on the album for the tidy donation of $5,000, or even be credited as an Associate Producer for $10,000.

Others who might not be hip to a production credit could spend that same $10,000 to have an opportunity to sit down for lunch and afternoon of shopping with Cole in Boston, or a private concert in the donor's home or venue of choice.

"I'm stunned," Cole wrote in an email to fans upon capping her goal on Oct. 10. "Day 18 proved to be a big day and here we are over 100%. I'm humbled, I'm grateful, I thank you."

Cole said that until Oct. 29, fans can still get in on pre-ordering "Raven" through her Kickstarter site, with those added funds being tacked on to what she has already raised to allow for even more studio time, post production and other related pre-release expenses. But Cole said hitting her goal was made so much more special because of the unprecedented exposure it brought to her legion of fans.

"I'm more in touch with you than I ever have been during the days of major labels," Cole wrote. "I'm reading your notes every day, writing to you, just appreciating you deeply and sincerely, so grateful to be here. We will make this beautiful piece of work and we are in this together."

During an intimate concert recently at the tiny IInfinity Hall in Norfolk, CT, Cole showcased a couple of numbers from the upcoming independent release.

One of those numbers, "Strong Beautiful Woman," was particularly good -- and may just end up pushing Cole back into the spotlight that burned brightly when her previous hits, "I Don't Want To Wait," and "Where Have All The Cowboys Gone," were seemingly playing everywhere.

The narrative of this new tune reveals some hand-me-down empowerment that Cole either received directly or imagined receiving, perhaps from her mom or grandmother.

She also gave the crowd a little surprise, debuting "Manitoba" for the very first time in concert.

In a subsequent chat with SoundSpike after the show, Cole said "Manitoba," which she has slated for release on "Raven" would have been all but lost if her mom had not squirreled away a demo cassette she made of the song nearly 20 years earlier.

After unearthing the recording, Cole said she reworked the musical framework a bit, added some new lyrics and decided the Infinity Hall would be a good place to reveal the recycled tune.

Here's what else Cole had to say during that conversation:

SoundSpike: Is "Raven" the result of creative inspirations that hit you since your last album "Ithaca" was released, or is some of what we'll be hearing on "Raven" coming from some dusty old shelf in Paula Cole's musical storage vault?

Paula Cole: [laughing] It was both, and if you're a musician you probably understand that. "Ithaca" was born -- needed to be born -- out of a bunch of hard years in my life. Now I'm in this much more happy place, and therefore I can be more productive. I'm not moving, I'm not going through a divorce. I'm settled, situated and happy, so all these thoughts are flowing. But even this [album] was a surprise because I was re-routed a couple of times. I was originally going to be pursuing my MBA. I got accepted to the fellows program at the Sloan School at MIT, and I really wanted that body of knowledge going forward. I felt it would help me with life. Then Bluenote wanted to make a jazz album with me. So I declined MIT, and then the Blue Note album fell through. But It's all OK. I've been in the music business long enough to be used to this rollercoaster ride of thrills and disappointments.

So around the next corner was "Raven"?

Yes. I just couldn't become too invested. So I found myself back with what I do, and that's make my music. So I'm going through with this fan funding and the very sharp learning curve to go direct.

Do you have any friends, or know of other artists that have utilized the Kickstarter approach for self-funding their projects?

I know nobody personally. I found this through my own research. I noticed Liz Longley, who opened for me once, has a pretty successful Kickstarter campaign, and it's been wonderful to watch her career continue to blossom. I saw Tom Rush, who is really popular with boomer fans, and plays a lot of the same venues I play, did really well on Kickstarter. And I'm also following Amanda Palmer's campaign. What she's doing is brilliant, taking this realm of music video and running with it. It's very brave and creative. So through my own research and looking at a few comps, if you will, that I said to myself why not? I'm giving [Kickstarter investors] proximity to the music making, giving them the album earlier, and it's building enthusiasm -- it's like "Team Paula."

And it certainly offers you more freedom, along with some real potential financial and creative advantages, doesn't it?

There's a lot of love. We're excited, and they're excited by funding the arts in a positive way. And most of all, I'm not just going to be handing a new album over and never seeing it again; never seeing a dime again; and never able to work with [the material] easily again. You know every time I tour and bring my merch, I had to order my own albums through the record company for much too high a price. It's ridiculous. I'm schlepping them and paying the baggage fees and selling them at the shows. The whole situation is contorted, even though I've been in this business a long time. I wouldn't be here without it, so I do have to acknowledge it. It's my creative effort, but I never had any ownership of it. Now my pie is smaller, but it's my pie now. So now I'm 44, and despite this sharp learning curve I should try to be my own business woman. I'm smart enough ... I'll figure this out. Amy Lee of Evenescence was really helpful tweeting and forwarding my Kickstarter link. And she told me she wished she could do this -- she'd be amazing at it. Shawn Colvin was another one who was supporting me, and who was curious about the experiment.

And while I guess it would have been nice to have a single angel just write a $50,000 check and you're done with it, it must have been great to feel the love from your front line fans.

Totally! And they are so important. We're building this wonderful team. But this is also a strong album. I know my work, and I know when I'm really focused. I'm in this stable and wonderful place in my life. I remember when I was moving into working on "This Fire," and lobbying to be my own producer. And eyes would roll. I really had to prove myself to be entitled to be the producer. But then I felt I was steering my own ship to some degree. That feeling is even stronger now.

Do you find the creative inspiration flows more freely when you're not answering to an office building full of record company execs?

Honestly, I don't. I never really wrote for them, and I've always been fighting small battles to be unique. I remember a couple of times I tried to exercise more craft, and to work it into a three-and-a-half minute pop tune. I do have pop sensibility in my production, but I never went there very often. I was always strong advocating for the writing and the uniqueness of my perspective. So what I'm doing now is not very different. What I do appreciate is not being pressured to co-write. And I'm not being pressured to stand in front of a fucking wind machine at a photoshoot. That's where I felt the most pressure, the imaging, the photo shoots and the video shoots...
And all along I imagine you're being told to just leave it up to the experts -- they're building your brand...

Aaarrgh, the writing fine, the production, fine. I'm an in-house one woman show, and I always have been. As far as that's concerned, it's still moving along the way it always used to. Maybe with a bit more creative freedom, but the big difference is going to be in the imaging issues. I never wanted to be on a record cover -- being all that and a wind machine. I wanted art on my covers. Music is always first. I'm a music geek -- one of the guys.

So let's bring it back around to the creative process and the songwriting for "Raven."

Well I'm in this solid place in my life and the songs are flowing. I'm even writing a few songs on guitar. I don't consider myself a guitar player but I've tuned my guitar to a place where I can play it with my thumb, and out came a couple of new songs.

Is that the first time you've ever written songs on guitar?

Paula Cole: I've tried before, but it's kind of burgeoning right now. I'm enjoying it. A few days ago I pulled out my electric guitar and put it through my Fender Twin, and I can't wait to start messing with some effects and get things a little more rocking. I'm a big fan of PJ Harvey, and I felt I needed to channel something even more intense. There's one new song I'm hoping to go back into the studio and put down -- now that the Kickstarter funds are there.

Have you played guitar in concert before?

I did play guitar on Aug. 31 in Rockport [MA]. I played a nylon acoustic with one of the strings removed. It was very intense. I don't feel free yet -- I had to sit to approach it the way I needed to play it because it was an intense song, but I want to be able to stand and swing that guitar around. I feel like I'm challenged with that left hand. I can play great rhythms but it's shaping the chords that is challenging. So up to now I've been playing a lot in open tuning. I wish i could play guitar better -- I always get so frustrated with myself. But there is going to be me playing guitar on this album for better or for worse, it's going to happen.

Paula Cole heads into the studio to complete work on "Raven" in the coming months, and has slated a half-dozen shows in January 2013 playing small venues from Maine to Virginia.

 

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