Fame is fleeting in the music business, leaving you richer, yes, but also disoriented and spooked. If you're not a former Mouseketeer groomed from birth, it can be "anomalous and traumatizing."
That's how Paula Cole describes her moment of musical ubiquity, with the slow-building 1997 hit "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone," whose slinky blend of folk and electronic texture would presage Beth Orton and Dido's best-known work, and the Dawson's Creek theme song, "I Don't Want to Wait," which was recently revived by Bud Light.
Success came relatively quickly for Cole. She went from a Peter Gabriel backup singer to indie solo artist to self-producing her major-label debut in the course of four years. After winning the Best New Artist Grammy for her second album, 1996's This Fire, the 1999 follow-up Amen stiffed, and her fourth album was shelved by the label. She wouldn't release another album until 2007's Courage.
"I have jazz roots, a degree in music, and I take my music very seriously — to a fault. So it's ironic for me that I had hits and a moment of fame, because it's not what I'm about," says Cole, a Berklee School of Music grad who now teaches there. "I struggle accepting the fact that there are a whole bunch of people that only know those songs and only have a narrow concept of what I do. But that's what it is."
During her years between albums, Cole learned to better balance her life while placing her daughter, rather than her career, at its center. She left a failing marriage, which had gone on more on obligation than love, after which she found a better place for herself and her music.
Returning to the studio for Courage, Cole felt a little unsteady, but then regained her footing with 2010's Ithaca — both for jazz/blues label Decca — before striking out on her own with her latest, Raven. She declared her independence thanks to a Kickstarter campaign that raised 50 percent above its $50,000 goal.
Released last April, the album includes several much older songs, including two of its set-pieces, "Life Goes On," initially written 15 years ago, and "Manitoba," which she discovered on a cassette of demos recorded more than two decades ago that her mother had saved.
The former is an autumnal portrait of her father that puts old grudges in perspective amid shimmery, textured folk-rock. The latter is a dramatic piano elegy whose dynamics and icy operatic ethereality evoke Kate Bush, an early inspiration for Cole.
"There was a treasure trove of material back there, some better than others, but when I heard 'Manitoba' I knew I needed to put it out; it was very unique and arty," Cole says. "I decided not to release 'Life Goes On,' because I didn't want to hurt my dad. I needed time and I needed my relationship to build with him."
While she likes writing close to the bone, Cole has also learned some boundaries. "I've come to realize you can really hurt people when you write out so ferociously everything you think and feel."
She shared the lyrics with her father and got his blessing, ultimately finding the song brought them closer. "Music heals us," Cole says. "Where there is music there can be no evil. Cervantes said it, and I believe it's true."