Until two nights ago when a friend and I saw Paula Cole in concert at Club Passim in Cambridge, M.A, I had an ambivalent relationship to her music. Female singer-songwriters who debuted in the 1990’s are among my favorite artists but I had never been that absorbed by her music. I am a big fan of most music journalism especially about female artists but I rarely searched for articles about Paula. Yet I was intrigued enough to not change the radio station when I heard her two radio hits, “I don’t want to wait” and “Where have all the cowboys gone.” However, I was not interested enough to hear the entire albums. Perhaps the hits and their accompanying videos felt too earnest (though I liked Alanis Morissette and Sarah Mclachlan quite a bit); maybe it was the Peter Gabriel and Dawson’s Creek associations (though eventually I became a fan of both of them); or possibly that she seemed to rise to fame so quickly (though this I later learned, was not the case). I felt happy for her when she won the Best New Artist Grammy in 1998 and sad when the media mocked her for keeping her armpit hair.
In the early 2000’s upon reading several articles that asked, “where had Paula Cole gone?”, she seemed more mysterious to me and I felt compelled enough to purchase (albeit used) her first and at the time only three studio albums, “Harbinger” (1994); “This Fire” (1996) from where the hits originated; and “Amen” (1999). Some of the songs (“Missisippi”, “Ordinary Girl”, “Carmen”) really moved me and so in 2007 I was excited to learn from a Barnes and Noble Billboard that her next studio album “Courage” was about to be released. I quickly obtained a ticket to a New York City concert wondering if or how her style had changed. Unfortunately I did not have the chance to find out because I had to work the night of the show. I began to read more about Paula and was pleasantly unsurprised to learn that she was part of the pro-type Lilith fair show in 1996.
I briefly listened online to Courage and Paula’s 2010 follow-up “Ithaca” and enjoyed them enough to purchase not one but two tickets to last night’s show. A friend who was not as familiar with her work agreed to attend.
Club Passim is a small, intimate space. We did not have “table seats” and thus were seated against the wall. It was still easy to see and hear and in fact we had a great view of Paula and her guitarist as they approached the stage. She looked so genuinely happy to be there. I felt happy for her that the first show sold out such that a second later show was added.
Paula’s set was varied and contained songs from all of her albums as well as some new touching songs, one about motherhood, from her upcoming recording, “Raven,” her first on an independent label, an experience she described as liberating. Indeed, the newer songs seemed even more soulful though she humbly indicated that part of the most recent material was written earlier. Paula was quite engaging with the audience, asking audience members to embrace their significant others during “Carmen” but that if they without a significant other, this was a “love song” from her to them. Her voice was powerful yet not harsh. The balance of speaking and singing about her life was just right. I learned that she grew up in New England; attended Berklee College of Music just miles from Club Passim; reworked “Cowboys” as she called it when others did not view it as hit material; and has deep insights into the pangs of adolescence. The earnestness I first experienced in her music was nicely complemented by her a realistic perspective on her career when she asked us to sing along to “I don’t want to wait” and her reference to Lady Gaga (when Paula shifted from piano to guitar, she asked us to imagine this as Lady Gaga changing costumes).
Not unexpectedly, Paula played “Cowboys”, the song that first earned her mainstream success, last; it was a great rendition with more of an edge than what got on the radio or likely the original version to which she alluded. Hearing this version made me further appreciate its third wave feminist sentiments. This served as the encore as there seemed neither the time nor space for Paula and the guitarist to leave and return to the stage.
I was very touched when Paula tearfully shared that she cared for us, and that appreciation of fans sustains her during harder times. I admire her perspective on her past and present; it seems to fuel her going forward to the future. We exchanged brief and kind words after the show when I was on the long bathroom line and I felt warmed in the New England cold by her smile.