Every year, Grammy voters love to cast someone as Cinderella. This year, they’ve fit the slipper on Paula Cole.
Though Cole racked up a platinum album last summer (“This Fire”) and had a hit with “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?,” her media profile and sales hardly jibe with her bracing sweep of the nominations. This year, only Cole’s name turned up in all three top categories (for best record, album and song). She also earned nods in four other slots, including new artist and producer (the first pop female ever to make that cut).
Sitting in her New York apartment hours after the announcements, the singer sounded shell-shocked. Repeatedly, she veered between modesty (“It’s a little scary - so much attention”) and self-assertion (“I do consider myself a musician’s musician.”)
At her most levelheaded, the 29-year-old performer assessed, “I certainly thought Fiona Apple or Jewel would land above me. They’ve both sold more records and gotten far more press. But I’ve been an underdog for a long time, and maybe the music community observed that.”
In fact, Cole’s album stresses a particularly musicianly approach, boasting heavy influences from the adult-pop/world-beat styles of Peter Gabriel and Sting. Unlike most female artists - who find their work appreciated for its singing and songwriting - Cole’s work has also drawn praise for her piano playing and rich production.
“I’m most proud of the best producer nomination,” she says. “There are so few women in the field. To pierce that glass ceiling is great.”
Not that the industry leapt to recognize her. Cole says she spent years singing at weddings and in lounges. Five years ago, she turned down a deal with the jazz label GRP because she didn’t want her music pigeonholed. Instead she worked as a bakery clerk.
In ‘93 she got a deal with Imago Records, but the company wouldn’t let her produce her debut, “Harbinger.” Imago folded shortly after its release but not before Gabriel heard the album and invited Cole to play in his live band. “I had one rehearsal, then got thrown out in front of 16,000 Germans,” she recalls.
After the tour, Cole got a deal with Warner Bros., who finally gave her the chance to produce. Cole packed her first single, “Cowboys,” with the right hooks to earn radio play. Older-skewing Triple A radio stations and VH1 caught on first, helping break the album seven months after its release.
The provocative lyrics to “Cowboys” struck a nerve, but also caused confusion. Though Cole says she meant to be ironic with her lyrics - which mull the vanishing of traditional men - not everyone got it. Spin magazine called her “the Nancy Reagan of the Lilith Tour.”
“Boy, did they have that wrong,” Cole says. “I was probably the biggest feminist on that stage.”
She received a similar response after performing the song on a U.S. battleship in the Persian Gulf. “They gave me a plaque that said, ‘USS Washington: here’s where all the cowboys have gone.”’
Oh well. At least they’re listening, thought Cole.
She has the same open attitude about the awards. While she wants to win, she’s hedging against disappointment. “I’m not expecting to win,” Cole sighs. “I just want to get on with my life, feed my cats, do normal things.”
And, most importantly for Cole - “continue to work.”