The Hippo


Oct 21, 2019








Paula Cole. Courtesy photo.

Paula Cole

When: Friday, July 22, 8 p.m.
Where: Tupelo Music Hall, 2 Young Road, Londonderry
Tickets: $45-$55 at 

This Fire, again
Paula Cole marks hit album’s 20th anniversary

By Michael Witthaus

 It’s been two decades since Paula Cole released This Fire, so it makes sense to showcase her breakthrough album at a series of upcoming shows, including one July 22 at Tupelo Music Hall. For Cole, though, the anniversary isn’t about celebrating her first commercial success. Like so many of her songs, it’s much more personal than that.

Cole’s called her first album Harbinger; fittingly, as it presaged a theme that still marks her career — a fight for artistic control. In the years since This Fire, the singer-songwriter has ditched her label and led the vanguard of crowdsourcing. In the midst of music’s final boom years, she took on the industry machine and won. It wasn’t an easy struggle.
“It was our coming-of-age album,” Cole said recently by phone from her home in Beverly, Mass. 
She and “drummer in life” Jay Bellerose formed the nucleus of the 1996 project. 
“We both started to advocate for ourselves in the formation of This Fire,” she said. “We decided to go away from the typical role of being produced by a producer. ... We demanded that this album have a raw and rootsy organic sound.”
The label grudgingly agreed, then cut the budget in half. Cole and Bellerose answered with a rough-hewn masterpiece — from start to finish, one of the decade’s best. 
“Jay and I went into the studio and recorded it in a day and a half,” she said. “It was such a formative, electric moment. It was self-advocacy, and in so doing, we pivoted ourselves to having a longer time in the music business. We were being truthful. ... We had to stand up to the record company politics.”
This Fire yielded two massive hits, “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” and “I Don’t Want to Wait.” The latter became iconic as the theme for Dawson’s Creek. It was the last song Cole wrote for the project, and record’s final track. But because they worked in reverse, it was the first to be recorded. 
Even during those nascent moments in the studio, Cole and Bellerose knew the tune was special. 
“It’s a song that plays itself ... the little engine that could,” she said. “It just sparked life; it’s one of those songs that has an energy of its own.” 
Cole wrote it in response to watching her grandfather approach his final days. 
“My grandparents were a huge part of my life. They lived down the street from me growing up, so I would be down at their house a lot. We were very close,” she said. “I didn’t want to repeat the mistakes that I saw in their marriage, and I was looking at their lives and the effect that it had on my father’s life, and then on mine — how pattern and emotional behaviors continue through generations, how he was traumatized through World War II, and I wanted to change some of those patterns. I didn’t want to be a prisoner. ... I wrote it for them.”
Many of Cole’s songs are responses to events in her life. In one case, however, it was the act of writing that triggered a major personal change. Her act exemplified folksinger Patty Larkin’s axiom that one should never mess with a songwriter. After the follow-up to This Fire didn’t fare well commercially, Cole took a seven-year hiatus from performing, mostly devoted to raising an infant daughter with a serious asthma problem. 
In early 2004, she was married, and slowly edging back into music. 
“I’m still so shaken, lacking in self-confidence and my ch’i for music, and I was doing a bunch of co-writes ... helping me get out from under my rock,” she said. “Dean Parks, a wonderful guitar player in L.A., gave me a tape of something he did on acoustic guitar. I’m sitting in my nursing rocker in Los Angeles listening to it, and I’m inspired. I’m writing lyrics, looking at the page, and that is when I realized, ‘Oh God, I need to get a divorce.’”
The anniversary show will start with the entirety of This Fire, followed by selections from Cole’s seven other albums. As to the hit record’s title, Cole said it began with an admiration for Bob Marley, but took on more meaning as she passed through the crucible of label battles. 
“It was my inner ball of energy and it needed to come out, and I needed to stand up and be that power ... I wanted to use it for good in the world,” she said. “That might sound delusional, but to me music is a healing force not only for myself. I know this now, I’ve been in the business for 25 years, out there singing for people. You write songs and you do it because you’re working out your own stuff. But in so doing, you help people.”

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