Some people, upon hearing Paula Cole's luscious, melancholy hit "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?," don't listen any further than the chorus.
To their ears, the song is a longing look back to days when men were men and women were glad of it. Or, as the song's protagonist puts it, "I will raise the children/If you pay all the bills." Naturally, this leads them to believe that the 29-year-old Cole is herself an anti-feminist, the sort of woman who would happily do all the laundry if he pays all the bills.
All of which amuses Cole no end.
"Spin magazine said I was 'the Nancy Reagan of Lilith Fair,' " she says, laughing lightly. "They didn't understand, obviously. I was probably the most raging feminist in the whole group."
By now, of course, Cole is used to such misunderstandings. Not only was "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?" a Top-10 hit, but it earned the singer/songwriter three Grammy nominations (for Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance).
But let's set the record straight. Far from being a monument to Marlboro Man macho, "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?" is a sly, sarcastic complaint, one that mouths the cliches of the traditional wife and helpmate to show how empty and unfulfilling the role can be.
Or, as the protagonist puts it later in the song, "I will do the dishes/While you go have a beer."
Cole admits that a lot of people miss the barbs built into her lyric, and thus misread it. "It is kind of delicate," she says. "There is a melancholy woven in there, and there is the honesty of the story of a woman who was disappointed in her marriage.
"But then, of course, there are people who get it. Certainly, England, they're more adept at sarcasm than Americans are. It's just not part of the cultural fabric as much in America as it is in England. So, yeah, it's been widely interpreted, and I kind of like that. It's anthropologically interesting for me."
Though Cole may be entertained by the ways in which people miss her point, she doesn't try to foster misunderstandings. In concert (she performs at Bohager's on Thursday) she does her damnedest to make sure her audience gets it.
Take, for instance, the part of the song where she sings, "Oh, I know your back hurts from working on the tractor/How do you take your coffee, my sweet?" Onstage, Cole wears a mask while singing those lines. "It's kind of a very sweet dolly mask, with little rosy cheeks and blond braided hair," she says. "She's like a little perfect persona mask, and she personifies the woman trying to be the perfect cliche."
That and a few other touches make it pretty obvious where Cole is coming from. "Even those guys in the audience with the beers and the crew-cuts who are raising their glasses of beer when I sing, 'You go have a beer,' I think they finally get it toward the end," she says, then laughs.
As cool as Cole may be about her audience's interpretations of "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?," she was frankly flustered by the Grammy voters' reaction. All told, she was nominated in seven categories, including all of the big four: Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Album of the Year (for "This Fire") and Best New Artist.
"My name just kept being announced again and again and again," she says. She'll find out if she's won on Feb. 25.
Making the unexpected accolade all the more unreal was the fact that Cole and her band had just come back from a four-day USO tour of the Persian Gulf. "We performed at several places out in the desert, and a military base, on an aircraft carrier, and on a battleship cruiser," she says. "It was a very profound experience. I felt kind of humbled by all that and certainly wasn't expecting to be a big winner.
"So, yes, it was a shock."
Part of the reason Cole was taken aback is that she has never seen herself as part of the pop mainstream. Although music has been a part of her life since she was a child in Rockport, Mass., she owned few albums and seldom listened to the radio. Even when she was in music school, at Boston's Berklee College of Music, her major was jazz singing and improvisation -- hardly the most obvious route to the top.
Of all the nominations, the nod for Producer of the Year may have been the most flattering for Cole -- if only because of the circumstances that went into recording "This Fire," her second album.
"We had to make that album with half a budget and in two weeks, so I was very organized," she says. "I knew exactly what I wanted, and [Jay Bellerose], my drummer of 10 years, and I went into the studio and cut everything live -- piano and drums and voice. We added other layers afterwards.
"Most of those are one- or two-take performances," she adds. "We kept mistakes and we kept distorted microphone moments. We wanted it to sound like an old-fashioned record."
With its occasionally raw sound and fondness for warts-and-all performances, "This Fire" may feel like old-fashioned album, but its ambience and sensibility are thoroughly modern, something Cole credits to the no-frills production.
"When the instrumentation is sparse, you can make [the music] sound a lot bigger," she says. For instance, if there's no electric guitar in the mix, that leaves more room for the rhythm section. "That's why I love the production of hip-hop music, because often there's so much room for the drums and bass, that they can sound so fat and huge."
That Cole would be a hip-hop fan may surprise some in her audience, but it's utterly in keeping with her eclectic tastes. Asked about her musical heroes, Cole mentions Dolly Parton, Bob Marley and Miles Davis -- a stellar group, but hardly the musical trinity her listeners would expect.
"I love Dolly Parton for her humility," she explains. "She's, well, in a different place artistically. More of an entertainer, [whereas] I'm much more kind of earthy/ crunchy. But I love her and am inspired by her."
What she adored about Marley is his musical devotion. "I love that he was dedicated to his band," she says, arguing that the sound he creates with the Wailers was as important to his recordings as his songwriting. "His rhythm section is probably one of my favorite rhythm sections in existence.
"And I love that he was political and brought a social and a spiritual message to his music," she adds.
She admires Davis, likewise, for his way with musicians. "He was an inspiration for me, for his commitment to bands and being open to new musicians," she says. "I loved his orneriness and his refusal to bow down to the white Babylon system.
"But mostly, I admire him because he never resisted change."
Cole is especially attracted to the notion of going with the flow and following the currents of pop music for as long as she's able. To that end, she cites yet another idol: the redoubtable Tina Turner.
"She's so positive in the face of adversity," says Cole. "She's such a hard worker. She comes from such humble beginnings and is so grateful for her success. I relate to all of that."
But what Cole seems to like best about Turner is the fact that, after almost 40 years in the business, she's still going strong. Performing, says Cole, is an essential part of her artistic life.
"It's what I've been doing for years," she says. "My drummer's been with me for 10 years; my guitar player's been with me for nine. I'm really proud of [my show]. It says everything about who I am."
That's why Cole has a hard time imagining ever giving up the road. "It gets difficult if you want to have a family, I suppose -- which I do -- but I don't want that to deter me," she says. "I really want both worlds in my life. I really want to always continue changing and evolving as a musician and keep creating records that reflect where I am in my life.
"I really want to make that work. I need music." She laughs, then adds, "It makes me a much better person to be around when I have music in my life."
When: Thursday, 8 p.m.
Where: Bohager's, Fleet and Eden streets
Call: 410-563-7220 for information, 410-481-7328 for tickets
Sundial: To hear excerpts from Paula Cole's current release, "This Fire," call Sundial at 410-783-1800 and enter the code 6162. For other local Sundial numbers, see the directory on Page 2A.
Pub Date: 2/10/98