LOUISVILLE, Ky.-- --By age 30, singer-songwriter Paula Cole had achieved heights she hadn't even dreamed of: a platinum album, two huge hit singles and a Grammy for best new artist.
But composing songs of love, struggle and loss didn't prepare her for what came next: The album her record company rejected. A decision to leave the music industry. A failed marriage. Her daughter's frightening asthma attacks.
"I've been through a lot," Cole says, leaning forward on a plush chair in a hotel room and looking back at her life.
Now, after a roughly eight-year hiatus from touring and recording, the chanteuse is ready for a public re-introduction. Her first album of new material in nearly a decade, the aptly named Courage, hits store shelves today.
"I was going through such a hard time when I made this album," Cole says. "What I'm proud of is, it's not bitter, it's not angry. It's tender. It's examining."
"She's always been a very thoughtful composer," says Dan Reed, music director of Philadelphia's WXPN 88.5-FM, a noncommercial station that has put the song "14" in rotation. "It's more of what you've come to expect from Paula Cole. I think it's incredibly consistent."
Courage showcases a stronger, more mature Cole, who is willing to give up some creative control and embrace input from outsiders.
That was not the case in the '90s, when the Massachusetts native wrote parts for nearly every instrument on her sophomore album, This Fire. She butted heads with record-label executives over her decision to self-produce the album. Cole eventually won.
"I felt like I needed to prove something," she says. Cole's tousled brown hair cascades onto a charcoal-colored lightweight cardigan, which covers a plain black shirt. She is at once proud, earthy and beautiful. "Well, I proved it. I did it."
Released in 1996, the CD contained both of Cole's biggest hits: "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone" and "I Don't Want to Wait," which went on to cement its place in pop-culture history as the theme song for the television teen drama Dawson's Creek. This Fire went platinum and propelled Cole into the national spotlight.
The country latched onto Cole's lush pop melodies, emotional lyrics and breathy voice, which is much the same whether she sings or speaks.
"It was amazing," Cole says, remembering the peak times. "My ego was chuffed there for a minute."
But commercial success was fleeting and bittersweet. A self-professed introvert, Cole found the increasing public attention awkward. Even her hairy armpits (she's since shaved) were sources of debate among the media and public.
Today, Cole still seems uncomfortable sharing herself in conversation. She clenches her fingers from time to time and stutters at the start of some sentences.
Cole's third album, 1999's Amen, was critically praised but didn't sell many copies. More and more, she wanted to distance herself from her musical career. She yearned to settle down and start a family.
"I needed to be a hermit," Cole says. "It was like I was a plant in shock and I needed to go back down to the roots. I couldn't flower. I needed a long hibernating winter that turned into seven, eight years."
In 2000, Cole moved from New York to Los Angeles. In 2001, she gave birth to her daughter, Sky. She married Sky's father the next year. When Sky was an infant, Cole went back into the studio and recorded about 20 songs for a new album. But Warner, her record label, refused to release them. Angry over Warner's decision, Cole parted ways with the company.
"I was unhappy after awhile in the music business - the business part of the music," she says. "I needed to stop. I needed to heal myself from that."
So she focused on being a mother, which was more demanding than she expected. As a toddler, Sky had severe asthma, with attacks that sent her to the emergency room.
Recording and releasing albums suddenly seemed insignificant compared with raising a child, Cole says.
"Suddenly, you look at a music career and you think how self-involved you were," she says. "You increasingly become this caged animal, poked and prodded and alone. It's very, very unhealthy."
It would be years before Cole felt comfortable enough to return to a recording studio. The spark came when she connected with Bobby Colomby, a renowned producer and the drummer from Blood, Sweat and Tears. The two teamed up and went into Capitol Studios to work on Courage.
For the first time, Cole was able to let go creatively. She felt as though she had nothing to prove. She co-wrote songs and let Colomby and the musicians criticize her.
"It had this spirit of unattachment to it," Cole says. "I was in the moment, and it was fun. ... I wasn't thinking about my past. I wasn't thinking about my future. I was just enjoying the process."
Noncommercial stations such as WXPN have warmly received Courage. But Reed doubts mainstream radio stations will give Courage much air time.
"It's a completely new world out there now, radio-wise," he says. "Stranger things have happened, but it's a tough sell these days to try to break through to mainstream radio with anything that doesn't sound like whatever's big these days."
Regardless of the commercial performance of Courage, the 39-year-old Cole says she can no longer keep from writing and performing. She recently moved back to New York, signed with Decca Records, which released Courage, and has a handful of concerts scheduled sporadically through midsummer.
"I miss music terribly," Cole says. "I have a life purpose through music, and I need to get back to work, because this divorce is killing me. Practically speaking and emotionally, spiritually, I need music."
On stage, Cole's uneasiness slips away to reveal a confident, captivating woman with a versatile voice. At a performance in Louisville, Cole receives several standing ovations.
Still, Cole keeps her distance from the mechanics of the record business. She is more cautious now - more careful not to micromanage as she once did.
"I felt a little battered by the first round, and here I am in the second," she says. "I probably have some post-traumatic stress disorder."
In the Louisville hotel room, she picks up a booklet Decca published to promote the new album and looks at the pictures of herself inside.
"It's beautiful," she says.
For a moment, Cole is lost in herself. Then, she snaps out of it.
"Good for Decca," she says, and sets down the booklet. For Cole, it's enough to love the music - and then let go.
April 5, 1968, in Rockport, Mass.
Studied jazz at the Berklee College of Music
First gained fame as a vocalist on a Peter Gabriel tour in the early '90s. Warner Bros. released debut album, Harbinger, in 1995; breakthrough sophomore album, This Fire, in 1996; and commercially disappointing Amen in 1999. Decca Records releases Courage today.
Getting divorced; one daughter, Sky.