For the past 25 years, Paula Cole’s impact on music and culture has been palpable, whether it was through her own music or her impact on the sound of others. In May, the Grammy-winning artist added to that legacy with American Quilt, an immensely emotional journey through the patchwork of American history. Embellished with soulful sounds and rhythmic riffs, American Quilt pays homage to the pulse of Americana music by featuring renditions of history-rich songs such as Johnny Cash’s “Wayfaring Stranger,” Eric Clapton’s “Nobody Knows You” and Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World.” Ahead of her tour-opening performance at Cain Park this Saturday (doors open at 7 p.m.), Cole shares the inspiration behind her eleventh studio album.
Cleveland Magazine: Why did you choose to start your tour in Cleveland?
Paula Cole: It was the timing, but it just feels so fated. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is here. The lyrics "Cleveland" crept into the one song that I wrote for my newest album. So, it's been on my mind. It's just interesting that it all kind of cosmically landed like this. Cleveland has a lot of heart. I've always loved the people. It's a hard work ethic, and yet, real openness.
CM: After decades of consistently producing and releasing music, what keeps you inspired to keep going and evolving your sound?
PC: The muse is alive and I’m very prolific right now. I'm not someone who had hits and then went away to a comfortable life. If anything, the hits gave me a chip on my shoulder to show that I'm not just the hits. I feel like I'm a legacy artist and those hits were kind of an anomaly in a way. I love music and I’m always working towards becoming a better piano player and writer. I basically worship at the altar of music. I meditate on my death and think of wanting to leave a beautiful catalogue behind.
CM: Why do you think your impact on music and culture in the 1990s still resonates today?
PC: It's so deeply gratifying to see young artists discovering me or covering my songs. It's the greatest compliment. I've always felt that time would tell with me. I had a big ascendancy when my star shined brightly at that time when I had the hits. But, it just didn't feel right and I left the business for a while. I wanted to have my daughter and welcome a quieter period while also building more catalogue and long thinking. I'm not an extrovert and it was hard for me to be in the spotlight. I've not always been well received. Some of the things that people are discovering now and loving so much, like my Amen album, were really lambasted. Things aren't always well received in the moment, and then time shows what the music really is and who the artist really is. So, I just have faith in that. I'm so profoundly touched that people appreciate it. In a way, I feel more connected to younger people. I was always pushing the envelope as a feminist and my sounds were misinterpreted. For example, "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?" — people thought it was a call to conservatism, when it was really a feminist, ironic message.
CM: What was the inspiration behind American Quilt?
PC: I wanted people to appreciate my roots and the music that informed me. I wanted to pay homage to the masters that taught me, from Bessie Smith to John Coltrane, to Emmylou Harris to Johnny Cash. Also, to break down genre barriers because we tend to just classify music too much. It’s based on money, demographics and advertisers. They classify and separate people on radio stations or platforms. It's too often based on race, age or gender. When really, all American music is pretty similar. Some of it might come from the mountains, some might come from the cities and some might be 200 years old. I think it's really similar and we're just this beautiful, diverse patchwork. American Quilt is symbolic in breaking down genres and unifying the human family. It acknowledges the beautiful music that came from the dark underbelly of American history. That’s why I wrote about Cleveland because it was a city where the Underground Railroad ended. It’s very profound.