Paula Cole's two smash commercial hits, the chanting lament "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone" and "I Don't Wanna Wait," a desperate pop refrain with a chorus equivalent to the millennials' YOLO slogan, are a mere blip in the long view of music history. The songs, both off of 1996's This Fire, fit seamlessly into the smoky voiced feminist resurgence that rocketed Sarah Mclachlan, Alanis Morissette and Cole to pop chart success (not to mention made "I Don't Wanna Wait" into a sepia-toned introduction anthem to the troubled teenage drama "Dawson's Creek").
But Cole's overarching career has been anything but a blip, spanning two decades and half a dozen albums, which include a nearly 10 year hiatus before a recent return to her roots. Cole has relinquished her early successes and continued to make the music that she wants on her own terms in the 21st century.
When Cole hit it big with This Fire, America was thriving. Clinton was in office, America was an economic and political powerhouse, "Seinfeld" and "Friends" were both peaking, and half of the Top 10 Billboard songs of 1997 (where Cole charted #38) were by powerful female vocalists from Toni Braxton to Mariah Carey. Cole couldn't have had better timing.
"Those '90s were prosperous and romantic," explained Cole in an interview with the Source. "A lot of mom and pop/independent radio and record shops existed. Artists' work wasn't streamed for free by Spotify yet, making one former-Napster dude wealthy and countless artists ripped off. Quality music was fostered by a wealthy America. Feminism quietly appeared in the Gen Xers' music of the '90s. I identify with my generation. We were raised on vinyl by the Silent Generation, forever in the shadow of the Boomers and Millennials. I think our era of music was, and still is, something great."
Cole's ability to sweep from smoky, grounded mid-range to clean, effortless opera falsetto with sultry ease has carried out of the nineties, through a recession and into post-pop-success records.
"That spotlight was unbearable," she explained. "I'm much happier with a modest career with fans who know the content of my character and catalogue. I'm more a middle-aged mom than rock star and no one recognizes me, really, so I have anonymity most of the time. I'm really okay with that."
In 2007, Cole reemerged with her third album, Courage, produced by former Blod, Sweat and Tears drummer Bobby Colomby with a heavy reflection of his jazz influence. Next, Cole released Ithaca in 2010, for which she wrote and co-produced all of the tracks with no label, no manager and a drive to personalize rather than commercialize.
Now a professor at the esteemed Berklee College of Music, her alma mater, Cole has come full circle. 2013's Raven was entirely funded by online crowdsourcing with a Kickstarter campaign that raised over $75,000.
"It was like a trust fall; will they be there to catch me? I'm so happy it was a resounding yes," said Cole. "Raven reminds me of my first two albums, Harbinger and This Fire. I write my heart on my sleeve. I write out my life. I write of my family, my feelings for better or for worse. And the production of Raven is again mine, so it has that signature live, earthy feel of This Fire."
Cole's embrace of the structure of the modern music industry and a conscious effort to return to her roots has grown her career into more than just the Dawson's Creek theme girl, a pigeon hole that without an absurd amount of talent and a level head, could mark an artist forever.
7:30 pm. Fri., March 21
Tower Theatre, 835 NW Wall St.