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Q&A: PAULA COLE

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Like other veteran artists (among them Willie Nile, Marshall Crenshaw and Asleep at the Wheel), singer/songwriter Paula Cole recently turned to Kickstarter as a way to raise money for a music-related project — and was very successful.

Cole hoped to raise $50,000 last fall to offset what she called “the big, costly Ms” — mixing, mastering and manufacturing — for her sixth studio album, Raven. She reached her goal and then some, receiving more than $75,000 in pledges during the campaign’s 37-day window.

Raven was released April 23 on Cole’s own 675 Records, so that means she no longer has the benefit of a major label’s financial or marketing muscle like she did for her breakthrough, This Fire (released in 1996 on the Warner Bros. imprint Imago). That doesn’t seem to matter much to Cole, who is embracing both the freedom and the extra responsibility that go along with what she describes as “a smaller, humbler career.”

“I never liked the confines of people wanting to be artistically involved in my process or decision-making,” she says. “I always wanted to be on digipaks; I hated the whole plastic CD cases. I didn’t get to make that choice [before]. I love not having the record company in the control room with me.”

If her career returned to a level close to its mid-late 1990s commercial peak, when “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” was a huge pop hit and Cole was a freshly minted Best New Artist Grammy Award winner, “I would need help, and I might be in a predicament,” she admits. “But right now, being in the reality of a humbler landscape and the collapse of the old delivery system — now we’re in a digital delivery system — if artists are smart, they can use that to empower themselves. They’ll have to be more entrepreneurial, but it’s wonderful.”

Personally speaking, it’s a big job running a cottage industry, Cole says. And in her role as CEO, she has to handle tasks large and small: “I’m going to the post office with my dog [to take care of company business],” Cole says with a laugh.

On the day Raven was released, Cole checked in via phone to talk about her Kickstarter campaign, choosing “Eloise” as a single and other subjects.

Medleyville.us: Your Kickstarter campaign for Raven was scheduled for 37 days, beginning on the autumnal equinox and ending on a day with a full moon. What was the thought behind establishing that length of time and choosing those particular days?
Paula Cole: (Laughs) “Well, I’m a blend of many influences, and I did spend a good amount of time with some Sikhs in Los Angeles … I learned from that you go with the flow; you observe nature’s cycles and you go with her flow.

“So it just seemed prescient and aware and right to go with Earth cycles. Because [a Kickstarter campaign length] is so random, you know? What are you going to do — choose 21 days? Twenty-five days? Who cares? (laughs) So I looked at the calendar at what’s going on with larger things that are beyond our understanding and went with that — what the heck?

“I love equinoxes: equal light and dark, moving into a different realm. I believe in that stuff. A full moon — all plant life, all tidal and water life corresponds with the lunar calendar. It has quite an impact on us.”

What reservations, if any, did you have about using Kickstarter? Whenever I hear about an artist offering higher-level donors a chance to appear on an album, I can’t help but cringe and also wonder how the artist goes about making that work within the confines of the agreement and the vision for the song.
Cole: “Interestingly, I didn’t have a donor who wanted to play or appear on the album, although I did give the opportunity to provide rhythm. I was going to keep it very basic. I wasn’t going to do any guitar solos or vocal spots. I was going to have it be handclaps or finger snaps — something that we can work with that’s very human and easy.

“But no one ended up wanting to do that at the upper levels. They were more interested in being generous, really, and just helping. The large majority of the Kickstarter contributions were at the $25 level; there’s only a couple at the top. That’s indicative of society in a way, right? (laughs)

“[As for reservations] about Kickstarter, well, ask me in a year, and I’ll have a better perspective. Because I’m still dealing with stragglers who still haven’t sent in their addresses. I’m still unfinished with my pledges; some of them take time. I’ve got a bunch of songs to learn and upload to YouTube in dedication to people. I’ve done four, and I’ve got three more to go. I had to compose an original birthday song because you can’t sing the birthday song — it’s under copyright (laughs).”

Talk about “Eloise,” the first single from Raven.
Cole: “The whole concept of singles is bizarre to me. Sometimes we’ve gotten it right; sometimes I’ve gotten it very wrong. It feels random: ‘Let me, from this collection of songs on an album, choose one and run with it.’

“What I love about ‘Eloise’ was it wasn’t a choice about what sounded single-y or what’s going to do well at radio at all. The director of the video — it’s a guy, although he’s under an alias of his dog’s name (laughs) — and I were just talking about what song to work on together. And it was just a simple, personal conversation between us: ‘Well, what song do you like?’ And I said, ‘Well, what about “Eloise”?’ (laughs) It was very random, and I love that it’s random. And it turns out that people are responding to it well.

“I love it — there’s no A&R department or outreach marketing with cold calls: ‘What demo is going to respond to this song?’ I’m so happy that that [nonsense] hasn’t entered my realm for this album.”

As far as your upcoming tour for Raven, will you have a full band behind you?
Cole: “I’ve been touring anyway; I’m going to be touring at almost the same level I’ve been doing. I’m on tour anyway for my fans, and now the album comes along and gives it a fresh bump. I have to work weekends because I have family and I also very much value my personal life, and I’m never going to put it at risk like I did in the ’90s. I want very much for there to be a balance between my family and my work, so I’m going to work primarily around weekends. I’m not going to go endlessly on the road — like, ‘See ya,’ and take off on the tour bus. I don’t have the numbers to support that at this point, anyway.

“I’m performing in the trio like I always do. I’m on piano, and I’m kind of left-hand bass heavy on the piano the way I play, so it kind of replaces the bass in a sense. So we just go out as a trio: guitar, piano, drums — and it sounds pretty full, actually.”

As a past Grammy winner for Best New Artist, do you pay close attention to that category each year?
Cole: (Laughs) “I totally don’t pay attention. In fact, I never even watched the Grammys before I was on it, which was part of the problem. I was a little naïve or, I don’t know, a little too far left and out of the scene.

“I’m honored by the [Best New Artist] honor. It gives me a phrase after my name or before my name that opens doors, like a degree or a title would. But beyond that, I certainly don’t extract too much meaning on it — and I shouldn’t. And nobody should. Really, I think it’s about the quality of the music, and what are you leaving behind? And what are you doing with it? Are you elevating people? Are you making people feel uplifted? There’s a nobler purpose in music beyond entertainment, I think. There’s a social, moral, political and emotional purpose to music that I take really seriously.”

— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior

Paula Cole on tour (schedule subject to change):

* May 3: City Winery — New York
* May 4: Historic Blairstown Theater — Blairstown, N.J.
* May 5: World Café Live — Philadelphia
* May 9: Yoshi’s — San Francisco
* May 10: The Triple Door — Seattle
* May 12: Scherr Forum Theatre — Thousand Oaks, Calif.
* June 13: Sunset Music Festival — Leawood, Kan.
* June 28: Legion Arts — Cedar Rapids, Iowa
* June 29: Ravinia — Highland Park, Ill.
* July 13: Chapin Rainbow Stage — Huntington, N.Y.
* Aug. 22-23: Shalin Liu Performance Center — Rockport, Mass.