Paula Cole Live at City Winery

Photos © 2019 by: Terry Trippany

Photos © 2019 by: Terry Trippany

Check out more great live photos here!

Paula Cole’s tenth album, Revolution, fulfills the promise of her 1994 debut. Titled Harbinger, it hinted at what was to come in the singer-songwriter’s life and career. It didn’t so much foreshadow her subsequent accomplishments: the double-platinum second album, This Fire; her hit singles “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone” and “I Don’t Want To Wait,” her Best New Artist Grammy and an additional six Grammy nominations; or becoming a Grammy-nominated producer and founder of her own 675 record label. But Harbinger signaled Cole’s dedication to breaking the silence of generations of women and giving voice to those left behind by history.

On Revolution Cole tells a wider story of all those sidelined by gender, age and race, beginning with her great-grandmother Charlotte, who hovers like a restless spirit over the album, first making an appearance in “Blues in Gray,” in which generational choices are forced upon her, obliging her to choose marriage over education, household drudgery over self-realization.

Charlotte also appears in the tour de force, “Silent,” the final song written for the album. More short story than song, it’s painful and specific: Cole’s voice trembles with uncomfortable memories of being a witness to abuse and then a victim of it herself. But it is not a victim’s tale, it’s the account of someone who learned that keeping quiet causes much more harm than speaking out — even though she hears her great-grandmother’s voice in her head instructing her to “hush.” She has come to regret that unspoken advice over the years, and that realization is one of the inspirations for this album. On Revolution, Paula Cole speaks out, testifying loudly for all those who did not.

“Carl Jung says we are primarily guided by the unfinished hopes and dreams of our parents,” Cole says quietly from her Massachusetts home. “My father didn’t get to be a professional musician and loved music so passionately, so I studied jazz and dedicated my last album of jazz standards, Ballads, to him. My mother didn’t really get to have expression until now — I should say recognition — because she was expressing herself by making art with whatever material she could find. Now, at the age of 76, she is making her first museum debut and a larger instillation next year. So I’m guided by generations of women who didn’t have a voice.”

But it’s not just a women’s album by any means. “Oh, God. Can we bury the Lilith Fair? I’m proud I did that, absolutely,” says Cole, who appeared on two of the three female-centered tours. “But this is so much more a racial discussion.”

She was moved by the work of Marvin Gaye, whom she covers here on “The Ecology (Mercy, Mercy Me);” Nina Simone and Bob Marley. “I was so inspired by [their] courage to stand up and interweave social justice themes with spirituality. Most of my heroes combine the two, if not in their words, then their deeds.”

The title track, “Revolution (Is a State of Mind),” excerpts Martin Luther King’s speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” delivered at New York’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, eerily exactly one year before he was assassinated. When jazz pianist and singer Bob Thompson, from NPR’s Mountain Stage, recites King’s carefully considered words, it’s a much needed tap on the shoulder from the ethers.

Chilling and pure, the line “Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality” cuts deep. Powerful in its simplicity and certitude, it’s elevated by Nona Hendryx’s gospel moans and exhortations, blending with Cole’s pure, clear soprano to create a moving invocation.

King’s death is an important touchstone for Cole. “I was born the morning after MLK was shot. His death was a part of my life,” she explains. “My mom tells me how she cried together with the African-American OB/GYN nurse before she went under for my C-section. Many of my heroes and champions have been African Americans, and we as a nation have not come to terms with our horrific past and present.

“I have biracial family members, and I must write and sing about this. I wish a lot more white people would. I got sh*t for it when I made Amen in 1999, but over time it’s become a lot of people’s favorite album of mine, and I’m proud I stood up for social and political values. I encourage my writing students at Berklee College of Music, where I’ve taught for the last six years, to be a voice for the world. Picasso said, ‘Artists are the politicians of the future.’ I
believe that to be true.”

If not a politician, Cole is something of a medium, a visionary, a lightning rod. On “7 Deadly
Sins,” her longtime friend Meshell N’Degeocello defines, in inspired, almost academic prose, each sin in her throaty, alien but strangely reasonable voice, while a disembodied choir of what sounds like disappointed angels sings the name of each: pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth.

But just recounting them is hardly enough. Cole wants action, and she means to get it … without sacrificing compassion and conscience. As she sings on “Universal Empathy”:

I want to get militant/I want to divide and scream.
But I think on Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream.
I know that in ev’ry soul regardless of their skin
Or age or sex or identity lies the empathy within.

And as she girds to fight the big battles, Cole finds a place for the small important details in life. Second-wave feminists have reminded us since the late ‘60s that the “personal is political,” that it’s in that realm that the germ of change and awareness begins.

So, after the stirring mission statement of “Revolution (Is a State of Mind),” Cole pillages her own life, exploring familial and personal wounds, not sparing herself or those closest to her in her insistence on telling important and sometimes terrible truths.

It’s all grist for Cole’s mill, because she feels she owes that kind of honesty to her audiences. She is talking to the tribe, and in showing who she is, she allows them to see themselves more clearly. Because if anything, art is a mirror.