I first interviewed Paula Cole back in 1994 when she was touring in support of her debut album “Harbinger,” and opening for Sarah McLachlan at the State Theatre in Portland. Since then we’ve chatted once, two years later when she was headlining at Raoul’s Roadside Attractions, also in Portland. When I discovered that she was coming to Johnson Hall Theater in Gardiner on Feb. 23 supporting her 2017 album, “Ballads” — which is a covers album including “God Bless The Child,” “Blue Moon,” “Willow Weep For Me,” “Autumn Leaves” and “Ode To Billy Joe,” just to mention a few, I just had to reconnect if I could.

On Jan. 10, she called me from her Salem, Massachusetts, home to talk about that album and how things have been going in the last 20 or so years. I began by commenting on her newest CD, which she released on her own 675 Records label.

Q: Having followed your career over these many years, I don’t think I’ve heard your voice better suited then want you’ve put out on “Ballads.” Not only do you make these 20 songs your own, you’ve sung them with a voice that was created to sing jazz.

Cole: Well, I started as a jazz singer and I’ve been loving and living with the music of these masters for decades. I’ve turned down a few recording contracts with jazz labels because they weren’t right and I’ve been longing to make my own production. I suppose because I wanted a rootsy take on it all, more of a guitar base — a Wes Montgomery influence — and rhythm section. And these songs are very dear to me so I’ve been waiting a long time.

Q: What was the recording session like for this album?

Cole: We recorded 31 songs in five days so I decided to do a double album of 20, but there are still 11 — and there’s a 12th song, too. That will come out down the road a little bit as “Ballads 2,” so there’s more!

Q: Yea! That’s the best news I’ve heard in a while, for sure. Have you ever performed at Johnson Hall before?

Cole: No, I’ve not, not to my knowledge, no.

Q: Well, I think you’ll enjoy the venue. Mike Miclon and his crew are the best.

Cole: Oh, great. I mean, people in Maine generally as a culture are just fine!

Q: Who will you bring with you for backing musicians or will this be a solo performance?

Cole: It’ll be myself and Chris Bruce on guitar, who’s on the “Ballads” album and has been touring with me for years now and is a musical right arm, as is Ross Gallagher on upright bass, who’s from Blue Hill, Maine and currently lives in Bath. And there’s my sound engineer, Frank DeGennaro who used to tour with Ornette Coleman and has been with me for 12 years now, so he’s the hidden Beatle behind the sound desk. So we’re a family.

Q: Are you doing any other Maine shows or is Johnson Hall the only one?

Cole: Just the Johnson Hall gig and we have a show at a performing arts center in Greenfield, Massachusetts, the night before, so it’s just two shows that weekend. I’m trying to lay low, I’m not on a more comprehensive tour right now because I’m in the studio again working on my next album of originals, so I’m recording and finishing mixes and finishing up this album, but I still don’t know the title. But I’m excited about the music and do occasional shows through spring and summer. We’ll be really focused on the more dense fall tour around the release of the album.

Q: Will this new CD be along the same lines as “Raven” (her 2013 album on 675 Records)?

Cole: Not really. It’s very diverse musically, it’s like “Amen” part two, if you look at my catalog, and it has themes of social justice and there’s a more urban influence, but it also has quiet ballads. It’s very mixed and stylistically diverse, it feels very contemporary, it’s probably the most contemporary thing I’ve done in a long time.

Q: I can’t wait to hear it, but back to “Ballads” if you will — there’s more to those songs than just jazz, correct?

Cole: The musicians and I were all informed by jazz but also blues and rock and country and Americana so put it all together and you get what you get (chuckle).

Q: Now when you come up to Johnson Hall, will you be concentrating on the songs from “Ballads” or will you be pulling other material out?

Cole: I will always pull from “Ballads” now, at least a couple of songs, because it’s so wonderful to have released it: I can finally draw upon this material more frequently in my shows. And I think in 2019 I’ll be mixing it up until the new album release happens. I’ll be pulling from “Ballads” and other albums, and I have eight or nine studio albums now.

Q: I remember back to the first time I saw you, you had Jay Bellerose on drums and Kevin Barry on guitars, and it was a killer set.

Cole: And they have gone on to have tremendous careers of their own. I mean, Jay is the right-hand man to T-Bone Burnett and is one of the most successful session drummers in LA right now and has been for a couple of decades because these amazing producers discovered him. He was my drummer all those years and I’ve been so fortunate to share my life with him. He’s from Maine, too, Old Orchard Beach. He’s been a tremendous influence to me and now he’s that in modern music. I mean, he’s on that beautiful “Raising Sand” album with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant and I think he’s a special ingredient to that album.

Q: Is there anything you’d like to pass on to the folks reading this article?

Cole: I’m profoundly grateful to still be here on the landscape of the music business. It’s not easy and it takes the artist and those folks who are listening and making it fly. I’m really so grateful for everyone’s support, that’s number one. I’m grateful to be an independent artist and off of the (major) labels so I’m more prolific and creative than ever before. Mostly I’m grateful to be here and making music and I hope people come out and see the strength of the live show.

Lucky Clark has spent a half-century writing about good music and the people who make it. He can be reached at [email protected] if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.


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