Paula Cole released her 11th album over the pandemic, a collection of cover versions titled American Quilt. Now the Grammy-winner is readying the followup, a collection of originals that she hints will be “autobiographical.” A few of the new tracks are already recorded, including a collaboration with Alabama’s own Jason Isbell and John Paul White.
Before making a rare stop in Alabama this week, Cole spoke to me about how that collaboration came to be and about finding her place within Americana.
How long have you been off the road during the pandemic? Is this your first time back out in a while?
I’ve performed [about ten] shows now. Before that, it had been two years. I had a fall tour in 2019 for Revolution. We got off the road for the holidays and I was in the studio and then things started getting funky, you know? [laughs] So it’s been a two year break, and it’s so interesting what that brings about. The creativity, thankfully, doesn’t stop. I was still writing and recording and I put out American Quilt. I released that during the pandemic. We did a couple of recorded live performances at a nearby theater that were taped and used for promotional purposes, but we’ve only just started touring. I started in Cleveland at the end of August. It’s been mixed. [laughs] I think older demographics are a bit nervous to come out. But on the other hand, there’s this brilliant passion from the fans and me just to be in the transcendence of live music again. There’s some cancellations and rerouting and safety protocols. It’s been interesting.
American Quilt is mostly covers. How do you choose songs that you want to cover?
It’s not like I had some great concept in the sky. This really came together intuitively. It cobbled itself together. I started with some leftover recordings from my Ballads album, because we recorded 31 songs in five days for that album. I’m a pent-up jazz and folk singer; that’s what I thought I was going to be–a jazz singer. I went off to Berklee College of Music thinking I’d be a female Chet Baker; a vocal improviser. I was singing standards a lot and I realized that I needed to sing my own truth. So I started writing my songs and my career went in that direction. But all the while, I was singing on other people’s jazz albums as a guest. I was collaborating with jazz artists, but I wanted to release my own. I wanted it to be a folksy, bluesy kind of raggedy version of that; not too polished, definitely guitar-based. So in 2017, I released Ballads.
And this is like Ballads Part II because some of the songs that I recorded like [Johnny Cash’s] “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” was a Ballads track and it was a strong track, but it wasn’t quite right for Ballads. It’s super rootsy, and I just felt like, “I’m gonna wait on that.” There were a handful of songs like “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” that beautiful blues song that Bessie Smith made famous – these came from the Ballads sessions. So I started with that bread starter. And I realized I needed more.
So I went back into the studio in January of 2020, just before the pandemic hit, and we recorded songs like “Black Mountain Blues” and “Shenendoah,” “Bye Bye Blackbird” and “What a Wonderful World” and “Wayfaring Stranger.” It felt nearly complete, but something was bothering me. And that was, firstly, a title. It’s a weird album. It’s all higgledy-piggledy [laughs] and what’s the concept here?
I felt that it was truly a patchwork. Like an American quilt; a stitched together group of songs. Some came from sailors going across the Atlantic and some came from the cities and some came from the mountains, but it’s all classic American music; the blues being the great denominator. So I realized that if I’m going to be singing about an American quilt, I need to touch upon our history of slavery. So I researched American slave quilts. It was mind-blowing and fascinating and I couldn’t find an existing song about slave quilts, so I wrote one. That’s “Hidden in Plain Sight,” the one original song. It’s the story of a slave leaving the plantation and following the clues that are stitched into a slave quilt; clues of how to escape to the Underground Railroad, up to Cleveland and across to Canada to freedom. Each verse is a quilting square, and those quilting squares are still used today. It’s very profound. The concept of that really touched my heart and I needed it to be a part of our metaphorical American history in this album.
Now I’m writing again and working on my next album. That’ll be originals and more autobiographical.
Do you have a target date on that one? Early next year?
I’d like to be in the studio early next year. I’m on tour now and that’s going to take a lot of time. I have some writing to do. So I’d like to go back in the studio.
I started it. I have a nice little batch of songs already. One of them was with Jason Isbell and John Paul White. We got together in Nashville and recorded a song together. It’s so beautiful and I’m really happy with it. I can’t wait for the world to hear that. I also recorded four others. I’m enjoying this reflective time to think about writing. The earliest would be next fall. But maybe January of 2023.
Jason and John Paul are Alabama boys, and I was excited to see that unfolding. Can you tell me more about the experience? How did it go down?
I feel like my life is better now that I’ve met them. They’re both such beautiful hearts and souls and talents. I was so blown away. I was so touched by them both. All of it was very profound for me.
I was asked in an interview this very specific question – it was very strange – “If you could collaborate with any male singer-songwriter, who would it be?” And I just started really deeply listening to Jason’s music and I was humbled by his writing. I was drawn into his writing. I loved the writing and the voice – all of it. And I had recently seen this video of John Paul White singing a duet with Rose Cousins and I was so struck by his voice, which led me down the rabbit hole of listening to his music. And I had no idea that they were from the same area! That was so fortuitous and random! So I just mentioned them, and the article came out and Jason clearly is…on his phone a lot. He got this interview and retweeted it – this all happened over Twitter – and he said, “Somebody better call me! Y’all better believe I’ll do this!”
We were tweeting back and forth, so I booked a studio in Nashville and we figured out when he’d be free and we all came together and John Paul White happened to be in Nashville then…it was just beautiful. It was beautiful. They’re both humble gentlemen who are hard workers and gorgeous talents. It was so fun to work together. I can’t wait to do another one. We need to do another song together. I feel like that’s a thing. I just love them.
You’re a bit of trailblazer in Americana music, even if you don’t find yourself there…
That’s kind of you to say. I always felt like a misfit. I never fit in any one genre. In the mid-90s and late-90s, there was AAA, which was adult alternative. It was so mixed and so diverse, and that’s where I fit. I’m a mixture of genres. My dad was a professional musician, so he’d literally play in a polka band and then come home and play Duke Ellington on the piano and folk songs on the banjo and upright bass. I remember thinking that it was all possible and there shouldn’t be delineations between various music. That’s for non-musicians; the classification process. That’s to divide us and to market to us based on age and race and gender.
Part of the ethos for American Quilt is that it’s best when it’s diverse. I was so happy and touched and heart-warmed by Americana, who I feel have embraced me. I was a little forgotten there for a little while! People didn’t know how to classify me. I wasn’t classifiable. I’m too much of a mixture. I don’t fit in boxes. I’m so happy to see Americana being so diverse. And then finding warmth and acceptance and my place in Americana. It reminds me of AAA radio – that kind of diversity again. I’m so glad for that. And I hope they don’t break it up into more subcategories based on the wrong things. I am that. I am that American mixture. I’m that genetically and I’m that musically. I’m touched to see that there is support for me in this thing called Americana.
Paula Cole comes to the Hoover Library Theater on November 4 and November 5. The performances are scheduled for 7-9:30 p.m.