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Paula Cole has never been afraid of speaking complex truths. With a musical catalog defined by honest and deeply personal lyrics carried by her powerful, radiant voice, Cole has always had a gift for discerning the underlying humanity in stories from her own life as well as those around her, and channeling those emotional elements into captivating music. On her latest record, Cole has applied this natural insight to American history and musical roots traditions by interpreting a selection of classic songs – each of which provide an entry point for rediscovering the overlooked stories and figures that populate America’s interwoven cultural lineage.
“I wanted this album to reflect a patchwork of music from the cities and the mountains, the fields and the rivers – from movies, to melodies that traversed oceans, centuries, cultures, and continents – sewn together with our collective heartstrings,” says singer-songwriter Paula Cole of the luminous American Quilt. Not just a geographical tapestry, the breathtaking collection is a cavalcade of blues, jazz, folk, pop, and gospel – with Cole’s remarkable voice the roadmap to Americana, jazz, and standards.
This time around, on her eleventh album, she has restricted her own writing to one stunning composition, the lyrically and sonically multilayered “Hidden in Plain Sight (I Dream).” “I had heard some historical stories regarding slave quilts, so I did some research and composed ‘Hidden in Plain Sight,’” Cole explains. “It is said that women artists created clues and secrets within their quilts and hung them in plain sight for other slaves seeking to flee to the Underground Railroad. The quilts served as education, guidance for the journey. And it was women’s work, so nobody paid any attention – and it was a radical act!”
By seeking to elevate the story of marginalized communities from the past and uncover the deeper role their traditions played in America’s story, “Hidden in Plain Sight” conveys something of a statement of purpose for American Quilt. And it should come as no surprise that Cole was drawn to the inherently subversive aspects of the story, given Cole’s propensity as an artist to give voice to acts of humble, everyday revolution.
American Quilt follows 2019’s acclaimed album of originals, Revolution, deemed by PopMatters as “an exceptional piece of work, a timely reminder of how soulful and perceptive a writer and singer Cole is and has always been.” Cole’s legions of fans would agree.
They were there when Cole garnered seven Grammy nominations for her second album and major-label debut, This Fire, with its timeless hits, “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” and “I Don’t Want to Wait” (later the theme song for hit TV series Dawson’s Creek). Along with winning Best New Artist in 1997, Cole was the first sole woman (without collaborators) nominated as Producer of the Year. At the time, even convincing a label to produce one’s own album was a major achievement. But prior to its recording, as she demoed songs in her railroad apartment, Cole knew “I needed to stay true to myself. It was so integral to the music. Not to produce would be like cutting off my arms or something.” Today, as a visiting scholar at Berklee College of Music, Cole tells “all my female students, ‘Start thinking like a producer, think about how you want the whole track to sound, be a voice.’”
Cole consistently has used her voice “for women,” she reflects. “Being a feminist has always informed my music. I do this for my great-grandmother, I do this for my mother, I do this for me, and I do this for my daughter, who I want to be a strong woman in the world.” Cole grew up in an artistic family, with her mother a visual artist and her father a multi-instrumentalist. Both held down jobs as teachers. When Cole’s daughter was born, she took nearly eight years off from touring to focus on parenting. “I love that I was able to have it all,” says Cole, “to be a mother and come back to my career. I love music and I don’t stray from that. I’m dedicated to my path.” Since her 1994 indie-label debut, Harbinger, Cole’s work also has reflected her focus on social justice, from songs she’s written to those she’s covered. American Quilt is no exception.
The genesis of American Quilt dates to 2016 when Cole cut 31 songs in 5 days, 20 of which comprised her 2017 double album, Ballads. Ranging from “God Bless the Child” to “Ode to Billie Joe,” Cole’s selections mirror her early jazz and country-folk influences. Her father, who played bass in a polka band, bought Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash records, with Cole learning to sing “Delta Dawn” as a child. As a Berklee student, her early ambition was to be a jazz vocalist. “I loved jazz, but I ran into inner psychological walls,” says Cole. “I felt some ‘imposter syndrome,’ being a white person singing an African-American art form. It led me to the truth that I needed to write my own music, so I left the path of jazz and began writing and recording my own songs.”
Ballads certainly rekindled her love of singing jazz, and she originally planned to release a sequel. But when she revisited material from those sessions, “finishing and remixing tracks, adding more vocals and clarinet parts,” she realized she wanted her new work to “reflect a diversity of music that is me,” she says, “to go beyond genre. Because that is an ethos of my life – I don’t like being in boxes. I’ve always been difficult to categorize. I decided the tracks from Ballads needed a tempering, a rounding out. So I went back in the studio in January 2020 and recorded much rootsier songs.”
As on previous albums, Cole was joined by a longtime “family” of musicians, including esteemed drummer Jay Bellerose and guitarist Kevin Barry, collaborators since the trio’s days at Berklee. “I love them,” says Cole. “We toured all through the ‘90s together and they’ve been on most of my albums and tours. They’re truly my family. I wouldn’t be who I am without Jay Bellerose and Kevin Barry. They’ve given me bravery and given me heart.”
The result: “Together these songs make an American Quilt,” says Cole, “a patchwork of heritage, a stitched-together-history of culture both painful and beautiful. I hope the listener will step inside the canoe and float down the Missouri River of their mind. I hope they will hear the gospel of the country, and taste the liquor in the speakeasies. I hope they will feel the freedom in the jazz of the cities, heed the call to morality in the spirituality of a day’s hard work, and the call to the Great Beyond from the Appalachians.”
The diverse tracks hold together seamlessly, with Cole meticulously sequencing two different versions of the album, one for vinyl and CD release and the other for streaming – because the listening experience varies depending on the format, says Cole: “It took months to come up with the sequencing. I was shuffling songs all day as I did chores in the house, so I could hear the heads and tails and how they sequence.” For the “experiential listener,” the album opens with the 1941 standard “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” paying homage, Cole says, to John Coltrane’s 1962 interpretation, with Cole’s exquisite vocals backed by Bellerose, Barry, upright bassist Dennis Crouch, and Consuelo Candelaria Barry on piano. Cole originally discovered the spiritual “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” on Johnny Cash and Odetta records. Cole is joined on soul-stirring sisterhood harmonies by powerhouse Darcel Wilson, a veteran of the Revolution album and tour. “I love that it’s a morality tale from a woman’s point of view,” says Cole.
The 18th-century mountain ballad, “Wayfaring Stranger,” came to Cole via Emmylou Harris, who counseled her during a rough period when she nearly quit the music business. Harris’s version appeared on 1980’s Roses in the Snow, “a profound influence” on Cole: “It’s a nod to Emmylou because I love her so dearly and she’s so important in my life.” Featuring recent Berklee grad Kathleen Parks on fiddle and Ross Gallagher on upright bass, “Wayfaring Stranger” is “a song of hope for world-weary travelers,” says Cole, “who endure suffering and heartache and fantasize about the great beyond over Jordan and reuniting with loved ones.”
Another centuries’ old tune, “Shenandoah” dates to fur traders traveling the Missouri by canoe in the early 1800s, with the melody later transported by sailors crossing the Atlantic to the British Isles. Cole arranged it with an intricate web of vocals, including Darcel Wilson on alto and soprano and Peter Eldritch on baritone and tenor. “The song hypnotized me,” Cole confesses. “We layered so many voices, it builds and builds, and then Darcel overtakes my vocals. She becomes the central singer and takes us home with a spiritual journey at the end.”
One of Cole’s favorite twelve-bar blues is the great Bessie Smith’s “Black Mountain Blues,” frequently covered by a pre-fame Janis Joplin in the 1960s. “I like that it’s not another ‘woman as victim’ song,” says Cole. “It’s like strong black coffee and it’s warrioresque.” Another 1920s blues made famous by Smith, “Nobody Knows You (When You’re Down and Out)” “typifies Bessie to me,” says Cole. “She ends it with, ‘No man can use you when you’re down and out.’ I love the way she gave advice to other women, encouraging them to be strong, to be yourself and not feel shame.”
The 31st track Cole recorded in 2016, “Good Morning Heartache” is a Billie Holiday delight from 1946. “We were tired when we cut it and I like that,” says Cole. “You can feel that relaxed nature.” After listening to the rough mix, she determined “it needed something, so I added clarinet parts.” Of the instrument she played back in fourth grade, she confesses, “I like to put clarinet on every album I make – like a little Alfred Hitchcock cameo.”
Cole’s spare arrangement of the 1926 standard “Bye Bye Blackbird” is a bow to Miles Davis’ version, with her only accompaniment upright bass and guitar. “I worship at the altar of Miles Davis,” Cole says. “I love him for his economy and his use of space.” The track also marks the first time Cole has improvised vocally on record. She hates the connotation of the term “scat singing,” though she adores the vocal improvisations of Ella Fitzgerald, Chet Baker, and Louis Armstrong. “I have been waiting years to finally let myself be brave enough to do a vocal improvisation publicly,” she admits. It must be said, she pulls it off brilliantly.
The most stirring song on the album is Cole’s “Hidden in Plain Sight” – written during the pandemic. The evocative track opens with her quiet a cappella reading of the spiritual “Steal Away,” which Cole calls “a codified protest song – not just ‘steal away to Jesus,’ but steal away to Canada.” Segueing into the rhythmic “Hidden,” its lyrics detail heroic endeavors of enslaved women who stitched elaborate quilts that served as roadmaps to freedom. “I needed to write a song to more deeply reflect upon and acknowledge our tragedy of slavery,” Cole explains. “Africans essentially built the American economy through its rice, tobacco, sugar, and cotton trades. The cultural influence they brought to music is indescribably profound. This history is a vital aspect of our proverbial American Quilt.”
“In the song, each verse represents a quilting pattern, and advice for the traveler,” says Cole. “‘Monkey’s wrench’ and ‘flying geese’ are quilting patterns, as are ‘bear trail’ and ‘crossroads.’ Each quilt pattern, each verse, tells listeners – like the wayfarers of yore – how to pack, steal away, follow geese to water, through the Appalachians, to the North, to the crossroads city of Cleveland, to disguise in different clothing, to ferry to Canada to freedom, where one can finally begin a new life. I wrote this in some unspoken solemn prayer that we may evolve forward, by more deeply acknowledging, and making reparations for the past.”
American Quilt closes with Louis Armstrong’s 1967 signature song, “What a Wonderful World.” “I love that he’s genre-less,” says Cole. “He totally symbolizes being an American musical mixture. I’m always telling my students, ‘Try not to be hemmed in, drink in all influences, cross-pollinate.’ Pops unified black and white audiences – which is something we need now more than ever.” For Cole, herself the mother of a biracial child, “Diversity is crucial – the blending of genre, cross-pollination, being robust in our diversity. The wider the gene pool, the stronger the biological specimen is. I feel like it’s my life’s work to talk about it.” And with American Quilt, she’s done exactly that.