In her hit single “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?,” Paula Cole plays the part of a lonely woman pining for her “John Wayne"--a meat-eating, beer-drinking, gunslinging kind of guy who will keep her happily barefoot and pregnant while he works on his tractor and raises Cain at the local bar.
Cole wouldn’t be likely to meet such a fellow in the place she’s having lunch this afternoon--a macrobiotic Japanese restaurant.
It’s one of the singer’s favorite hangouts, actually, a cozy bistro just a stone’s throw from her apartment in Manhattan’s arty Chelsea district, a part of town that’s rarely associated with unfettered machismo.
“I found out what John Wayne’s real name was,” Cole announces, picking up a vegetarian hand roll. “It was Marion Morrison. Isn’t that just great?”
In fact, the generally soft-spoken, sweet-faced singer insists that “Cowboys” was intended as an ironic study of the gender stereotypes that continue to plague us even in the more-politically-correct-than-thou ‘90s.
“The story in the song isn’t about me,” Cole, 29, points out. “It’s about a sort of everywoman, and I’m looking at her life--compassionately, I hope--and saying that, as much as we think we’re progressing, there’s still work to be done. For me, [the lyrics are] sarcastic. But it’s amazing how different people interpret the song, how many different levels of consciousness there are out there. I like the fact that people apply their own meaning to the song.”
However varied the analyses of “Cowboys” have been, this shimmering, infectious tune--an especially pop-savvy representation of Cole’s gracefully textured sound, which layers soul, jazz and world music accents over a folk-rock base--has gotten a resounding thumbs-up from music fans.
Now in the national Top 10 for its sixth week, the single has pushed shipments of Cole’s second album, “This Fire,” to more than half a million, according to the Recording Industry Assn. of America. In addition, a video for “Cowboys” is being featured heavily on MTV and VH1. The latter channel was particularly enthusiastic in its support, making Cole its first “Inside Track” artist of 1997--the equivalent of being selected for MTV’s “Buzz Bin.”
“I always got a feeling of sincerity and soul from her,” says Wayne Isaak, VH1’s senior vice president of music and talent relations, who has followed Cole’s career for years.
“We only do one or two ‘Inside Track’ artists at any given time, but we knew ‘Cowboys’ was a unique song and needed a big push early on to jam it past the initial resistance it might get.
“But I don’t think her career will be about this one song, as good as it is. She’s a real artist, and she has the potential to grow and sell more albums. I think she represents both feminism and the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll.”
Cole attributes much of her freewheeling creative spirit to her upbringing in Rockport, Mass., a rural town of about 5,000. Her mother was a visual artist, her father an entomologist who played bass in a polka band. The family, which also included an older sister, didn’t own acolor TV and almost never listened to the radio.
Instead, Cole was encouraged to entertain herself independently, by improvising melodies and vocal parts to accompany the blues guitar riffs that her dad would play around the house.
Later, Cole was voted both president and prom queen of her high school class, honors she modestly shrugs off. “There were only 68 students in my class,” she explains. “And I was respected, but I wasn’t popular with boys or anything. I couldn’t even get a date to the prom, so I went with a friend--and was elected queen! It was strange.”
Cole blossomed at Boston’s esteemed Berklee College of Music, where, she says, she “became a sexual being and started making the mistakes that we all make.” She also took classes in jazz singing, formally studying the process of improvisation that she had been drawn to since childhood.
It was her ambivalence about these studies that placed Cole on her current career path.
“Because I had a lot of heavy goals and expectations placed on my shoulders, I was becoming increasingly cerebral about singing,” she says. “As a result, I was getting more and more cut off from just loving it, from doing it from my heart. So out of frustration, I started writing my own songs, just using my own feelings about my life. And I got so much positive reinforcement that it was clear to me that this was where my destiny lay.”
After graduating, Cole moved to San Francisco, where she continued to write songs and began shopping for a record deal. She was signed by the independent label Imago Records in 1992, and released her first album, “Harbinger,” two years later. (“Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?,” which she wrote several years ago, was originally considered for “Harbinger.”)
John Carter, who has managed Cole since 1991 and has also produced or managed such artists as Eels and Tina Turner, views the singer as a female artist who could potentially generate the sort of respect Peter Gabriel has received.
“From the first time I saw her perform, she always connected with the audience in a way that was extremely rare,” he says. “When you’ve been in the business of identifying young talent for 25 years, as I have, it becomes obvious who is not just a talented artist but a career artist, as opposed to a trendy performer with a bad haircut. I feel Paula has a long career ahead of her.”
A pre-release copy of “Harbinger” reached singer Gabriel, who was so impressed that he invited Cole to join him as backup singer and duet partner on his 1993-94 tour.
“Performing with Peter was a tremendous experience,” says Cole, who used Gabriel as a guest vocalist on “This Fire.”
“I was able to overcome some of the boundaries of my shyness and to learn how to take up space on the stage. I always knew I had the ability to do that, I guess, but I needed the opportunity.”
Since the release last October of “This Fire"--through Warner Bros., which in 1995 signed Cole to a distribution deal, though she still records on Imago--Cole has devoted most of her time and energy to developing the live-performance skills that she calls the “yang” of making music, in contrast to the “yin” of writing and recording.
She’ll be among numerous high-profile female artists featured on this summer’s Lilith Fair tour, a testosterone-free alternative to Lollapalooza spearheaded by singer Sarah McLachlan. It rolls into Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre on July 9. After that, another leg of appearances promoting “This Fire” will keep Cole on the road well into 1998.
“But I’m starting to crave the yin again,” she admits. “Writing is usually a solitary, introspective process for me. When I need to write, I begin feeling like something is gestating inside of me.”
* Paula Cole appears with Sarah McLachlan, Tracy Chapman, Jewel and others at Lilith Fair, July 9 at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, 8800 Irvine Center Drive, Laguna Hills, 4:30 p.m. $22-$42. (714) 855-4515.