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.