In 1996, former Berklee choir girl Paula Cole entered a New York City recording studio to begin production on This Fire, the follow-up to her stunning 1994 debut, Harbinger. Two weeks later, the singer songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist emerged with what she modestly referred to as her "little piece of art," an emotionally resonant album that rippled with earthy sensuality, soul-on-the-sleeve-sincerity and beautiful, poignant melodies that could not be erased. Fueled by two smash singles, "Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?" and "I Don’t Want to Wait," (a.k.a. the theme to Dawson’s Creek), This Fire blazed onto the pop charts, blanketing both MTV and VH1, while garnering a remarkable seven Grammy nominations, including one for the Producer of the Year. Paula is the first woman in Grammy history to receive that honor. The New York Times called her, "…a rising talent with tremendous artistic potential," while Entertainment Weekly praised Paula as, "…a feisty poet with a soaring voice and a funky groove."
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In addition to entertaining U. S. troops in the Persian Gulf, Paula toured endlessly, playing both Europe and the States while also performing on nationally syndicated television programs such as The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Late Show with David Letterman, Regis & Kathie Lee, Late Night with Conan O’ Brien and Saturday Night Live. When all was said and done, Paula’s critically- acclaimed "little piece of art" had sold more that two million copies and earned her a Grammy win for Best New Artist. So much for the dreaded sophomore jinx.
If This Fire served notice of Paula’s arrival, then new self-produced album Amen is confirmation that she’s here to stay. Together with former schoolmates/collaborators of the past 11 years, "soul brothers" Jay Bellerose (drums) and Kevin Barry (guitars), Paula has created an album without borders — a fresh, soulful record that inspires and celebrates life through an intoxicating blend of incendiary vocals, warm, supple grooves and soothing, graceful wordplay. It’s a safe to say that from both a musical and spiritual standpoint, Amen is her most ambitious record to date.
Says Paula, "It was really important for me to make an uplifting record, especially now with the coming of the millennium. I think people are feeling a lot of conflicting emotions and contemplating their mortality a little more than ever before. With that in mind, I wanted to make a positive contribution through music — and album that fills people with hope and makes then want to dance around the room."
From the Love Unlimited Orchestra-like funk the of lead single "I Believe In Love," it’s obvious that the Paula Cole Band has added a few new flavors to an already rich and creamy sound. "Jay, Kevin and myself are all rooted in black music." she says.
"Although people like Dolly Parton, Annie Lennox, Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel had a definite influence on me, I was also heavily influenced by artists like Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Marvin Gaye, Miles Davis and Bob Marley. I wanted to honor those people with this record, hoping is would appeal to people of all colors and maybe bring us all a little closer."
Adding to Amen’s sultry, free-flowing melodicism is the appearance of Gang Starr’s DJ Premier, now one of the most sought-after producers in rap. Says Paula, "I love Gang Starr and was so excited to have someone ‘old school’ and authentic contributing to the album." Premier scratches on both the album’s stunning title track and on "Rhythm of Life," a song which features Paula alternating between rapping and singing. "I’ve never done that on a record before, but I love hip hop and just decided to go for it," she laughs. "I did do sort of a bare bones talking part on ‘Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?’ but I think it sounds better when you all a little ‘flava.’ I don’t care if I get criticized for it, that’s what moves me."
Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins of TLC also appears on Amen, singing backing vocals during the final chorus of the album’s provocative centerpiece, " Be Somebody." "She was so sweet and down to earth, and her breathy voice was a perfect for that part," says Paula. "It was important for me to have us sing together on that particular song, symbolically unifying black and white."
Other standouts on Amen include that crusted velvet caress of "Suwannee Jo," a song diehards will recognize from Paula’s live set; the tender and radiant "Pearl," and the album’s wistful closer, " God Is watching." "I wanted to end the album with a mantra of ‘love one another'," she says. " Music is like that e. e. cummings’s poem about the tiniest hands. It works its way into your heart to touch you and make you feel. That’s all I’m trying to do."
A few years after graduating from Berklee College of Music (where she studied jazz singing and was a member of the gospel choir), Paula, a Rockport, Massachusetts native, signed with Imago Records. Shortly afterward, she was invited by Peter Gabriel to perform on his 1992-93 world tour, which was followed by their release of '94s Harbinger that followed. Despite her exposure to various music and world-renowned artists, Paula maintains that her greatest influence has been her family. " They taught me the single most important life philosophy: music is Meant to be self-made, to be experienced directly. We would sing harmonies in the car–my father sang bass and I sang alto", she recalls. "That’s probably how it will be when I have kids. They made me realize that music is something you can create everyday, but it’s up to you to make it. My mother said that I was making music before I formed words."
With Amen, Paula emerges as an artist fully formed, a songwriter who doesn’t tell stories so much as cast spells. She works her magic with a rapturous voice, fleshing out images of faith, hope and love with both grace and raw power. The depth and breadth of her openhearted expression is simply captivating. More importantly, in a climate where idealism has given way to cynicism, Paula believes in the healing power of music, and the idea that a simple song can still matter. "There’s a responsibility that comes with success and I don’t want to be wasteful with that platform," she says. "As corny as it sounds, I want to help the world a little. I want to do some good."
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