Paula Cole knows a thing or two about women’s music festivals.
The Grammy-winning singer-songwriter was part of the original class of performers on the pioneering Lilith Fair tour. The Massachusetts native rose to national fame in the late 1990s with her earnest, passionate songs like “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” and “I Don’t Want to Wait.” She was soon joined by a swath of female singer-songwriters charting hits at the time from Sarah McLachlan to Shawn Colvin and Joan Osborne.
And now, nearly two decades after the Lilith wave began, Cole will headline the California Women’s Music Festival on Saturday, Oct. 22, at the Gallo Center.
This year also marks the 20th anniversary of Cole’s breakout sophomore album “This Fire,” which went multi-platinum and got her videos on regular rotation on MTV. The album earned seven Grammy nominations including album and record of the year. She won that year for best new artist.
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These days Cole continues to perform and teaches music at her alma mater Berklee College of Music in Boston. The Modesto Bee spoke with the artist from her home in Massachusetts about her new music, her Lilith past and her mixed “Dawson’s Creek” feelings.
Q: You just crowdfunded your next album, which will be a jazz album of covers. Tell me the inspiration behind this.
A: I’ve been wanting to do this for about 30 years. It feels important to me personally. You get old enough and people start dying on you, and I don’t know if it’s the music business hastening the process. I feel more aware of my mortality. I have felt a responsibility to put out music. I’ve released seven albums so far of original music. It kind of felt like, “OK I can just punctuate that. I’ll finally do this thing I’ve been meaning to do.” It’s a mark on my soul that I haven’t done it. I have these projects in my life that I need to do like a bucket list.
I started as a jazz singer in high school and literally was singing at Boston Airport Hilton lounge on Thursday nights with real old-timers. I was living in the book of American standards. I was very focused at it while I went to Berklee. But that’s when I realized I didn’t want to classify myself that way; I wanted to write originals and be a more open genre. … Meanwhile, I was gathering songs I loved since my teenage years. I’ve ended up recording 31 songs; I’ve never done so many songs in a recording session. I’m still working on the music. I have a lot of figuring out to do.
Q: This is also the 20th anniversary of “This Fire”; what does that anniversary mean to you?
A: It’s a good time to reflect on it. To reflect on the fact that a lot of us Generation Xers had a coming-of-age period at this time. This album as well as a lot of other great music felt important and felt like a coming-of-age. I’ll be playing this album at shows for the remainder of the year and into 2017.
Q: You’re playing the California Women’s Music Festival, which is reminiscent of the famed Lilith Fair. Why do you think creating spaces for women performers is still important?
A: We are still unfortunately having the conversation, aren’t we? … We need to care about all the people – and all the people aren’t men. (Back then) it was difficult to get played on radio. You couldn’t get played following a female artist. Radio stations would space us out. We all got classified as “female music” even though our music was all different – like Sarah McLachlan and Melissa Etheridge and me. It’s so odd to me that we were stylistically lumped together. We needed to create our own platform to reflect reality – which was that there was really f------ great music being made by people who happened to be female.
That’s better now; we were working hard for future generations. I hope it continues to get better. There’s still a long way to go.
Q: What do you think the lasting impact of the Lilith Fair was?
A: At times Lilith Fair is annoying because it’s something you can’t shake off. And ultimately it was a platform for Sarah McLachlan. … It was ultimately serving her; that being said, it was a blast. The audiences were some of the best audiences I ever encountered. It felt like Woodstock in that it felt like hope. A lot of ticket sales went to women’s shelters in every city held. … I loved meeting other artists, and there was a lot of great music on that stage. I had a lot of fun, and initially got a lot of press out of it.
Q: “I Don’t Want to Wait” was famously used as the “Dawson’s Creek” theme song; how do you feel now about that song?
A: At first it felt like “OK, sure, they can use this song.” I didn’t expect it to be so huge. This TV show is really extremely huge and much huger than my career at the time. But then the song was associated with show and not me. People who were old enough knew me. That grated on me, but then time passed. And I had to be home with my daughter, who was severely asthmatic, and I was incredibly grateful for use of song on “Dawson’s Creek.” It helped my daughter have her mom in her life. I have been the only one financially responsible for her. So I ended up being extremely grateful for it. And the thing of songs being used on television has completely changed. There’s no more stigma. It’s now just celebrated.
Now they replay the show on ABC and Netflix, but they don’t use my song anymore, so I’m disappointed. It’s a funny emotional journey. But I’m proud of the song. I think the song stands the test of time.