On her fifth album Ithaca, singer and songwriter Paula Cole takes listeners on an intensely emotional, yet uplifting journey through divorce (“The Hard Way,” “P.R.E.N.U.P”) and the struggle to recover one’s identity (“Elegy,” “Waiting on a Miracle”) before allowing herself to revel in the healing, redemptive power of new love (“Violet Eyes,” “Come On Inside,” “Sex”, “2 Lifetimes”). Along the way, she acknowledges being torn between work and her child (“Somethin’ I’ve Gotta Say”), and ultimately celebrates having music to get her through it all (“Music In Me”).
“My albums are Polaroid snapshots of my life,” says Cole. “The writing is the hard part because my process is highly personal and autobiographical. One of my biggest musical heroes is John Lennon because he was so brutally honest. I love the songs he wrote after he left The Beatles. They are so outrageous in their courage. This new album is just me processing things.”
Ithaca is a welcome return by one of pop’s most compelling vocalists, who has enthralled audiences with her soaring, agile soprano. Born the daughter of musicians, Cole studied jazz singing and improvisation at Boston’s Berklee College of Music before attracting rapt attention as a featured vocalist on Peter Gabriel’s 1993-1994 Secret World Live tour. Cole released her debut album, Harbinger, in 1994, followed by 1996’s self-produced This Fire, which spawned the two smash hits “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?” and “I Don’t Want to Wait.” In 1997, Cole was nominated for seven Grammy Awards, including “Producer of the Year” and “Album of the Year,” and took home the award for “Best New Artist.” In 1999, Cole released her third album, Amen, then decided to take some time off following the birth of her daughter Sky in 2001.
“I needed to get off the giant hamster wheel,” Cole says of her music career. “I wanted to find some other meaning to my life and it seemed impossible to combine motherhood with the music business. It was like being at a spiritual stop sign in the road. That’s what inspired ‘Somethin’ I’ve Gotta Say,’ one of the older songs on the album. I thought I was done with the music career after having Sky.”
Several years later, Cole was lured back to record-making by a friend, Blood, Sweat & Tears’ drummer Bobby Colomby, who produced her intimate, jazz-influenced collection Courage, which she released in 2007 while going through a difficult divorce. After the split was finalized in 2008, Cole moved back to her hometown of Rockport, Massachusetts — the inspiration behind her new album’s title.
“The overall theme of Ithaca is the return to home and making peace with it,” Cole says. “It’s about accepting that I actually want to be with a man who is a lot like my father and that I am a lot like my mother — which I’ve written about in ‘Music In Me.’ I rebelled against these classical complexes and got really beat up in the world. So I’ve come to a quiet place of acceptance in my family and my hometown. That’s why I called the album ‘Ithaca,’ which is the island Odysseus came home to in The Odyssey after 10 years of fighting and 10 years of trying to get back home. Rockport is my Ithaca, and coming home has been an Odyssean journey: enduring war and finding beautiful things in home. That’s the tone of the album, that there is both darkness and light to this story. My journey has healed me, and in that healing process I’ve been able to work again.”
Ithaca is the sound of Cole taking back the reigns on her life. She wrote every song and produced it with Decca Records chairman Chris Roberts and engineer Kevin Killen (who produced Harbinger). Her searching lyrics play out against a backdrop of acoustic and electric instruments, including guitars played by Ben Butler, Kevin Barry, and Marc Ribot (who also plays ‘back-porch’ banjo on the languid “P.R.E.N.U.P”); bass by Jon Ossman and Tony Levin (whom Cole knows from her Peter Gabriel days); piano, Wurlitzer, and clarinet played by Cole; and anchored by Ben Wittman’s rock-solid drumming. With its slashes of electric guitar and kick-ass balladry, Ithaca is musically reminiscent of its pop-rock predecessors This Fire and Amen.
“Courage was very gentle and eclectic,” Cole says, “but I have real affection for perfect little pop gems. And I needed the sex, wail, and anger of electric guitar on certain songs, so this album is definitely more rock, pop, and soul-influenced. It combines the styles of This Fire and Amen, but is presented from a wiser woman’s perspective.”
And then there’s That Voice, a world-class instrument that led one critic to rhapsodize recently about the ability of Cole’s voice to “leap octaves in a single breath, at once vulnerable and brimming over with undeniable strength.” Cole has never sounded better than she does on Ithaca — passionate and powerful and fully of service to her muse.
“I really wanted Ithaca to be an uplifting record,” Cole says. “It was a choice to return to the music business. That alone is big for me because my heart has been heavy. So for me to be here means I have love and enough self-confidence to do it and that’s all positive. Even though I needed to get some anger out on some songs, ultimately, I’m grateful because music is very healing for me. I don’t possess many other skills,” Cole says with a laugh, “so I need this!”