Behind the Song: The Nine-Lives of Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Want to Wait”

“That one just seems to last forever and ever,” Paula Cole laughs about her enduring 1997 single, “I Don’t Want to Wait.” Written, recorded, and produced by the artist herself, the song began as a timely tribute to her grandfather, a World War II veteran.

“I had a feeling he would leave the planet soon, and he did,” Cole continues. “It’s about not wanting to repeat certain family patterns. My grandfather never heard it, but my father was able to listen to the song before he lost his father and that was important to me.”

“I Don’t Want to Wait” was the second single from Cole’s 1996 album, This Fire. Until that record, the now world-renowned artist was far from international fame. Upon its release, the song—a followup to her hit single “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?”—hovered near the top of Billboard charts, and saw similar success in Canada, Australia, and the UK.

But, it took on a new life when Kevin Williamson’s hit TV series Dawson’s Creek picked it up for the opening theme. The WB teen drama aired in 1998 and continued on for six seasons, launching the careers of Hollywood stars Katie Holmes, James Van Der Beek, Joshua Jackson, and future four-time Oscar nominee Michelle Williams.

The song was second-in-mind to Alanis Morisette’s “Hand In Pocket,” but the license was too costly for the show’s budget. So along with Cole’s song, Williamson also commissioned Canadian singer Jann Arden to write “Run Like Mad” as an option.

As the show was recycled for new networks and platforms—most recently Netflix, the Sony executives swapped in Arden’s song instead of Cole’s.

“I’ve been so screwed by record deals in the past, and now I will not use the original recording of that song for anything,” explains Cole. “And I won’t give it away for free for both myself and my dignity, but also for the sake of other artists—we have to maintain solidarity with our music rights. If someone is giving theirs away, it sets an unfair precedent.”

Cole conveys a distaste for television and film setting the standard of obtaining “free” music in exchange for “exposure.” But, beyond the legality and licensing, it was the fan response on social media that stunned Cole. When Netflix released the show on November 1, 2020, both disgruntled and devastated responses flooded in.

“I was so surprised that they felt so passionately,” she admits. “Maybe this speaks to me being older but at the time, I thought Neil Young would never let one of his songs become a theme song, and I was so embarrassed. But now I understand it’s a new day, and I am so honored to touch so many lives with my music through that show.”

Cole re-recorded the song in 2015, and because of the overwhelming fan response, Sony plans to license her re-recorded version to use as the opening theme once again.

“This victory is a rallying cry for artists to stand tall, stay patient, have faith and keep on the path of the tortoise,” says Cole. “Like Taylor Swift is exhibiting with her re-recording process, it is so important for artists to maintain artistic rights and know their worth. You have to believe in yourself, and in this case, the fans made a real difference.”

The reinstatement of her entrance theme is well-timed with Cole’s new album, American Quilt—due out May 21. The 11-track collection captures the artist at a “very prolific” point in her personal life and career.

Following her 2016 double jazz album, Ballads, Cole realized her work was not done. She poured years of pent-up jazz influence into 31 tracks and still had strong tracks leftover. Though jazz, as she says, is her “first love,” she felt the need to broaden her scope to accurately portray her whole musical story. 

Cole was raised on folk, Americana, and country music. Her father was a bassist in a polka band. As opposed to jazz, her native music came more easily from memory. “I’m a mixture, even genetically,” she says. “I was raised on all of it. I’m not too fond of the ideas and labels that separate them anyway. So if I am making music and honoring my musical family and all of its roots, it needed to be everything.” 

As an empty nester with pandemic-allocated alone time, her new work contains her reflections of the folkloric roots of American music. Cole’s radiant vocals pull the underlying humanity of a nation divided. 

Pre-save Paula Cole’s new album American Quilt, here.

Photo by Ebru Yildiz

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