Paula Cole vehemently opposes the divide of genres. The Grammy-winning songwriter and producer says, “I feel like it’s part of my mission to talk about this constructed division, to deconstruct and unify the human family through music.”
“I’m in a very prolific part of my life,” Cole tells American Songwriter over the phone one March morning. She’s officially an empty nester and filling the space with productivity she hasn’t experienced in several years as an independent artist.
Following her 2016 double jazz album Ballads, the artist realized her work was not done. She poured years of pent-up jazz influence—her first love—into 31 tracks and still had strong tracks leftover. The hesitation that held Cole from recording her first all-jazz album for decades led her to broaden the scope for her next. Cole’s forthcoming project, American Quilt, paints a detailed portrait of her whole musical story. Throughout, the 11-track collection contains the folkloric roots of American music. Cole’s radiant vocals pull the underlying humanity of a nation divided.
“The mantle of jazz weighed heavy on me; I suffered imposter syndrome,” she says. “As a white person and a young person, I didn’t feel entitled to it for a long time. But after putting the work in, it was finally time to put my own expression in, and that album was successful. But it didn’t feel right to make another one of just jazz. I knew I needed to incorporate the folk aspects to represent myself better.”
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.”
In January 2020, right before the pandemic hit, she went into the studio with folk songs like “Shenandoah,” “Black Mountain Blues,” which she learned from Bessie Smith and Janis Joplin, and “Wayfaring Stranger,” released March 19 as an entrance single.
Her longtime friend and mentor Emmylou Harris turned her on to the 18th-century mountain tune on her 1980 album, Roses in the Snow. Her performance captured a moment within the melodic delivery that emerged one day as Cole sat at a piano during a soundcheck. “It just leaped out of me,” she says. “It sprang from my subconscious because it’s part of it. I knew then I needed to record it”
Harris—who she notes as “one of the most important voices for America”—convinced Cole to stick with her guns when she was ready to drop from the music industry. “Wayfaring Stranger” resonates for her on a personal level, marking how far she’s come in her artistry. But it also captures the spirit of transcendental storytelling this album evokes.
Cole says, “These songs are oral history encompassed in a hymn where it was born and brought overseas. Here it was mixed with pioneers, native Americans, onboard clipper ships. The melody keeps being recycled, preserving history in a way. Each tune here is a patchwork of a musical lineage that tells a fuller story.”
“Wayfaring Stranger” was produced and arranged by Paula Cole for her eleventh studio album American Quilt and features Jay Bellerose (drums), Kevin Barry (guitar), Ross Gallagher (upright bass), and Kathleen Parks (violin).
Watch an exclusive video of Paula Cole’s Live at The Cabot performance of “Wayfaring Stranger” below. American Quilt is due out May 21.