Paula Cole is standing on stage at Fez, a cramped, rectangular bar inside a Moroccan restaurant in New York City's Greenwich Village. When addressing the audience on this cold November evening, she apologizes for the somber nature of much of her material. "I go to a really dark place when I write," she explains.

During the gig, Cole (clad in a short, dusky dress, worn, black tights and chunky black boots) takes listeners into this private world--an isolated and painful landscape she traverses throughout her debut recording on the Imago label, this year's Harbinger. Her work is an aural trip back to the precise second when you saw your lover with someone else--when you were the only person not picked for the team--when you were certain you would die without finding someone who could understand you. Her songs are cinematic, confessional; they speak about relationships, social issues, family frustrations, adolescent struggles and gropings for identity in terms that virtually anyone can relate to.

On this night, the mood Cole establishes with her deeply visceral vocals is enhanced by her two accompanists. Irish guitarist Gerry Leonard uses an acoustic guitar, an e-bow and bass pedals to create graceful, ethereal sounds, while drummer Eric Gebow produces interesting, often unorthodox accents on a spare drum kit that includes a piece of sheet metal, a large plastic mayonnaise tub and a chair transformed into a percussion device. Against this backdrop, Cole plays her body like an instrument. She combines traditional singing with hefty thigh slaps, finger pops, whistling and human beat-box effects. She takes the occasional turn on the mayonnaise tub, too, thumping out rhythms that reveal the influence of jazz on her work. Cole is in a dark place, all right, but it turns out to be a riveting spot.

Interviewed by phone three weeks later, Cole is as intense as her best songs. "I'm just attracted to dark music, like Miles Davis's Sketches of Spain or Rikki Lee Jones's Pirates," she concedes. "They're just so sad, so haunting. Sad songs are more lasting, more beautiful. Happiness is transitory and smaller. Sadness seems like a big ocean."

In her music, Cole draws deeply from her family experiences. Her songs are liberally sprinkled with references to the environment she came to know through her mother, an artist, and her father, a biology professor. "My parents were a huge influence on me," she says. "My father always discussed things in a biological or evolutionary way." Her parents also created their own music: "We'd make up blues progressions while my dad played guitar," she remembers. These homemade efforts, Cole believes, had a stronger impact on her than anything else she heard during her formative years.

Cole developed her vocal style on her own. "My mom says I would sing myself to sleep when I was a kid with my own imagined words." In school, she performed "in all those awful musicals," and she admits that her voice always stood out. The reason for that, she feels, has everything to do with Aretha Franklin: "Most of my voice training comes from singing along with Aretha's records. I'm sure the neighbors hated it, but I just opened up and expanded my voice."

By the time she escaped from high school, she was eager for more formal instruction. She enrolled at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she studied jazz improvisation, sang in the gospel choir and performed in clubs around Cambridge. The response Cole received was so strong that she was offered a recording deal by jazz-oriented GRP Records. She was becoming more interested in rock music, however, and turned down the contract.

Upon her 1990 graduation from Berklee, Cole waitressed for a year before moving to San Francisco with a goal of getting her music career going. That proved easier said than done. "I ended up getting squished," she recalls. "I wanted to move to a big city and find a band, but people's egos kept getting in the way. So I never performed." She spent two years working in a bakery, and as a means of battling her intense sense of isolation, she "became a `hermitess' and wrote songs."

She also recorded them, producing a demo tape that she sent to Imago. The company's president, Terry Ellis, was impressed, but before he signed Cole, he wanted to see her play live. Trouble was, she didn't have a band.

"They flew me to New York to do a showcase, but I hadn't been performing at all," she says, laughing. "I didn't have anyone to play with, so I got recommendations for a guitar player. But I had major problems with him. Twenty-four hours before the gig, I called a friend from college and we rehearsed over the phone."

According to Cole, the key moment of the show came while she was singing "Bethlehem," a haunting tale about her childhood in the tiny resort town of Rockport, Massachusetts. The song relates the traumas she felt trying to fit in with her peers even as her family struggled to pay its utility bills and put food on the table--and in the middle of singing it, she burst into tears. Far from being put off, Ellis responded by putting Cole under contract immediately after the performance. "It was a really emotional night, and even though I hadn't performed those songs, they're me," she says.

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