Quick-Change Artist

Don't try to pigeonhole vocalist Holly Cole.

A sticker on the shrink-wrap that covers Dark Dear Heart, the latest album by Canadian vocalist Holly Cole, reads, "File in Rock/Pop Vocal." But such a label hardly does justice to Cole's versatility. She's been described as a smoky siren, a jazz interpreter, a chanteuse and a sultry cabaret specialist--and at various times during her career, these descriptives have been accurate. Cole, however, isn't worried about confusing her listeners with stylistic leaps. "I'm not going to stay on the same track all the time," she says. "It's really my nature. I'm that kind of person. I'm very uncomfortable with being comfortable, if you know what I mean.

"I fear sort of getting in a rut, or not growing and changing, or not learning," she continues. "That's death with any art form. If you're not growing, then it's kind of over. So I really need to reinvent myself all the time--because I need that type of energy to make me interested in myself and interested in learning more."

This creative restlessness is symbolized by the only constant in Cole's work: her beautiful voice. Her range may be limited, but that hardly matters given her mastery of tone, which she can shift from warm and thick to delicate and translucent in a twinkling. Combine this quality with her unique inflections, subtly nuanced delivery and eccentric sense of timing, and you've got a stunning sound that defies categorization--as does Cole herself.

A native of Halifax, Nova Scotia, who now resides in Toronto, Cole, 33, credits her upbringing for nurturing her unabashed vocal confidence. "Both my parents are classical musicians, my brother, Allen, is a jazz piano player, and my grandfather is a country-Western accordion player," she notes. "I've had music around me all my life. I started learning to play piano when I was three, and singing was such a part of everyday life for me and for everyone in the family. Not everyone in the family has a stellar voice, but nobody felt that they shouldn't sing just because they didn't have a great voice. So I always felt good about singing. I never felt that there was anything to be inhibited about. With voice, sometimes people are scared off from using it because there's no guitar or saxophone or anything that you can blame if it sounds wrong. With instruments, you can say, 'Oh, this stupid saxophone; it doesn't sound right.' If your voice doesn't sound good, though, you've only got yourself to look at. But for me, it was an easy thing to get into singing, because I wasn't afraid of it at all."

Cole's first professional gig found her using her pipes with a Toronto-based big band. Then, in 1985, she hooked up with pianist Aaron Davis and bassist David Piltch--musicians who remain in her ensemble to this day--to form the Holly Cole Trio. The act's debut recording, Girl Talk, wasn't distributed outside of Canada, but the stir it created still managed to capture the attention of executives at Manhattan Records. The two albums Cole made for the imprint--1991's Blame It on My Youth and 1993's Don't Smoke in Bed--earned widespread acclaim and attracted a cult following whose loyalty she tested with her first disc for Metro Blue, a subsidiary of Blue Note. Temptation, issued in 1995, wasn't the straightforward jazz album boosters had been anticipating. Rather, it was a superb collection of compositions by singer-songwriter Tom Waits that Cole performed in genre-stretching fashion. The jazz press roundly thrashed the disc, but Cole has no regrets about the project.

"I'll tell you something: Now that I've done a whole album of Tom Waits's music, I am entirely fearless," she declares, adding, "Jazz purists really hate some of the things done with jazz--like if you have a lot of other types of popular music influencing how you do jazz, the purists really get down on you for it. But if you think the jazz purists are something else, man, look at the Tom Waits purists. And the thing is, I'm kind of a Tom Waits purist myself, in a way. I would have been skeptical if I had heard of anyone doing a whole album of Tom Waits's music. But surprisingly, the only truly negative feedback I got on that was from the jazz people, who think Tom Waits is not a great writer."

What Waits thought about Temptation is a mystery to Cole. "I did speak to him on the phone once, when I was doing my Blame It on My Youth record," she divulges. "The guy who produced the record, Greg Cohen, was able to get his song 'Purple Avenue' for us. But I wanted some of the lyrics changed--so we called him up and asked him to change them. And he was so open; it was amazing. Because, you know, a lot of writers are very protective of what they have written--they think it's perfect, and they don't want you to touch it. But he asked what I wanted to sing, just very sweet.

"I don't know if he's even heard Temptation," she goes on. "He's kind of a hermit, so I don't want to push it. But during that whole project, I didn't want to be in touch with him. I love his persona, his arrangements and his musicality. But I didn't want his stamp or his sound or anything like that. I purely wanted to take the songs and do my own thing--very personal renditions that were often very different from his."

Another Waits number turned up on It Happened One Night, a 1996 in-concert offering that demonstrates why Cole's performances are so well-regarded. ("I love playing live more than anything," she says. "The shows are my whole motivation.") But on Heart, she turned to other tunesmiths, including Joni Mitchell and Lennon/McCartney. And while the recording suffers a bit from producer Larry Klein's excessive fondness for drum loops, its distinctiveness makes it another step forward for this fascinating artist.

At present, Cole isn't sure what she'll record the next time she ventures into a studio, but one possibility is a salute to German cabaret music. "I used to do a whole show of it, not in German but in English," she says. "It was kind of dramatic and theatrical--just piano and voice--and I did it with my brother. Almost all the music was written by Kurt Weill, so we called the show 'A Vile Evening With Allen and Holly Cole.' I'd really like to record some of that sometime."

Does Cole think that such a radical departure from her previous efforts might alienate her admirers? "I don't look at that stuff--you know, the demographics and that type of marketing," she replies. "I don't think of it as part of my job, and I don't want it to interfere with my musicality. I've seen a lot of people who pay attention to that stuff, and it interferes with their music. They pay too close attention to the target market and then decide what they will do next based on that--tailor their next work so those people will like it. But I really think that my job is to make the music so that I like it, and hope that other people do, too, whoever those other people might be. Whether it's 15- to 25-year-old males, Tom Waits lovers or jazz purists, I believe that they'll find the music if I just let them through and stay true to what I think sounds good."

By the same token, Cole isn't entirely allergic to promoting herself. When she's asked how she'd tempt potential listeners to attend one of her concerts, she laughs as she asks, "How about telling them that I'm a combination of drop-dead gorgeous and incredible talent? Would that work?"

She may be kidding, but Cole fans know how close her words are to the truth.

Holly Cole. 8 p.m. Sunday, March 8, the Soiled Dove, 1949 Market St., $10, 299-0100.

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