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.

The producer chosen to oversee the sessions that led to Harbinger was Kevin Killen, who's worked with Peter Gabriel, Elvis Costello and Kate Bush. Although Cole eventually wants to produce her own work, she is full of compliments about her time in the studio. "I love Kevin's sound. He's an engineer, not a musician, and he's not a big name who would tell me what to do. He's a normal person who pulled me out of the tangle of nonsense and made me look like a human being."

Upon its release, Harbinger received strong notices, but this acclaim hasn't yet translated into sales success. Cole admits to being disappointed by the modest reaction to her first two singles--"Ordinary Girl," a well-crafted, free-flowing tale of a woman who's jilted for a prettier girl, and "Happy Home," an autobiographical account of her mother's decision to abandon a career in art to raise a family. VH-1 has snubbed her thus far, and she feels the so-called alternative market has given her the cold shoulder. She's hoping that "Saturn Girl," a forthcoming release that she calls "a vulnerable song, and maybe not as trendy," will change that.

Still, Cole, who's 26, admits to being frustrated by the focus on marketing in the record industry. "I'm so sick of all the Generation X bullshit. I'm sick of grunge. I'm sure there are some more intelligent people out there my age who would be interested in my music."

That's certainly true of her peers. She's a favorite of Counting Crows lead singer Adam Duritz, whom she met during her time in San Francisco. She opened several shows for the Crows this summer, and doing so convinced her that "I'd rather not have success right away. I'm worried about Counting Crows. Adam Duritz is like a John Steinbeck--he's got all that Americana in his lyrics--and there are all these people body surfing and screaming teenagers who think he's cute. It's really made him apathetic."

Her recent travels in Europe and the United States with Gabriel--who over the past year toured in support of his most recent studio album, Us, and headlined the latest WOMAD festival--were more positive. She stepped into shoes vacated by Sinead O'Connor, who had been duetting with Gabriel on the first series of jaunts, and wound up in a featured role on Gabriel's Secret World Live two-CD set. "I've always felt a connection with Peter," she says, "and I've always wanted to sing `Don't Give Up.' I had to be good or die, and I had to do a lot of dancing and acting and exercise a more jubilant side of myself."

In the meantime, Cole has already written an album's worth of songs that she hopes will reach the public in mid-1995. She reveals that the new material is more baroque and lyrically complex yet less personal than her previous work. "There won't be as much divulging, but the songs will still be emotional. My vocals will be more angry and strong."

She doesn't plan on altering everything, though. "I like that people can't find too many influences or draw too many comparisons to my work," she says. "I'm not the waify grunge girl. I want my own identity. And I want to reinvent my image as I change and grow.

"I want people to say about other singers, `Hey, she sounds like Paula Cole.'"

Jeffrey Gaines, with Paula Cole. 8 p.m. Saturday, November 26, Bluebird Theater, 1633 York Street, 322-2308.


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