“That night was laden and confused and amazing,” says Paula Cole, now on tour promoting her album “Ballads.”
NEW YORK — Twenty years ago, Paula Cole heard her name called, went up to the stage and took home the Grammy Award for best new artist (this year’s show airs Sunday, Jan. 28, on KIRO). It was an amazing achievement on a night that turned out to be quite complicated.
The then-30-year-old met her idol, Aretha Franklin, and sang her hit “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” in front of millions. But she also felt misunderstood and uncomfortable in the spotlight. Cole shocked some people by raising her middle finger and beatboxing during her performance, and triggered jokes for daring to bare armpit hair.
All these years later, that Grammy isn’t her favorite accomplishment. That would be her daughter, Sky, now 16. And her fans, who have stayed loyal, funding her last two albums via Kickstarter. Her story is a cautionary one for anyone thinking that winning one of music’s most coveted awards solves everything.
7:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 10, Vashon Center for the Arts, 9600 Vashon Highway S.W., Vashon Island; $40-$60 (206-463-5131 or vashoncenterforthearts.org)
“That night was laden and confused and amazing,” says Cole, who turns 50 in April. “My career on the other side of that has been definitely different — smaller, humbler, a more authentic career. A more authentic second adulthood, if you will.”
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The Berklee College of Music-trained Cole is now touring to promote her album “Ballads,” a collection of 20 jazz covers primarily from the 1930s-1960s. It honors her dad, a bass player in a polka band, and it also allowed her to go back to her roots. Cole will perform on Vashon Island on Feb. 10.
“I intended to be a jazz singer. That’s where I started, and my first gigs were in jazz clubs,” she says. “I got rerouted because I wanted to write my own songs with my own truths.”
Cole went into the Grammy Awards in New York in 1998 as a Lilith Fair veteran with seven nominations from her second album, “This Fire,” which contained the hit “I Don’t Want to Wait,” which became the theme song for “Dawson’s Creek.”
Her “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” — a wry, ironic study of gender stereotypes — had been incorrectly seen by some as nostalgic and anti-feminist. Her flipping the bird onstage was a sign that she was firmly in satire mode but it also underlined her discomfort that night.
“I was a very dark horse — self-produced, definitely very progressive and left,” says Cole, who beat boy band Hanson, singers Fiona Apple and Erykah Badu, and rapper Diddy for best new artist honors.
In the aftermath, Cole faced a backlash and her manager complained that sales of her music plummeted. Jay Leno made a Paula Cole doll with rotating armpits to shine his shoes with.
“There was a lot of hate coming down on me after,” she says. “All of that attention was ill-fitting for this introvert.”
Cole took eight years off to raise her daughter. She re-emerged to a changed musical landscape, but with her determination to remain independent intact. She looks back and realizes she probably never really belonged on the Top 40 charts.
“That trajectory that I was on needed to be stopped,” she says. “I needed to take a hiatus — kind of shed that ill-fitting skin that somehow was created for me.”