Paula Cole references her socially conscious third album, Amen, when talking about her upcoming Revolution. One of the linchpins between the two is the influence of Marvin Gaye, particularly his landmark What’s Going On — which is why Cole included a version of his “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” as the only cover on the new set.
“Marvin Gaye is a real leader for me, a touchstone,” Cole tells Billboard. “I think he’s such a brilliant musician, singer, writer, arranger, so ahead of his time. What’s Going On has inspired me twice, sonically, on both of these albums.” Of “Mercy Mercy Me” specifically, Cole notes that, “I’ve always loved that song. I felt that I needed to cover it and put that message back out in the world.
“Y’know, I’m surprised that subject matter doesn’t take place more in music. We’re always writing about love, and love is important. I’ve certainly written my fair share of love. But we need songs about other aspects of society — and planetary health.”
Revolution, due out Sept. 13 — and featuring collaborations with Nona Hendryx, Meshell Ndegeocello, Darcel Wilson and Bob Thompson of NPR’s Mountain Stage — cuts a wide and uncompromising swath through the socio-political landscape. Co-produced by Cole with Chris Bruce, it is, of course, inspired by Cole’s feelings about Donald Trump’s presidency and societal issues such as the #MeToo movement. And it conveys the urgency of somebody who truly doesn’t want to wait, at least too long, to right that course.
“There’s so much to say, I feel it’s important that anybody who has a voice should speak out now,” explains Cole, who put aside a jazz album she was making in favor of Revolution. “Picasso said that artists are the politicians of the future, and I take that to heart. I just feel the need to put everything else to the side. I can’t be silent at this time. There’s just a wicked sense of urgency, right now.”
If Revolution hearkens back to Amen, it also rekindles memories of the backlash Cole encountered for the 1999 set, especially in the wake of the double-platinum success of its predecessor This Fire, with its hits “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone” and the Dawson’s Creek theme “I Don’t Want to Wait.” “I got heat for that album, but I always believed in it,” she recalls. “And it turns out that with my core fans it’s one of their favorites, and I’m really glad I was outspoken about the social and the political — the spiritual, even.” And those are lessons she’s trying to impart on her songwriting students at the Berklee College of Music.
“I try to tell them, ‘Look at these artists.’ I play them everybody from Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan to N.W.A to Loretta Lynn — Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, on and on. I urge them to take that on, and I have them write songs about gun violence in America. I want these millennials to utilize and find their empathy and become the best human beings they can be, because I think that’s the secret to being the best writer you can be, and to having longevity as an artist.”
Cole has a couple of shows lined up this month and will hit the road more extensively starting Sept. 25 in Phoenix, with dates booked into November. She expects to return to the jazz album next. “It just needs to be tweaked a little, mixed and mastered and put out,” she says. “The jazz album is there. I started out as a jazz singer and I’ve lived inside that music for a long time. We recorded 31 songs in five days, and we’ll put it out when the time feels right. There are other projects I want to do. I want to write my book, and there’s more music.
“Also, I don’t know if I want to do this forever. I would like to devote myself to my own health and family at some point. I feel a sense of urgency and the envelope closing at some point, so I’m producing at a high rate.”