by Paul Freeman [2009 interview]

If there were any justice in the music world, Holly Cole would be at least as well known as her Canadian countrywoman Diana Krall. Cole’s new self-titled CD (Koch Records), her seventh U.S. release, demonstrates supremely enthralling vocal gifts.

She puts her own indelible, sensuous stamp on such classics as “Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” “Alleycat,” “I Will Wait For You”and “Charade.” The theme of denial provides an intriguing undercurrent through the album.

“I always want there to be a throughline and a focus,” Cole said. “For this record, I sat down and wrote a list of subjects I wanted to sing about - hope, loss, surprise. But the one I decided upon was denial... or self-deception. So I looked around for songs that spoke about that somewhat and that was in my mind when I was writing songs, too.

“One reason denial appealed to me so much is that I like to use subtext a lot. The subtext is often how I’m able to reinvent a familiar song. Subtext is implied, rather than stated and if you imply something, it enables the listener to take it to wherever we want. It’s a suggestion, rather than a statement. We all take it to the place that’s most emotional for us. That, to me, is where the power lies - within subtext.”

The Toronto-based chanteuse said denial is the perfect vehicle for subtext. And it has a universality. “It doesn’t matter what culture you come from, what language you speak, what environment you grew up in. It’s a natural human thing. Sometimes it’s necessary. Sometimes it’s funny. Sometimes self-deception isn’t a good idea. But sometimes it is.”

Sometimes self-deception plays a part in love and romance. “It could be what you wish was happening versus what really is happening... and maybe your discovery of that later.”

The song’s text may deliver the writer’s viewpoint. The subtext allows Cole more creative expression. “I tend to naturally make songs about things that are interesting to me, that might not necessarily be what the writer intended.

“Once songs are written, they’re out there in the world. They’re works of art that are there to be interpreted. It means something different to every person who hears it. Everyone’s interpretation is equally as valid as the person who wrote or the person who sang it.”

Cole’s own composition, “Larger Than Life,” fits in seamlessly with the works of Irving Berlin and Henry Mancini. After hearing this one, people have asked Cole why she didn’t include originals on previous albums.

“It’s a very simple answer. When you’re bookended by Cole Porter and George and Ira Gershwin, you’d better write really good songs. This is the song that I was happiest with, happy enough to put it alongside those other writers.”

Whatever Cole sings, she has to feel profoundly. “There were a number of equally beautiful songs that could have been in there, but just weren’t for me. I hear someone else sing them and go, ‘That’s incredible and moving and it’s perfect for that singer... but not perfect for this singer,” she said with a little laugh. “It just doesn’t touch something that’s very personal and very emotional in my own life.

“I would be the worst jingle singer in the world, because it’s very difficult for me to get behind mayonnaise or something in a really passionate way. Some people have that craft, where they can sound like they’re loving it, when they don’t really care about it. I don’t happen to have that quality. I have to have really strong convictions about the songs that I sing.”

Music is in her blood. Cole’s parents are classical musicians. Her brother is a composer. Her uncle performed on Broadway. Her grandfather played accordion with country music legend Hank Snow.

At 15, unbeknownst to her parents, Cole hitchhiked from New Brunswick to Boston, to visit her brother, who was studying jazz piano at Berklee School of Music. That’s when jazz mesmerized her. She had found her life’s path.

“When I heard the incredible music there, I was floored. I was very fortunate. At 15, I knew clearly exactly what I wanted to do. I saw the young people who were so committed to music. In the world, I see many people who never in their lives figure out what they’re really passionate about, what they really want to do. But I was lucky enough to figure it out really young. It was my mandate, a complete focus for me.

“At 15, I discovered jazz and it blew my mind. If this 15-year-old’s mind can be blown by jazz, then others can, too. But the problem is, others aren’t exposed to it much these days. Pop music - the not so good kind - is rammed down kids’ throats. They’re not offered alternatives.”

Cole is now touring the U.S. for the first time first in six years. An East Coast swing had to be canceled at the last minute due to blunders by U.S. Immigration, who temporarily lost Cole’s papers. The band had already boarded the bus.

“It was a comedy of errors, except it wasn’t that funny. People had flown from Germany to Newark, driven from Texas to Boston, just to see the shows. I felt horrible, because my hands were tied.” Fortunately for Bay Area fans Cole’s hands and voice are now on this side of the border.

The orchestrations on the album are superb, but, in club settings, she can be equally effective with pared down instrumentation.

“It’s back to my roots - upright bass, acoustic piano and reeds. You have a bigger dynamic range in some ways, because you can get so quiet. You hear the warmth and subtleties of the instruments. Some people say the flaws are the things they love the most - the ache of the wood in the bass, the rattle of the strings in the piano, the really reedy sound of the bass clarinet or saxophone or flute and the crackle in the human voice. I love to hear these nuances exposed like that.

“It’s much more intimate. And with a smaller band, there’s more freedom to improvise. The level of musicianship is so high that I’m confident to take risks.”

Cole garners more satisfaction from performing live than from recording. “It’s the reason I became a singer. I love the communication between myself and the audience, myself and the band, the band and the audience - the whole thing. It’s very cathartic for me.”

For more on Holly Cole, visit