Born to Sing

On this cold, rainy day in Germany, Canadian chanteuse Holly Cole couldn't be farther from Texas, which may explain why she's particularly interested in the local weather when she calls from Berlin. Talk quickly turns from the withering heat to last year's Lilith Fair and a Houston stop that came off surprisingly well despite stifling temperatures. Having been a part of Lilith's '97 lineup, Cole isn't at all surprised that the elements were of no hindrance, especially seeing as female ingenuity and stamina were involved.

"There are so many male Lilith Fairs that happen every year. It's funny no one ever asks, 'How come you only have men on the bill?' But now everyone talks about, 'How come you only have women on the bill?' The point of Lilith Fair more than anything is that being a woman is not a category in itself," says Cole. "I remember when I was a kid, I would watch the Smurfs, and they would say, 'Here's Fire Chief Smurf and here's Policeman Smurf and here's Carpenter Smurf and here's Female Smurf' -- like as if being a woman is its own category."

Somewhat of an anachronism in Lilith's self-sufficient realm of the singer/songwriter, Cole is one of a dwindling line of pure singers. An interpreter of songs, she is cognizant of her skill as a vocalist; as a result, she eschews the traditional onus of writing her own in favor of choosing from the thousands of tunes already out there. "It's actually the most arduous part of my job," she says, of finding her material. "Sometimes I glean [songs] from my own record collection or other people's; I have several friends who have thousands of records. Sometimes, people send me stuff cold. Also, I ask people to write stuff for me.

"I did a whole album of Tom Waits [material], so I'm fearless."
Crucial to Cole's uniqueness is the way she reworks other people's songs until they are her own. As an outsider, she brings fresh perspective to the familiar, adding her own breathy persona and considerable lung power, achieving more in a whisper than most torch singers do in a howl. With five releases to her credit, Cole reasserts her selective intelligence and vocal prowess on her latest CD, Dark Dear Heart. Further expanding the Cole sound from the cocktail-jazz leanings the singer began her career with, Heart hints at a more ambitious pop formula. Covering both classic tunes and new music, Cole tackles well-known numbers by Joni Mitchell ("River") and the Beatles ("I've Just Seen a Face") with the same intensity as she does a previously unrecorded Sheryl Crow track ("You Want More"). On "I've Just Seen a Face," Cole turns the Fab Four's outwardly perky original inside out, to reveal its dark, brooding underside. Heart's more aggressive tack is refreshing, not to mention more representative of her live show. Meanwhile, producer Larry Klein (Joni Mitchell, Shawn Colvin) takes the broad patchwork of sources and weaves it into a pastiche at once funky and sultry.

Cole admits she has never shied away from a challenge, pointing out that there isn't any song that she wouldn't do. Her 1995 all-Waits collection, Temptation, is proof. And while its offbeat subject matter could have easily been a curse, the CD wound up being her breakout release in America. "There are people who have never heard of Tom Waits," Cole says. "There are people who have heard him and hate him, and there are people who have heard him, love him and don't think that anyone else should do [his songs]. So that's the three potential audiences you have. Because people who like Tom Waits tend to love Tom Waits and don't think that anyone else should even touch the stuff; they're purists. I think it was kind of a risky thing to do, but what is life without risk?"

As for Lilith, Cole admits that right now the risks are decidedly few, and the potential payoff huge. "Hopefully it's not just a fad. [Last year] the crowds looked about 50/50 male to female -- shows that I was on, anyway. And that's a lot better than Ozzfest and those kinds [of festivals], which are mostly just a bunch of guys playing to a bunch of guys -- some women, but not too many. Seeing a 50/50 crowd leads me to believe that more young girls and young women are going out to see the stuff, and maybe they'll be inspired to become musicians."

While we're on the subject of setting an example, Lilith's 1997 tour took some hits in the press for presenting mostly folky white female singer/songwriters. This year, though, most genres will have at least some representation as the lineups rotate across the country: R&B has Erykah Badu; hip-hop, Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliot; alt-rock, Drugstore and Liz Phair. And Cole believes the festival ought to get stronger and more varied every year.

"It's very eclectic, and it represents a lot of different types of musicians," she says. "I mean, Bonnie Raitt is sharing a bill with Erykah Badu and Sarah McLachlan. There are singers from a lot of different walks of popular music. We are quite disparate, all of us."

Holly Cole performs Wednesday and Thursday, July 29 and 30, on Lilith Fair's second stage at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, The Woodlands. Tickets are $29 to $49. Also performing: Sarah McLachlan, Natalie Merchant, Bonnie Raitt, Erykah Badu, Ebba Forsberg and others. For info, call 629-3700.


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