Cover Story: Holly Cole
MYSTERIOUS, SEXY, EXCITING and EMOTIONAL
By Cece M. Scott www.cecescott.com
Raised in a creative family, alto soloist, Holly Cole, fell in love with jazz at a very early age. Her father, Leon Cole, a classical pianist, composer and Halifax-based broadcaster, also hosted two popular radio programs on CBC. Her mother, Carolyn Cole, was an arts’ curator in New Brunswick. And her brother (and best friend), Allen, was her co-conspirator in much of her musical journey.
A two-time Juno Award winner, including Best Contemporary Jazz Album for Don’t Smoke in Bed (Holly Cole Trio,1994), and Vocal Jazz Album of the Year for Shade (2004), Cole has also won two Geminis, two Japanese Golden Disc Awards, and is the recipient of the Montreal Jazz Festival’s 2013 Ella Fitzgerald Award.
Cole describes herself as a rebellious, free-spirited teenager, who hit the road at the age of 15 with $20 in her pocket. She hitchhiked from New Brunswick to Boston to visit her brother who was studying at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. “Allen had long hair at the time and so did I,” says Cole. “He was staying in the dorms. He’d go in, give his ID to his friend, who would then come out and give it to me, so I could sneak in. I slept on the floor of Allen’s dorm for weeks. While I was there, I was exposed to this rich culture of jazz music. I was mesmerized by the whole thing.”
For Cole, jazz provided her the freedom to express her individualism. “To me, jazz seemed like classical music for people who were bad, which totally appealed to me,” says Cole, with one of her never-far-from-the surface, smoky laughs.
It was Allen who was responsible for Cole’s first public singing gig. “I was 17 at the time. Allen, who was playing at a local New Brunswick coffee house, called me up on stage. I was so scared that I announced to the audience, ‘OK, I’ll sing, but I have to stand behind my brother.”’
Originally from Fredericton, New Brunswick, Cole and her family spent several years in Nova Scotia, before she, at the age of 19, and Allen (21) moved to Toronto in 1983. Holly was enrolled in Humber College’s vocal jazz program. The improvisation of jazz music appealed to Cole. “I love to interpret songs,” says Cole. “My best friend is subtext, which allows listeners to hear, and to imagine, whatever they want. It’s a subtle thing – sexy, exciting, mysterious, emotional. Subtext is always there. It’s part of my personal life as well.”
Cole has many anecdotes about her and her brother sharing on-stage time, including performances of German cabaret music in the 1980s – A Weill Evening with Allen and Holly Cole, which featured the music of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. “We performed the show in art spaces and clubs, mostly along Queen Street. We would push an old upright piano onto the stage, and Allen would play and I would sing.”
One of Cole’s popular songs, Onion Girl, acts as a personal metaphor for the many layers she has peeled back in her life. “I had an epiphany when I was 26,” says Cole. “I remember the day vividly. My ex-boyfriend asked me why I always had to be right – why I always argued and never discussed things. It was then that I realized that the world is not black and white. There are many subtle layers to this thing called life.”
With age, and life experiences, a mellowing attitude often follows. With more than 15 albums to her credit, both as the Holly Cole Trio and as a soloist, Cole’s approach to her 2018 CD, Holly, took her in a new direction.“I hired Larry Goldings to do the arranging. He also plays the piano and organ,” says Cole. “It was hard for me to give up the reins. I’m used to steering the ship. But I wanted the experience of working towards someone else’s aesthetic. Once I relaxed, I loved it.”
In 2016, Cole took a sabbatical to care for her mother. “It was one of the most important decisions I’ve made in my life – to take time off from my music to look after mom,” says Cole. “I got to know so many things about her that I didn’t know. It was beautiful. My advice is to spend time with your parents – you will never regret it.”
While she was on hiatus, Cole studied hypnotism, with a focus on pediatric hypnosis. “As a tool, it enriched my life so much. It helps me to stop doing things that I don’t want to do.”
With the loss of family and friends, Cole has changed the way that she views her life priorities. Her loved ones come first, followed by her passion for music and, of course, some out-sized fun. She feels that everyone needs to have personal interests – ones that nurture self-actualization and a sense of wellbeing. “People around you want you to get what you want – to have your own thing,” says Cole. “It makes them happy for you.”
The lens in which Cole sees herself through has also shifted. Within a short time frame, she experienced a broken wrist and then a broken kneecap. “If I had fallen off my bike when I was 22, I don’t think my wrist would have broken,” says Cole. “But at 55, my bones aren’t made of rubber anymore. Breaking my kneecap last summer was brutal. I sure miss being resilient – not having to be careful.”
In an effort to maintain a healthy stamina, Cole incorporates a three-hour exercise regime into her day, which includes 90 minutes of physical exercise, and 90 minutes of breathing and vocal exercises.
“My voice, which is a muscle, has become more resilient,” says Cole. “I’m feeling a lot stronger and I’m really enjoying it.”
Cole is currently involved in an extensive renovation project on her 1845, south shore, Nova Scotia home. “It’s a big old house that feels like a friend – it’s so cathartic,” says Cole. “It was originally a barrel factory, and then a coaching inn – kind of like a Motel 6 before there were cars. My concept for the house’s aesthetic is old meets new, which is very much like my music – the craft of bringing disparate elements together.”
With a large, grassroots fan base in Japan, Cole will be touring there, as well as Canada, Europe and the United States this year. “I love performing live more than anything. I never, ever forget where I came from.”