Paula Cole's introspective, modest and shy demeanor turns out to be a boon for fans and lovers of serious songwriters here, as it ultimately led the Grammy-winning musician out of mass celebrity and home to the North Shore.
The Rockport native's move from New York City a couple years back, first to Rockport and now to Beverly with her live-in partner and their children, has allowed proprietors of various relatively small venues to book Cole for shows where audiences take in her unique brand of music in highly intimate atmospheres.
Longtime fans literally can follow Cole from venue to venue, asking her questions during breaks between songs, while her guitarist replaces a string or the drummer awaits delivery of a new snare.
It's an unusually close fan-artist relationship, and it's exactly as Cole likes it.
"I'm an introvert at heart," said Cole, 43, in a telephone interview in advance of a recent show at Jonathan's in Ogunquit, Maine. "I like having a direct relationship with my fans. It suits my personality."
Cole has had her taste of the limelight. Raised in Rockport, she quickly rose to stardom after rock icon Peter Gabriel invited her to perform on his 1993-94 "Secret World Live" tour. In 1994, she released her debut CD, "Harbinger," and in 1997 "This Fire," for which she was nominated for several Grammy awards and won Best New Artist.
More CDs followed and Cole continued to tour solo, as well as joining Sara McLachlan's popular Lilith Fair tour. But celebrity didn't ever really suit her, she says.
"I went far into the world. I saw a lot of it," she said. "Now I'm spiritually back here, trying to give back to my community. Mothering here."
Cole has a 9-year-old daughter, Sky, and helps parent her partner's two children, ages 10 and 14. They built a music studio in their Beverly home, which is situated alongside conservation land where she regularly catches sight of a turkey she calls Henry. She plans to do much of her work right there.
"I have family; a rich personal life. I have done clinics and taught, giving back through benefit work," said Cole, who is involved with Wellspring House in Gloucester, which helps families move on from abusive situations.
She expects to join the board of the organization and is planning a benefit concert with Shawn Colvin at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport in October.
"I'm letting the horse carry me where it will," she said. "And I am trusting that and letting life guide me."
Cole sang and played piano upstairs at Jonathan's on July 9, to an attentive and appreciative crowd, many of whom were friends and family. She was accompanied by Steve Elliot on guitar and Tony Mason on drums.
"I love, love, love this," Cole said from the small stage situated just a couple feet away from the front row of round four-top tables. "Coming here is like a family reunion. It's wonderful to see you all."
The performance was a mix of music from all of her CDs, which in addition to "Harbinger" and "This Fire" include 1999's "Amen," as well as "Courage" (2007) and "Ithaca" (2010). The long hiatus preceding the latter two recordings represents a time during which she was married, gave birth and went through a divorce.
Those also were years when the recording industry changed dramatically, but Cole doesn't see the migration to online music as a drawback to her ability to grow as an artist. Quite the contrary, in fact.
"The music business is changing and I am independent now, not on a major label," said Cole, who previously was with Warner Bros. Records. "I intend to produce my own albums in the future. I see positivity in being independent."
To nurture her relationship with fans, Cole is taking a more hands-on approach through tools like her Facebook page and website. She also has entered the "thinking and writing phase" for her next album, she says. Inasmuch, she thinned out her touring schedule for the coming year, to allow herself time to evaluate her goals, pursue other interests and develop other aspects of herself.
"I don't feel defined by what I achieved in my 20s," she said. "I am at the height of my intellectual capacity and vocal prowess. I am going to focus on making the best music I can make."
Staff writer Tracey Dee Rauh may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Shalin Liu Performance Center, Rockport: 8 p.m., Friday, Aug. 5, and Saturday, Aug. 6; and 5 p.m., Sunday, Aug. 7. www.rcmf.org/newperformance.html.
Tupelo Music Hall, Londonderry, N.H., 8 p.m., Friday, Oct. 14, www.tupelohall.com.