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The Warsaw Voice » Society » June 3, 2009
Interview with Holly Cole
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Art of Interpretation
June 3, 2009   
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I met Canadian jazz diva Holly Cole on the 20th floor of her downtown Warsaw hotel. It was mid-afternoon, and she'd just gotten up-jet lag had taken its toll, her publicist explained. Below, Warsaw's downtown, with traffic jams and occasional greenery, spread out around us. Two days prior, Cole had brought her sultry jazz stylings to Warsaw's National Philharmonic as part of her European tour.

She'd played Warsaw before, but hadn't even spent the night. Now, with two whole days off here, Cole had one thing on her to-do list: disco dancing. But she took time out to explain to the Voice what it's like for a Canadian star who interprets Western songs in English to perform for a Polish audience.

In a career spanning more than 20 years, Cole has focused on interpreting the music of others-artists including Cole Porter and Tom Waits. It wasn't until her last album that she put out an original. Her standards are high for her own songs, she explained.

"When you're bookended by Irving Berlin and George and Ira Gershwin, you'd better be good," she chuckled.

Interpretation is key in her music-the way she chooses to interpret songs written by others, and the way audiences interpret what they hear. Audiences abroad, who often don't know the songs and might not understand the lyrics, are open to a broader range of interpretation than audiences at home, she said. She likens the process to watching an Alfred Hitchcock movie. A blatantly gory film can only be as scary as the director makes it. But because Hitchcock leaves so much unsaid, his viewers see in his films what is most frightening to them. That makes the experience so much more powerful, Cole said. In the same way, she leaves so much up to interpretation that her audiences hear what is most beautiful or most interesting to them.

The modern music industry encourages people to write their own music and lyrics, and perform their songs too. But it's rare a musician is good at all those things, Cole said. That's why she chooses to interpret the songs of the 1920s and '30s, when those tasks were often taken on by separate people.

"I'm not an old-fashioned girl," she stressed. She's simply attracted to the songs of that era, songs written for interpretation since the composer often didn't know who would be singing them.

That's vastly different from another rich vein in Cole's discography-her focus on American singer Tom Waits. She put out an entire album of his songs in 1995. Covering Tom Waits, with his characteristic voice and flamboyant personality, is no easy task.

"A lot of people could impersonate him and say what he looks like, but not name a single song of his," she said. His character is integral to his music, which makes singing his songs a challenge. But Cole is clearly invigorated by challenge.

"My job is to divorce the singer and the song. With him it's hard," she admitted.

But she stresses that even while she's singing Waits' songs, the performance comes from her own perspective.

"I don't feel like I'm interpreting him. Yes, the tools are there, but I don't feel like I'm giving them him (Waits); I'm giving them me. When a song is performed it takes on a life of its own, different from the writer."

Cole has been a prolific recording artist, with more than a dozen albums to her name. But the real joy to her, and the reason she became a musician in the first place, was performing live.

Her Warsaw audience was a special one, she added. Audiences will often either listen closely, or they'll be tremendously responsive. This audience, though, was both, working to understand what her music was about, then showing their appreciation for it.

Cole has been writing plenty of songs since releasing her first, "Larger Than Life," on the album Holly Cole. But it's hard to write while on tour, especially if that tour takes you through a series of beautiful and distracting European cities. She's been taking note of each inspiration while on the road, and is preparing for a fall of hard work.

"There's that old cliché about 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration," she chuckled. "That 99 percent has to come when I get home."

Magda Konieczna
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