How Singer Paula Cole Found Her 'Authentic' Self on New Album After Realizing 'Fear' Was Keeping Her 'Small' (Exclusive)

The "I Don't Want to Wait" singer is back with a new tour and album, years after taking a hiatus to raise her daughter

<p>Ebru Yildiz</p> Paula Cole

Ebru Yildiz

Paula Cole

She’s made a living off honest storytelling and vulnerable truths in her music, but singer-songwriter Paula Cole is not exactly fond of talking about herself.

“I find interviews really hard,” she admits in a recent phone call with PEOPLE. “It’s so much safer just to be quiet and to make music and not talk about the music or talk about my life. Sometimes I feel emptied in some way after an interview.”

It’s no surprise that the “I Don’t Want to Wait” singer, 56, is not exactly comfortable in the spotlight. She did, after all, take a career hiatus in the early 2000s to raise her daughter Sky, leaving behind the celebrity of it all to give her daughter as normal a life as possible.

But now, Sky’s all grown up. And with a new album out, a tour that’ll keep her on the road through September, and a TikTok resurgence of her 1996 classic “I Don’t Want to Wait,” Cole is back in it.

<p>Ebru Yildiz</p> Paula Cole

Ebru Yildiz

Paula Cole

“Mother is able to stretch her wings, try flying again,” she says. “It’s a nice time in life.”

For Cole, getting to this time was a marathon, not a sprint (“I'm not a hare, I'm a tortoise,” she says). Though she’s released five records over the last decade, her latest release Lo, which came out in March, is her first collection of original songs in 10 years. The record comes 30 years after her debut album, Harbinger, hit shelves in 1994.

The star says that returning to a place in which she felt comfortable being open and vulnerable with her lyrics was “difficult,” as she’d been “living smaller” for years. Still, she found the writing process “cathartic,” and soon realized she’d been in her “own way” when it came to growth.

“I wasn’t rising to my ability to be my largest self, my brightest self, and I’m trying to do that now,” she says. “And it feels like a transition I’m going through in life. It’s very psychological — I’ve gone back to therapy. I’m working on myself. I’m recognizing my old roadblocks of fear and post-traumatic stress, and realizing that they’re not doing me any good anymore, they’re keeping me small.”

<p>Ebru Yildiz</p> Paula Cole

Ebru Yildiz

Paula Cole

For years, Cole was content living out of the spotlight. In 2001, she gave birth to Sky with ex-husband Hassan Hakmoun, whom she divorced in 2007. Upon becoming a mother, she realized that her personal life needed to be her biggest priority, and adjusted her career accordingly.

More than once she debated throwing in the towel for good, first when she was a new mom. But being her family’s breadwinner at the time put a wrench in that plan, and when she became a single mom a few years later, it was even harder to leave. Soon, though, career pressures came to a head and she stepped away for several years in the mid-2000s.

Though she stayed busy, launching her own label, 675 Records, Cole stopped touring the way she wanted to, and wasn’t able to give her career the care and attention it needed to grow.

“It wasn’t the career I envisioned, so I just needed to step away and have a reset,” she says, citing overexposure and bad business contracts. “I took an eight-year hiatus and allowed that ill-fitting snake skin of a career to slip off. The music business does not support that kind of personal life when you’re a woman in the music business. There are actually very, very few role models for me, for women who have raised family and had long successful marriages and still have a legacy in music. It’s hard doing that.”

<p>Bill Tompkins/Getty</p> Paula Cole performing in San Francisco in October 2003

Bill Tompkins/Getty

Paula Cole performing in San Francisco in October 2003

Related: The Cast of 'Dawson's Creek': Where Are They Now?

Now, though, she has her priorities in check. Married to her partner of 17 years, Cole has also embraced the role of stepmom to son Faolán and daughter Eva James, all of whom have creative aspirations. Sky, 22, has dreams of becoming a director, and will soon graduate from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Faolán is set to graduate from Berklee College of Music, where Cole has been a visiting scholar and professor for the past 11 years. And Eva James is a musician, too, with Cole set to produce her debut album.

Cole now feels that after years of living authentically, it’s rubbed off on her music.

“That was absolutely the most important thing for me, to have my family and have a healthy personal life,” she says. “I have a wonderful marriage, wonderful human being I’ve been with for 17 years now. I have three adult kids who are finding their way in the world. I’m closer to my parents now. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”

Cole was born and raised in Rockport, Massachusetts, and initially had dreams of becoming a jazz singer. “I set out thinking I was going to be a female Chet Baker,” she says. “[But] I needed to write my own truths, and then it came out as songs.”

She grew up in a musical family, and was singing made-up songs before she was speaking. “I would sing from the stroller apparently, like at full volume,” she says. “My poor mom.”

Cole first gained recognition when Peter Gabriel brought her on tour with him in 1993, and the mid-’90s brought several successful singles, including “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” and “I Don’t Want to Wait,” which took on a life of its own after it was used as the opening credits of the teen soap Dawson’s Creek.

Her lyrics have often carried social justice themes, as Cole finds it important for to speak out for those don’t have a voice. “I might lose fans at times, and I certainly have, but I think the artists that dare to speak socially and politically are the lasting greats,” she says. “It’s a delineator between entertainers and artists.”

Still, her signature hit remains “I Don’t Want to Wait,” and a video of her singing the song at a piano recently went viral on TikTok, opening doors to a whole new audience of younger fans.

“I’m proud that [my songs] live on the way they do,” she says. “That was so heartwarming to see younger generations touched by that or remembering the song as young kids watching Dawson’s Creek. I don't really watch television, but what Dawson’s Creek did was expose my music to younger kids, and now it lives on.”

For now, Cole is ready to dive back into her career, tour and all.

“It’s very rewarding to come back out to tour and to see the people that have been with me from my very first album and just never stopped believing in me,” she says. “It’s all about the community of coming together. I need them. We all need the music. It’s electrifying. “It kind of is the long, slow career that I always wanted that’s happening now, as opposed to then. My second career is the more authentic one and it feels great.”

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