Some people, upon hearing Paula Cole's luscious, melancholy hit "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?," don't listen any further than the chorus.
To their ears, the song is a longing look back to days when men were men and women were glad of it. Or, as the song's protagonist puts it, "I will raise the children/If you pay all the bills." Naturally, this leads them to believe that the 29-year-old Cole is herself an anti-feminist, the sort of woman who would happily do all the laundry if he pays all the bills.
All of which amuses Cole no end.
"Spin magazine said I was 'the Nancy Reagan of Lilith Fair,' " she says, laughing lightly. "They didn't understand, obviously. I was probably the most raging feminist in the whole group."
By now, of course, Cole is used to such misunderstandings. Not only was "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?" a Top-10 hit, but it earned the singer/songwriter three Grammy nominations (for Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance).
But let's set the record straight. Far from being a monument to Marlboro Man macho, "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?" is a sly, sarcastic complaint, one that mouths the cliches of the traditional wife and helpmate to show how empty and unfulfilling the role can be.
Or, as the protagonist puts it later in the song, "I will do the dishes/While you go have a beer."
Cole admits that a lot of people miss the barbs built into her lyric, and thus misread it. "It is kind of delicate," she says. "There is a melancholy woven in there, and there is the honesty of the story of a woman who was disappointed in her marriage.
"But then, of course, there are people who get it. Certainly, England, they're more adept at sarcasm than Americans are. It's just not part of the cultural fabric as much in America as it is in England. So, yeah, it's been widely interpreted, and I kind of like that. It's anthropologically interesting for me."
Though Cole may be entertained by the ways in which people miss her point, she doesn't try to foster misunderstandings. In concert (she performs at Bohager's on Thursday) she does her damnedest to make sure her audience gets it.
Take, for instance, the part of the song where she sings, "Oh, I know your back hurts from working on the tractor/How do you take your coffee, my sweet?" Onstage, Cole wears a mask while singing those lines. "It's kind of a very sweet dolly mask, with little rosy cheeks and blond braided hair," she says. "She's like a little perfect persona mask, and she personifies the woman trying to be the perfect cliche."
That and a few other touches make it pretty obvious where Cole is coming from. "Even those guys in the audience with the beers and the crew-cuts who are raising their glasses of beer when I sing, 'You go have a beer,' I think they finally get it toward the end," she says, then laughs.
As cool as Cole may be about her audience's interpretations of "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?," she was frankly flustered by the Grammy voters' reaction. All told, she was nominated in seven categories, including all of the big four: Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Album of the Year (for "This Fire") and Best New Artist.
"My name just kept being announced again and again and again," she says. She'll find out if she's won on Feb. 25.
Making the unexpected accolade all the more unreal was the fact that Cole and her band had just come back from a four-day USO tour of the Persian Gulf. "We performed at several places out in the desert, and a military base, on an aircraft carrier, and on a battleship cruiser," she says. "It was a very profound experience. I felt kind of humbled by all that and certainly wasn't expecting to be a big winner.
"So, yes, it was a shock."
Part of the reason Cole was taken aback is that she has never seen herself as part of the pop mainstream. Although music has been a part of her life since she was a child in Rockport, Mass., she owned few albums and seldom listened to the radio. Even when she was in music school, at Boston's Berklee College of Music, her major was jazz singing and improvisation -- hardly the most obvious route to the top.
Of all the nominations, the nod for Producer of the Year may have been the most flattering for Cole -- if only because of the circumstances that went into recording "This Fire," her second album.
"We had to make that album with half a budget and in two weeks, so I was very organized," she says. "I knew exactly what I wanted, and [Jay Bellerose], my drummer of 10 years, and I went into the studio and cut everything live -- piano and drums and voice. We added other layers afterwards.
"Most of those are one- or two-take performances," she adds. "We kept mistakes and we kept distorted microphone moments. We wanted it to sound like an old-fashioned record."