Cole was raised in Rockport, Massachusetts; her mother, Stephanie Cole, was an elementary school art teacher, and her father, Jim Cole, was a professor of biology and ecology at Salem State College and played bass in the polka band "Johnny Prytko and The Connecticut Hi-Tones".
She attended Rockport High School, where she was president of her senior class and performed in school theatrical productions such as South Pacific. Cole then attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she studied jazz singing and improvisation. She was offered a record deal by a jazz label, but decided to turn it down.
Cole got her first big professional break when she was invited to perform on Peter Gabriel's 1993–94 Secret World Live tour. Shortly after this, she was signed on with her first record company Imago Records. Through this record company, she released her first album Harbinger in 1994. Within that year of Harbinger's release, Imago Records went out of business. In 1995, she was signed on to Warner Bros. Records. The record company reissued Harbinger in the autumn of 1995.
To replace Sinead O'Connor who left the tour, Cole joined the two last legs of Peter Gabriel's 1993-94 Secret World tour. A video of the tour was released as Secret World Live, with Cole covering all the primary female vocals and featured in duets with Gabriel, especially the song "Don't Give Up" on which she sang the part that Kate Bush recorded with Gabriel in 1986. The film received the 1996 Grammy Award for Best Long Form Music Video. Cole was also the main female vocalist on Secret World Live, the audio album documenting the tour.
The tour gave Cole international exposure as well as experience performing on a large stage.
Cole released her debut album, Harbinger, in 1994 with Imago Records. She appeared with Melissa Etheridge to sing a duet on VH1 though she was not well known at the time.
Harbinger featured songs dwelling on Cole's personal thoughts on discrimination and unhappiness. The songs were musically lush but driven and bleak. The accompanying artwork featured photographs of Cole with a boyishly short haircut, wearing loose fitting black sweatclothes, combat boots and nose ring. The Imago label folded and promotion of Harbinger was limited, affecting its sales. A single, "I Am So Ordinary", was released with a black and white video that reflected the album's artwork.
In late 1996, Cole released her second album on Warner Bros. Records, This Fire, which was entirely self-produced. The album's debut single, "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?", went to No. 8 on Billboard magazine's pop chart. The follow-up single "I Don't Want to Wait" reached No. 11, its popularity bolstered by its use as the theme song for the hit teen drama series Dawson's Creek which debuted over a year after the album. The single "Me" (No. 35 Airplay chart) was also released as a radio-only single. The title "Hush, Hush, Hush", a duet with Peter Gabriel, talks about AIDS and about a young man dying in his father's comforting arms. "Feelin' Love" was a single that was included on the soundtrack to City of Angels.
Cole toured with Sarah McLachlan's Lilith Fair. Cole was nominated for several Grammy Awards in 1997. Among them was "Producer of the Year" (Cole was the third woman to ever be nominated in this category after Janet Jackson in 1990 and Mariah Carey in 1992); she did not win, but she did go on to win "Best New Artist" that same year.
Cole took a hiatus to raise her daughter, Sky. In 1999 Cole released Amen with the newly formed "Paula Cole Band". The album's debut single "I Believe In Love" was initially not a success but was remixed by producer Jonathan Peters into a successful dance song. The album which had guest appearances by DJ Premier and long-time Cole fan Tionne Watkins featured some R&B and hip-hop influences but failed to match the success of This Fire. A fourth album was recorded with Hugh Padgham but the label refused to release it; in 2005 Cole uploaded one of the tracks, "Singing Out My Life", to her own website to get her sound out there. She also recorded a song called "It's My Life" during these sessions, which can be heard in Mercury automobile commercials. Cole also made a home recording of a politically charged "country-esque" song called "My Hero Mr. President". "My Hero Mr. President". Paula Cole. Archived from the original on December 18, 2014.
Cole returned in June 2007 with her fourth studio album Courage, which was released on Decca Records and produced by Bobby Colomby at the Capitol Studios in Hollywood.
Cole's fifth studio album, Ithaca, was released September 21, 2010. She wrote and co-produced all of the songs on the album. Cole says it "represents that inner fortitude and the journey I've been on."
Raven is Cole's sixth studio album. It was funded by a Kickstarter campaign which ran from September 22, 2012 to October 29, 2012 and raised $75,258. The album was released on April 23, 2013 on her 675 label. Cole wrote the 11 songs on the album including two from early in her career, "Imaginary Man" and "Manitoba". Her mother had saved these songs on cassette tapes. Most of the album was recorded in one week at a barn in Massachusetts. The musicians included co-producer/drummer Ben Wittman, guitarist Kevin Barry and bassist Tony Levin. She has worked with Wittman and Barry since she was 19.
7 is Cole's seventh studio album released on March 23, 2015 via Cole's official Website/store and to other digital music outlets on April 10, 2015. In Cole's words, it is "a collection of songs that came suddenly and urgently. The songs demanded to be written and released, as if my subconscious needed to reach out to me; to tell me what it thought about all I was going through. I recorded this album live, as an acoustic quartet. It sounds like a soft, soulful album made in the 1960's and the songs speak for themselves."
On July 18, 2016, Cole announced that she was selling her new live album This Bright Red Feeling exclusively on CD at live shows and at her website, with intentions to put it online for digital sale soon. The album is a recording of her live New York City show on May 1, 2016 but also includes re-recordings of two of her biggest commercial hits. The album's title comes from a lyric from her song Tiger.
Cole announced a new Kickstarter project on June 16, 2016 for a covers studio album, Ballads. It raised $76,899. The album will be released on August 11, 2017. The first single, a cover of Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child", was released on June 1.
In addition to singing, Cole performs on numerous instruments, including her main instrument, piano, as well as a Roland Juno synthesizer, Juno bass, tube Wurlitzer, harmonium, beat boxing vocals, toy xylophone, didjeridoo, clarinet, Fender Rhodes electric piano, Rhodes bass, Moog synthesizer, and low tuned-electric guitar in different songs.
Cole performed a two-hour set at Berklee Performance Center in Boston, Massachusetts on February 16, 2007 during which she debuted several songs from her then yet to be released fourth studio album, Courage. The set began with a solo piano version of "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone" which was replayed toward the end of the concert by the full band. Her performance was reviewed favorably in The Boston Globe on February 19, 2007. In March 2007, her official "Paula Cole". MySpace. previewed three new songs from Courage, which include "Comin' Down", "El Greco", and the album's first single entitled "14".
On July 10, 2007 Cole sang "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch of the 2007 Major League Baseball All-Star Game. In August 2007, Cole toured with Mandy Moore, playing mid-size venues in the western United States.
On June 17, 2008 she sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Game 6 of the NBA Finals in Boston. In August 2008 and 2009, Cole continued to tour and promote her CD Courage.
Since 2013, Cole has been on the voice faculty at Berklee College of Music while continuing an active performing career.Ravenesque (January 17, 2014)