Holly Cole, an underappreciated-but-inspired addition to this year's Lilith Fair, occupies a sort of netherland between pop singers and divas from the jazz or folk worlds. But while the Canadian native can sing as powerfully as Celine Dion or Mariah Carey, she is attracted to the more subtle approach of such influences as Betty Carter and Joni Mitchell.
"It's not the baseball-bat-over-the-head technique of telling people what the message is," Cole says by telephone from a tour stop in Germany. "When you have that ambiguity in the music, people are able to take the songs to a place that is about themselves. Then it becomes a much more personal experience."
That persuasive, intimate approach is evident on her fourth studio album, "Dark Dear Heart," a 1997 disc in which the ambitious chanteuse redesigns rock, folk and country favorites to fit her instinctive style. The Beatles' "I've Just Seen a Face," once a naive declaration of newfound love, is slowed down and given distorted guitars and a programmed drum beat. Mitchell's "River," originally a cheerily wistful holiday offering, is reborn as an impressionistic piece featuring ethereal strains of pedal steel. Cole also applies edgy vocals and unusual arrangements to songs by several other well-known artists including Sheryl Crow and Patti Larkin, as well as lesser-known Mary Margaret O'Hara and Laura Harding.
Cole tried to make "Dark Dear Heart" a happy pop record, but it wound up being an exploration of her inner self. "I'm attracted to my own dark side, and to what it is to have a dark side," she says. "I don't mean it in the sense of anything negative or violent, just the side that is more introspective, that involves people's sexuality. It's so much a part of my soul and my artistic being that I don't have to cultivate it."
Cole was born in Nova Scotia to classically trained musicians, and early on soaked up her grandfather's country-western accordion playing, regional Celtic music and recordings by Carter, Mitchell, Janis Joplin, Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, Tanya Tucker and George Jones. "A lot of them had in common ... a real emotional honesty about the way they sang," she says. "That made me really want to sing."
The singer spent nearly a decade performing jazz and pop standards with the Holly Cole Trio. That band took a major left turn in 1995 with "Temptation," an interpretive collection of Tom Waits songs produced by Cassandra Wilson's knobs man, Craig Street.
Despite her evolution from jazz upstart to pop-goddess-in-the-making, Cole may be the wild card on a Lilith Fair bill featuring artists as sharply defined as Bonnie Raitt, Natalie Merchant, Sarah McLachlan and Queen Latifah.
"I've always felt like an outsider all the time anyway, someone who's been on the perimeter of a lot of things," she says. "A lot of my idols are people who belong in the same category of no category, like K.D. Lang or Mary Margaret O'Hara or Lyle Lovett or Tom Waits. I've always been a little bit jazz and a little bit pop and a little bit rock and a little bit country. I'm entirely comfortable with that."
Cole, who played several dates on last year's more youthful Lilith Fair tour, approves of the eclecticism represented by this year's folk-pop-rock-blues-rap lineup, which also includes Meredith Brooks, Rebekah and Ebba Forsberg. "This year, it just represents women in music," she says. "There's a lot of different ages. It's more diverse than it was last year, and I think that's a good thing."