MUSIC

Vampish vocals

Holly Cole puts a wry spin on standards

NICHOLAS JENNINGS July 19 1993
MUSIC

Vampish vocals

Holly Cole puts a wry spin on standards

NICHOLAS JENNINGS July 19 1993

Vampish vocals

MUSIC

Holly Cole puts a wry spin on standards

NICHOLAS JENNINGS

The romance began last summer. In June, 1992, a Tokyo disc jockey bought an imported copy of the album Blame It On My Youth by Toronto singer Holly Cole. Entranced, he immediately started playing her haunting rendition of Calling You on his radio show. Other Tokyo stations quickly picked up the song, which became one of the most requested numbers on Japanese radio. Now, Cole is the toast of Japan. Sales there of Blame It On My Youth are approaching 100,000 copies, and it has earned her group, the Holly Cole Trio, the Best Jazz Album and Best New Artist prizes at last February’s Grand Prix ’93 Gold Disc Awards,

Japan’s equivalent of the Junos. “I

Cole has drawn the wrath of some reviewers, who dislike what she does to classic jazz numbers. Dressed in a black, strapless chiffon dress, the raven-haired singer explained her approach and then took on her critics. “I have to find something new in those old songs or they’re not interesting to me,” said Cole. “I like to play up the sexual innuendo

love it there,” says Cole, who recently played six sold-out concerts in Japan. “The fans perceive me as a strong, independent woman who’s in control of her career.

That’s not too shabby.”

In fact, it is an accurate perception. Cole, 29, has been in command of her career ever since she first hit Toronto clubs with her torchy, jazz-tinged act. Teaming up with pianist Aaron Davis and bassist David Piltch to form the trio in 1986, Cole became a local sensation, singing bold new versions of jazz standards with her strong, theatrical contralto. The group’s first,

1990 album, Girl Talk, launched them nationally and achieved gold status for sales of 50,000 copies— almost unheard of for a jazz album.

It also led to an American deal with New York’s Manhattan Records, distributed by the multinational giant EMI Music. The release of Blame It On My Youth in 1991 broadened the group’s appeal, with songs by Tom Waits and Fyle Lovett added to the mix of jazz and Broadway tunes. It, too, went gold. Now, a new album, Don’t Smoke in Bed, and the first leg of a Canadian tour (which began in Waterloo, Ont., on July 8 and winds up in Vancouver on July 25) seem certain to enhance Cole’s following.

Sitting recently in a sushi bar on Toronto’s chic Queen Street West, Cole reflected on her success. She admitted that her popularity has come with a cost. For one thing, while she has attracted a new audience for jazz,

or do it completely tongue in cheek.” She added: “I frankly think that some male reviewers are offended by what I represent and who I am—and by the humor that I bring to the music. For them jazz is an elite thing and a serious business.”

Although she sings more contemporary numbers on Don’t Smoke in Bed, including Johnny Nash’s 1972 hit I Can See Clearly Now, Cole still offers up a dark, disturbing version of Cole Porter’s Get Out of Town and a sassy, bossa nova treatment of the Rodgers and Hart favorite Ev’rything I’ve Got. It is ex-

actly that mix of styles that has attracted airplay in Japan, where Cole’s eerie take on Calling You and her breezy performance of Petula Clark’s 1965 hit Downtown helped to push those songs to the top of the Tokyo charts. On the new album, Cole has even thrown in a moving, blues-inflected interpretation of the heartbreaking country classic The Tennessee Waltz, a song she remembers hearing her grandfather sing back home in the Maritimes.

Bom in Halifax, Cole grew up surrounded by the classical music of her parents (who are now divorced) and the country tunes of her relatives. But unlike her older brother, Allen, who was a disciplined piano student, Holly loved to spend her time riding horses and chafed under the daily regimen of piano lessons. She recalls how she would wreak havoc at family gatherings by turning cartwheels in her grandmother’s antique-filled house. “I used to think it was great to see the reaction I could get,” laughs Cole. “Singing jazz got a similar response from my parents at first. I think I maybe did it partly out of rebelliousness.”

Cole’s mother, Carolyn, the director of Fredericton’s National Exhibition Centre, recalls that Holly always had a mind of her own. (Indeed, Holly moved out at 16 to live as a hippie in the woods with an older man.) And her father, Leon, host of CBC Radio’s RSVP, a classical music program, remembers his daughter as a “free spirit” who takes after one of his uncles, a bon vivant Broadway actor. There is a strong theatrical element in the way that Cole treads a fine line between high camp and high art. Wearing her usual costume of long evening gloves and a low-cut dress, she comes across as a vamp on a mission: she wants nothing more than to entertain. But Cole is also capable of expressing deep emotion. “I try to find the middle ground between the Judy Garland ^ pool of tears and the completely I controlled, robotic performance,” d she says. “And I think the subtext I that Aaron, David and I bring to I the songs is often a lot more interz esting than the in-your-face text.”

“ In recent years, Cole has dabbled in acting, but music continues to be her main focus. She can even be heard singing a jingle on Japanese TV, for an automobile navigational system. The singer says that the devotion of her fans in Japan is “overwhelming: people send me presents, like cases of Japanese beer and a green horseradish called wasabi—all because I once told radio interviewers there that I liked the stuff.” Cole then dips her sushi into some hot wasabi paste and enthusiastically bites into the raw fish and rice. It would seem that the love affair between her and Japan is mutual.