Hard Work, Honest Songwriting, and Opportunity: A Conversation with Katie Cole
Katie Cole has built an impressive career since coming to the United States from her native Australia; one which has taken her to iconic venues, legendary studios, and has connected her with her heroes. As a songwriter and touring musician, her success story is built on the tenets of hard work, a reverence for music, and a common reassurance whenever opportunities arise.
“You’ll work it out,” Cole recalls telling herself. “Say yes to the opportunity. Say yes to the right people, and you’ll work it out.”
Raised by a single mother in working-class Melbourne, Cole gained an early respect for perseverance and hard work as she watched her mother work a series of part-time jobs to make ends meet.
“She was really my role model,” Cole recalls. “I learned very quickly that you have to work hard to do what you need to do.”
In addition to work ethic, the mother-daughter duo also shared a love of music. Cole recalls her mother’s enormous CD and DVD collection, containing everything from Chuck Berry, to Stevie Ray Vaughn, to Aretha Franklin, to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. Each volume was bookmarked with favorite selections, so that she and her daughter could come back to them for future enjoyment.
“Having that person as a role model, who really respected music, taught me to put a record on and listen to the whole thing,” Cole notes. “I learned that listening is also a skill, and that there’s a difference between being a music lover, and loving music within one genre. I’ve always followed the song, then the artist, then the genre.”
Coming to America
“I had been playing live music in Australia since I was 15 or 16,” Cole said. “That was my day job; while everyone else was learning or studying for a career, I was already playing shows on the weekends in high school.”
After graduation, Cole increased her number of live performances around Melbourne, but began to aspire to something greater after realizing the limitations of her country’s music landscape.
“I worked out pretty quickly by looking through the liner notes of all of my favorite records and producers that they weren’t coming out of Australia,” Cole noted. “I didn’t have an outlet to do what I wanted to do out of Australia, and I knew all of my favorite records were being made in California, predominantly in Hollywood and Los Angeles.”
So, Cole began to figure out how to connect those dots, and to take her dream to the United States. She worked up a list of the people that have inspired her, including a dream list of producers with whom she desired to collaborate, and published the list on her website.
One of those producers responded.
Howard Willing, a renowned Grammy-winning producer whose credits include a bevy of notable artists including Kris Kristofferson, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Glen Campbell, noticed his name on Katie’s dream list and took a listen to the singer’s work.
“He reached out to me, and he said, ‘I really like your stuff. Have you ever thought about coming out to Los Angeles?’” Cole recalls. “I said, ‘Well, now I’m thinking about it! Yes!’”
From there, the singer quickly realized that Los Angeles was where she needed to be in order to give herself the best chance to succeed in the industry, and to surround herself by the very people and places she once read about in liner notes as a child.
Cole made the move without a plan, relying on her ambitions, inspiration and, of course, her musical ideas to help her work things out on the road to success.
“It was like, ‘These things are really happening. These people that I’m working with, these studios I’m recording in are all those things that I saw in those liner notes,’” Cole recalls. “I’m in those places. They are real, and I can really do this.”
Working it out and working with legends
It didn’t take Cole long to find opportunities in the U.S. Through working with Willing and his long-time collaborator Julian Raymond, she was offered the opportunity to open for country music trailblazer Glen Campbell at a series of shows in Nevada, which led her to be the only female vocalist featured on Campbell’s final studio album. This experience left the artist with a more complete appreciation for Americana as a whole.
“Seeing (Glen’s) work with The Wrecking Crew and as a session musician for all of these incredible albums, it blew my mind that this one guy has had such an enormous career and influence over people,” Cole remembered. “I had to move to America to see the American culture and understand that kind of music. Even though I had heard these names before, they didn’t make sense to me until I moved to America.”
All the while, Cole’s star had begun to rise as a songwriter in her own right. After releasing her first American EP, “Lost Inside a Moment,” Cole found her music receiving adult contemporary airplay on BBC Radio 2, leading her to travel across the pond to perform and make new connections. All the while, the singer stayed hungry, launching a crowdfunding campaign for her second U.S. release; one which featured “Highwayman” Kris Kristofferson providing guest vocals on the song, “Penelope.”
“He’s definitely one of my songwriting icons,” Cole said of Kristofferson. “It was one of those things where these people are real, and I’m somehow one or two degrees of separation away from these icons. I don’t even have the words to describe my gratitude for these things happening to me.”
It’s fair to say that none of these events have just “happened,” however; the common thread of Cole’s work ethic and perseverance – the artist maintains that, to this day, she still independently handles her own management and booking responsibilities – led her to these opportunities and more.
“It’s been me, and it’s been a lot of work,” Cole states.
Connecting the dots
Cole became acquainted with another long-time Howard Willing collaborator. This time, the connection resided on the alt-rock side of the spectrum in Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan, whom Cole supported during an acoustic show at Chicago’s Ravinia Pavilion in August 2014.
The experience did more than put Cole on a few fans’ radars; it led to future opportunities when Corgan announced the acoustic-electro “In Plainsong” tour in 2015. Cole was initially invited to open on the tour; however, her role quickly developed into something larger.
“It evolved into, ‘Would you want to play bass during that show?’” Cole recounts. “I said yes. I knew I could do it, because I had to, and I wanted to.”
Cole’s contribution to the project was apparent; so much so, that she was retained for the tour’s second leg in 2016. This time around, Cole found herself alongside Corgan and guitarist Jeff Schroeder in iconic venues including Tower Theater in Philadelphia and, of course, Nashville’s famed “Mother Church of Country Music,” the Ryman Auditorium. This was an opportunity for Cole to reach a larger fanbase, which had Smashing Pumpkins fans curious about her own original work.
Cole took this captive audience and held their attention by doing the legwork on another crowdfunding campaign, this time in support of what would become her new EP, “Things That Break, Pt. 1” and the second part of the project, to be released in 2019.
“I shot my pledge video and cobbled together bits and pieces at 1, 2 a.m. in hotels,” Cole remembers. “I basically directed the attention of the fans wondering, ‘Who’s Katie Cole?’ by saying, ‘I have music. Here’s more music. Be a part of this.’”
Cole’s association with The Smashing Pumpkins continued into their 2018, full-band tour, which invited original members Jimmy Chamberlain (drums) and James Iha (guitar) back into the fold on a regular basis. The newly re-formed Pumpkins would invite Jack Bates, son of Joy Divison’s Peter Hook, to join on bass, while featuring Cole primarily on keys and backing vocals.
“I was here when most of the band had reunited, and a lot of fans became re-engaged with what they were doing,” Cole said. “I was going to be able to re-live the moment with this band and the original players.”
This full-fledged arena tour took the band to even larger iconic venues, including Madison Square Garden, London’s Wembley Stadium, and others, giving Cole more reason to celebrate where her dreams had taken her.
“I always took a moment before each show to be grateful for the moment I’m in and knowing that, if this never happens again, I’ve had so many bucket list checks that I need a bigger bucket,” Cole said.
The experience inspired Cole to put the finishing touches on “Things That Break, Pt. 1” – and she knew that time was of the essence.
“I’m out on this tour, and again, I have eyes on me. I’m trying to get the mastering done,” Cole recalls. “I have no plans about how to release this, but if I don’t release something now, I am blowing it.”
So, Cole cobbled together her artwork and mastering while on the road, manufacturing the EP and releasing its first single, “Time on My Hands,” on August 2. She did all of this with the complete support of her Pumpkins family, with Corgan even greenlighting her to sell her own merch alongside the band.
“(That was) another affirmation that I’m part of this Pumpkins family,” Cole said. “(Billy) nurtures musicians, and he and the guys really care about music. When they get offstage after playing for three and a half hours, they’re either in the band room or tour buses talking about music.”
Pt. 1… of something bigger
“I wanted to put out an EP to say, ‘This is the beginning of something,’” Cole said. “Even though I’ve made so many recordings in the past, I wanted this to be the beginning of fans getting to know who I am.”
And so, in between the American and European legs of the Pumpkins’ “Shiny and Oh So Bright” tour, Cole released the five-song “Things That Break, Pt. 1” on Sept. 28.
“I probably wrote 20, 30, or maybe more songs for the EP. It became a really long process,” Cole notes. “I had to make a record, because I now have an audience that I can market this to and share it with. But, I also wasn’t in a hurry to put out the wrong songs at the wrong time, just for the sake of it.”
To make sure she got it right, Cole spent a lot of her time writing and re-writing, working back and forth with Willing on different versions of what would evolve into the finished product.
“I think every song that made the record probably had at least three or four rewrites, whether it was musical, lyrical, or both,” Cole recalls.
One of the songs, “Graceland,” contains shades of influence from Otis Redding and Lucinda Williams, infused with Americana sensibility and accented with horns.
“I re-wrote the song for the horn section. I asked, ’What do these old school songs do? They’ll shift keys and have a moment,’” Cole describes. “I wanted to try that, and there’s no harm in re-writing and trying to make a song even five or ten percent better.”
That nuanced unpredictability is a hallmark of Cole’s songwriting; one intended to stimulate and entice the trained ear, while also keeping the songs accessible and enjoyable to a variety of music lovers.
“I wanted to take the same approach with all of the songs, and make sure that the songs went wherever they wanted to go, and not be as beholden to a radio formula,” Cole states. “Radio is not clamoring for my music, but I want to make music for fans that listen to music of different genres.”
“Those musical risks end up being the things we look at and reference,” she continues. “That’s my goal as a musician and a songwriter, to be the artist who is referenced.”
The EP, tracked alongside the forthcoming Part 2 at the renowned Blackbird Studios in Nashville, features contributions from an all-star cast of session musicians, including Fred Eltringham (drums), Tim Pierce (guitar), Jimmie Lee Sloas (bass) and Tim Lauer (keys).
With just two days to track 11 songs, Cole had already developed each song’s template alongside Willing going in, which allowed the musicians to get right to work.
“You have to know what you want, or you’re going to get what you don’t want or what you didn’t expect,” Cole said. “If you’re giving them a strong template to play to and they’re just flexing enough muscle, they’re going to go in the right direction.”
The assembled musicians worked their magic, helping the tunes grow new life and layers. This is apparent on tracks like the moody, sparse “All My Winters.”
“To create mood, there’s usually a level of layering; that idea of making something sound atmospheric, but also effortless,” Cole said of the song. “So, it’s not trying to be moody, it just feels moody.“
“Time on My Hands,” the EP’s closing track and lead single, presents Cole’s songwriting at its most raw and vulnerable. Featuring the intricate acoustic guitar of Ilya Toshinsky, whose work appears throughout the record, the track brilliantly captures the numb devastation of a fresh heartbreak and the notion of waiting for the feeling to pass. It’s a song that Cole knew was important to the record from the beginning.
“I just wanted to be honest as a songwriter, to release these real experiences that I’ve had, and that everybody has, that will connect,” Cole noted. “I wanted it to feel like you just walked into a room and somebody was playing it to you, or telling you their story right after something had happened.”
“I knew it was important to me, because it was so vulnerable, but timeless at the same time,” she continues. “That’s a song I could hear other people do versions of. It’s not just relatable to me.”
What lies ahead
Part 2 of “Things That Break” is coming in 2019. Although a release date or method has not been announced – Cole may release Part 2 as a separate EP, or as a full-length album alongside the tracks from Part 1 – the singer feels strongly about the forthcoming material.
“I think I’ve put together a body of work, and the next pieces of music should speak for themselves,” Cole said. “I’ve done everything I can to make this the best possible. I have zero regrets. I feel like this is the best piece of musical explanation that I’ve done. This is who I am. This is who I want to share this with. These are my stories and other people’s stories.”
Again, Cole’s respect for all genres of music comes into play on the upcoming release, with hints of her vast influences sure to reveal themselves to attentive ears.
“This was all recorded as one fluid thought, so there are influences of Lucinda, Otis, and Emmylou Harris. There are a few nuggets of The Beatles, because it’s hard to escape that,” Cole noted. “The biggest part is translating what I’ve learned from The Beatles, Bowie, and Pink Floyd over to the Americana genre. Something that may be more synth-based in this person’s career may be translated to some steel instruments (on Part 2).”
In the meantime, Cole is still hard at work on getting the message out about “Things That Break, Pt. 1” – she recently recorded a series of live performance videos of the full EP at Shoebox Studios in Nashville – while planning the best she can for the next big opportunity. These often come on short notice; Cole had just a week of rehearsals before joining Billy Corgan’s “In Plainsong” tour, and less than that before joining the full band on the road earlier in 2018.
“I never know what I’m doing until I’m doing it,” Cole states. “It’s been hard to plan this life when I’ve been accepting these opportunities as they come along.”
“Nothing is happening until everything is happening. That’s been my understanding of my whole career.”
Learn more about Katie Cole by visiting her website, and be sure to stream “Things That Break, Pt. 1” below!