The most interesting people, Holly Cole says, are “bundles of contradictions.” Curled up on her living room couch in downtown Toronto, she’s talking specifically about avant-blues iconoclast Captain Beefheart, whose song Love Lies she covers on her new album, Night — but she might as well be describing herself.
The Halifax-born chanteuse grew to fame in the early ’90s as a seemingly old-fashioned, long-glove-wearing interpreter of standards who nonetheless would often subvert the songs she sang. On her debut album, Girl Talk, she belted out the title track as an exaggerated parody of dated, sexist mores, and she delivered the vivacious Petula Clark anthem Downtown as if it were called Downcast. The practice continues on Night, as she sings Viva Las Vegas (of Elvis Presley fame) from the point of view of someone rather jaded: “There’s part of you that really loves [Vegas], but you know what’s coming: the guys with diapers and people who’ve been up for three days and have sold their daughter’s college fund.”
Subtext, she says, is her “best friend,” but her knowing approach leaves room for genuine-sounding emotion, and Night comes across as a personal collection indeed. In part, it’s a love letter to the wee hours, her “most creative time.” Her earliest memory is of her father, CBC broadcaster Leon Cole, taking her out into the misty Maritime air at 4 a.m., when she was three years old, to calm a cough: “There’s no people, and nothing there under the moonlight and the hazy street lights … I felt like I had the most beautiful and amazing secret.” Many of Night’s lyrics are set after dark, and they also tend (Elvis aside) to be introspective.