Great Moments in Canadian Music (Track 15): Cole’s Notes—How Holly Cole’s Jazz Conquered Japan

Flashback to 1993, and Japan’s biggest music night of the year. All the important stars are there: Chage and Aska, Kome Kome Club, B’z, and of course, Princess Princess.

It’s the annual Japan Gold Disc Award show, the country’s equivalent of the Grammy Awards or the JUNOS. Just like those events, it’s a big spectacle, packed with stars and fans, and broadcast to millions across the country. In the midst of all those fabulous stars, there’s one lone Canadian, feeling very out of place in this surreal scene.

And no, it’s not Céline Dion or Bryan Adams, international superstars used to foreign acclaim. It’s a humble jazz singer, Holly Cole, still on her way to reasonable star status in her own country. But there she was, grabbing not one but two trophies that night in Tokyo for the Holly Cole Trio’s latest album Blame It On My Youth.

“When I went on that live TV show, holy, it was fanatical, screaming people, it was a freak-out,” says Cole. “We won best new international artist, and we won best jazz record.”

Holly Cole. Photo by Edward Gajdel.

There were other big honours that night. The Gold Disc show only invites one international artist each year to perform, and they chose Cole, in a year when Whitney Houston, Guns N’ Roses, and Bon Jovi were all nominated. On top of that, she was asked to present the biggest award of the year.

“They wanted me to present the best international artist, and it was Madonna,” Cole says. “She’s not there, she sent a video acceptance speech. So I announce the award, ‘It’s Madonna,’ and then, ‘Oh unfortunately Madonna can’t be here tonight, but she’s one of my closest personal friends and I know that she’d want me to say how sorry she is that she can’t be here.’ It was fun.”

She may not have been BFFs with Madonna, but she had certainly built a lot of her own starpower in Japan, despite the fact that her record hadn’t even been released in that country.

“It sounds like it’s not true, but it is,” she explains. “It was real grassroots, that’s exactly how you want it to be. Not hyped, it was not like we were promoted a lot. We gave our second record, Blame It On My Youth, to the record company in Japan, and they said, ‘We love it but it’s not right for us.’ That was too bad, they weren’t going to release it there.”

The album had been released in the United States, where there was a bit of interest. But then, the label noticed something strange. Many of the copies were actually leaving the States, and all of them were being ordered by customers in Japan.

“Japan had been importing it and selling it, all because of this one guy, who had a radio show where he was allowed to play what he wanted to,” says Cole. “He played ‘Calling You’ and people went nuts over it. There was a huge groundswell, all because of this one guy, and all of a sudden the Japanese record company goes, ‘Oh sorry, did we say we didn’t want to release it? We do now.'”

Officially, Cole sold over  ¥274 million Japanese yen worth of records that year, which was about $2.7 million Canadian dollars. That made it the biggest-selling album on the Toshiba EMI label by anyone in Japan that year, foreign or domestic.

It was all mind-blowing for Cole, who had only recently launched out of the late ’80s club scene in Toronto. There she and the Trio (David Piltch on bass and Aaron Davis on piano) had developed their hybrid jazz sound, mixing pop, soul, and reggae in a stripped-down style.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” she says. “We couldn’t afford a drummer, so we said, we’ll have to do this. And when we started doing it, it sounded so great we decided to keep doing it.”

With their first album, Girl Talk, the trio had managed to bring jazz back to the mainstream in Canada, well before Diana Krall or Norah Jones.

“Oh my God, that record went gold! We were in Nice, our first tour of Europe, it didn’t take long. I didn’t know if we’d sell enough to recoup the money it cost to make it. And it wasn’t expensive. It just blew my mind.”

Having her mind blown became a regular occurrence. The next time it happened was when the most prestigious jazz label in the world, Blue Note, came to check her out. Not just a representative either. It was Bruce Lundvall, the president of the label, who saw and signed her.

“It was a huge honour,” she says. “Bruce and I became good friends, he was really one of the last people who was in it for all the right reasons. He just loved music, and jazz. We would go listen to all these records, all kinds of gems from their catalog. He would give me song ideas, and was such a personable guy.”

The Holly Cole Trio

It was through Blue Note’s distribution with Toshiba EMI that Cole eventually got that Japanese break, and it continues to pay dividends. She’s toured the country more than two dozen times, playing their circuit of classy, high-end jazz clubs. Gold records and awards aside, the tours and shows in Japan and Canada are what she loves most.

“My dream always was not to make records,” she says. “It was that maybe one day I’ll be able to perform live with some of the best jazz musicians in the world. And that’s what I’m doing. Records weren’t ever in my view. Now I really like making records, but my passion is to perform live.”