September 08, 1997 12:00 PM

DRIVING THROUGH HER HOMEtown of Rockport, Mass., a postcard-perfect fishing village of lobster shacks and gently bobbing sailboats, pop singer Paula Cole maps her memories. She cruises from the wooded millpond where she used to ice-skate, past the remodeled farmhouse she grew up in and the strudel shop where she once waitressed, to the high school where she was an honor student, junior prom queen and class president. “As a teenager, I found Rockport so suffocatingly small,” says Cole, who is visiting for just the second time since she graduated from Rockport High’s Class of 1986. “I went through 10 years of needing distance, of anger and rebellion. Now I’m coming back, and I’m finding the beauty of it again.”

For Cole, 29, the recent two-week visit marked a kind of triumphal homecoming. She arrived riding the crest of her critically acclaimed second album, This Fire, a certified gold hit on its way to selling 1 million copies, thanks to the smash single “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” That song, a catchy ditty about a homemaker who pines for her beer-guzzling, macho mate while she does the dishes and laundry, also led to a nomination for best female video at the Sept. 4 MTV Music Video Awards. But it caused some critics to question Cole’s commitment to feminism. “I meant it totally sarcastically,” she says of the anachronistic lyrics. “[But now] people think I’m to the right of Tammy Wynette and ‘Stand By Your Man.’ ”

If so, it hasn’t stopped fans from lining up to see her belt out songs at Lillith Fair, the all-female traveling pop festival that has proved to be one of the music industry’s surprise success stories since its launch in July. At the fair, in addition to Cole, the likes of Jewel, Fiona Apple, Sheryl Crow, Joan Osborne, Shawn Colvin and Tracy Chapman have been reveling in the dramatic inroads they’ve been making lately into the traditionally male-dominated pop music business.

From Lillith’s inception, organizer Sarah McLachlan wanted to include Cole. “Paula’s a wonderful performer and a really great songwriter,” she says. “Her music is very honest, very passionate. I remember when I first heard her about three years ago, I fell in love with that beautiful voice.” For her part, Cole is proud that “Cowboys,” the song she calls “my little piece of art, my baby,” is helping to make pop’s new sirens heard. She also likes the fact that it appeals both to “the guys who raise their beers and the feminists who shout ‘Yeah!’ mixing together at the shows.”

But not even Cole’s pride in “Cowboys” can entirely erase the sometimes uncomfortable recollections a visit home dredges up. A Manchester, Conn., native, she was one of two girls (her sister Irene, 34, is a nurse in Berkeley, Calif.) born to Stephanie Cole, an artist, and Jim, a former Salem State College biology professor who is now a manufacturing quality-control executive. It was a musical family—her father worked his way through college playing bass in polka bands—and Cole could sing before she knew how to speak. “I was this little canary,” she says.

During high school she grew more serious about her music, commuting to Boston’s prestigious Berklee School of Music for voice and piano lessons and emulating one of her personal favorites, Chet Baker, the jazz trumpeter and singer known for his plaintive style. But even as her music gave her solace, Cole says, she found “those awkward teenager years” especially agonizing. “I was the classic over-achiever, getting straight A’s, running for class president, trying so hard to be excellent and to please everybody.” And as her body changed, she recalls, “I started feeling really uncomfortable with myself. I had to guard my precious sexuality, so I began hiding, wearing really baggy clothes.” She says she seldom dated in high school; she went alone to the junior prom and was voted queen by girlfriends. By the time she had enrolled at Berklee full-time in 1986, “I realized I was a repressed goody two-shoes,” she explains. As a countermeasure she “started to have sexual experiences and made loads of mistakes.”

A scholarship student who supported herself by singing at weddings and as a backup vocalist in bar bands, Cole says that her long-suppressed fears and self-doubts “finally burst” after she graduated from Berklee in 1990. “I just felt burdened, suffocated, and I went nuts. Later I realized this is what they call a nervous breakdown.”

After six months with a Boston psychotherapist, Cole began to find salvation exactly where she always suspected she would—in music. Moving to San Francisco (and later, New York City, where she has lived since 1994), Cole began writing the confessional, darkly emotional songs that are now hallmarks of her concerts. Her debut album, 1994’s Harbinger, included a song, “Bethlehem,” that Cole says “was literally a diary entry” about a 16-year-old with ulcers striving for straight A’s and consumed with self-loathing. Returning to Rockport for the first time, for her 10th high school reunion in July 1996, Cole feared family and friends would be upset with her brooding portrayal of their quaint hometown. In the end, she says, they welcomed her unreservedly. And, she adds, “I realized most of the monsters were in my own head.”

This year’s visit also caused nary a stir despite Cole’s nose ring, her unshaven underarms and her new album, which features her nude on the cover as well as some provocative lyrics. Says her mother, Stephanie, 54: “Her lyrics can sound dark, but she has empathy for others, which is what good art is all about.”

Cole says that recording the album and posing for its cover “felt like such a declaration of freedom,” though her mom admits husband Jim, 55, was somewhat taken aback to see his daughter in her birthday suit on the cover of a bestselling CD. “But we’re not talking about a Playboy pose,” Stephanie points out. “The photos are very tastefully done.”

Cole’s wish list for the future includes “having babies” with her boyfriend, New York City musician and aspiring filmmaker Seyi Sonuga, 30ish, a Nigerian who grew up in England and studied at Berklee, where the two met in 1990. But maternity will have to wait while she concentrates on the career she credits with salvaging her sanity. “I’m a healthier, happier person now,” she says, gazing out over the sun-dappled Atlantic. Preparing to leave Rockport to attend the MTV Awards, perform at the Lillith Fair finale in Vancouver and embark on her first tour as a headliner in October, Cole is just itching to get back onstage. “I’m able to unzip and reveal emotions that I have not been able to express in other ways,” she says. “It’s like rapture.”