We look at the singer's career, from her roots as a former small-town prom queen to her bittersweet hit, ''Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?''

In the unpredictable Top 40 world of randy Spice Girls and yodeling country teens, a former small-town prom queen is twirling up the charts. Paula Cole’s sly, bittersweet hit, ”Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” is one woman’s very melodic realization that life is no white-knight-in-a-pickup fantasy.

It’s also the first single from Cole’s incendiary second album, This Fire, on which her nude image and opening song’s lyric — ”I’m so tired of being shy…/I’m not that straight-A anymore…/I’ve left the girl I was supposed to be” — declare the independence of the former class president of Rockport (Mass.) High School. Now the lithe, nose-pierced 29-year-old singer-songwriter pounds the piano, careens her voice, and does back bends on stage whenever she feels like it.

At Boston’s Berklee College of Music, Cole immersed herself in jazz, ”but I became too analytical and unhappy, and I started venting my dark feelings into my own songs.” Those tunes got her an offer from jazz label GRP Records, which she rejected. ”Why be a guinea pig when they try to break into new territory with me? It would have been horrible,” Cole explains. ”So I went on writing songs for a few years, waiting tables, being lonely.” During this time, she has said, nervous breakdowns led to therapy and to the delicate, poignant songs that became Harbinger, her 1994 debut album. But business hassles at her indie label, Imago, limited distribution of the disc.

Fortunately, Peter Gabriel had heard Harbinger and left Cole an answering-machine message: ”Um…this is Peter Gabriel. Can you tour with us in November?” One rehearsal later, Cole found herself on stage in front of 16,000 cheering Germans, having replaced Sinead O’Connor as the featured female vocalist with Gabriel’s Secret World Tour. ”Peter’s music is so Jungian, and with me being the only woman on that stage, it elevated me to this symbol of womanhood,” she laughs.

It also helped give her the confidence to grab the reins of her second album. Newly signed to Warner Bros. Records, Cole ”was working with [a producer] I loved, we’d recorded eight songs, and spent $80,000. But we didn’t create the vision I had in mind. I said, ‘We have to flush it down the toilet and start again — but I want to [produce] it myself.”’ And how did Warner Bros. take the news? ”Stoically,” says Cole. ”But they’re happy now.”

What ultimately emerged is an album distinguished by its primal emotionalism — and that quirky cowboy song. ”It’s just single-y,” says Cole of her breakthrough hit. ”I intentionally didn’t put bass on it. I wanted it to be percolating and high-end and to sound good on even a crappy transistor radio. And it worked!”