Patty Smyth returns with an excellent new album It’s About Time, a title that puts a button on the question she’s been asked by fans and often posed to herself.
Though there have been a few scattered songs here and there, it’s been 28 years since her last full album, 1992’s self-titled Patty Smyth, which contained the Grammy-nominated “Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough,” sung with Don Henley and co-written with Glen Burtnik. Since that time, Smyth raised her family of six kids with guitar playing husband and tennis legend John McEnroe. Truth is, she’s been touring, playing shows and writing all along, but never found the time to get back in the recording studio.
“It’s a big crossroads for me, and it’s not just because of my kids leaving home,” Smyth tells American Songwriter. “It’s now or never. I was too deep in the trenches and I was just doing what was in front of me. I’ve been touring for the last twelve years and people kept asking me when I would have new music. I would play a couple new originals in the shows. I finally said I have to do it. I have to jump off the cliff!”
Recorded in Nashville with Dann Huff, It’s About Time is a journey back to her roots and simpler times, focusing on the strength and importance of formative, long-lasting relationships. The six originals on the record retain the classic Patty Smyth sound- driving drums and a hint of classic ‘80s sounds finely blended with acoustic guitars and crunchy electrics. Soaring over the instruments is Smyth’s seductive voice, which still exudes passion and a sultriness that perks your ears and makes you stop what you’re doing and just listen.
The contemplative “Losing Things,” rooted in the soothing sound of an acoustic guitar, would fit as easily on a Miranda Lambert album as it would if it were sung by Paul Westerberg. Inspired by a photograph she found of her and her sister, she revisits her youth and the desire to hit with the road to nowhere on “Drive.” “Build A Fire” chronicles the long love affair with her husband, and the strong bond and the chemistry the two still have for each other. Two classic covers, “Downtown Train” and “Ode To Billie Joe,” a cornerstone song of her childhood, give the listener a peak into her influences and round out the eight-song album.
My hands must be tattooed all over you by now
I placed a million crazy kisses on your mouth.
I’ve been holding you so long I’ve lost all track of time
Only you can take me higher, baby you and I can still build a fire
Right before the pandemic hit in March, Smyth performed on a cruise for the first time, which reaffirmed the importance of releasing It’s About Time. Not knowing what to expect, the cruise turned out to be a blast all around. Smyth saw herself in the fans in the audience.
“There were 3500 fans and they were so into it, dressing up like Miami Vice, or Baywatch and so fucking happy! They were mostly my age and it was funny and infectious. That’s where their joy is.”
“I say this a lot when we’re playing live: How did this happen, that we’re older now? Our kids are grown up! I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t know it was going to happen to me. I really didn’t. I don’t feel any different, but I look different. A lot of years have gone by, I guess. I see it in their faces too. ‘What happened?’ But on that boat for that hour and half at the show, you’re just cutting loose, laughing out being older and being parents and how hard that is. The joy of music is infectious and it’s great to be around people who love it too.”
“Now is the time to do whatever brings me the most joy. And people have been asking for new music for so long, I feel like saying it’s about time and I’m so sorry it took so long. Those were the two choices for the album title: It’s About Time and Sorry It Took Me So Long!” (laughs)
Was there a specific reason you recorded in Nashville? Was it your friendship with Dann Huff?
It was probably more my friendship with Liz Rose. I’ve been going to Nashville to write for years. I went to a BMI Awards event with Liz and I ran into Dann, who I hadn’t seen in a long time. We talked. When I was thinking about recording, I could have probably found a studio in New York. But there’s not really a scene, sadly. I did my last record in LA. I had been going down to Nashville, writing with Liz and others. I called up Dann and told him I wanted to make a record that rocks. He’s such a great guitar player and I knew he had roots in really good rock. I asked him, knowing full well that he could say no, and I don’t want anyone to say no to me! Who wants to hear that? (laughs). And he said yes.
How were those sessions?
We did it with Dann, his brother Dave Huff and Ilya Toshinskiy. Dann is very slick and polished, but he can also be very organic. And I didn’t want slick and polished, which he understood right away. I’m going for a more Americana thing. And I like Nashville because everyone is so friendly. They’re songwriters and they support each other and go out to see them perform.
I also love so many styles of music it was hard figuring that part out. Should it be rock, should I find someone who’s more modern and into a hip-hop groove because I dig that too. It would be different for me. But I could totally bring my songs into programmed loops and beats. Maybe not a whole record but it would be cool with the right person.
What is the timeframe for writing those six songs?
It’s pretty crazy and funny. I’ve always been writing and had a couple songs for a real long time. “Only One” was probably written 10 or 12 years ago. “Build A Fire” is an older song. It was originally called something else and was written with a couple of writers in Nashville. I tried demoing and cutting them, but it never felt right. But I liked the songs, so I kept them. “Drive,” “Losing Things,” “I’m Gonna Get There” and “No One Gets What They Want” are new songs, written in the last couple years.
I’ve got twelve more new ones that I’ve found which I’ve got to flesh out in the studio. I found a song I wrote with my “No Mistakes” co-writer Kevin Savigar. It was written in 1993 or so, right before I met my husband, and it’s called “You Will Be Mine.” It’s great and I demoed it a few weeks ago with a friend. Glen Burtnik and I have songs like that. There’s a song called “Stars Come Out For Me” which is a beautiful weird Nebraska-type song, and one called “If I Fall Behind.’ I’m finding snippets on cassette tapes which I put on my voice memos. I’ve forgotten songs I’ve written and who I’ve written them with and that’s the damn truth! People post the B-side of “No Mistakes” online and I totally forgot about it. It fell to the wayside. It’s so funny that you can forget.
Is there a narrative you want to tell the world with this album?
When you think about a narrative, some of it is happenstance but most is deliberate. I’ve been trying to make a record for a long time and for some reason I couldn’t figure out how to do it where I was happy. Maybe the songs weren’t right or the people I was in the studio with weren’t right, but it was a struggle.
At this point I’ve spent a lot of my life observing people. I’ve raised a lot of kids and had a full plate for a long time. And felt overwhelmed!
Are you too hard on yourself?
I am definitely too hard on myself. In every area of my life. When you stay away from it for a long time, it gets harder to jump back on. It’s not like riding a bicycle, which, by the way, I really love and did the other day!
Do you approach singing in the studio in a different way than performing live?
I love singing live and I love singing in the studio. But I got out of the habit of singing in the studio and how relaxed I always was. I don’t really like having people in the room when I’m singing. It’s always been me and the producer. It was a bit of a struggle because for the longest time I couldn’t figure out who to do the record with. I tried with Keith (Mack), because we did a Christmas CD which was pretty.
You mentioned going to Nashville for many years to write. Did you ever record there?
I cut my solo record (1992) in Nashville with Barry Beckett before the Roy Bittan version. We had Memphis Horns. It was great working with him and there’s some great stuff recorded. But I also knew at that point in time it wasn’t right for what I was doing. I had to make that painful decision to scrap those sessions. Of course, I recently found out all of MCA’s file archives were lost in the warehouse fires in California, so who knows if the tapes still exist. I have DAT’s of those versions. That’s all I have. Whether Barry’s estate has anything I don’t know.
So what year was this? Was it before the solo record and were there different songs?
That was 1989. There were four or five that wound up on the album- “Shine” “Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough” There were some different songs. I hadn’t written “No Mistakes” yet. I had always wanted that organic, rhythm and blues feel. It’s my heart and soul. To me, country music goes back to Ireland. It’s the white, European blues. So that’s why it’s not such a bizarre thing to go back to Nashville and try it again. And to do it with someone like Dann, who knew how to do it without being too slick.
Tell us about writing the song “Losing Things.”
I had this idea, which comes from getting older. My kids are gone. I haven’t lost them but they’re away from the house. I was deeply inspired by that book “Letters To A Young Poet” by Rilke. Everything you need to write about is in your past, your childhood and growing up. I find that to be really true.
And I feel like I’m losing the memories, the details of a lot of the childhood stories. And I have to wear glasses now where I used to have perfect vision. Over time, I’ve lost my way, my nerves, my hope. Things like that.
I went down to Nashville and was with Liz and Emily (Shackelton) in the room and told them I had this idea. And I made a list of things I’ve lost and started writing. The truth is I could write this song every day with a new list of things. I had to finish it, but really, it will never be finished. I’ve added fifteen new things to the list since then!
Writers often rewrite after finishing a song. Bob Dylan is a prime example.
I’m so glad to hear that! I feel like painters must feel like that too. I don’t feel that “Losing Things” is finished. But when you’re in the studio, you do need to call it done at some point.
There’s a lot of car imagery on the album.
It’s an accident! It’s funny because the songs are written so far apart from each other. “Drive” is a newer song and “Build A Fire” is an older song I wrote about my relationship with my husband.
In “Build A Fire,” the groove of the music just felt so right with the opening lyrics “Pull the car off the road/Pull me close, turn the engine off.” What’s funny in the video for “Drive” is that there we’re not really driving in the car. It’s a metaphor for getting out of here and getting back to where and whenever we were happy.
With “Drive” I had an idea for the melody, but I had no idea for the story. I came back to New York and kept going over it in my head. When I came across a bunch of old photographs, the melody solidified itself and it all came together.
When you do dream interpretation, they say it’s your life. When you’re the passenger, you’re not in control of your life. And I didn’t drive a car until I was 32, being a true New Yorker! Maybe that’s why there are a lot of cars in my songs. I came late to the party!
A stripped-down version of “Downtown Train” is on this record, which you first recorded on the Never Enough album. What made you revisit the song?
I feel like that record ran away from me. That was supposed to be a Scandal record and then Keith got pushed out. I didn’t want it to be a solo record. It didn’t feel like one. I didn’t write a lot of the songs. I was pregnant when we cut the basic tracks and had a six-week old baby when we were finishing. It was so not my first solo record. The 1992 record was my first solo record.
I just never liked the production on “Downtown Train” from that record. There were some songs on the record that were cool and different. I could never play it live. I would try and it didn’t work. That song should have been a hit, but it wasn’t right. It needed to be simpler. That’s not on the musicians. That’s on the producers.
Keith and I have been playing it live on acoustic for the last couple years. When I went in the studio with Ilya, we used electric guitar mostly, with a little acoustic. It’s way more powerful to me. The lyrics, the imagery, the melody. It’s the little things, like the shaker in the chorus, which make it huge. It’s funny how less can be so much more.
Was your first version released before Rod Stewart’s version?
Oh yeah. So that really hurt! (laughs) To have him cut it pretty straightforward and have a hit record with it. But it only hurt for five seconds. It’s fine. Rod is great. It’s a beautiful song and I’m glad someone had a hit for Tom Waits.
Your husband John is a legend in the tennis world of course, but he’s also a guitar player who loves to play all the time. Your children are grown now, but were they involved with music?
Music isn’t part of their career but it’s a big part of their lives. They jam with John all the time and love to sing. They like hip-hop but they know all the greats- Sam Cooke, Aretha, Janis, whatever. I’ve schooled them well! They have demos of my songs on their phones that they love. There are songs that didn’t make it on this record that they tell me I have to put out.
The kids are good, honest people who like to tell the truth and be authentic. I think they look at me as a strong woman who stands up for what’s right. My 24-year old with John is going to law school and wants to go into criminal justice reform. Ruby wants to teach and just got her degree. And my youngest Eva has been working with prisoners when she was at school. They’re all trying to do the right thing. I feel like they’re way more evolved than I am! They have been my muses. And they push me and keep me going.