Patty Smyth couldn't have come up with a more appropriate title for her new album, It's About Time. The singer's first set of original songs in 28 years follows a hiatus spent raising six children with her husband of 23 years, tennis legend John McEnroe.
Smyth, 63, found fame as the singer for ‘80s pop-rock band Scandal, known for such hits as “Goodbye to You” and “The Warrior.” She later had a successful solo career. But with their blended family of six kids now grown, Smyth finally felt she could devote full attention to It's About Time, recorded in Nashville, Tennessee, with producer Dann Huff. The collection includes covers of Bobbie Gentry's “Ode to Billie Joe” and Tom Waits’ “Downtown Train,” plus six originals that touch on the undimmed romance in her marriage ("Build a Fire"), the need for balance ("No One Gets What They Want") and losing touch with her sister ("Drive").
It's About Time poses the obvious question: What took you so long?
I had my hands full. I stepped back not realizing I was going to step back for so long. When I first met John, I was experiencing really bad writer's block. I had all these songs I could not finish. I was so frustrated with the whole process. Within a year, I was pregnant. He had three kids. You go into survival mode. It was a perfect storm. I was very happy. When I got pregnant again, I thought, Whoa, six kids. People are going to think I'm insane.
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You kept a toe in music. There was the VH1 reunion with Scandal in 2004, a tour in 2005, your Come On December Christmas album in 2015.
I was writing and recording and collaborating, but none if it felt quite right. I kept accruing songs. After I wrote “Drive,” I decided it could not sit on a shelf and rust. That song started with a photograph of me and my sister when we were kids in Queens. There has been some distance between us, and it was nagging at me. I wrote a few more songs and felt like I had an album.
"Build a Fire" is sexy and intimate and clearly about you and John.
I wrote it in Nashville with two other writers, and it originally was called Surprise. A country artist cut it, and it didn't fly. When I rewrote it as “Build a Fire,” I was thinking that I just can't believe I still like this guy and have such a strong connection. A lot of people bail before getting to a real deep emotional and sensual place. You have to be with someone a long time before you get that, and there's something super erotic about that closeness. It's not important in some relationships. It matters in ours.
Did everything click when you and John met?
We grew up 20 minutes from each other in Queens. But in all those years, I never met him. When I did meet John, I was 37 and he was 35. I did not believe in love or marriage. I wasn't interested. I had a great life. I thought I might adopt a child because I only had Ruby and she kept telling me one wasn't enough. There were no guys I liked. I was like, forget it, it's not going to happen, and I was all right with that. When John and I went out on a date, it was like I knew him. It was familiar and exciting. He knew it was something to hold onto sooner than I did. I was like, look around, everyone is cheating and miserable.
Half of marriages end in divorce, and celebrity track records are even worse. How do you explain your success?
It was such good luck to have met each other. But it did not come without a price tag. No one will ever know the stuff we had to go through. The odds were so stacked against us. We never did any interviews. We got married in Hawaii on the day of the Oscars so nobody would notice. I almost went too far. I went so underground with our relationship that a lot of people didn't know I was married to John. I thought if we started talking about how happily married we are, we would jinx it.
Are you happy empty nesters?
John is, yes! He was very happy. Men deal better with it. Our youngest is a senior in college and was with us a while in quarantine. Like me, she's an alpha female, and it's hard to have two in the house. I have a lot of wonderful girlfriends who found it very traumatic for their kids to leave. We saw parents buy houses where their kids were going to college. Could you imagine our parents doing that? It seems so crazy.
Has it been tough coping with the pandemic?
Some days I scare myself. What's going to happen? It seems like another shoe is going to drop — and it's going to be a combat boot, not a Jimmy Choo pump. I started taking guitar lessons, and now John and I are doing yoga twice a week. I was watching Investigation Discovery just to not watch the news.
The music industry has a long history of marginalizing women. Did you experience discrimination or worse when you started out?
Rock ‘n’ roll was male-dominated and still is. The industry had power over my career, but nobody put heavy propositions on me. Maybe I was scary. When I put out my first EP in 1982, every program director would say, “We added Pat Benatar this week, so we can't add your record.” They wouldn't play two women in the rotation. Out of, what, 25 songs? That pits women against each other. When I got pregnant after “The Warrior,” a producer told my lawyer that I wasn't serious and would never have another hit. And later I wasn't getting tours because agents decided I had a rich husband and would say to me, “You don't need to work.” They would never say that to a guy.
In pop music, age has always been a bigger barrier for women than men. Is that a concern?
It seems like the Rolling Stones will be able to go on until their 90s. At this point in my life, I don't expect to be on Top 40 radio. But there are a lot of women who are still going strong. Bonnie Raitt hit her stride in her 40s and she's still great. I know ageism is there, but fans who grew up listening to my music want to hear my songs. Some days I think maybe I waited too long. That doesn't mean I should stop putting out records. When I step on stage, I don't feel like I missed a day.