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After Almost 30 Years, Patty Smyth Returns With New Album 'It's About Time'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Rocker Patty Smyth hasn't released an album of new music in almost three decades, just a little bit longer than she's been married to John McEnroe, who played some tennis. Patty Smyth celebrates that relationship and others with a new album and this song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUILD A FIRE")

PATTY SMYTH: (Singing) Pull the car off the road. Pull me close. Turn the engine off. I feel the wind and your hands in my hair. Yeah, you're talking soft.

SIMON: That's "Build A Fire" off the new album "It's About Time." Now, this may be Patty Smyth's first new material for a while, but she has been busy raising six children, touring, recording, acting and providing the Netflix series "Glow" with its theme, her 1984 hit "The Warrior" with the band Scandal.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WARRIOR")

SCANDAL: (Singing) Shooting at the walls of heartache - bang, bang. I am the warrior. Well, I am the warrior.

SIMON: Patty Smyth joins us now from Malibu, a small town in Southern California. Thanks so much for being with us.

SMYTH: Thank you so much for having me. It's a real pleasure to be here.

SIMON: Well, it's a real pleasure to have you. And please understand why I have to get this question out of the way. You have been married to John McEnroe for a long time...

SMYTH: Twenty three years.

SIMON: ...Somebody who has been known to display mild irritation at times.

SMYTH: Mmm hmm.

SIMON: So what's the secret to an enduring, loving relationship?

SMYTH: I have no idea what the secret is. I do know that if you asked us who has a worst temper, it would be me, not him, so...

SIMON: (Laughter) He's finally made...

SMYTH: ...I am totally the hothead.

SIMON: Relationships are a recurring theme on this album, aren't they?

SMYTH: Well, relationships are a recurring theme in life. You know, you got a relationship with the mailman, for crying out loud. I mean, to me, I feel like it's all about relationships. And I also watch other people's relationships. I - you know, I like to, you know, eavesdrop and spy on people and steal material from them. So you kind of have to be listening with an extra ear. It's almost like three ears (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF PATTY SMYTH SONG, "DRIVE")

SIMON: Could you tell us a bit about the song "Drive," which I understand is at least partly about your sister? Let's listen to it, if we could.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DRIVE")

SMYTH: (Singing) Come out with me. Let's go back in time. Let's drive. And all of the years in between, just let them fly by.

SIMON: I love that line, all the years between, just let them fly by.

SMYTH: Thank you.

SIMON: That'd be great sometimes, wouldn't it?

SMYTH: Yeah, it really would. You know, I feel like for me at that point, my sister and I, our lives have been drastically different. And I felt that there was a huge chasm between us, and I didn't know how to fix it or get across it. And, you know, we were raised by a single parent. We moved all the time. It was a chaotic, hard childhood. And I had started writing the song, which turned out to be "Drive," and I had the music and the melody, but I really didn't know what I was writing - what I wanted to write it about. And I just picked up a photograph of her and I, and I just wrote it. And all of the pain that you've had, just leave it behind is the second chorus because it's like I didn't know how to make it better. I just knew that I wanted to make it better.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DRIVE")

SMYTH: (Singing) And all of the pain that you've had, just leave it behind.

And I think it helped. I think it helped us.

SIMON: Oh, good. Can I check a couple of things with you?

SMYTH: Yeah.

SIMON: Of course, Eddie Van Halen sadly left us this week. Is it true you turned down an offer to replace David Lee Roth as the front person in Van Halen?

SMYTH: I did. I did turn it down. I mean, at the time that he asked - I mean, I just feel so badly for his family right now. I just can't believe that he's gone. But he was a warm, funny, happy musical genius. And when he asked me for that last time, when he - he was like, you know, I've got to know now - I was eight months pregnant, and I just was not ready. So I probably should have thought that through a little bit more. But it turned out fine. It would have been nice to have made a record with him, though. I'll always regret that, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF PATTY SMYTH SONG. "ODE TO BILLIE JOE")

SIMON: You got a couple of covers on this album - Tom Waits's "Downtown Train" and Bobbie Gentry's - could we listen to a little bit of "Ode To Billie Joe?"

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ODE TO BILLIE JOE")

SMYTH: (Singing) It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day. I was out chopping cotton, and my brother was bailing hay.

Probably not until, I don't know, seven years ago did I start doing it live. And it just - people really responded to it. It's a really soulful song. It's a different side of my voice. And I love singing it. And it also was one of those, you know, building blocks of my musical childhood, I think.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ODE TO BILLIE JOE")

SMYTH: (Singing) I dropped down into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

SIMON: May I ask what kind of music has been - have you been listening to or has been maybe helping you in these times?

SMYTH: Oh, you know, my husband is a big jammer. He loves to jam. And him and his friend jam like three or four times a week. So I sit in...

SIMON: You're kidding me. Really? I didn't know that.

SMYTH: Yeah. And so we're - there's always music in the house. If my girls are around, then they start singing, I'm not a big jammer, but I will jam with them. So we've been doing, like, Cure songs and Go-Go's songs and then some of my old songs because they like to sing my songs. We did "Drive" the other day. Basically how I've been doing it is just writing. I don't listen to a lot of music. It's terrible to say it, but I feel like I get music out in a way, you know? I need silence sometimes.

But I'll tell you what, I played "Ball Of Confusion" because I - someone asked me to come up with a playlist for voting, you know, for the voting booth.

SIMON: Yeah.

SMYTH: And one of the songs I came up with was "Ball Of Confusion," which is, you know, probably one of the earliest rap because you think about it - (singing) people moving here. People moving there. Why? Because - I mean, it's, like - it's totally, like, this rhythmic kind of singing, talking. And it blew John's mind. I mean, he'd never heard it. And I was like, this is The Temptations. This is an amazing song. So I like to do that. Like, I'll go back, and then all of a sudden I fall down the rabbit hole of these great old Motown songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BALL OF CONFUSION")

THE TEMPTATIONS: (Singing) Ball of confusion, that's the world is today.

SIMON: Sounds like you have a fun household.

SMYTH: Well, thanks to my husband because if it wasn't for him being such a goofy lover of music, it would probably just be crickets in here all the time (laughter). He's kept me abreast of what's going on and also, you know, made me remember this is what I love to do. So I count myself as lucky.

SIMON: Patty Smyth - her new album, "It's About Time" - thank you so much for being with us.

SMYTH: It was so nice to talk to you. Thanks for having me. I'm a huge fan of NPR. I'm a big contributor. And so I'm super psyched.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOWNTOWN TRAIN")

SMYTH: (Singing) Outside another yellow moon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.