Patty Smyth On Turning Down Van Halen, Getting Patti Smith’s Mail, And Releasing Her First New Music In 28 Years
My phone call with Patty Smyth is cut off just as the former Scandal singer starts talking about living on the same East Village street as her name-doppelgänger Patti Smith in the ’70s. “I was getting Patti Smith’s mail, and I didn’t know who that was at that time,” she says before the line abruptly switches to conference call muzak. I silently scream and rush to get Smyth back on the phone, because we can’t end it in the middle of an anecdote like that. Fortunately, her publicist connects us again, and Smyth continues, citing the “Smyth On Smith” piece she wrote last year in tribute to the proto-punk icon’s new book release. (The two Patricias have never actually met. “I wasn’t into the punk scene at that point,” she says. “I was younger.”)
Perhaps fielding Smith’s letters was a harbinger of Smyth’s own forthcoming music career: In 1982, Smyth broke through as lead vocalist in the pop-rock radio staple Scandal. Though they only ever released one full-length album, Scandal to this day are known for their string of mid-decade singles like “Goodbye To You,” “Love’s Got A Line On You,” and “The Warrior” — a 1984 empowerment-pop anthem that currently soundtracks the opening credits to Netflix’s G.L.O.W. and was written by Holly Knight, who penned similar fist-raised ballads for yet another mid-’80s Patricia (Pat Benetar’s “Invincible” and “Love Is A Battlefield”).
Scandal eventually parted ways in 1985 — though they famously got back together in 2004 on VH1’s Bands Reunited — and Smyth was asked to front Van Halen. She declined the gig due to being eight months pregnant and having little interest in moving to Los Angeles (among other reasons, most of them having to do with the glam-metal band’s lawless lifestyle). In 1992, she released a self-titled solo album, which features one of her best-known singles — including the aching duet with the Eagles’ Don Henley, “Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough.”
Smyth, who has not seen G.L.O.W. but swears she’ll check it out soon, is now getting ready to release her first all-originals album in 28 years. Aptly titled It’s About Time, her new work leads off with the expansive single “Drive,” which is about her relationship with her sister, and the way her childhood differs from that of her kids. Below, Smyth opens up about why this was the right time to record new music, what life might have looked like if she opted to join Van Halen, and how songs like “Goodbye To You” and “Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough” have made Smyth “the divorce queen.”
STEREOGUM: How are you doing?
PATTY SMYTH: I’m actually doing probably way better than a lot of people. I’ve been very lucky. We got out to California pretty early on. I did this ’80s cruise [around] March 8 and then March 10 the world imploded. So, I came home thinking I’d go back to New York, the 11th.
STEREOGUM: Wait, you were on a cruise?!
SMYTH: Yeah, I was on a domestic cruise. We weighed the options, it was Miami to Puerto Rico and no one had cancelled. None of the fans had cancelled and one band pulled out and then a second band. But I felt I shouldn’t cancel at the last minute, so we had a powwow with my whole band and my management team and we decided to do it. It was great, and no one got sick. It’s weird, I think they might’ve had one person test positive on the boat. Out of 5,000 people.
STEREOGUM: Oh my gosh. How likely is it you think that you would do something like that again? Given the sort of COVID PR hell cruises are currently facing.
SMYTH: I had the best time. So, I would do it again if they got everything under control, whatever that means.
STEREOGUM: Fair. What has your overall performing schedule been like over the last three or so decades?
SMYTH: Well, I stopped performing before we did the Bands Reunited. I’d done a greatest hits record in ’99 and then I got pregnant with my last kid, which was a surprise and I don’t think the record company was happy with that, and I don’t blame them. It wasn’t in the plan. So from ’99 until 2005 I didn’t do a lot of dates.
I didn’t know what Bands Reunited was. I was with my teenage daughter, [and] she told me. She knew exactly what was happening, I didn’t. So, I was like, “OK, I’ll do it.” Not really thinking about it. But there were the same issues that I had had with some of the guys in the band in the beginning and those issues were still there. So, we still played, but we did a little bit of a different lineup. We did a bunch of touring and then we wouldn’t do as much, and then we would. I would do it if I could do it and then sometimes it seemed like if there weren’t really that many gigs out there.
STEREOGUM: As far as new music goes, why did this feel like a good time to get back into recording?
SMYTH: I’ve always written music. I’ve kept on writing all through this period. I actually recorded a song last week that I wrote 30 years ago, funnily enough, that I just never recorded. It’s a trippy, weird, world Middle Eastern vibe. So, I just cut it and it sounded really good.
I mean, I kept on writing, that’s one thing I did. I got together with people and wrote and then probably in the last five years, it was like, “OK, I’ve got to make a record.” So I put out a Christmas record but I didn’t really take it and try to sell it to a label or do anything. I did it, I raised money for this veteran’s organization called Headstrong, and then it just went out there. So it’s out there, it’s on Spotify and stuff like that but we never really did a big push on it or anything.
So I did that, and I wrote the song “Drive,” that’s the first single on this record. [Then] I went down to Nashville, where I write a lot. I’ve always gone down there to write. I probably started doing that in the ’90s on and off, and so now all the musicians and so much of the music industry is down there. I started asking around, trying to figure out who I should have produce [my record]. I didn’t want to make a country record, I wanted to make more roots, kind of organic, maybe Americana-y kind of thing that rocks but wasn’t super slick.
So anyway, I ran into Dann Huff, and he’s a big producer down there. I’ve known him from back in the day when he had a band out here [in LA]. He’s a great guitar player. But it’s weird, when you haven’t made a record in a long time, it’s like, “OK, who do I make it with? Who’s going to be the right producer that’s going to get me? Who am I going to be able to communicate with?” So that took a minute to figure out, weirdly.
STEREOGUM: Your press materials state that the album — and the single “Drive” in particular — focuses on the idea of relationships. Why did that feel like an important theme to explore?
SMYTH: “Drive” is partly about my sister but also looking back. As you get older you look back and think about how much freedom we had [as kids] and how much better it was to have been able to just run wild. Kids can’t do that anymore.
It’s funny because it’s like, I found a picture of us when we were kids but it was almost like a snapshot of a time in my life and the feeling of it. But I believe that all songs are usually about some kind of relationship be it with the world around you, with people around you. It could be with a higher power, it could be with yourself.
The truth is I’ve always been observing people, and I write a lot of songs about my kids. That’s just what I do. I find them inspiring — their struggles, also my love for them. And then I will just make up a story. There’s a song on the album called “I’m Going To Get There.” A friend of mine had said something to me about her marriage and what she would put up with because he’s wealthy. She was like, basically it didn’t matter what he did, she wasn’t leaving. That was the gist of the conversation I had with her.
And so that planted this weird seed in my mind. I was like, “That’s an interesting take.” So I wrote the song called “I’m Going To Get There” and it’s basically about a woman who figures out that her husband’s been unfaithful, right? And my own husband must have heard the song 15 times before he listened to the lyrics and when he heard the lyrics he got so upset. He was like, “People are going to think this is about us,” and I was like, “No, they’re not.” I mean, I’m a storyteller, I tell stories, not everything I write is autobiographical.
Right now in this time when we are all locked down, it really brings home to me the idea of how important relationships are. I think this has made a lot more people come together and also a lot more people isolate. But I do think for me, it was my relationship to the world — that’s what I meant by “relationships.” There’s a song in there called “Losing Things,” and it’s like as you get older, even if you’re in your 30s or your 40s, things start changing. Then I just realized, “Wow, I’ve misplaced things [or] I’ve lost the love of some things and the desire for some things.” I’ve lost photographs or tapes or friends, I’ve lost quite a few friends in the last few years that were way too young.
STEREOGUM: Now that your kids are older, what are their thoughts around their mom being an ’80s pop icon? Do they get a kick out of it?
SMYTH: Yeah. I think that they’ve always loved it. Maybe my older daughter didn’t love it as much because I was a single parent when she was younger and that took me away from her a little bit. But my younger ones, because I was pretty much home with them, even though I was working, for them it’s almost like they’re my cheerleaders. They have demos of my songs that I’ve been writing over the years on their phones. For them it’s like, we jam. My husband likes to jam and so our friends come over and they just sing “Goodbye To You,” “No Mistakes.” It’s really nice because they’re fans of my music and they’re proud of me. They know when my music was at its peak in the ’80s and ’90s, but I think it’s more that I came from a very tough background and didn’t really have a whole lot of help but I somehow made it through. And not only made it through but thrived. So I think they like that idea, that I’m a strong female. I got a Mother’s Day card from my youngest and the card said, “My mom’s cooler than your mom.”
STEREOGUM: I mean, I would say so.
SMYTH: I thought that was cool. I’m not trying to be a cool mom, I’m trying to be a mom-mom, but I guess I have one of the cooler jobs.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, not every mom has been asked to join Van Halen! Speaking of being a parent, I feel like COVID has reignited a conversation about work-life balance — or a total lack thereof — especially for mothers. You mentioned earlier that your record label wasn’t overjoyed at your becoming pregnant in the late ‘90s. I bet that you never would have had to worry about what a work-life balance looked like as a working musician if you were a man. What was that like to navigate as a working, single parent in the ’80s?
SMYTH: Oh my god, don’t even get me started on that. When I started touring again, we were doing so great and we were killing — but because I’m married to John [McEnroe], literally every agent I talked to was like, “You don’t want to work, do you?” I was like, “Yeah, I want to work, man, that’s why I’m here.” They would never ask a guy that. They asked me that because I’m a woman, and what? Like, “Oh, I don’t have to work because my husband has money.” Back in my day, you didn’t go into music to make money, you went into music because you loved it and that’s what you needed to do.
I wasn’t thinking, “Oh wow, I’m going to get rich.” I just was like, “Wow, people really like the way I sing.” It was totally not a business move. Now it’s different, people are savvier, but I mean, I have never heard of anyone ask a guy, “You don’t need to work.” Like fucking Rod Stewart or Paul McCartney or [any] guy, it’s like shit turns to money — does anyone ever say, “You don’t need to work?” It’s just so weird.
For me, I’ve learned that you can have a child and that you can have a career but you have to have help. Your company, no matter who it is, has to be supportive and help you with that. Maybe you can’t have it all, but you can write songs, go on the road. And you just do it through the summer months, or whatever it is, or if you have a partner who can hang with your kids. Back then, especially the record labels, they didn’t give two shits. They weren’t going to help me work around it. I wasn’t a big enough star. Maybe if I was a huge star… I was doing well, but it wasn’t like I was Barbra Streisand, or something.
When I was pregnant the first time, it had an adverse effect on my career, although I still was able to come back and have the biggest records that I ever had. But still, I got a lot of pushback, I got a lot of judgment and criticism for it. But for me, I just know, this is the way that I’ve always been. And it has nothing to do with being a mom, it started long before that — that the people in my life, my family, my friends that I consider family, are what’s important to me. I love singing and writing; it’s my number one priority, but there have been times when I did step away for a minute. I had a terminally ill friend who I needed to spend time with because nobody else was and that’s something that I did. I took the time, I can step back, I just didn’t need to be doing it all the time and with this vicious drive. I think I’m a little bit different in that way but I’m not willing to sacrifice my kids for my career.
I don’t have to think about that now because [my kids are] grownups, but there was a moment when I had to choose — and I chose my kids. That’s what I had to do. At that point, as a single parent, I didn’t really have that and there wasn’t anyone else who could step in for me. My mom was helping me but my oldest daughter needed me, and so I was in Europe and I was supposed to go to Spain and [record] “Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough” in Spanish, and I felt like, “I can’t. I’m sorry, I have to go home.” So they were very upset with me, but I just had to do it, I couldn’t take another phone call from my kids. I don’t regret that at all.
STEREOGUM: How about when you were asked to join Van Halen? I’ve read that your decision not to replace David Lee Roth was partially to do with the fact that you were pregnant at the time but that it was more to do with your not being interested in the party-hard LA lifestyle.
SMYTH: They were heavy drinkers. I don’t drink. I never saw myself living in LA. I was like, “I’m from New York, we don’t move to LA.”
It’s all semantics because if [Eddie] had said to me, “Let’s make a record,” then I would have said yes to that. But joining the band — to me then, “Oh god, they fight all the time, him and his brother, and I don’t want to get into a volatile situation.” And I was probably heavily hormoned out because I was eight months pregnant, so there was a state of mind that I was in of how I need to take care of myself. But I regretted turning him down. For a long time I regretted it. When you start to have regrets, I was like, “Oh man I would’ve made so much money.”
I wish I had the right kind of luck. I feel it’s just like I’m in this stream or this river and sometimes it’s just taking you where you need to go. Sometimes you’ve got to paddle and go in certain directions and other times you’re just letting it take you. And for me, like I said, my life has turned out unbelievable. That I’ve been married and with the same man for 25 years is insane.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, that is amazing.
SMYTH: Who the heck knows what would’ve happened if I joined Van Halen?
STEREOGUM: Also, I don’t know the details surrounding the tensions you experienced within Scandal, but do you think it’s fair to say that your prior negative experience in a group dynamic might have given you pause to join another — way more publicly rambunctious — group?
SMYTH: Yeah, that definitely has something to do with it. I’m sure. And also just the fact that it was like, “I’m going to have to move to LA.” I should have just had the conversation [with Eddie]. It was such a weird conversation. But if he had said to me, “Look, just come out for a few months and make a record. Have the baby, come out and let’s make a record.” That to me would’ve been more doable.
And I never said anything about it for years. I got a call from Ed and he was like, “Look, I’m not saying that I asked you to join because I don’t want Sammy Hagar to look like [he was] second choice,” and I was like, “OK.” So I never spoke about it after that. I’m like, all right I don’t need to tell people. If someone asked me, I didn’t lie but I didn’t really talk about it that much.
STEREOGUM: Another funny thing I must ask you: Can you describe being mistaken for Patti Smith over the course of your career?
SMYTH: Oh yeah, I lived in the East Village and would get her mail all the time before I was even in the music business. It never dawned on me to change my name and no one ever suggested that I change my name.
We were literally living on the same street. And we were always near each other. But I wasn’t into the punk scene at that point. I was younger. She’s older than I am. I was just in high school, living on my own. And I was getting Patti Smith’s mail, and I didn’t know who that was at that time. I did write a review on her book, you know that, right? I did that recently.
STEREOGUM: Wow, I didn’t realize!
SMYTH: Graydon Carter has a new online magazine called AirMail. [He asked me to sum up] my parallel universe with Patti Smith. But it’s just sort of a funny thing that we get mixed up a lot. Like still.
STEREOGUM: How did “The Warrior” end up in the opening credits to Netflix’s G.L.O.W.?
SMYTH: I have no idea how it ended up on G.L.O.W. because I didn’t write that song, Holly Knight wrote it. I still haven’t seen G.L.O.W.. I should watch it, I heard it’s really good. And people started letting me know that it was the theme song and I just thought that was cool. I mean, they play “The Warrior” at a lot of sporting events. Mike Chapman brought me that song when we were recording that album and I knew it. I knew I could sing the shit out of it. I knew it was a hit, immediately.
And I didn’t even think about the words — which were kind of goofy — because the melody and the attitude were so strong. It was more just the groove of it, and I could really go places vocally. Mike Chapman was a big producer at the time. It was inspiring to sing for him. It all worked out in a way, but I immediately knew what that song was. I don’t know how, but I did. I’m not going to say that I always know, but I knew that one and “Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough.”
STEREOGUM: I hope this isn’t too much information, but I listened to “Sometimes Love” on repeat when I was going through a divorce.
SMYTH: Yeah, I’m like the divorce queen. I was writing it while I was going through a divorce, so it was about everything. It was my daughter, it was my father. I mean, it was everyone. It’s like, there is a danger in loving someone too much, and love is not what’s going to keep people together. It’s the truth, and they lie to us and tell us that that’s all that it takes, but it doesn’t. It takes compromise and respect — and them staying alive for one thing, in my father’s case.
“Sometimes Love,” that was a very huge record for me. A lot of people didn’t know that that was the same chick who was with Scandal. There was a moment there, I guess, in ’94, ’95, ’96 where I just wanted to step out. I didn’t dig what was happening, I just felt like some of the stuff that I was doing seemed futile, in a way. I just didn’t feel like people could see me. Everybody said Don Henley wrote the song. And that’s OK; I love Don. He writes great songs. But I think I just got to that point where I was like, “You know what? I’m not digging this right now. I’m going to back out for a minute.”
And then I had this crazy difficult pregnancy, so that put stuff on hold. So I put out the Greatest Hits, the song that was on Armageddon [“Wish I Were You”], there were a couple of hit songs on that record. I put a couple of new songs out, but then all of a sudden I was like, “uh oh,” you know? I was like, “OK, it’s going to take me a minute to get back after this.” And then I just started doing shows and I dug that. I wasn’t in a huge rush to go back into the studio because I was having fun playing live. But then eventually it’s like, “OK, I need some new music because people want it and because I can’t keep singing the same 12 songs.”
The only thing to say about this record is, it’s taken me too long to make it and I’m not going to wait so long again. I’m just going to keep on writing and keep on putting it out, that’s all I can do. I feel bad that I stayed away from recording for so long, and it wasn’t because of my kids. I’m not even sure what happened. But I’m ready to rock, Rachel. I’m ready to rock.
It’s About Time is out 10/9 via BMG.