January 10, 2018 Interview – Patty Smyth
Some stars fade quietly, gone into darkness, never to be seen again. Other stars refuse to fizzle out, eager to come roaring back as bright as ever, and that would fittingly describe Patty Smyth. Born and raised in New York, Smyth has had music running through her veins all her life. Destine to rock, in the 1980s she rose to fame as a powerful, passionate vocalist fronting the band Scandal while burning up Billboard charts with songs such as 1982’s “Goodbye To You” and 1984’s “The Warrior.” Going on to a solo career, reaching the Top 10 with the 1992 hit single “Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough,” Smyth continued to earn respect and love from many fans, yet overall, still remained rather underappreciated in the music world.
Stepping back from it all, Smyth’s love for music never dissipated, and now in 2018 she is set to return with some brand new music that has been years in the making! Kicking off the new year with two shows at City Winery in her hometown of Manhattan on January 14th and 15th, Smyth is just getting warmed up for what she has in store for the new year. Recently we caught up with the talented musician to talk the roads she has travelled, fighting for her own creative vision in the music business, songwriting, and so much more.
CrypticRock.com – You have been involved in Rock-n-Roll for nearly four decades. From your early success with Scandal to your solo career, you have certainly left a lasting impression. First, briefly tell us, how would you describe your journey in music?
Patty Smyth – I don’t know. I guess in the beginning, as a kid, my mom ran some coffee houses in the Village, so I was around music all the time. Even before that, I remember being obsessed with my mother’s record collection. I never really confessed to anyone for a while, but I probably knew even at seven that I wanted to sing. I never told anyone, so it was a secret journey for a while; although it was not too secret for my family because I just sang constantly and it annoyed everybody. That is that 10,000 thing I guess, where you just have to do something over and over. (Laughs) I had sort of a tough childhood and beginning, I was really just trying to survive out there. I wasn’t even confessing then it was something I wanted to do. I left home at 16 and by 19 I made a phone call to someone and told them I wanted to sing and it started. That is when it really started: when I let everyone know I wanted to do this.
I always felt like life was getting in the way of music. Music has been a big part of my life and is a big part of who I am. Words and music, I always wrote poetry and such. The journey has been a long one, it doesn’t feel like it has been four decades. It definitely has had its ups and downs. There have been times that I feel like, “I am not into this business, this business sucks and it’s not about music.” Being a woman in the music business has changed a lot. When you first start you don’t realize it is a business. Music, I have always loved: it has always been cathartic and beautiful part of my life. Besides my children, music has always been the best thing I have had in my life. The business part hasn’t always been; that kind of rains on your parade, the reality of what the music business is, especially what it has become.
CrypticRock.com – Yes, obviously when you love music as much as you do, the business end of things can sometimes put a damper on matters. You just want to create and sometimes business politics get in the way. That can leave a sour taste in your mouth, yes?
Patty Smyth – That is part of it. In the beginning I was just so happy to get a record deal and have people believe in me. I really thought all these guys, and these were older men, like father figures… I grew up without a dad so these were older guys who wore suits, to me seemed like professionals and I thought they knew what they were doing. I really believed their thoughts on stuff and let them sway me from things I wanted to do. Say I wanted to do a live video instead of some dumb Warrior-esque video. We had a big fight over that. Since I was a woman they would weigh in a lot more stuff than they would have with a dude. I wouldn’t have had to have a big conversation about making a live performance video if I was a guy.
There were things like that, but the first record and half I felt, “They must know what they are doing.” Then I realized they don’t know what they are doing! It was kind of a big let-down to me. I felt then, why are you in this job if you really don’t know and you are not surrounded by people who do know? Then, when you start to take a stand – because you realize they don’t know and they are kind of guessing, and they want you to be whatever this week’s flavor – then when you make a stand, that changes everything. I made little stands: I didn’t even make big stands, but I took a lot of grief if I would just say no or try and press something. Again, I don’t believe that happens like it did then, but I think because I was a woman I wasn’t allowed to question stuff at all. They got really pissed if you did, but it is funny, because they really didn’t know what they were doing and they should have! Like the A&R guys or the guys who wanted me to work with a certain producer. Some of the songs they brought me, what were they thinking! It was surprising to me how little they really knew.
CrypticRock.com – That sounds quite frustrating on various levels, especially when, in a way, you feel like they are treating you like a puppet on a string. You want to follow a particular direction, you trust their direction, yet they do not seem to have a clear direction that makes sense.
Patty Smyth – What was funny is when I met Zach Smith, he had these songs we went in and recorded them. We went in and did a video, they signed us because they liked my energy or stage presence, but as soon as they got us, that is when they got in the mix and started changing stuff. But there was nothing that needed to be changed because it was clear it was working. That was that age of everybody justifying their jobs, it was very strange.
You are happy you are getting a record deal, but I didn’t know a whole lot about recording at that point. I was new to the game: it was not like I was slogging around for a lot of years making records that didn’t come out. That didn’t happen; I had a different kind of journey and I came in as a sort of novice. We made a video because Zach thought it was a good idea: that is how we got a record deal, that is how it all happened. It is funny: ‘if it is not broken don’t fix it,’ but they can’t help themselves. They would get in there and want to fix something that wasn’t broken. Everybody is new to the game; I think most artists who get signed are relatively inexperienced.
CryticRock.com – Yes, you are learning as you go and placing your trust in the proper guidance. As mentioned, you did attain early success with Scandal in the early ’80s with singles such as “Goodbye to You” and “The Warrior,” but then the band dissolved midway through the decade. After Scandal, you have release material solo including the highly successful single “Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough” in 1992. Your latest, Come on December, was released back in 2015. Beyond that, you stepped away from music for a little bit.
Patty Smyth – I would say I stepped away way more than a little bit. I wasn’t planning on that happening, but all of a sudden I was buried with 6 kids in my house. I just think I became a little bit overwhelmed by all of that. At the point I did step away, I had just come off a number 1 song, I had written the best song I probably had ever written. I had the most success I had ever had, and I still didn’t really feel people knew me or could see me as the artist I was. I remember feeling very frustrated about it: people kept thinking it was Don Henley who wrote the song or whatever it was. I went out on the road when “Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough” was a big hit and I sang “Goodbye to You.” I saw people in the audience didn’t know that I am the same person; they don’t know the same person who sang “Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough” was the same person who sang “Goodbye to You” and that was startling to me.
Even with “The Warrior,” I was unrecognizable because I had so much crap on my face and all these crazy costumes. I just got frustrated: there didn’t seem a continuity and I didn’t feel like I was coming through. One of the most personal songs I’ve ever written is probably “Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough,” it is pretty close. The music was changing around then – I liked Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots – but the music shifted. Things changed and maybe that was part of my frustration. I felt like, I have been doing this a long time and I felt like people didn’t know I was a songwriter also. I didn’t think they knew that I was a big part of what was happening in my life and my career. I think that frustrated me a little bit, so I said I think I am going to step back for a minute.
Although I continued to write songs, but all of a sudden I had a kid, then another kid, then I had all my husband’s kids; then it was like I was drowning in kids. Then I went back to do a greatest hits record, around 1998. I was going to do a greatest hits and a song for the Armageddon soundtrack, got together with an old A&R friend of mine, and I was going to do a new record. Then I found out I was pregnant again, that was a surprise! I was like, Ooh shit!” They were not happy about that, they weren’t happy when it happened the first time back right around “The Warrior.” That was a huge blow to my career then, but I overcame it.
Then I think what happens is, it is hard to get back. I think: who should I get to produce it? What kind of record do I want to make? I started overthinking it. I think that is why when I did Come on December, I said I am going to make this Christmas record; Keith and I are going to do it, I am just putting it out. I am not going to even go to a label because I don’t really care. I may put it out on a label next Christmas, maybe remix a couple of things and then put it out on a label. I really like it: I think it is an easy record to listen to at Christmastime, at a time when there are unbearable versions of Christmas songs. (Laughs) I happen to love Christmas and Christmas music, so that is when I just jumped off and we did it ourselves.
I am standing at the same point today: I have to make another record, I have a bunch of songs. I am trying to figure out who is the right producer. I started and stopped a few times in the last 7 years because I want it to be right. In a way, maybe it doesn’t have to be right, maybe it doesn’t matter.
CrypticRock.com – Well it is great that you did the Come on December record, it is quite a beautiful record. These are more than just holiday themes, they are about life and the struggles we all go through.
Patty Smyth – Yes, definitely with “Broken.” I started talking with Keith Mack and thought this time of year has to be awful for men in the service, men coming home, or families where their husbands/kids don’t come home. I also had a friend whose kid has been struggling with substance abuse for so long: I just could see their pain, I just don’t know what you do about that. It seems like it is easy to say to someone, ‘Just pray.’ You have to un-break yourself, that was the gist of “Broken.” “Walk With Me,” we wanted to do something that sounded more like a traditional Old English song. It was about growing old together and it was really fun to do it.
I have so many good songs right now that I want it to rock, but I want it have some soul. I also want it to have some of the modern things that I like that are out there. Trying to find that perfect mix-up, maybe a few different guys that have to do it, but that is what I am working on now. That is my pledge to my family and friends, that in this new year, I am making this record. Whether it is an EP or full record, it has to be made and it has to be made now.
I have been going to Nashville. I have been going there for years just because there are so many great songwriters there. There are good songwriters in L.A. too. I have been stockpiling my songs. I feel like I have to find the guy I can sit in a room with and say, “Okay, here is all of it, let’s go through it.” I know the ones that I feel strongly about that I definitely want to record, there are also others ones that I am ‘hmmm’ about. Maybe someone can help me sort through them, because there are a lot of them. (Laughs)
CrypticRock.com – It will be exciting to hear some new material! You have showcased some of the new songs at live shows throughout recent years.
Patty Smyth – Yes, one or two, but now I have a lot. It is funny because I have these shows coming up in NYC, and I had to think about what songs I wanted to do. I know what songs are on The Warrior (1984) album, but for whatever reason, I have not gone back to listen to Never Enough (1987) in decades. I went back to listen to it and, oh, there is this song “Tough Love.” I completely forgot about it! I went back to listen to and then there was another one on that album and another. Now I have decided I am just going to do a show of Never Enough: I think I’m going to do one of those things where you just do the whole album. It would be fun, but we are going to change it around. I do “Downtown Train” and “Heartache Heard ‘Round the World,” those are the only two songs I do from that record, but there are a lot more songs from that record I forgot about. I didn’t write a lot of the songs on that record because I had a 6 week-old baby. My producer, Rick Chertoff, was Hooters guy. I always call that my Hooters record because there are a lot of Hooters songs on that record. It is funny to think you can forget what is there! I found some cool hidden treasures that I am going to bring to our live shows now.
We also have a bunch of touring coming up in the spring which is great. That is why I have to try and get in quick, make this record, and hit the road. It is really fun to play out, but it would be nice to be able to play out different old songs and different new songs.
CrypticRock.com – It sounds like it will be a great time out! You do have a handful of live performances coming up, including a couple nights in NYC at City Winery – a sold-out show on Sunday, November 14th, and by popular demand a 2nd show Monday, November 15th. It sounds like it will be a mix of songs with surprises?
Patty Smyth – Yes, we have to keep it interesting for everybody, right? The fans come first, but we have to keep it interesting for us, otherwise it is boring for them. We are mixing it up with a couple of different players, so it will definitely be fun! Then they added Monday night, I think that will probably be the loosest night. Sunday night is sold-out. Monday night we are going to loosen it up quite a bit, who knows what will happen Monday night? I like that, because I feel like these guys have been playing with me for 10 years at least, maybe more than that. I feel like we could throw ourselves down a flight of stairs and we would land together in time and tune. All the nights will be great!
CrypticRock.com – Very cool. Fans will want to check out one of those two nights in NYC, and the spring is something to look forward to with the potential of the new record. You said you want it to have a mix of styles. What can we expect the record to sound like?
Patty Smyth – The truth is, in a way, you have to rock because you can! There aren’t that many people who can. It sort of feels like an obligation, because I am capable of doing it still for some unknown reason. It is fun! It is fun to stomp around and kick some ass! I also like a good swing factor; I have always been into Soul and Country music in a way. To me, Country music is kind of Folk. My mom ran Folk clubs: I guess that is why it is in my DNA in a way. They are just beautiful stories. Even “Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough” is very close to a Country-sounding song in many ways.
I think right now is a good time that you can mix things up: if you want to do loops, have it rock, have it be soulful, put samples in, or whatever. I am open to all of those things. I even like a couple of The Weeknd and Daft Punk songs. They are obviously really talented and it is very far from what I haven’t done, but I still can appreciate it. I like the sounds! It would be nice to have a little bit of that in there. I just want it to be fun, but I don’t write happy songs necessarily. I have a couple of them! (Laughs)
CrypticRock.com – The possibilities are endless! It is funny you mention it, as a song such as “Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough” does lean toward Country. Sometimes when you let your creativity free, your influences just bleed through naturally!
Patty Smyth – Yeah, but I didn’t really grow up listening to a lot of Country music; although I did always love George Jones and Tammy Wynette. When I was a kid, everything was on the radio. If it was a good song – from Johnny Cash to The Stones to James Brown to Tony Bennett to Sly and the Family Stone – everyone was on the radio at the same time. I would not change it for anything in the world to grow up in the time I did and the music there was. Now it is so fractured and it is so hard to get a balance of great music.
Back in the day, it didn’t matter what it was. Then they started taking the pulse of the 18 to 34 white male, or whoever they thought were buying the records, and it changed everything. It became about the demographic where something had to be a Rock station and that had to be a Soul station. Before that, there was FM and AM radio and you heard everything! When they started to track what is going to sell, that changed everything and kind of ruined it in a way, if you ask me. It is so hard for me to find music now! I have to search through YouTube and, every once in a while, I accidentally come across something and it is great. It would be nice to turn on the radio and hear something opposed to the same 10 songs and artists. I really feel like that is all there are now.
CrypticRock.com – It certainly has become a challenge to search for music. Even when it comes to Netflix and other streaming services, they track what you watch and then recommend things you like based on those views. How do they know what you like based merely on viewing habits?
Patty Smyth – You’re right! With music, you really can’t say because you like one kind of music you are going to like another kind of music. You can be very eclectic in your music tastes, as well films and books. For whatever reason, my escape now is True Crime and I read crime novels a lot. Now, if I am on my Kindle, that is all they want me to buy now. They forget that I also read whatever else there is. You can really have a mix of tastes! You used to be able to have that, but it seems like now they really don’t want you to; they want to pigeonhole you so they can sell you what they want to sell you.
CrypticRock.com – Yes, that is sadly the truth, unfortunately. It is useful to consumers to break away from that!
Patty Smyth – The only thing that is really negative about that for me is when it comes to music. It is a strange world we live in: there is a lot more infamy than, say, fame. Even our president was a lot more infamous or famous on his reality show. It just seems like anybody can say they are an artist now; it is a weird time. On the other hand, I think it is great for people to sit down in front of their computer, play and sing. It just seems like everything has become super watered-down and it has run off to millions of tiny streams and you can’t follow everyone.
CrypticRock.com – That is very accurate. The only thing you can hope for is, in the end, the cream will rise to the top.
Patty Smyth – I agree with that, but I don’t even know for sure how easy it is for it happen anymore. I know for me, when I make this record my challenge will be – I know that my fans are out there, I know they are there – but I have to get to them and it is not so simple anymore. There are not record stores anymore! I don’t know who will be carrying CDs much longer. It is more up to me in a way: I have to hire a team myself to try and get to those people who I know have been begging for me for years to make a record; I have to make sure they know it is there and they can get it. That is a big challenge and a whole other ballgame now with that!
CrypticRock.com – Well, fans will certainly want to check out the shows coming up to prepare for the release of the new album so they will be in the loop.
Patty Smyth – I am really looking forward to the new music, the big push is coming now. I am really looking forward to doing these shows and I am happy to be playing City Winery, we haven’t played in the city in the while. It always feels great to do shows, but it feels especially great to do shows in New York!