Patty Smyth on Rocking Out and Her Wild, Wonderful Life With John McEnroe
The Grammy- and Oscar-nominated musician writes about her new album, “It’s About Time,” and how her 25-year marriage to tennis great John McEnroe has helped fuel her creative fire.
No one would ever ask a dude how his marriage inspired his music. It first struck me as a boring angle and kind of sexist? Then I started thinking about it. How has having this stable relationship influenced my music? I’ll say this: When you’re with someone for 25 years, you go deep, you learn whole new levels of love and intimacy.
My life and all my relationships influence my music. I think this record reflects that on almost every song. One song is about my relationship with my husband (“Build a Fire”). It’s about still feeling this strong connection and love for someone after years of being in the trenches of parenthood and day-to-day life. It can beat a relationship up, married life. It’s easy to lose each other. “Drive” is a song I wrote about growing up with my sister in New York City. It was a love letter to her and to the great parts of a difficult childhood. “Losing Things” started as a list of things I have lost, from a glove to a parent to my nerve. That’s the one I could keep adding to. As time goes by we lose some things we need to lose and some things we don’t want to lose.
One way being married has influenced my music is the lack of heartbreak songs—at least romantic heartbreak. We get little broken hearts in other places. That’s what’s got my attention now and that’s where my inspiration lies.
(I just want to say right here, that never in a million years did I think I would be in a relationship this long—not only in it but happy.)
When we first met I felt beat up by the music business and I was ready to step into a new life. For a kid raised by a single mom, who moved every three years, finding a real grown-up man-child who I knew I could trust was like landing on another planet. I had no experience or blueprint. It was new and exciting—being married, staying married. And I was with an athlete, very different from anyone I’d ever dated. Only all he wants to do is play music, jam, and go to concerts? I mean, I can hear him singing some Strokes’ song super-loud in the house right now while I write this.
My girls all love jamming with him, and truth be told, he has kept music in my life. Without him forcing me to, I’d barely listen to anything. I believe our kids love music because he loves listening and playing music, and because I was always writing around them, and playing them new songs I wrote. I have so many videos of the kids singing with John. Sometimes they kick me out: “Mom can’t sing, only us.” Ha! I love watching them cut loose. Although John is a bit of a mic hog, so sometimes I’m the referee, making him let them have a turn (dodgy job in my house).
Most of my inspiration comes from my childhood—from the many lives I’ve led and from the love of my children. They are my biggest muses. But living with someone for 25 years influences every single move you make.
What amazes me is I am still inspired to write him songs. We have a big, messy life. Six kids between us. (Blended families can be challenging.) I don’t usually write happy songs. But John got two out of me: “Wish I Were You,” which is about how John loved music so much and seemed so happy and carefree, and I was a bit more pessimistic about life. He came and told me he had a dream and it was in color, that was the line that inspired the song. And “Build a Fire.” That’s pretty good.
I watch people, I eavesdrop, I imagine their lives, and then I write. Sometimes it’s just one line rolling around in my head for days or months. Sometimes for only moments before they spill out into the air.
My name is Patty Smyth, I am a singer-songwriter, mother, daughter, sister, friend, and wife. All of these parts inspire me to write and sing. The truth is, I was always inspired to sing. I did that for me. I inspired myself enough to learn and to get better by singing for hours every day. Now I sing for you and for me. And nothing else in this world brings me that much joy.
It's About Time is Patty Smyth’s first album of new material in nearly 30 years. It’s available now.