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How Kathy Mattea Got Her Voice Back With 'Pretty Bird'

"My audience doesn't care if I'm perfect," Kathy Mattea says. "They just want me to be real."
Eric Lee
"My audience doesn't care if I'm perfect," Kathy Mattea says. "They just want me to be real."

Kathy Mattea has been successfully making music for a long time. Her first gold album came out in 1987. She won her first Grammy in 1990. For a while, she was putting out albums every year or two. But Mattea's latest LP, Pretty Bird, out now, is the country artist's first release in six years — and it almost didn't come out at all.

"I was out on the road playing," Mattea says. "And I'd play some song that I've played for 20 years, and I'd go up for a note that I know how to hit and it wouldn't come out. It'd be kind of tight, or flat or strained. And I kind of buried my head in the sand for a while, and then I finally was like, 'I'm going to need to find out what this is.'"

It was age. Mattea was in her 50s and her voice was changing with menopause. After years of singing, she faced a choice: Learn to cope or walk away from music altogether.

Mattea says a chance encounter with Tony Bennett gave her a glimmer of hope. He told her about his own struggles with his aging voice, and she asked him what his secret was. His advice? Find a teacher and re-learn to sing. So she did. Mattea's coach encouraged her to not think of her voice as diminished, but just different.

"I've come to think of it as maybe I have a vintage Ferrari on my hands, but I just don't know how to drive it," Mattea says. "It's all about not trying. It's about getting out of the way over and over and over again."

There were days when something would click, and Mattea's longtime guitarist, Bill Cooley, says he would be struck by the beauty of her voice. Then the next week, her voice would falter again, and Mattea couldn't figure out why.

"There were some ugly cry days in my living room, where I was just so frustrated," Mattea says. "I didn't want to leave [music], if I didn't have to. But I wasn't going to do it halfway."

Eventually, things gelled. On her latest album, Mattea's new range and maturity is on full display. She sings the Hazel Dickens song "Pretty Bird" a capella — with a kind of deep richness only time can provide.

Mattea spoke with NPR's Mary Louise Kelly about Pretty Bird and performed songs from the album live in NPR's studios. Hear their conversation and the performance at the audio link at the top of the page.

Alyssa Edes and Emily Kopp produced and edited this interview for broadcast.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.