Kathy Mattea knows she’s lucky that she got to take what she calls “the big ride”: bona fide country music stardom, courtesy of one of the most recognizable, distinctive — and timeless — voices in the genre.
Even after the armfuls of awards, the gold and platinum albums and the string of No. 1s were in Mattea’s rearview mirror, she still felt lucky. Her heyday in the 1980s and ’90s may have passed, but she still had that voice, and her love of making music had always eclipsed any drive for fame.
But then, about four years ago, the unthinkable happened. Her voice stopped obeying her command.
During performances, “I’d be singing some song I’ve sung for 25 years,” Mattea, 59, tells PEOPLE. “I’d go for a note … and it wouldn’t come out. It would be tight or squeezed or flat or it just wouldn’t sing.”
In her darkest days, Mattea turned toward the grief of giving up singing. But then she turned away, choosing instead to start a new journey that, happily, returned her to the recording studio. The result, Pretty Bird, is Mattea’s first album in six years and the culmination of three-and-a-half years of vocal retraining.
What fans will hear in her new music — including on the video for album cut “Mercy Now,” debuting exclusively on PEOPLE — is a voice that’s more burnished and soulful than before. But it is still clearly and unmistakably Kathy Mattea.
“What I’ve learned is when you turn toward what looks like it’s broken, that is the source of what starts to bloom into something new,” she says.
It’s a hard-won realization that didn’t begin to come to her until after a year of training with Judi Vinar, a Minneapolis-based jazz vocalist and voice coach. Mattea had met Vinar several years before at a choral workshop, and in desperation, she got her number from a friend and called her up.
“I just said, ‘This is Kathy in Nashville,’” Mattea recalls. “I said, ‘I need help, and I don’t know if you do Skype lessons or not,’ and I just burst into tears on her voicemail.”
Indeed, Vinar had recently incorporated Skype sessions into her work, and Mattea quickly began weekly long-distance lessons.
“At first all I could see was what wouldn’t work the same way,” Mattea says. “Judi kept saying, ‘I would encourage you to not think of your voice as diminished. It’s not. It’s just different.’ She said, ‘Kathy, the sweet spot’s just moving around.’ That’s how she put it.”
Finding that new sweet spot took months and months of practice, including weekly living-room sessions with Bill Cooley, Mattea’s longtime guitarist/arranger and collaborator.
“I’ve got to get to know my voice again,” she recalls telling Cooley, “and I need songs that I don’t know how to sing. I’ve got to learn how to use this voice in a way that’s new.”
A breakthrough moment arrived when Mattea picked up “Ode to Billy Joe,” Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 classic. As Mattea dipped to catch a low note, she startled herself with her own sound: “I was like, ‘Oh my God, what’s that? When did that happen?’ It was like this whole world in the low end of my register that had never been there before. It was like, oh! I think I’ve found my superpower.”
At that moment, she let go of a metaphor she had settled on, comparing her voice to an old car with too many miles. “Maybe it’s a vintage Ferrari,” she reasoned, “and I just don’t know how to drive it yet … And that became my touchstone.”
“Ode to Billy Joe” is now featured on the new album, part of an eclectic collection that plays to Mattea’s new resonance. The 12 tracks range from the merriment of the Wood Brothers’ “Chocolate on My Tongue” to the tender sadness of “October Song,” one of two songs co-written by Mattea’s husband, Jon Vezner. “Mercy Now” is a prayer — which Mattea describes as “fierce and gentle at the same time” — that offers a balm for the nation’s fractures.
Throughout the album, bare-essentials accompaniment keeps the focus on Mattea’s voice, which boldly strikes out a cappella on the final track, the lilting, wistful “Pretty Bird.”
Mattea hits the road this fall, taking the new music out on tour, and she assures, she’s also ready to perform her much-loved hits: “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses,” “Where’ve You Been,” “Goin’ Gone,” “Come From the Heart,” among others.
“Most of them are still in the same key,” she says. “Some of them I took down about a half-step because the break between my chest voice and my head voice went down a half-step. Judi, my teacher, kept saying, ‘Don’t worry about it. What key would you sing this in if you hadn’t been singing it for 20 years? What serves the song now?’ And I started to realize, oh, if I bring it down a half-step, it sings just like it always sang.”
A few short years ago, the stage held only fear and uncertainty for Mattea. Now, she says, “I’m like, ‘Put me in, coach.’ I’m ready. I want to sing. I just want to go sing and play and have fun.”
And she’s doing it with a voice that she’s fallen in love with all over again. “It’s very satisfying to be here today,” she says. “What I thought was broken wasn’t broken. It’s beautiful just like it is. This is the lesson across the board at this stage of my life. Can you sit still with the thing that looks like it’s broken long enough that you get to see the beauty in it just like it is?”