AJ McLean on Finally 'Growing Up' Amid Fatherhood, 'Constant' Battle With Alcohol & New Solo Music (Exclusive)

Rene Elizondo

The Backstreet Boy opened up about his hurdle-filled road to adulthood and how becoming a father made him finally "grow up."

In his heartwarming new video for “Boy and a Man”, AJ McLean sweetly chronicles love through the ages, with actors portraying he and his wife, Rochelle, at different stages of their lives.

Off screen, the 41-year-old musician’s own journey from boy to man has been an admittedly more “wild” ride, involving a rise to super-stardom as a teenager, the ups and downs of the Backstreet Boys’ 26-year career and a battle with drug and alcohol addiction. Reflecting on his own roller coaster journey, McLean confesses it’s only in the last few years that he is finally growing up.

“It’s definitely been a whirlwind, but I think I’ve done a lot more growing up in the past six years than I ever have in my whole life,” McLean tells ET in between filming scenes for the video at the Golden Oak Ranch in California. “Becoming a father changes everything. For some people, they go the other way -- grow up first, then have kids. But I dove in head-first and I love being a dad.”

“It’s the greatest gift in the world,” he adds. “Yes, it’s a blessing to still be a Backstreet Boy 26 years later and have a number one album and world tour coming up, but when I get home at the end of the day and get greeted with hugs and kisses and cuddles -- there’s nothing greater.”

Wanting to be the best father to Ava, 6, and Lyric, almost 2, is what has propelled the “Night Visions” crooner fully into adulthood. It’s a journey that has also been impacted by his public struggles with addiction, which has led to multiple rehab stints since 2001. While his daughters remain McLean’s greatest motivation to stay healthy and sober, his biggest lesson in recent years has been learning to put himself first at times.

“[Addiction] has made me have to look inward, which I think is what a lot of people who haven’t fully matured are lacking,” he says. “That’s something I’ve struggled with for years. I put my family first, then I put my job, then somewhere down the line is me. I’m slowing learning, at 41, that it’s okay to put me before all of it because if I’m not happy and healthy, how could I be the father and husband that I truly know I am and want to become even better at? If I’m not happy or healthy, all the other stuff is eventually going to go bye-bye."

“I don’t want to lose what I’ve spent 26 years building with my boys, I don’t want to lose my beautiful family and I don’t want to lose my life and everything I’ve worked so hard for, for something as trivial as picking up a drink,” McLean adds. “It’s a constant struggle, of course. It’s up, it’s down. This song is saying, ‘I’ll show you the difference between a boy and a man,’ and I want to show my wife and my family the difference between somebody who doesn’t take things seriously and isn’t responsible and someone who can be mature -- but still fun and goofy.”

McLean told ET in September that wanting to be around to walk his daughters down the aisle was a constant motivation to stay on top of his health. Clearly, Ava and Lyric are his greatest joy these days, but he admits parenting has involved “constant learning,” and he still makes mistakes.

“My biggest mistake is trying to have a debate with a six-year-old!” laughs the singer, who recently cut back on social media to help put more focus on himself and his family. “I’m not going to win. I have to stop and go, ‘Why are you arguing with your six-year-old daughter? She’s six!’ It’s usually about dumb things like if she wants to watch more TV or have a play date on a school night.”

“The biggest challenge right now is learning the balance between Lyric and Ava, because I’m getting pulled both ways and if one sees me hanging out with the other, they get mad or throw a tantrum,” he continues. “[Some parents] tend to favor one kid and that’s something I’ve told myself and my wife we’re not going to do. We’re going to give our kids equal love and time, so I’ve taken Lyric out on daddy-daughter dates, I’ve taken Ava out on daddy-daughter dates, and I’ve taken three of us on daddy-daughter dates!”

While his own younger years were starkly different and frequently spent on the road, McLean says he wants his girls to experience the kind of childhood and teenage years he missed out on, adding that spending those pivotal periods of his life in the limelight made his path from boy to man more challenging.

“I think fame does make it harder,” he says. “You can take many paths, and I took the path of bad boy, rock’n’roll, parties, drugs and drinking, but some people take the opposite path where they stay on the straight and narrow and never party or pick up a drink. I think there’s a happy medium. You’ve got to grow up but you also have to live your life.”

“So many entertainers who start as young as we did rush it and try to grow up too fast and they miss out on key moments in life,” he adds. “I never had a homecoming, I didn’t play sports, I never had a prom -- until my 40th birthday when my wife threw me one. There’s something to be said about losing those moments in your life, and what I hope for my kids is to experience those things.”

Although he admits to still feeling and acting like a boy at times, McLean’s ongoing efforts to be a good man are why his latest song -- co-written by The Voice finalist Dave Fenley and featured on McLean’s upcoming record, Long Road ­-- “grabbed” him.

“I will forever be a big kid. That’s just me,” he says. “My kids bring that out even more in me. I mean, I still have NERF guns for crying out loud! I’m 41 years old and will forever be a big kid, but there has to be that balance of acting like a kid, having fun and letting loose from time-to-time, then stepping up to be a man. So, one of the reasons I gravitated toward this song so much was because it truly is almost autobiographical. This is my story -- the journey that I’ve taken and that I’m still on.”

McLean describes "Boy and a Man" as the defining song and “most country” track from Long Road. “Between [first single] 'Back Porch Bottle Service,' then 'Night Visions' and now 'Boy and a Man,' that’s the gist of what you’re going to hear on the album,” he says. “There are tempo records, like 'Back Porch Bottle Service,' one or two more with the 'Night Visions' pop feel, then the rest is right down the middle country, like 'Boy and a Man.'"

The video was co-directed by McLean and Rene Elizondo, who also helmed the video for McLean’s previous single, “Night Visions,” as well as the video for the Backstreet Boys’ dreamy “Chances,” from their latest record, DNA.

Young actors portray the couple as kids, then teenagers, before McLean and his wife play themselves for a sweet wedding scene. The musician then donned prosthetics to play an elderly version of himself, who slow dances with an actress portraying elderly Rochelle. As he wandered around, suggesting the old couple should twerk, asking if his shirt looked too tight and declaring “teenage me would never wear that,” the singer fooled many on set who didn’t realize it was him.

“I didn’t even recognize him,” said fan Elia Maria Corrales, who played an extra in the video. “I got excited at seeing Rochelle, then heard AJ’s voice and was like, ‘What the f*** is he?’ Then I realized it was AJ and couldn’t help but wonder if that’s what he’d really look like -- sweet but with an edge.”

“My friend pointed him out to me –--I didn’t see him at first then I was in shock!” added another fan, Leslie Funo. “I barely recognized him, but he looked really good. He will age very well!”

Pondering his wrinkly skin and grey hair as he looks in the mirror, McLean agrees. “It does make me think, maybe I’ll start eating a little better and getting back into the gym,” he says. “I don’t think this is what I’m going to look like when I’m old, but who knows. I would think I’d be a bit more trimmed and you’d see my tattoos better. But I think I’m still an OK looking old guy?”

See more on McLean and the Backstreet Boys below.