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Q&A: Tears For Fears’ Curt Smith On Mixing Politics And Music For Songs With Meaning

Although iconic British duo Tears For Fears — Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal — hadn’t released an album in 17 years before The Tipping Point this past week, the pair have been as active during that time as they have been in their 41 years together.

As Smith pointed out when we spoke over Zoom recently TFF, as they are known, have been a consistent and popular touring act during that time, touring as recently as 2019, and before that 2017, on a trek with fellow duo Hall & Oates.

In fact before that they toured 2014, 2015, 2016. So they played, in total, over 400 shows with no new material to add to the set since 2004’s Everybody Loves A Happy Ending.

Sure, with hits such as “Pale Shelter,” “Shout,” “Sowing The Seeds Of Love,” “Change,” “Mad World” and, of course, their biggest hit, “Everybody Wants To Rule The World,” they could continue to tour as a greatest hits act. But, being real artists, they would not have been satisfied with living in the past.

Thus, all these years later, when they hit the road in 2022 with opening act Garbage, for one of the best tours of 2022, Tears For Fears will have a wonderful new album of material to draw upon on stage. As Smith explained in our fascinating talk, which referenced artists from Peter Gabriel and John Lennon to The Jam and UB40, the album covers the trauma in their own lives and the global issues of the last few years. Just as they did nearly 40 years ago with 1985’s Songs From The Big Chair, TFF have crafted an album for out times.

Steve Baltin: Seventeen years is a lifetime and so much changes in that period. When it came time to make The Tipping Point, were there things that you got really excited by? Because after 17 years I am sure it almost feels like starting over.

Curt Smith: No. Weirdly, initially, there were things I wasn’t excited by. So that was the issue and why it took us so long. Initially, the premise of us doing a new record and why we felt that we wanted to do it, was we got to the point of playing live, which we do every year. It’s thoroughly enjoyable because we love the band we have now. But we felt it would be great to have some new material because when you have a finite amount of material, there’s only so many ways you can change the set. And so I would say it was getting maybe a little boring for us. So that was the initial idea. And then we discussed it with our management at the time. And he came up with the idea that we would go and have these writing sessions with sort of modern songwriters and maybe come up with something that might be a little more modern. All well and good until you try it, it seems, for us that is. We did end up with an album, but it was 10 to 15 attempts at a modern hit single. And none of it rang true to me at the time. It felt a little dishonest. And I didn’t think it had the depth of what Tears For Fears are. And what we are, at our best, is an album band. That’s what we do. We make albums. And we go in to make an album when we have something to say, and that was the case with The Hurting. That was the case with Songs From the Big Chair. That was the cases with Sowing the Seeds of Love and certainly with Everybody Loves a Happy Ending as well because it was a celebration of us getting back together. And this attempt at this album was lacking in that depth. And so I, at that point, felt I couldn’t be involved in it. So we had those discussions, which were not particularly pleasant.

Baltin: So what changed?

Smith: Wind on a couple of years, we’ve decided to part ways with our management. We have no record company kind of pushing us. We were signed to Warner’s initially, Warner Brothers. And we bought our way out of that deal, and we were left with just myself and Roland. We got together in my house here in Los Angeles and decided to write with just two acoustic guitars, which we hadn’t done since The Hurting. And then the song “No Small Thing” came from that, the first track on the album. And things seemed to be easy from then on. We went back and looked at the old material we’d done on all those writing sessions. We agreed on five songs that we thought really were good, did have some depth, did tell a story. Maybe the recordings weren’t right, but we know how to do that, so that wasn’t an issue. We could re-record them or at least make them more in line with how we were thinking now. And we went on and wrote the other four tracks for the album. Weirdly, once we knew what we were doing, and when I say we, myself and Roland without any outside influence, it really was a quite a quick process. Even though it doesn’t sound like it with that very long-winded story.

Baltin: As you started to write this record then was there a point where you figured out who Tears For Fears are today?

Smith: Yeah, without question. And like I said, once we’d come to the realization that we wanted to do an album — an album that had depth, that had meaning, that had ebbs and flows, that told a story, that wasn’t a couple of hit songs and then a bunch of other filler material — it wasn’t that complicated. The beginning of this process was seven, eight years ago, right? In the interim period, up to the point when we sat down at the beginning of 2020 and decided on a path forward, in that interim period, Roland’s wife had passed away, which was highly traumatic for him and for me to a certain degree also because I’ve grown up with Caroline, we’ve been friends since we were 13. We’d had the Me Too movement, Black Lives Matter movement in America and for me personally, but the same kind of things going on in England with Boris Johnson. We had Donald Trump for four years, we’d had the MAGA, the rise of the right-wing world-wide, climate change was becoming worse and worse, so if there is nothing in there that you can write about, then you really have no business being a songwriter. And when I say write about, I mean write about a song with depth. So if you can’t write songs with depth when all that is going on around you, then it’s time to stop doing it.

Baltin: When you listen to the record are there things in there that emerged that surprised you? I’m always a big believer as well, that good songwriting is subconscious.

Smith: Yes, it is subconscious, and I think the best songs, without question, are written from the heart. Certainly for me. I want to believe whatever that person is saying. And I’m not convinced that the material we had prior to finishing this album with just the two of us, really had that much meaning. It was good, but it just didn’t have that depth, and it all does come from a personal level. We’ve never had any intention of preaching necessarily to anyone, it’s not what we do, it’s not who we are, but we’re gonna have an opinion. And I get in this fight with many people online, on Twitter, I’m on social media, Roland doesn’t believe in it, but that’s by the by. But when people tell you to shut up and just play music if I make political commentary or if I have an opinion about something, and I’m like, “Have you never listened to our music? I mean, what part of me not wanting to be involved in politics did you miss? Or what part of us not having an opinion did you miss?” It’s beyond me. And also, voiced by people who are voicing their opinion, who want me to not have one. It’s comical at times. So in the end, these songs really have deep meaning to us, and that’s the key. If we mean it, then it sounds like we mean it. And if people agree or disagree, that doesn’t matter, we’re just voicing our opinions and voicing our views.

Baltin: In the ’80s you had artists like U2, Sting, Springsteen, REM, at that point artists who could have pop success with political messages, although maybe none had quite the pop skill of “Everybody Wants To Rule The World.” But outside of like a Kendrick Lamar, for example, or Beyoncé, who did it a little bit, there are very few artists today who will have a chart success with political songs.

Smith: No, that’s true, and that doesn’t mean we should stop doing it. I guess you’re correct. It would be nice and gratifying if I saw younger artists with more political leanings. But that’s an issue for me as someone who is older, and it’s an ongoing issue for me that, if younger people actually went out and voted then we wouldn’t have most of the governments we have, and they have the right to vote from the age of 18. And younger people are quite happy to share their opinions with you most of the time, of course. I remember being that age and being very opinionated about everything and not voting. But yeah, I would certainly like to see more younger artists be more politically aware, without question. I know, in general, that tends to not happen until you get a little bit older. Although The Hurting really wasn’t overtly political, that was really more personal politics and about childhood trauma. But Songs From the Big Chair certainly was. By the time we were 24, we were getting quite political.

Baltin: When you think of the artist who merged music and politics who stands out for you?

Smith: Certainly John Lennon, clearly. Peter Gabriel without question. I think the first time I heard a song where it’s like, “Oh, this is incredibly political yet I love it. It’s just musically fantastic” was “Biko.” That was the first song that I thought was just a wonderful piece of music, the production, on every level. The production was great. The thought that went into it was wonderful. I know Paul Simon went through that with Graceland. But yeah, so those are artists. There were political younger, angrier bands when we were growing up, The Jam, UB40. UB40 were very political when they first started, with tracks like “One in Ten” about unemployment in Britain. So yeah, there were those. And I tended to gravitate towards those ones that really did have an opinion about something. What I look for in music is not just a well-written song with a good melody, as much as I can admire them. I want some meat on the bones. I want there to be some meaning to it. And I think that was the issue I was having with the work we were doing early on in this cycle, was it didn’t have any meat on the bones to me. And it took us a while to find that.

Baltin: You mentioned “No Small Thing” being the first song written. Were there one or two songs where you realized you were starting to find your voice?

Smith: Yeah, “No Small Thing” was the launching point for this album, without question. And that came from the lockdown and, in fact, all the things I mentioned, the riots in America and climate change. All of which, fantastically, are summed up in the video for it, which we’re not in. And the premise behind the video was really doing a sort of modern-day Koyaanisqatsi, if you’re familiar with that movie. But it’s about how things really aren’t getting better. This is why the album’s called The Tipping Point. “The Tipping Point” the song is really about one thing specifically. It’s about Roland’s wife passing away and that point, when you’re watching someone slowly die, when you let go or when they’ve gone. And that’s that tipping point. The album title The Tipping Point is more a commentary on where we are today, we as a society. And that’s, when you put all of the album together, that’s why we chose it as the album title because the whole album, to us, is a commentary from personal to political.

Baltin: As you started to write this album, and especially then as you start to think about playing it live, is there a sort of catharsis that came out of doing these songs?

Smith: I think yeah, without question. I think with all that went on during those years, and I mean from Caroline and the other things I’ve discussed here. I follow politics closely. I’m a parent so I’m concerned about the world we’re leaving for our children. That’s what happens when you become a parent. I think the best thing you can do musically is for people to relate to what you’re saying. So I think, one, it’s a catharsis for you, that’s a great thing. But also you’re a sort of sounding board or an echo of what’s going on anyway. It’s not like any of this is news to people. We’re just voicing our opinions. It’s happened to me on many occasions where we’ve had people come up to us and saying, “Oh my god, The Hurting helped me through college.” That’s the most meaningful thing for an artist that you could have had some positive effect on someone. And I feel that that’s still in us. And after all that went on, I want to take something positive out of this. And it’s become very positive for us, as people, for myself and Roland. But I hope other people get something positive from it, and I think that’s the hope of an artist.

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