A new Tears for Fears album would be cause for celebration for fans under any circumstance, but especially so with “The Tipping Point” being their full-length in 18 years — a gap that has seen a lot of personal and professional tipping points come and go for Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith and their off-again, on-again teaming.
Much has changed for Tears and Fears in the nearly two decades since 2004’s “Everybody Loves a Happy Ending” and their just-released seventh album. For starters, they’ve become increasingly popular touchstones for younger musicians and fans, thanks to TikTok popularity and an abundance of samples and covers. After a haunting version of “Mad World” by Gary Jules and Michael Andrews became a highlight of the 2001 movie “Donnie Darko,” Kanye West sampled “Memories Fade” on 2008’s “Coldest Winter.” Tears for Fears also started touring in earnest again, including completing a 2017 arena tour with Daryl Hall & John Oates.
Unfortunately, things weren’t always as rosy on a personal and professional front for Tears for Fears themselves. The two admit they lost their creative way as they began work on what would eventually become “The Tipping Point,” after unsatisfying sessions working with outside songwriters led to friction and frustration. Orzabal’s wife of 36 years also died after a lengthy period of living with mental illness and alcoholism. The finished product naturally reflects the ebbs and flows of the previous few decades, as its songs ruminate on grief, loss, anger, and despair, and search for ways out of the darkness.
Tears Fears is kicking off a U.S. tour with Garbage in May and following that with a summer UK tour with Alison Moyet. “We are kind of spoiled for choices with songs on this album when we take it all out on the road in May, because there’s so much uptempo stuff,” says Orzabal. He and Smith Zoomed in from England and Los Angeles, respectively, to talk about “The Tipping Point’s” genesis, why Tears for Fears resonates with younger generations, and how they’ve overcome their differences to come together again.
Every time we log into TikTok, it seems like we’re coming across a video with a Tears for Fears song, whether that’s from “Songs From the Big Chair” or “The Hurting.” What is it about all of those songs in particular that are really still connecting with fans? Younger fans were probably not even born when some of those songs came out.
Roland Orzabal: As Curt will explain very well, we wrote and made “The Hurting” when we were still adolescents. We were struggling in that passage from childhood to adulthood, leaving your parents behind and becoming more self-sufficient, becoming an individual. That’s a universal period of turmoil. And so I think that a lot of the feelings that were expressed on that album, with the song “Mad World” especially … I’m sure that pretty much everyone at any time of your life is going to look out the window or look at the TV and go, “Oh my God, it is indeed a mad world.”
I described it not so long ago [that] it’s become a standard, almost like “My Way” that Frank Sinatra used to sing. It’s crazily relevant now simply because the craziness doesn’t seem to go. We always have this dream, I think, when we’re young that the world is going to change, and we’re going to be the ones who do it. And we never manage it.
Curt Smith: Well, I don’t know — I think the world changes. The question is, does it change for the better? … It’s a lot to do with the age we were when we made those records. So people that are around the age that we were when we made those records and wrote those records certainly are going to relate to them. They’re going through the same things now that we were then.
And also, the one good thing about the streaming format…. The big minus is we don’t get paid enough, but the big plus is, any time that someone covers our record, or any time an artist samples our records, you’re going to get referred to our music on the streaming service that you use, probably. So our music is available to a much bigger audience, just through your phone. If you were to be listening to the covers of us on your phone, it will then refer you to Tears for Fears music. A lot of younger people are listening to our music because of that.
Have the covers or interpolations that have been done help you connect in different ways to some of those songs?
Orzabal: Oh, yeah, I mean, I tell the story — I’m sure Curt’s sick of it.
Smith: I’m never sick of it.
Orzabal: Yeah, the first time I heard Michael Andrews and Gary Jules’ “Mad World,” I’d signed off on it some time before. It was in the days of fax — the fax came through, the film was “Donnie Darko,” the producer was Drew Barrymore. I knew who Drew Barrymore was, I thought, “Well, that’s cool.” So I signed off on it [and] forgot about it, as you do.
My friend came across from L.A. and brought the CD of the “Donnie Darko” soundtrack and put it on the ghetto blaster in the kitchen. I think my youngest son was about 7 or 8. And the song started up, this beautiful, beautiful version. My son, who always had a great voice, right from the age of 3, was singing along. He sang the words: “Children waiting for the day they feel good, happy birthday, happy birthday.” And I just had chills running up and down my spine. I wrote that looking back at my childhood, about not being understood. And I became the parent aged 30, and started to become not so much a disciplinarian, but big on structure and making sure the kids were well entertained. But he broke my heart at that point in time. And it was like — the words were sort of read back to me. We covered them up so well, we hid them beneath layers of this fantastic electronic music. But stripped of all that, the naked lyrics, the naked melody, it just makes you cry.
You guys grew up together, and you’ve really come back to one another in making this record. What is the biggest difference creating together now as adults with your perspective, than maybe it was back in the day?
Orzabal: I mean, it’s much easier. We’re never too worried about taking each other too seriously. But I do think that we have a more profound respect for each other. We’re not butting heads. Maybe it’s the fact that the testosterone is dropping rapidly when you get to our age, I don’t know. But if we bicker now or if we argue now, it only lasts a couple of minutes, and then one of us says: “OK, shall we have a cup of tea?”
Smith: In marriage terms, we’ve got to the “Yes, dear” stage of our relationship.
You are very honest in the album notes. Curt, you said “Stay” was written during the time when you were considering leaving the band again … and Roland, you joked it was an annual event. Not every band is as open about those fractures. What does allow you both to talk about this so openly? And Curt, what keeps you here?
Smith: Well, what keeps me here is the fact that I’m enjoying it now. At the time that was written, I wasn’t enjoying it. We were doing all those speed-dating sessions [with outside songwriters], and I didn’t think it was particularly representative of us— I mean the two of us. I’m not saying even that it was bad. I just didn’t feel an affinity with it. And when you talk about leaving, I mean, the reason the song to me is very sad —and I was sad at the time — it’s not in a stamp your feet, ‘I want things my way’ [sense]. It’s [more]: It would be sad to leave this behind. But if I don’t feel an affinity with it, then I can’t do it. It’s just not in my DNA.
In that sense, that is a constant struggle. But it’s the nature of the struggle of being in a duo. Both of us will go through periods where we don’t know if we should be working together. We have done before and both decided we should go our separate ways. But I think that’s not an ego thing. That’s just, unless we come to a point where we’re both agreeing on the stuff we’re doing together musically, then we shouldn’t be doing it together. If one person is driving it, and the other one isn’t particularly happy then the other one shouldn’t be a part of it. That’s not to say the other person shouldn’t go on and do that. You know, you may be walking away to say, “Well, if that’s what you want to do, you go ahead and do that. I’m with you, but I can’t be a part of it.”
The sound of “The Tipping Point” is so different from “Everybody Loves a Happy Ending.” That record to me has always been psychedelic-pop record, and this new one is like a shadow version of it. It’s an interesting contrast.
Smith: With “Everybody Loves a Happy Ending,” one, it was sort of a continuation and a finale of “The Seeds of Love,” to a certain degree. And two, [it was] more of a celebration of us working together again. So it was a very relaxed recording. It was done in L.A., and there was no pressure on us particularly. We were enjoying it, and enjoying working together again. That comes through on the album.
But now is a different time. We zoom in all these years, and the upheavals that have gone on in our personal lives and worldwide over the last period of years is more reflected on this album. And for us, as adults who are older than we were then, [we are] in a calmer place. Our view on things is slightly different than it was 17 years ago.
What was the biggest difference being in the studio this time around, as opposed to the last music you’d made in 2004?
Smith: Well – no, you go, Roland.
Orzabal: All right. Well, “Everybody Loves a Happy Ending” was an easy record to make. I mean, I relocated my family from England to L.A. You know, [the title is] a sly little joke, about Curt and I getting back together again after nine years apart, and a little bit of a bitter breakup. But I think that was all it was. It was a celebration more than anything else.
But life isn’t always that easy. And events from I would say about 2007 onwards, for me personally, were not great. I was watching my wife — and I was married for 36 years — go through a tremendous ordeal of mental illness and alcoholism, and eventually losing her altogether. That’s a different emotional background. So you’re going to make a different record. And it took me a long time, I think, just to… get over that.
When we finally sat down together at the end of 2020, I found myself in an entirely different situation, having been through the wringer of emotions of grief and grief therapy and rehab and addiction and hospitalizations. I mean, it was far more bleak. But I’ve come out of it. And out of it has come this album with a lot of… I don’t know, there’s a lot of wisdom in the album. And there should be. If you’re going to be doing this when you’re 60, it seems criminal to do the same thing that you used to do when you were 19. Have you not learned anything?
And I think this is, for me, the beauty of this album. You’ve got people coming to terms with themselves, coming to terms with each other through a relatively — relatively — at times turbulent relationship. And also people who, as artists, are keen to share our perspective on the world: how we see it, not coming from a position on the left or a position on the right, but trying to spread education, information and awareness to try and make the world, dare I say, a better place.
The older you get, you go through something with grief. Grief changes you, and you come out a different person. You couldn’t make “The Hurting” now, nor would you want to.
Smith: We tend to come out from a calmer angle now, which I think is apparent in just the music. Our music is more open now. It’s not as dense as it was; it’s not as angry as it was. And in the sense of this album, it’s how to get out of the crisis we’ve experienced. Roland, on a personal level, and a lot of us on a worldwide level — be that from Black Lives Matter or the #MeToo movement or climate crisis, or political upheaval or the pandemic — I mean, there’s so much that’s gone on in the last five or six years that you’re at a point where you go, Where do I start?
But how we start would be: How do we formulate that into some rational thought? And that’s how we work our way through it. And we used music to do that. So in that sense, it’s therapeutic for us, and hopefully will become that way for people who listen to it.
How did you find your way with the new album in the end?
Smith: I think the issue we had with the initial material we started with from those speed-dating writing sessions was: We didn’t go in with a view toward making an album. We were searching for some single, as opposed to thinking of the entire story. And when we sat down on our own eventually, we realized we make albums.
So then you go about finding tracks that tell a story, and that have an ebb and flow, that have highs and lows, and creating one long piece of work instead of one very short piece of work. You think of it more as kind of writing a novel than a short poem. Once we’d got to that point, putting it together wasn’t that difficult. The final recording session was from September to December in 2020. That was it, and we were done.
You’ve spoken very candidly about getting to the point of releasing the record: working with outside songwriters and then having to find your way back to yourselves. What were your biggest takeaways from that experience? How did that lead to how “The Tipping Point” turned out?
Orzabal: Well, it started off as we were quite curious, I suppose, to see what would happen [with outside contributors]. There’s something to be said for walking into a room with a stranger, who has listened to all your music and regurgitated it. And it’s fun to make up a tune on the spot, and to make up lyrics on the spot. We did that for a while. But it wasn’t until we met and worked with Sacha Skarbek that it really proved to be successful.
Having said that, the success meant that only two of those songs from that whole attempt at working with other people ended up on the record. Meanwhile, we had our guitarist and the producer of “Everybody Loves a Happy Ending,” [co-writer] Charlton Pettus], who was also secretly working away, getting slightly miffed that he was out of the picture. He was coming up with this great stuff as well. In the end, it seemed to be much more suitable for us and this record.
What stood out to you most about the music Charlton was coming up with? Where was his inspiration coming from?
Orzabal: He has been part of the setup for almost two decades. I think Charlton is just brilliant at interpreting us. He speaks my language, he translates it; he speaks Curt’s language and translates it. Together, we have a more triangular balance, I would say. And it wasn’t just Charlton: One of the songs, “Rivers of Mercy” was co-written by our keyboard player [Doug Petty], sort of a dark-horse guy who hides his light under a bushel — kept his talent to himself. The guy is amazing. It’s really strange: We lost our way a little bit, and we ended up bringing it all back to the family.
“Rivers of Mercy,” one of your new songs, feels like it really embodies Tears for Fears. Throughout all your albums, there’s an overarching theme to the lyrics. It’s songs about yearning and searching and questioning, and trying to find something. Talk a little about “Rivers of Mercy.”
Orzabal: It’s an interesting song. I think it probably has the most to do with the atmosphere of “Woman in Chains” as anything we’ve ever tried since, so that’s a lovely thing, a lovely feat to achieve.
It is strange, because it has such a calm and serene mood, but it was put together around the times of the BLM [Black Lives Matter] protests and the rage in the world. And you know, we were in lockdown number one here in England, and it coincided with the most incredible Mediterranean weather. And being sort of imprisoned in this lovely garden in the beautiful countryside of the West Country in England was amazing. But you turn on your TV, or you put on your computer, and you see all this crazy stuff going on.
So we used the sounds of the sirens and the gunshot [at the beginning of the song]. And then we evolve into this beautiful mood of redemption and forgiveness. Which is, of course, when you feel that rage, the last thing you want to do is actually forgive anyone. But unfortunately, that’s kind of the only way out, or else the rage will just continue and continue.
Anything else you want to add about the record?
Orzabal: We’ve created this as an album, as a song cycle. Because we believe in the album format. That’s what we grew up with. We were kids who would get that bit of vinyl between our hands and absolutely relish artwork and relish putting it on the turntable. And the way we’ve sequenced the album, it works if you get to the end of track 10, and you enjoyed track 10, it recycles to track one. It all starts again, and it all works perfectly. So we’re very proud of that.