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Cover Story: Tears For Fears • “Heritage This!”

| June 30, 2022

Tears For Fears (Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal) Photo by Frank Ockenfels

After many years of touring with a bevy of classic pop hits from their ‘80s heyday, including “Change,” “Pale Shelter,” “Shout,” and “Sowing the Seeds of Love,” British band Tears for Fears have returned to the road with a powerful new album. With The Tipping Point, co-leaders Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith revisit the heady territory that produced landmark albums The Hurting and Songs from the Big Chair. The pair trades reflections on troubled childhood for true tales of adult trauma and the perspective of maturity. The Tipping Point also includes blasts of joy that recall the tone of the evergreen single “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” Orzabal spoke with IE’s Jeff Elbel by phone before Tears for Fears’ performance last month at Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre in Tinley Park.

IE: People in 2022 seem to be responding to The Tipping Point in a way that didn’t happen for your reunion effort Everybody Loves a Happy Ending in 2004. Is that your perception?

RO: Yeah, totally. It’s a different world now than when we put out Happy Ending in so many ways – the crisis after crisis that seems to be happening at the moment, echoing the crisis in my life recently. I think that we’re just tapping into the zeitgeist more than when we were doing Happy Ending, which was kind of insular. We were making the record in a bubble of L.A. This album is entirely different. We’re really plumbing the depths. The material consequently is far deeper, richer, and more emotive than Happy Ending. I mean, I love Happy Ending. It’s got some great songs on it, but The Tipping Point is up there with our best work.

IE: I had an impression that Everybody Loves a Happy Ending might have been meant to mark reconciliation between you and Curt and maybe to serve as closure for the band on a high note. Is that a false impression? Because here we are 18 years later to talk about new music.

RO: No, you’re absolutely right. I think that the whole point of that project was getting back together, sort of burying the hatchet. For me, it was an amazing change of lifestyle. My kids were still young enough for me to take them out of school and switch them to a school in L.A. That change was wonderful and really much needed. I also bought a house in L.A., which was nice, around the corner from Curt. So, from a personal point of view, it was an incredibly successful period, but the album just didn’t do much at all. And I think there’s probably two reasons for that. When L.A. Reid got dropped from Arista Records, so did we. So, we were then in freefall searching for a record company to put out the record when maybe we should have just waited.

IE: As The Tipping Point was arriving, I heard about comparisons to The Hurting. It seemed to me that the comparison might be valid more in terms of themes rather than sound. If I name your big singles that everybody knows, I think of “Break it Down Again,” which is defiant and determined. I think of “The Seeds of Love,” which is uplifting and positive. As beautiful as it is, “The Tipping Point” is haunting and seems to be about the dividing line between living and dying. That tone might compare to The Hurting. Am I on the right track?

RO: The way I see it is with The Hurting, we were writing about the traumas of your childhood – the whole [groundbreaking psychotherapist] Arthur Janov primal therapy thing. Obviously, we’re a lot older now. Your childhood can be traumatic, but unfortunately, life itself is traumatic. It doesn’t really matter what age you are. Bad things can happen at any point. I think that The Tipping Point is really addressing adult trauma with grief and loss.

IE: Does writing these difficult songs relate to the Janov concept in terms of catharsis?

RO: Catharsis is literally catharsis. When you do primal therapy, which I did for many, many years, you are literally mourning. You are taking the deepest, most repressed emotions and allowing them into the light. Writing music’s not really like that. It’s a way of communicating. And so many of our human experiences are similar. I think the job of the artist is to take a difficult subject and turn it into a beautiful form that involves language but doesn’t enter the brain the same way language does. It immediately cuts down barriers. It enters into the deeper feeling part of the brain. I think the job of the artist is also to try and communicate the exact nature of what makes us all the same. So, the connections and the similarities of human experience are universal. I think that’s why we love music because we can feel how that person is feeling. It stops us from feeling alone. It makes us feel connected to some kind of universal source.

IE: You balance those troubled songs with something uplifting like “End of Night,” which is placed on The Tipping Point almost as an antidote that celebrates redemption and rebirth.

RO: Well, we’ve done that in the past, haven’t we? For every “Working Hour” and every “Shout” or “I Believe,” there is an “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” We’re known for pop music. That’s what we do. But I mean, our two biggest hits are very, very different. “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” is a kind of subtle dig at politics, but our next biggest hit is “Mad World.” The subject matter is very different.

IE: “Rivers of Mercy” is a topical song that must have been written in response to civil unrest and lockdown in 2020. Streets are burning, and people have their immunity in mind. That was a tough season on hope, but the song is hopeful. It reminded me of Peter Gabriel’s “Blood of Eden,” musically and thematically, about relying upon a partner. I wondered whether there might be something in the water and Bath [the English city where Orzabal, Smith, and Gabriel are from]. Can you tell me about writing that song?

RO: I was presented with what was originally the backing track for “Rivers of Mercy.” [The Tipping Point co-producer, co-writer, and musician] Charlton Pettus and our keyboard player Doug Petty did it. Within that backing track, there was a feeling of such immersive calm that it was very easy to come up initially with the chorus with the idea of “drop me in rivers of mercy”–like Al Green singing “drop me in the river.” Of course, that was only the start of the song. Then we had the BLM protests and the riots and a lot of rage and anger. That was very disturbing for me. I think it was disturbing for a lot of people because I think that we do have an immense and deep desire for peace.

So that song was one of contrasts, as you can hear on the album. We start off with the sound of the riots and sirens and the gunshot. But there’s really only one way to reconcile things, which is probably the most difficult one. That is the path of forgiveness. It’s not something that I find particularly easy, and I don’t think a lot of people do. But that’s really what that song is about. I find that song more difficult to sing live, to be honest with you, because it involves such yearning. It’s a spiritual moment in the set.

We do four new songs in a row, which is brave in itself. And it ends with “Rivers of Mercy.” At that point in time, I think the audience goes, “Okay, I give in.” [laughs]

IE: Maybe you should continue with the rest of the new songs!

RO: Exactly.

IE: “No Small Thing” makes an uncharacteristic and fresh introduction as the album’s first track. When I first heard it, I thought it was special because it focuses so directly on your partnership with Curt. I could imagine you sitting together with acoustic guitars, working it up head-to-head.

RO: That’s exactly what happened. It’s one of those things with life. Once I got into a much better place, I was engaged to a lovely young lady from Denver, and life was finally starting to look a bit more like a positive experience. I just had this voice in the back of my brain, saying you need to get together with Curt. You need to get together alone without any songwriters, without management. I was pretty sure that he held the key to the advancement of the record, and I got together with him. Within one hour, he was just fiddling around with this country riff, and then we were off. And it was simple. From then on, it was a joy.

IE: I would say that another thing that distinguishes The Tipping Point is that it doesn’t signal any sort of an ending for Tears for Fears. In baseball terms, I’d say you were swinging for the fences. You spent many years making it and chose your best songs. The arrangements seem to be very forward-thinking, with sounds you didn’t use in the past. Do Tears for Fears continue making new music after this? Is that a fair question at this point?

RO: It’s a fair question, but I try not to answer it with any arrogance. We seem to have entered a different phase. I think it’s due to the fact that we are a lot older. We’re starting to get what people call that legendary status, which is always a bit of a surprise. A few years back, when we did the BBC documentary Classic Albums: Songs from the Big Chair, even that was mind-boggling. I didn’t know, “Do we really deserve that?” For me, the classic artists when you’re a kid are people who are 10 to 20 years older. But of course, we are at least that now! And in all fairness, we have influenced a phenomenal amount of young bands and hip-hop artists, etc., etc. You then hear talk of the Hall of Fame, and Curt and myself got an Ivor Novello award last year for our songwriting catalog. We walked on stage and got a standing ovation from our peers. It was like, “What?” It all comes as a lovely surprise. So, we’re entering a new phase. And, of course, it comes with owning one’s age. Going on stage with white hair now is a little bit … [laughs]. It took me a while to get used to it.

IE: During the holidays, you can put on a jolly red suit! It looks good.

RO: Exactly, yeah. Or I could be in Lord of the Rings.

IE: Ha! That’s got potential. Time is heading toward 40 years of performing songs from the first two records. Those guitar parts from “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” or some of my favorite anywhere. Just like a lot of other people, I can’t wait to hear that one in concert. I’m not the one playing the song every night, though. How do you keep it fresh?

RO: With “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” it’s the structure of the song. The song is structured so brilliantly, it plays itself. But it’s not just that. Because it’s become this megahit with all of the plays on Spotify and countless cover versions that people have done, it also feels like you’re singing someone else’s song. So that’s another thing that’s quite joyful.

IE: You worked through your breakup with Curt decades ago, and I’ve heard you characterize the key as understanding each other’s strengths. Are there ways that you and Curt balance each other? I imagine you both as meticulous but is one more of a craftsman and one more spontaneous?

RO: No, I just think that we swap roles. It’s quite simple. If one is being gung-ho, the other one is applying the brake. If I’m singing a song, I would say Curt becomes the executive producer. So, he’s more objective. And if Curt’s singing a song, then I become the fussy bastard. But if I really, really love something and Curt really, really loves something, then generally everyone else does.

This Q&A was quoted for a story in the Chicago Sun-Times.

– Jeff Elbel

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