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“Harmony and conflict,” says Roland Orzabal, trying to articulate the essence of Tears for Fears’s notoriously volatile creative relationship. “People think conflict is always bad, but it is the grit in the oyster around which the pearl is formed.”
“That’s deep,” smiles his band mate Curt Smith, and it is difficult to tell if he is impressed or teasing. Maybe a bit of both.
Tears for Fears are back with a powerful and moving new album, The Tipping Point, their first in 18 years, and finest since the duo’s 80s glory days. In common with the very best of their back catalogue, they conjure up proper adult pop music, plush widescreen productions scaling from the intimate to the epic on flowing, thoughtful songs that grapple with complex emotional subjects.
But it took tragedy, grief, health scares, recovery and reconciliation to make it happen.
In particular, it was shaped by the death of Orzabal’s wife, Caroline, in 2017, whom the duo had both known since they were teenagers growing up in Bath. “The album became part of the healing process,” as Smith puts it. Orzabal is on a Zoom call from his home in an old rectory in the west country, within striking distance of the city where he was raised.
Smith is beaming in from sunny Los Angeles, where he has lived with his family for over two decades, taking American citizenship in 2007. The relationship of the pair, who are both now 60, has sometimes been tense and fractious, but they seem careful to support one another throughout this conversation, particularly on the still tender subject of Caroline’s death, aged 55, and Orzabal’s subsequent mental health problems.
“The stages of grief are well-reported, denial being the first one,” says Orzabal. “I was very good at denial.” Caroline, the mother of his two sons, suffered from post-menopausal depression that declined into alcohol-related dementia. For the last five years of her life, Orzabal had effectively become her full-time carer.
The extraordinary title song of the new album grapples with watching someone on the hinterland between life and death, while desperate ballad Please Be Happy offers a forlorn prayer for recovery (sung by Smith, because Orzabal found it too painful). “We were on tour when Caroline passed. You go into shock, of course, the tour gets put on hold to arrange the funeral, the wake, all that stuff.”
But Tears for Fears resumed touring just two months later. “I was trying to move on quickly, but the mind and the soul has its own agenda. I started to experience a lot of worrying symptoms, beyond anything I’ve ever experienced, like I’m f---ing dying! I didn’t know whether they were panic attacks or heart attacks. So I’m taking everything I can to negate these things: drugs, alcohol, sleeping pills.” He experienced blackouts and seizures.
“It was horrible. I got as close to death as I ever could, I was in ICU a couple of times.” Orzabal laughs but there is an edge to it, as if he is holding back tears. “It was almost karma, that I was experiencing everything Caroline went through in the last years of her life. But the difference between us is that I put myself into rehab, and she never did.”
He ascribes his recovery to therapy and grief counselling, allied to a new relationship with writer and artist Emily Rath. The couple married in 2020. “I connected to my heart, which made my relationship with Curt so much better,” says Orzabal. “I was a different guy, more amenable, more humble, more open.”
For Smith, Orzabal’s trauma had called the group’s future into question. “I wasn’t worrying about Tears for Fears. I just didn’t want you to die,” he tells his bandmate with touching sincerity.
The pair have both described dysfunctional family backgrounds growing up in the 1970s, with music offering a balm to personal troubles. Writing songs, Orzabal suggests, is “a form of self-soothing.” They formed short-lived teenage mod band Graduate, with Orzabal as frontman, but when they fell apart and reconvened as a duo, bassist Smith stepped up to the front. “We switched roles, without discussion,” says Orzabal. “It suited me to go into the background and explore what was going on inside me. And Curt took over the more confident, arrogant, extrovert role.”
Orzabal wrote their first truly great song, Mad World, for their striking 1982 debut album The Hurting. But it was Smith who sang it. “There was incredible emotion and honesty in the lyrics, but when I sang it, it sounded dead,” says Orzabal. “To be honest, I still can’t sing it.”
The duo enjoyed an incredible run of success, blending melodic synth pop with epic wall-of-sound arrangements and tortured lyrics reflecting a shared obsession with the primal scream theories of psychologist Arthur Janov (who inspired the name of their band). Significant hits included Everybody Wants to Rule the World and Shout from 1985’s Songs from the Big Chair and Sowing the Seeds of Love from 1989’s The Seeds of Love.
But they had fallen out badly by the end of the decade, with Orzabal assuming more control of both songwriting and singing. “As our career progressed and the dynamics shifted, it became impossible for us to actually be together,” admits Orzabal. “Because there’s too much ego and no one wants to be the introvert. It’s like, ‘Wow, I know what I want now, I’m a grown man, I’ve got money, I’m successful, f--- off!’”
After Smith quit in 1991, Orzabal continued Tears for Fears as a solo project. He eventually ran out of steam with 1995’s extraordinarily self-indulgent, Latin-flavoured flop Raoul and the Kings of Spain. Confrontational interviews gave Orzabal a reputation as a difficult, self-destructive egotist.
“Without question, Curt is much better at communicating with people than I am,” admits Orzabal. “He’s more grounded and politically aware, especially in the manoeuvrings of the record industry. It just used to drive me mad to the point that my anger wouldn’t allow me to communicate.”
“I always say Tears for Fears is the stuff we can agree on,” says Smith, who returned for 2004’s satisfying Everybody Loves a Happy Ending. “Like any old married couple, we can butt heads in moments of insecurity. But the fact that we can coexist, as strong willed and opinionated as we are, is maybe a cause for hope.”
The differences between their appearances and characters is striking. Orzabal has long white hair, a scruffy beard and thick glasses, and declaims with a passionate articulacy that can stray towards the overblown, particularly when he dives into esoteric and spiritual subjects that fascinate him. Short haired, tanned and dapper, the more reserved Smith asserts himself gently but firmly, offering a counterweight to his bandmate’s more high-flown style.
“All of us within ourselves have an extrovert and introvert,” says Orzabal, trying to describe the duo’s balancing act. “Where we are on the scale differs. But the talents of the introvert can be more enabled by someone who is willing to take the extrovert role.
“Curt and I have done this dance for around 40 years, because we are both hermits and we’re both attention whores.”
“And clearly Roland is the extrovert, right?” notes Smith, dryly. “Yeah, baby!” shouts Orzabal.
Tears for Fears: ‘The Tipping Point’ will be released by Concord today