Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal had been working on material for Tears for Fears' first album since 2004 for several years to no avail when they found themselves sitting together, two childhood friends strumming acoustic guitars.
It's the way they'd written "Mad World" and the other songs on 1983's "The Hurting."
And just like that, things started clicking.
"Our record company and management at the time had encouraged us to go and write with these modern hit songwriters and producers — which in and of itself is not a bad idea," Smith recalls.
"But we realized over the course of a couple of years of doing this on and off that it really didn't speak to us"
Tears for Fears going on tour with 'The Tipping Point'
Getting back to how they'd started writing music in their teens, it was as though they'd hit a reset button — one that quickly put them on the path to writing "No Small Thing," the Dylanesque waltz that welcomes listeners to "The Tipping Point," their first release since "Everybody Loves a Happy Ending."
"The Tipping Point" tour starts May 20 in Cincinnati. The show comes to Phoenix on May 27 at Ak-Chin Pavilion.
"That was sort of the catalyst that got us towards the finish line," Smith says.
"Roland and I decided to go back to writing the way we used to write — two acoustic guitars, which we hadn't done since we were 18."
He loved the idea of opening the album with that song, having built the arrangement on those acoustic guitars.
It's a striking departure from the synth-pop flavor of their early hits, from "Mad World" and "Change" to "Shout" and "Everybody Wants to Rule the World."
"Leading off with that, I thought was great, because it really sort of makes you listen," Smith says.
"You think, 'What are they doing? This doesn't sound like a Tears for Fears record.' It sort of draws you in."
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Forging the sound of songs like 'Everybody Wants to Rule the World'
The sound of those earliest records was obviously very much a product of its time but also of the writing partners learning to make records while getting deeper into the idea of production.
"That was the reason we left the band we were in at the time," Smith says.
"We were at that age where making soundscapes was getting interesting to us. And none of the rest of the band were into that. They just liked to play live and record. But we were listening to Talking Heads and Peter Gabriel and the depth of those records."
The key to that first record, Smith says, was that "everything was written on acoustic guitar, but we actually went in and produced it electronically."
By the time they started working on their second album, 1985's "Song From the Big Chair," sequencers and drum machines were playing a role in the actual writing process.
"When we were writing 'The Hurting,' we didn't have any of that," Smith says.
"We just had acoustic guitars, and we sat and wrote. It wasn't until we came to demo them with Ian Stanley, who worked with us through 'The Hurting' and 'Songs from the Big Chair,' that we got to play with electronics and sort of forge this sound."
The two recorded one more album, 1989's acclaimed "The Seeds of Love," before an acrimonious split in 1991, with Orzabal carrying on as Tears for Fears for two more albums — "Elemental" (1993) and "Raoul and the Kings of Spain" (1995).
Since the release of their reunion album, aptly titled "Everybody Loves a Happy Ending," they've toured nearly every year, their setlists packed with all the classics you'd expect.
Those songs are fun to play, Smith says. But the initial germs of an idea that resulted in the making of this latest album was to have new songs to sprinkle in amongst the staples.
"We were getting to the point where we sort of realized that the only way to improve the set was to refresh it somewhat," Smith says.
"And for that, you need new material."
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'We were left with just the two of us'
Their first attempt at making a new album by committee with a team of outside writers left them cold, so they ended up buying it back from the label and parting ways with management.
At that point, Smith says, "We were left with just the two of us."
Sorting through the roughly 20 tracks they had recorded, Smith and Orzabal agreed on five songs they liked well enough to think they could be salvaged.
Two of those were written with the help of Sacha Skarbek, an award-winning songwriter Smith calls "the one outside person that we enjoyed working with."
At that point they had half an album left to write, but once they figured out where they going, it only took four months to finish writing and recording the entire album.
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'We are at heart an album band'
With "No Small Thing," they had the depth that had been missing from their earlier attempts at coming up with new material.
"What we felt we had with the previous recordings was a lot of attempts at a modern hit song," Smith says.
"There was no album journey, and we are at heart an album band. We've never gone in and recorded singles. Well, one time we did and it turned out dismally."
Once they'd written "No Small Thing," which is a journey in and of itself, they set out to make sure that journey carried out across the album.
As Smith explains the process, "You sit down and realize, 'We don't have a reflective track.' 'We don't have a release track.' And you sort of plan a way forward and realize the emotions you're missing to make an album complete."
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Figuring out what they wanted to say
At first, they struggled with figuring out what they wanted the album to say.
"I think in the initial sessions, we were more concerned — or the people we were working with more concerned — about the sound, the feel, the tempo," Smith says. "Not the lyrical content."
The biggest catalyst for bringing the lyrical side of the album into focus was the death in 2017 of Caroline Orzabal, the high school sweetheart Orzabal had married in 1982.
The title track, a haunting meditation on the existential tipping point, was heavily inspired by the long struggle with illness that led to her death. But there are "quite a few songs on the album," Smith says, "that reflect that."
Other songs were more inspired by an increasingly mad world.
"We went through four years of Donald Trump and the rise of the right wing worldwide," Smith says.
"The pandemic had just begun. The climate crisis. #MeToo. Black Lives Matter. All these subjects, we addressed to some degree in the the album."
"Break the Man" is a song about female empowerment inspired by the rise of Donald Trump.
"That's not talking about just Trump politically, but the toxic masculinity that he embodies, that I hoped would not be a prevailing force in America because I have two daughters," Smith says.
"I think women obviously should have an equal voice and have just as much power as men. And Donald Trump, of course, does not believe that."
How the songs on 'The Hurting' stay relevant
As he and Orzabal prepare to take "The Tipping Point" on tour, they're fast approaching the 40th anniversary of "The Hurting."
"I'm shocked that we were that advanced emotionally for 20-year-olds, or 19 when we started writing those songs," Smith says.
"But I think the great part of that, weirdly, is when we play shows now, we get people that are 18 to 25 that really relate to 'The Hurting' because it was talking about emotions that people of that age feel — that sense of 'Where do I belong?"
It's seeing the effect those lyrics have on younger people in the audience that keeps those early records relevant to Smith when he and Orzabal perform those songs today.
"I'm older — I'd like to think wiser — than I was then and I know kind of where I fit in in the world," he says.
"But when you sing those songs, I think you just have to take yourself back to that time in your life and look at younger people in the audience and think about how they relate to it."
Tears For Fears
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 27.
Where: Ak-Chin Pavilion, 2121 N. 83rd Ave., Phoenix.
Admission: $29.50 and up.
Details: 602-254-7200, livenation.com.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Tears for Fears' Curt Smith talks 2022 tour, new songs, 'Hurting'