Advice for the Musical at Heart: An Interview with Musician Curt Smith about Psychology and Philosophy in the Music He Sings, Writes, and Values
Interviewed by Paul Halpern
Curt Smith, best known as co-founder, one of the two lead singers, and bassist of the musical group Tears for Fears (also co-founded by Roland Orzabal), is a complex man of many talents and interests. In addition to his work with the band, he has had a diverse solo music career, issuing well-regarded albums such as Mayfield, Halfway, Pleased, and Deceptively Heavy. In much of his solo writing efforts he has collaborated with guitarist and songwriter Charlton Pettus. Smith has acted in several films, including playing the part of a professor in The Private Public, and delighted viewers with guest appearances in the popular television show, Psych. He is a avid runner, loves to walk his dogs, and is an enthusiastic supporter of English football (soccer), including Manchester United and LA Galaxy in the city of Los Angeles where he now lives happily with his wife and two daughters.
Celebrated for his songs and vocal performances, and enjoying a settled family life, it is perhaps surprising that much of the music he performs expresses such turmoil. Indeed Tears for Fears is a band known for many poignant songs with dark psychological themes, including about the anguish of childhood (especially in its first album The Hurting, with songs such as Mad World and Pale Shelter), insecurity in moving into adulthood (Advice for the Young at Heart), the abuse of power (Everybody Wants To Rule the World), and many other hard-hitting, catchy tunes. Smith is the lead singer in these and many other emotive songs from the band, as well as from his solo albums. Some of the anguish expressed is a vestige of a troubled childhood in a council estate in Bath, England. This piece looks at the psychology and philosophy in Smith’s solo songs, music from Tears for Fears, and the tunes that have inspired him throughout his life. Curt Smith was kind enough to take the time to answer my many questions about his career and interests.
You grew up in Bath, but not in the fanciest section, is that right? Yet, while Liverpool, Birmingham, and many other English cities are traditionally associated with gritty streets and working-class struggles, Bath has a reputation for being genteel, and a tourist attraction. Did the posh reputation of your home city affect your ability (and Tears for Fears as a whole) to be taken seriously as an artist who sang and interpreted sensitive lyrics?
Curt Smith: I grew up on a council estate in Bath, which is state subsidized housing for those less fortunate. Whilst it was certainly not as rough as estates in major cities it came with the stigma of being poor & working class in an otherwise wealthy city. I don’t think I ever truly cared about whether we were taken seriously or not when we started, but it became obvious over time that people found it hard to pigeon hole us. In a country that has a very pronounced class system I wasn’t upper class or middle class, and I wasn’t considered “hard knock” working class because I came from Bath.
You have said in other interviews that your teenage years were difficult, emotional times. Do you recall any albums by other musicians that lifted you when you were down, or otherwise influenced your feelings? What was it about the lyrics that had a healing effect?
CS: I don’t think I ever looked for music that “lifted me up”, I was always attracted to music that made me feel like I belonged. That other people felt the same way as me. Be that punk, the ska resurgence or in later years Peter Gabriel, Bowie & Talking Heads. It was about finding music that I felt I could relate to & more importantly, the feeling that they related to me.
On the other hand, were there albums that made you think about life’s existential questions in a more philosophical way, rather than an emotive way. I’m thinking about albums by artists such as the Talking Heads and David Bowie, but perhaps there are others that make you think about the world in a different way.
CS: There are always three distinct layers to music for me. The lyrical, the melody/song & the production. The lyrical & melodic side can move me emotionally and intellectually. The production side moves me bodily & intellectually. It’s artists that manage to combine all of these facets that I tend to gravitate towards. In my early teenage years it was anger & disillusionment — Sex Pistols, Specials, UB40. In my late teens & twenties it was attempting to understand those feelings — Peter Gabriel, David Bowie etc. As I grew older I understood that holding on to my “teenage angst” was not going to benefit me emotionally, my task then was to understand it & attempt to move past it.
In the song “Snow Hill,” from your solo album Mayfield, you write “Toy guns for action men… On news at ten… Cool handed candied lies… The abstract thoughts of adolescent minds.” I’m wondering if those lyrics reflect teenage struggles between wanting to be macho, versus quietly being sensitive and reflective? I know that you have daughters, rather than sons; what would you say today to boys who wish to shed their tough veneers and talk openly about their feelings?
CS: I’ve always been closer emotionally to women than to men. I either don’t understand the “macho” thing or am unable to compete, I’m not sure I’ve worked out which even now. Other than to say that the macho thing no longer appeals to me. “Snow Hill” was my attempt to explain those feelings through the eyes of a thirteen year old.
I understand that the name of your first band, “Graduate,” derived from the name of the film (and from performing the Simon and Garfunkel song “Mrs. Robinson” from that movie). Is that right? How did the existential anguish expressed in that film resonate with the members of the band? Did leaving that band and eventually forming Tears for Fears have to do with a desire to release more serious songs?
CS: The name really came from Simon & Garfunkel more than the movie. Although in retrospect, was it to do with teenagers trying to navigate an adult world? Your guess is as good as mine :) Leaving the band was a part of that I think. We always had the desire and belief that music should be deeper than playing live. The other band members were very into the tour life and the immediate gratification that brought, I think we were looking for Something more.
Behavioral psychologist Dr. Mark Griffiths of Nottingham Trent University, who writes for Psychology Today, has called Tears for Fears “the most psychologically influenced band” in the history of pop music. He cites historian Nathan Albright who wrote: “The fact that they have a popular and critically acclaimed body of musical work is itself remarkable, but the fact that their work is heavily influenced by psychology, serving as therapy, serves as an inspiration. Rather than self-medication through drugs or alcohol, the two [Orzabal and Smith] chose music as therapy, turning their lives into the inspiration for hauntingly beautiful songs in their debut concept album, The Hurting, ranging from their first single, the biblically inspired ‘Suffer The Children’ to ‘Pale Shelter,’ describing the lack of love from parents … to ‘Mad World,’ their first hit.”
How has the reputation of Tears for Fears as a “psychological band” been a strength, and how (if at all) has it been a burden as you have tried to branch out into other themes and other types of songwriting?
CS: In the long run the depth of one’s music will always be a strength as it will lead to longevity. Musical styles over the years will always change, emotions and people’s connection to those emotions won’t.
“The Hurting” is arguably the most thematic of Tears for Fears albums, famously influenced by the writings of Arthur Janov. While it wasn’t the band’s biggest selling album, it successfully included a diverse range of excellent songs, that reflected a cohesive message about childhood. Do you think thematic albums with strong psychological messages could be successful today? Or is the music industry, and the way of listening to new music too different?
CS: I honestly don’t think it’s any different today than it was when we were coming up through the industry. For us it was “where’s the single that radio will play” and now it’s “how do we get the streams/clicks”. The artists that will last are those that make complete bodies of work like The 1975, Bon Iver & Phoebe Bridgers.
You sing and interpret songs from “The Hurting” in every concert. Yet you have said that you no longer believe in some of the psychological premises (such as children’s minds being “blank slates” that are imprinted by how parents treat them) that inspired the album. How do you gear yourself to deliver an impressive, emotive performance of such poignant lyrics at each concert? Do you have to envision the anguish of childhood each time?
CS: I certainly attempt to put myself back to that time because that is how I felt. It doesn’t make the emotion any less legitimate because I don’t feel that way now. I’m also aware that members of the audience may feel the way that I did and it’s important that they know we evolve. Normally for the better.
In the early years of Tears for Fears, many of the interviews and articles about the band were in fan magazines and youth-oriented television. They focused on style and appearances rather than the band’s message. Did you find that focus ironic? Was it ever frustrating to deliver such thought-provoking songs and complex music, and yet be treated in some media as another “boy band” with distinct hairstyles, and so forth.
CS: To a certain degree yes, but I don’t believe we’ve ever overthought it. The joy of being separate (not above) the fray is that we were singularly focused on what we were doing and not influenced by critics and journalists. Everyone has an opinion but an artist has to be confident in their own.
In many Tears for Fears albums the music is upbeat, while the lyrics are very serious. For example, the vibrant energy of “Mad World,” “Change,” and “Pale Shelter,” makes them seem almost like happy songs, despite the painful lyrics. Was that contrast intentional? Do you think it makes the lyrics hit harder?
CS: I would go back to my earlier point of music needing to move me emotionally and physically. I think that’s just the way we work.
The song “Advice for the Young at Heart,” from the third Tears for Fears album “Seeds of Love,” offers a prime example of a stark contrast between the title and music, on the one hand, and some of the lyrics, on the other hand. At first listen, it seems like it ought to be addressed to old people who nicely maintain youthful energy (the usual meaning of “young and heart”) yet, rather, the lyrics seem addressed to actual young people who are immature: “while they play mothers and fathers, we play little boys and girls.” You sing it in an upbeat way, despite those ironic lyrics. Does that musical twist, and upbeat singing, help make the message of the lyrics sink it more, once listeners focus on them?
CS: Maybe. I think there’s a certain innocence in a catchy melody, and the juxtaposition of that against deeper lyrics evokes the struggle between (perceived) childhood and adulthood. Which in truth are never separate.
Another band from the 1980s that had a reputation for thought-provoking lyrics was The Police, especially their albums “The Ghost in the Machine,” based on the writings of Arthur Koestler, and “Synchronicity,” based on the works of Carl Jung. Do you think The Police was successful in conveying philosophical and psychological ideas in those albums? Or could packing in too much philosophy and psychology become pretentious?
CS: That would be a question of personal preference. Whilst I love The Police I find some of it overly pretentious and smarter-than-thou. Knowledge may help you understand an emotion but it can never make you feel, replace or negate it.
During the time in the 1990s when you moved to New York and took a decade-long break (as it turned out) from Tears for Fears, you eventually started writing songs with Charlton Pettus. As co-writers, how do find connection and relate to each other’s emotional experiences and backgrounds to craft songs together?
CS: Charlton and I are an interesting balance. We have completely different backgrounds and he’s far more intellectual in his approach. Having said that, he has more emotion than he gives himself credit for. It’s normally a balance between me feeling and him thinking :)
I understand that you met your wife around that time in New York, and have since had a very happy marriage. Yet you have continued to write (and interpret) poignant, emotive songs. John Lennon used to talk about his creative depression. Do you still need to draw from negative feelings to write, or can you channel happiness into moving songs?
CS: I don’t think I’ve ever managed to channel pure happiness into a song. When I feel that way, which is often, I’m embracing the moment and don’t feel the need to write. It’s normally when I’m trying to work things out that I write and the songs can turn out positive or negative depending on the outcome.
“Seven of Sundays,” from your album “Halfway, Pleased,” seems to express surprise at how life turned out for you in a positive way. “Everything I’ve envied, I’m become.” “Perfectly … Still,” a stand-alone release, talks about the need to recognize satisfaction with one’s partner. While much of pop-music addresses youthful attraction, anguish, and breakups, do you think there is a place for meaningful songs addressed to those who have found long-term happy relationships?
CS: Going back to my argument about the perceived difference between adulthood and childhood — to me, if there is one it’s acceptance. I’m not convinced we grow out of any of those feelings, with knowledge we just learn to accept them for what they are and hopefully integrate them into our every day lives without judgement.
In the song “Beautiful Failure,” from the album “Deceptively Heavy,” you returned to the theme of childhood anguish, this time from the perspective of the father of a young daughter. It seems to suggest that some of the depression and self-doubt of childhood might be an illusion due to lack of knowledge of the future. Might you imagine going back to your young self in Bath and counselling him that everything would eventually turn out alright? How do you think your young self would react?
CS: Someone talking to me about anything emotional would have been helpful at that age. I grew up in a family where “little boys should be seen and not heard”. Beautiful Failure is a song about how my eldest daughter perceived herself at that point. She was dealing with issues of anxiety in a big way and I was attempting to normalize it. The biggest gift we can give our children is instilling the knowledge that they are not alone and that their feelings are valid and not abnormal.
Tears for Fears recently released an excellent new greatest hits album that included two new songs. In the song “Stay,” which you co-wrote with Charlton Pettus, you talk about making a commitment (or not), rather than wavering. How much of that is a message from your own experiences?
CS: The song is about how hard it is sometimes to leave. I was going through a period where I felt I should leave TFF again as I believed it wasn’t healthy for me. It’s analogous to a marriage. Do we stay together for the sake of the kids? The answer is of course always no as it doesn’t benefit anyone, but the decision is hard because of the decades of history.
As an avid runner (and dog-walker), do you listen to motivational music while you are exercising? Might you put on modern tracks that affect your mood in a positive way due to inspiring lyrics?
CS: I like to listen to albums that are like the ones I mentioned earlier. Sometimes I like the uptempo rhythm for running, sometimes I like to slow down the pace to recover.
You recently tweeted that you saw the new musical “American Utopia,” by David Byrne. What do you think of Byrne’s optimistic musical message in what seems to many like dark times around the world?
CS: I loved the show because it did everything that music should do and more. It was moving physically, lyrically and visually. As far as optimism goes, I just need to talk to the younger generation to get that. Unlike past generational divides, they have no issue voicing their opinions, which leaves me feeling confident that we will be in good hands.
“Sound Affects,” as the Jam famously put it. Do you see a bright future for songs with psychological and philosophical messages, despite current listening habits and the constraints of the modern musical industry?
CS: As I’ve said earlier, it’s no different now than it ever was, there are just different delivery systems. Those that feel nostalgic for past musical eras tend to forget all the bad or average music that was also prevalent then. It’s because only the music with some depth lives on. There’s plenty around now if you choose to look, and that will be the music that lives on in future decades. The rest will be forgotten. `
Thank you very much for your thoughtful answers!
Paul Halpern is a University of the Sciences physics professor and the author of sixteen popular science books, including Synchronicity: The Epic Quest to Understand the Quantum Nature of Cause and Effect.