An interview with Curt Smith

Yesterday, Curt Smith (of Tears For Fears fame) released his long-awaited solo album Mayfield. Curt was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to chat with Sonos about the album, his first film score, and upcoming tour plans. Read on for the details.

Curt Smith
Photo credit: Justine Ungaro

Sonos: Originally, Mayfield was the name of a group you formed during your 10-year hiatus from Tears For Fears, not too many years after you’d moved from the UK to New York. Looking back on the songs, players and the record itself, does it bear the stamp of that time for you?

Curt Smith: Mayfield was always my project. I didn’t want to use my name on it, since one of the things I disliked about Tears For Fears when I left it was the level of fame. I wanted to make music without the expectations and associations that came with my name and that of Tears. However, Mayfield itself is a sly play on my name: Curt Is Mayfield (get it?).

It does bear the stamp of that era, but at the same time it’s a project that’s always stayed with me. Two of the members of the band (my longtime collaborator Charlton Pettus, and keyboardist Doug Petty) have been part of the Tears For Fears touring band since 2004, and are both part of my solo band as well. We’ve done the Mayfield song “Snow Hill” before as part of the Tears show, and regularly perform songs from Mayfield during my solo shows.

S: When did you originally start to record Mayfield the album? How long did it take before you felt you had a complete album on your hands?

CS: We recorded Mayfield in late 1997. As I recall the whole thing only took a a few weeks.

S: Most of Mayfield was recorded live to track (as opposed to one instrument at a time). Would you still record it that way now?

CS: It’s a very liberating way to record. The temptation is great, and the tools certainly exist, to spend hours if not days tweaking tiny loops of sound. Most listeners, quite honestly, would never know the difference, and I daresay that presuming you’re well-rehearsed, it can sound fresher and more alive the closer you keep things to the way they were actually played. Today I tend to record things instrument by instrument as the studio I use doesn’t lend itself to a full band playing at once, but I’m certainly not opposed to recording that way again.

S: Mayfield, like your other solo work, is self-released on your KOOK Media label. Why is that? Do you miss anything about being on a traditional label?

CS: The traditional label system is irretrievably broken. When it does work, it almost never favors the artist, it favors the shareholders of whatever corporation owns the label. I like nearly everything about putting out my music myself. I have full control over the music, the art, the release schedule, the marketing, where and how it’s distributed. I know exactly how much revenue is coming in and I decide how it’s spent. It’s definitely more work for me and the people who work with me, but it’s rewarding in almost every way.

S: You recently said that you now listen to all your mixes on your Sonos system. How does Mayfield sound to you today?

CS: It still sounds good to me or I wouldn’t be re-releasing it as is. Having said that, there were some aspects of the mix that looking back, I’d have done differently. Those are even more apparent to me over the Sonos speakers.

S: Shifting gears a bit here. You recently scored your first film (the independent feature Meth Head, starring Lukas Haas). Is that something you’d like to do more of?

CS: Absolutely. When we first made music videos back in the 1980s, it was artistically quite exciting to have someone create visual imagery to complement our songs. Creating a score, or writing songs specifically for a film or television show, turns that premise on its side now I’m creating music to complement someone else’s words and images. When writing for myself, I seek to evoke emotions with my lyrics and music. It’s not all that different in the case of soundtrack and score, except that I’m using my music to further the emotions of someone else’s writing. It’s profoundly satisfying as a composer and I look forward to doing more of it.

S: You’ve been working on a “social media project” of collaborations with artists you’ve met via social media. What’s coming up next on that? Any artists with whom you’d particularly like to collaborate?

CS: The next one, in a way, is the bonus track on the re-release of Mayfield. It’s a new version of the song “Trees” that features musician Janice Whaley. She’s perhaps best known for “The Smiths Project,” which came out this year, in which she re-recorded every song in the Smiths catalog a cappella, using loops of her voice as the instruments. She did the same for me for “Trees,” laying down a new instrumental bed, and I recorded a new lead vocal over it. I was introduced to Janice by James Roday (star of the USA Network series “Psych,” who I met backstage at a Tears show in 2010.

Generally I base the collaborations on the needs of a specific song as I’m recording it. When I got to a certain point in producing “All Is Love” I needed cello, and that’s when I sought out Zoe Keating via Twitter. I’d love the chance to work with artists I admire like Annie Clark (St. Vincent) and Zooey Deschanel. My elder daughter is a Justin Bieber fan so I’d work with him just for the look on her face :).

S: Any Tears For Fears plans to tour or record in 2012?

CS: We’re looking at doing a tour of European festivals next summer, and perhaps some US dates. Roland and I have talked about doing a new album as it’s been seven years now since the last one, but we haven’t got much further than the talking stage yet.