Since first becoming a public figure with The Go-Go’s in 1981, Belinda Carlisle has been many different things to many people: A Rock and Roll Hall of Fame frontwoman, a multi-platinum-selling solo star, a sex symbol, a shampoo-selling hair icon, and a best-selling autobiographer. She has recorded an album of yoga-centric chants, another entirely in French, and co-founded an animal hospital in India that provides medical care to the street animals of Kolkata and jobs for its citizens.
But there was one high-profile role — pop recording artist — that she was poised to put away forever, until a chance meeting with an old friend brought about a change of heart. Her new EP Kismet is her first album of new pop songs in 27 years.
In this conversation, we discuss Kismet, parts of the singer’s celebrated past and present and the aspects of her personality that influenced them.
Q: We’re here because you unexpectedly released your first pop album since forever, but the last time many of us saw you was likely your Rock n Roll Hall of Fame performance with The Go-Go’s. Journalists flatter veteran artists with the “You’ve never been better live!” line, but it’s usually not even remotely true. (Carlisle laughs) I can offer that compliment to you sincerely. Do you feel better (than ever) onstage these days?
A: Wow. Well first, thank you for noticing. It’s very funny that you are saying this right now because I just came off a big tour in the U.K. and (when performing) I just felt … different. I definitely do have more confidence now, and you’re right, I do feel better about it. I honestly don’t know why, but I do.
Q: I saw The Go-Go’s with friends in the early 2000s and the consensus was that you looked and sounded great, but seemed a bit disconnected from the audience. I’ve seen you countless times after ’05 and it’s been quite the opposite. Probably not a coincidence? (Carlisle became sober in 2005 after a decades-long bout with addiction)
A: Actually, that (being able to perform well) was one of my big issues when I got sober. I was nervous about it and I talked about it in (recovery) meetings. I said, “I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I’ve always had a few drinks or something else before I’ve gone onstage. I don’t know how to go out there without anything!” I couldn’t imagine what it was going to be like up onstage without being at least the littlest bit altered. I was really afraid. But what I found is that it was so much easier. When you’re out there and it’s a good show, you tap into something that is greater than yourself, you know? It feels like meditation. You’re washed away by the music, and then you have an energetic exchange with the audience.
Q: Regarding nerves, at a Rock n Roll Hall of Fame performance a singer might look into the audience and see the likes of Paul McCartney or Joni Mitchell or Eric Clapton staring back at them. Between the crowd, the famous attendees and the HBO audience, were you nervous?
A: Oh, I couldn’t even let myself go there! It was the crowning moment of The Go-Go’s’ career and I knew this would be as big as it gets. I refused to let myself think about it. I just went out there and did my thing. Luckily I didn’t have a dry mouth, I wasn’t sick to my stomach and I didn’t have, you know, two left feet. I was able to just do it. It was an amazing experience.
Q: The only false note in your performance was that you kept your shoes on the entire time.
A: (laughs) Exactly! I was wearing low heels but I had to keep them on for my outfit.
Q: Most female recording artists who also became sex symbols do not look back on it fondly — they view it as an unwanted cost of doing business. You had a unique road to becoming one, however. You were previously criticized and even mocked for your appearance.
A: I never felt like a sex symbol. I mean, I know I had that label but I didn’t really want it. As you said, I don’t think anybody really does. The thing about it is that I always photographed really well, and if you photograph a certain way or look a certain way in pictures, industry people are going to pick up on that and suggest more of the same. That’s going to happen to you, especially in music.
Q: Did the cruelty you absorbed from the press in the beginning make being objectified for your beauty slightly more tolerable for you? Did you see it as revenge?
A: In a way, I guess I did. In articles, my weight was always mentioned alongside my name: “She’s cute and chubby” or “She’s pretty and plump.” And then the meaner stuff like, “She’s obviously been hitting the deli trays backstage.” But then I stopped drinking temporarily and I lost weight and grew into myself. I became a young woman, and suddenly it was a whole different world for me. Yeah, it did feel like (sings mockingly) “Na, na, na-na, na.” (laughs)
Q: We don’t know each other but we’ve talked socially at events and had discussions like this. I describe you to others as someone who is wholly authentic. To call you a no-bullshit person might be too hard a description, but your comfort in being “you” is evident. I felt validated recently when your son described you as being “super authentic” in The Advocate.
A: Yeah, well, sometimes maybe I’m a little too authentic for him. He’ll say, “Mom!” I’m a contrarian, you know? Once a punk rocker, always a punk rocker, even if I may not look like it. I’ve always sort of traveled along to the beat of my own drum. It’s really nice to hear that you tell people I’m authentic. I’d like to think that I am, although I will say that I’m definitely no-bullshit as well. (laughs) I mean, I have no time for any of that. Even at the top of my game, like during the “Heaven” era and all of that, I never had any time for it.
Q: That contrarian free spirit has helped make for an interesting life and career. You lived in France for almost a quarter of a century. You lived in Thailand for years. You currently live in Mexico City. You’ve recorded an album in French. You did a mantra album, where you are performing chants. What informs this? Nature or nurture?
A: Oh, I was definitely born this way. I didn’t get it at home. I come from a nice Christian family and I remember being forced to go to church and thinking, even when I was 5, “Oh my, I don’t know about any of this.” (laughs) My parents were definitely conformists. My mother was of the mind of, “Girls are supposed to stay home and sew and cook” and all of that stuff. I was going through photo albums about a year ago and found an article from a local paper about mothers and daughters that my mom and I were featured in. She said about me, “I don’t know how to control her. Little girls didn’t act like that when I was growing up.” (laughs loudly) I was always up to something.
Q: Your new album Kismet was definitely born out of your personality. You were headed for a likely semi-retirement, fully content with the fact that you never made another pop album despite being asked to by countless people over nearly 30 years. Then your son runs into an old friend in a coffee shop, and all bets are off.
A: I really wasn’t going to do anything. I mean, I wasn’t planning on doing anything new in the future. And then, as you said, Diane (Warren, the legendary songwriter who penned Carlisle’s 1987 hit “I Get Weak”) ran into my son in a coffee shop and they FaceTimed me. She said, “Come to the studio, I have hits for you!”
Q: For someone who was planning to do less than ever, what was your reaction to being asked to do what was certainly going to be a lot?
A: It was, “Oh, boy.” I was honestly thinking, “Do I wanna do this?” But you can’t say no to Diane. It’s impossible. I love her as a normal person — I mean, she is actually not normal at all (laughs), but in addition to her being a great songwriter I like her as a person very much. So I thought, “Okay, well, maybe I just should go listen to what she has and see what she has to say.”
When I heard the songs, I was blown away. I loved every single song, which was a weird thing for me because I am very picky with melody and lyrics. I just said to myself and Diane, “Ok, yes.” I knew I had to record these songs. Artists of my age rarely get really great pop songs given to them on a silver platter like this. These opportunities usually go to someone who is in the charts or someone who is much younger.
Q: And now, for the first time in 27 years, you are in the charts with new material.
A: Yes! And I like that it’s not some contrived or planned comeback or whatever. A gift was offered to me by a friend that I would have been really stupid not to take, and I had a great time doing it. It was one of the most fun times I ever had recording. I had fun on Voila (her 2007 French language album) and doing the “Mantra” album (2017’s Wilder Shores), too, but it was so fun singing this sort of classic pop in the same vein as my early stuff. I think how much fun I was having really comes through in the music. It was a joyous experience.
Robert Ferraro is a pop culture journalist who chronicles celebrity philanthropy. He is the founder of thegivingarts.com, where he helps celebrities raise funds for their charitable causes.
Here is the video for Carlisle’s current single, “If U Go”:
We need your help!
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.