Belinda Carlisle is an activist, humanitarian and friend to animals the world over. She also is, of course, the unmistakable voice of numerous radio hits, dating from her time with the famously rambunctious Go-Go’s through her more sophisticated days as a chart-topping solo artist.
Carlisle will be reminding America of both legacies this summer, as she headlines this year’s Retro Futura Tour and briefly reunites with her former bandmates for a handful of shows to commemorate their 40th anniversary.
One of the Retro Futura shows will take place at BergenPAC in Englewood, July 14 at 8 p.m., and is being billed as a “CBS-FM ’80s Rock Celebration.” Other performers will include ABC, Modern English, The Outfield’s Tony Lewis and Kajagoogoo’s Limahl. (For a chance to win two tickets, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org by midnight July 5 with the word “Futura” in the subject line.)
Q: Belinda, we’ll get to your day job in a moment, but I feel like we can’t have an honest conversation without acknowledging your interest in current events, as it seems to be an everyday concern for you these days.
A: Very much so. Growing up in Southern California, I came from a family that didn’t discuss or pay attention to anything, as far as politically or socially. It’s something I never really thought about. Then I went straight into the Go-Go’s bubble, which certainly wasn’t about any of those things. But when I came out the other side of that, I became a little more curious about what was going on out there, and in the past 20 years or so, between experiences I’ve had and the reading I’ve done — not to mention being the mother of a gay son — it tweaked my interest in politics and the world around me. Now I’m obsessed, actually. [laughs] So, I have to kind of watch it, because I get wound up pretty easily, which is a considerably different me than when I did an interview with Rolling Stone in the ’80s and got flak for not knowing what the difference between a Republican and a Democrat was.
Q: Ignorance is bliss sometimes.
A: That’s very true! [laughs]
Q: There are very few gray areas for Americans in this political climate. A lifelong fan might disown you simply because you have a differing opinion on a health care bill. Have you felt that type of pushback?
A: Oh yeah, definitely. I mean, I usually hit “block” right away. But I find that there is less of that now because a lot of people who are opposed to my views have unfollowed me, anyway. When I participated in the Women’s March I received some really, incredibly nasty stuff. I couldn’t believe people actually thought those things. I live in a bubble where I like to think that I associate with people who are open-minded and tolerant, but there will always be people out there who aren’t.
Q: You have a unique worldview, as you lived in Europe for over 20 years, and presently live in Thailand. You involve yourself in causes that address problems many of us haven’t considered.
A: I have always been a big animal rights activist and I love India, so I thought, “Why not combine the two and make a difference?” In 2014, we put together a project in Calcutta called Animal People Alliance. Calcutta is one of those cities that has lots of stray dogs and cats, along with cows and other animals on the street, but very few veterinarians. They are lacking in any kind of animal services. So our project aims to create services for animals for sure, but at the same time, create employment for people who normally would have difficulty getting a job because of caste or disability. We also have quite a few women who came from being trafficked, unfortunately. So being able to train them as veterinary nurses to serve in other parts of India, is important. We’ve made a lot of progress. We have a staff of nine, and we’ve treated 1,500 animals in the past year, so it’s onwards and upwards from here. If you have any kind of profile it’s important to use it for the greater good. I try to do that and, in my experience, talking about it and putting it out there has changed minds and changed people.
Q: That profile that you enjoy is courtesy of your singing career, first with The Go-Go’s, and then followed by more than 30 years as a solo artist. I recently saw a clip of your first solo appearance on “American Bandstand” when you performed “Mad About You,” and Dick Clark asked you, “When everything changed (with The Go-Go’s), were you frightened to go it alone?” Do you remember what you said?
A: Hmm … I probably said something like, “I never think before I jump and I just got into it, then I realized what I had done and I was scared.” Something like that.
Q: Pretty much. He asked you if you were frightened, in the past tense, and you said. “I still am!” You also looked the part. With The Go-Go’s done, did you fear that your music career was on the line?
A: I think the fear was more about all the focus suddenly being on me, and my not being comfortable with it. I used to be able to divide the attention up five ways with the band, but I didn’t have the girls as my security blanket anymore. I was on my own, and everything was aimed at me.
Q: You had already been famous for a few years, though, singing lead, appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone, talk shows, videos, etc. The prospect of receiving that same type of attention, but for yourself, was scary?
A: To this day, and I’m not kidding, if I really thought about what it is that I do…going out in front of a crowd of people and singing like that … I wouldn’t be able to. I can’t really let myself go there in my head. It’s a very weird thing to think about. It’s strange to think that I’m up there like that, dancing and singing and everyone is looking at me. [laughs] So I don’t let myself go there. I just pretend nobody’s around and I’m singing by myself.
Q: That makes me wonder about your relationship with fame. Madonna’s movie “Truth or Dare” was a very big deal at the time of its release (1991), and you unexpectedly found yourself in it. In one scene, background singer Donna De Lory gargled a few lines of “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” in a mocking fashion, which Madonna seemed to enjoy. Was there a time where your level of fame made you uncomfortable?
A: Oh sure, a few times. In the beginning it came so quickly for (The Go-Go’s) …over the course of like three years, and we never expected it. So that was weird, and when you’re very young, that kind of fame is a difficult thing to handle. And yes, being referred to out of nowhere in that movie was definitely strange. Donna was a backup singer of mine before she started working for Madonna, so that was unexpected. But we actually worked together this past February, Donna and I, and there were unspoken amends made. It doesn’t bother me now. But even when something negative comes your way, it usually means that you have some sort of profile, and that’s generally a good thing.
Q: There’s an old adage in the music business that the act who is most perfectly equipped for success is a female artist who men want to sleep with, and women want as a best friend. That should probably be followed by, see also: Carlisle, Belinda. Did you always have that type of universal appeal, say, as far back as high school?
A: I actually wasn’t popular in high school. I was a cheerleader, but I always felt uncomfortable around boys because I was never allowed to date when I was growing up. I was pretty naive and sheltered. Years later, right after I released “Mad About You,” People magazine did a poll asking readers who they would date if they could date anyone, and the winner was me! That was very weird. I never thought about myself in those terms — not even later, down the road. But after “Mad About You” and my physical transformation with losing the weight and really just growing into a young adult, there was unnecessary pressure put on me to look a certain way, dress a certain way, and weigh a certain amount. A lot of pressure. Unfortunately, I’m sure that’s still happening to some young female artists now.
Q: The physical changes you mentioned occurred 30 years ago, but did the hits you took back then leave you with any lingering resentment in regard to the media?
A: Oh, definitely. It messed me up really bad. My name was always mentioned with how I looked. I was pretty and plump. Or I was svelte. Or I was chubby and cute. It always had to do with weight, and that was damaging. Even if it was intended as a compliment, it was damaging. And add “sexist” on top of that. It’s something that shouldn’t even be mentioned. That happened all through The Go-Go’s and my early solo career. Now I don’t think anyone cares because I’m not really in the game, but I’ll see people say about other singers or actresses, “Oh, it looks like she’s piling on the pounds.” I just think it’s a horrible thing to say. It messed with me, no question.
Q: A friend of mine saw you perform live recently, and when I asked her how the show was, she said, “It was great, she was doing all of those Belinda things.” I asked her to explain what those were, and she said …
A: Uh-oh. [laughs]
Q: You danced expressively with your hands …
Q: Kicked off your shoes and danced barefoot …
Q: … and played tambourine while shaking your hair around. And I was in complete agreement that yes, those were all Belinda things. [both laugh] Those are fairly common gestures, but they somehow become uniquely yours when you’re onstage, and seem very natural. Did these mannerisms come about from just you being you, or did you borrow from somebody when you first started performing, and eventually grow into “you”?
A: Wow, I just want to say that you ask great questions. Okay, let me think. Well, I wasn’t trying to mimic anyone, but someone that does come to mind who I thought was super cool and absolutely amazing onstage was Cindy Wilson from The B-52’s. I thought she was really great, and I still do. She just has something that is really special. So maybe I wanted to be a little like Cindy when I was onstage. Kate (Pierson, also of The B-52’s) is awesome, too, but it was always Cindy for me, and she might have influenced me a little bit.
Q: Your voice is also distinctive. I’m fairly certain that many people of my generation could hear a song of yours they had never heard before, and know it was you. You started singing as a teenager, but at what point did you say to yourself, “Hey, I have a really good voice here.”
A: I always thought I had a really good voice. [laughs] Almost always. I sang background in a band called Black Randy and the Metrosquad and that’s when I really knew that I wanted to sing. I was one of the Blackettes and we wore big beehive wigs and dashikis and did covers of “Shaft” and songs like that. It was a really funny band, and the guy was a total genius. After that, with the L.A. punk scene, anything went, which was great. So when The Go-Go’s formed, I had the choice of playing the drums again or singing and I thought I was a great singer, so I sang. But after hearing the recording of the first show we did, I knew I had a long way to go. I was distinctive, but I needed a lot of help.
Q: You aren’t particularly well known for musical things that you’ve done outside of your solo or Go-Go’s career, but there have been some interesting ones. You performed with the Beach Boys, you sang “Band of Gold” with Freda Payne on a television special, and you appeared on the song “Blue Period” with The Smithereens, to name a few. What is your favorite thing that you’ve done, off of the beaten path?
A: I would say working with Brian Wilson is obviously a big one, because of who he is, of course. We both appeared on each other’s albums. One of my favorite experiences, if not my favorite, was making Voila, which is my French album that came out around 10 years ago. And then my most recent album, Wilder Shores, which is really “out there.” I have been practicing Kundalini yoga for over 25 years and Wilder Shores is me chanting, but in a pop song format. I know those albums aren’t for everyone’s taste, but for me, the idea of continuing to do the same thing was, and is, boring. I’ve had the chance to work with the best songwriters in the world and do some amazing pop songs, but I have the luxury now, at my age and this stage of my career, of pretty much doing what I want to do. I have to love it or I won’t do it.
Q: You’re headlining the Retro Futura Tour this summer, and also doing some dates with The Go-Go’s to commemorate your 40th anniversary. The advantages of being a solo artist are obvious — you make most of the decisions, and keep most of the money. Are there any advantages to being in a band?
A: [pauses] I’d have to say camaraderie. Sometimes being on the road as a solo performer can be … I’m never lonely, so it’s not that … and I always have things going on so I rarely find myself bored … but being on the road can be a rather solitary existence. So the camaraderie is probably the big advantage of being in a band. However, I just think that in regard to The Go-Go’s, we’ve done it, you know? That band is really about youth, and I would just like to leave it with a little dignity. We did the farewell tour a couple of years ago and we decided then that if something really special came up, we’d be open to it. So we’re doing these upcoming dates to mark a special occasion, but as far as dragging it out and resuming normal touring with The Go-Go’s? I’m not interested in that anymore, and I don’t think anyone else in the band is, either. Everyone has their own things going on.
Q: Even if they didn’t, it seems like you would rather live the life that you prefer.
A: Definitely. I live on the other side of the world, and I don’t have any kind of pressure on me to work. If I don’t want to work, I just won’t. Now that I’m going to be 60, I can be selfish like that. I’ve earned it!
Follow the Retro Futura Tour on Twitter: @RetroFuturaTour
Follow the Retro Futura Tour on Facebook: @TheRegenerationTour
Follow Carlisle on Twitter: @belindaofficial
Follow Carlisle on Facebook: @BelindaCarlisleOfficial
Robert Ferraro is a former producer of radio talk shows and Major League Baseball broadcasts, who interviews pop culture figures. Previously, he held over 50 menial jobs, all of which he quit when he couldn’t find anyone interesting to talk to.
This article first appeared on Ferraro’s web site, ofpersonalinterest.com.