IT’S ALMOST FORTY YEARS SINCE PUNK-INFLUENCED CALIFORNIAN TEENAGER BELINDA CARLISLE AND HER PALS SAT ON THE KERB OF A HOLLYWOOD SIDEWALK AND PLANNED TO FORM A BAND.
Within three years The Go-Go’s not only had the number one album in America, but had broken down the door for every female guitar group that followed. If not a direct influence on bands such as The Bangles, The Breeders, Hole and more, The Go-Go’s certainly foreshadowed them. As Q magazine noted, “Before riot grrrl, before ‘girl power’, before ladette culture had a name, there was The Go-Go’s”… The band split in 1985, and singer Belinda Carlisle was soon signed to a solo deal, which bore more-or-less immediate fruit. The hit HEAVEN IS A PLACE ON EARTH – to all intents and purposes still her signature song – was one of the top selling singles of 1987, and the parent album (HEAVEN ON EARTH) was certified three times Platinum in the UK. As chronicled in her excellent memoir LIPS UNSEALED, for Carlisle fame brought personal demons to the fore. She succumbed to alcohol and drug addictions. Despite that, the machine kept rolling and produced more worldwide hits and global attention – and more pressure…
Now, Belinda Carlisle has been sober for almost a decade and is about to tour the UK to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of HEAVEN ON EARTH. A deluxe edition is released on 29th September, featuring the original album alongside remixes and live tracks. In parallel a new studio album, out the same day, is perhaps her most honest (certainly her most unusual) record yet. WILDER SHORES features chanting linked to her practice of Kundalini yoga, one of the tools she employed to help in the early days of sobriety. In this new interview with The Mouth Magazine, with Belinda speaking on the telephone from Bangkok, there is a fascinating insight into the new record. But we begin by discussing her success in the ’80s, and the pressures it brought…
INCREDIBLY, IT’S THIRTY YEARS SINCE THE ALBUM HEAVEN ON EARTH, AND THEREFORE IT’S ALSO THIRTY YEARS SINCE THE GLOBAL SMASH HIT HEAVEN IS A PLACE ON EARTH. IN FACT WE’RE TALKING DURING THE WEEK OF THE THIRTIETH ANNIVERSARY OF THAT SONG BEING RELEASED AS A SINGLE. IT WAS ONE OF THOSE ‘CAREER DEFINING’ RECORDS WHICH TRANSCENDS AND ENDURES – BUT IT DOES ALSO KIND OF ‘FIX’ YOU IN SPACE AND TIME… I KNOW WHAT I SEE WHEN I LOOK BACK AT IT, BUT I WONDER WHAT IT IS THAT YOU SEE?
Ha ha, well..! I can see that it definitely was a big turning point in my career. It changed everything for me. I was in The Go-Go’s before that and had success in the States. We were ambitious and we’d always wanted global success – but we were never able to achieve it. The band broke up and I did my first solo record, called BELINDA, in 1986, and that did well in the States. I remember being in the studio and producers Rick Nowells and Ellen Shipley playing me that song, HEAVEN IS A PLACE ON EARTH, before I recorded it. Immediately it sounded like a smash. I could see it had the potential of being that song that could really bust things open… But, of course (and I learned this from all the experiences that I’d had prior), a lot depends on other things, for a hit record. It depends who else has good things out, what else is in the charts. It depends on, y’know, the state of the world. Lots of things. But, you know what? I knew straight away that if I was going to have a shot at a global success that song was it…
THERE WAS THIS VERY PARTICULAR PROJECTION OF YOU AT THAT TIME, I THINK… THERE WAS DEFINITELY SEX AND SEXUALITY THERE – THOUGH NOTHING TOO SALACIOUS. I THINK SOME WOULD REFER TO IT AS A ‘VERY GOOD LIVING GIRL NEXT DOOR’ THING GOING ON.
Ha ha, yep…
… BUT THAT WASN’T QUITE THE REALITY. YOU WERE AN EXTREMELY HARD PARTYING GIRL.
Well, yeah. But I don’t really like to focus on that. Let’s just say I took advantage of things. It was really funny with The Go-Go’s because we were sort of known as ‘America’s sweethearts’ or something, and we used to think “Ha, if they only knew”, y’know? I think what I was like is the case with a lot of artists. I was pretty wild, I guess. When you’re young and you have a lot of money and you don’t have a lot of responsibilities, why not take advantage of that? Why not?
THERE ARE A LOT OF OPPORTUNITIES PRESENTED TO YOU BY SUCCESS.
YOU PUT OUT A MEMOIR IN 2010 – LIPS UNSEALED (GREAT TITLE). IT GIVES A REALLY FRANK AND FASCINATING INSIGHT INTO YOU, BUT ALSO INTO THE ‘FAME GAME’, IF WE CAN CALL IT THAT? I ALWAYS THINK WHEN SOMEBODY PUTS OUT A MEMOIR AND, CLEARLY, THEY HAVE MANY YEARS OF LIFE LEFT TO LIVE, THAT IT’S PROBABLY AN ATTEMPT TO GAIN SOME SORT OF CLOSURE, OR TO OWN THE NARRATIVE. WAS LIPS UNSEALED LIKE THAT FOR YOU? WERE THERE THINGS ABOUT YOURSELF YOU NEEDED TO ‘CORRECT’ (IF THAT’S AN APPROPRIATE WORD) THROUGH WRITING, OR THINGS YOU NEEDED TO COME TO TERMS WITH?
I always felt that I had a story to tell, because I’ve had a pretty extraordinary life. What I definitely didn’t want to do was wash other people’s dirty laundry – but I was willing to do my own dirty laundry, up to a point. I felt, with a couple of years of sobriety under my belt, that you really can teach an old dog new tricks. So the book is a story of being able to conquer demons – even at a later period in life – and the lesson that you can come out the other end and have a ‘new life’ begin. That’s basically what that book is. So, at the end of it all, what it actually is, I guess, is a survivor’s story.
IT CAN BE DIFFICULT READING.
Yeah, it can. Believe me, there’s actually plenty of things that aren’t in that book. There are plenty of things that just aren’t for public consumption… But there wasn’t anything that did go into the book that I felt uncomfortable about putting in. There are sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll – but I felt pretty comfortable with that. I do know that it’s a book they’ve sometimes use in some of the rehab centres – like, ‘required reading’ or something. That, for me, is like I did my job. The book does its job. I’d just hoped if it could help somebody or entertain somebody or even just make them laugh, then somehow I’d done my job… Y’know, I’ll never do it again. I have zero desire to write like that again. I did it once – and it was a really really hard thing to do. So that’s it… That’s it.
I GUESS BEING AS HONEST AS YOU WERE IN THE WRITING OF THAT BOOK WAS EXACTLY THE POINT OF IT.
I guess I’ve always been honest, and maybe to a fault, throughout my career. In interviews and stuff. I think that there was no point in me writing the book if I wasn’t going to be open and honest about things… There’s already plenty of books out there that are kind of whitewashed. Mine is not that. It’s not whitewashed – but, like I said before, there are some things which happened that aren’t in there. You know, the thing is, a lot of the reason those things in the book seem outrageous is because it was a woman doing it. Really, if it was a man doing those things no-one would bat an eyelid…
THAT IS A RELEVANT AND INTERESTING POINT. WHEN YOU LOOK AT SOMEBODY LIKE WHITNEY HOUSTON, AND WHAT EVENTUALLY HAPPENED, WE’RE PROBABLY ENCOURAGED TO FIND THE DEBAUCHERY SO MUCH MORE SHOCKING.
IT’S SEXIST, FOR SURE… A PATRIARCHAL PROJECTION OF THE IDEAS OF PURITY AND CORRUPTION?
Mm-hmm. Oh yeah.
THERE WAS A REALLY QUITE COMPELLING DOCUMENTARY ABOUT WHITNEY ON UK TV A COUPLE OF WEEKENDS AGO… HER PUBLIC LIFE SEEMED SO UNREAL – SHE WAS SO FAR REMOVED, A CARTOON ALMOST, BECAUSE OF THE FAME. YET THERE WAS THIS BRILLIANT HOME MOVIE FOOTAGE OF HER CHILLING OUT AT HOME AND MESSING ABOUT WITH HER FRIENDS AND SO ON… SHE SEEMED TO BE THIS VERY NORMAL PERSON WHO ENDED UP BEING KIND OF BENT WAY OUT OF SHAPE BY THE ATTENTION AND BY THE MONEY – TO THE LEVEL, ACTUALLY, WHERE BY THE POINT OF HER DEATH YOU JUST WEREN’T SHOCKED. YOU ALMOST EXPECTED IT… BELINDA, ISN’T THAT SUCH A SAD THING TO BE ABLE TO SAY?
I know, I know. Yeah. I know. Really sad. But what you’ve said is true. I don’t really know what to say about that… I’ve been doing this since I was seventeen years old. I’m just trying to think back… In 1980 I would have been twenty-two years old, and I was on the cover of every magazine in the States. In America you couldn’t escape The Go-Go’s anywhere you went. It just went beyond. So everybody knew who I was. When you’re that young and you have that kind of fame and attention coming at you, it’s amazing and it’s fun and it’s all that – of course it is! But it’s also really really difficult to handle. Your perspective on things can really really get fucked up. I’m sorry to use that word, but it’s true. There’s absolutely no instruction manual on how you should deal with that.
SO HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH IT?
If you’re a strong person, and if you’re lucky… I mean, I’ve always been strong-willed and made of… whatever. Kind of tough. I may not look tough – but I’m tough inside. So you look at Whitney and you realise she was… fragile… y’know? I remember seeing her around, towards the end, and she looked like she was in a lot of trouble. By the grace of God, y’know? Some people make it. But some people don’t.
ONE OF THE REALLY INTERESTING BITS IN YOUR BOOK RELATES TO WHAT YOU WERE SAYING THERE, ABOUT FAME AND ATTENTION COMING YOUR WAY SUDDENLY… YOU BASICALLY LOCKED YOURSELF AWAY AT HOME AND WENT ON THIS COCAINE BINGE FOR SEVERAL DAYS… YOU’D AIMED FOR SUCCESS, AND YOU GOT IT, BUT DESPITE ALL OF THAT AFFIRMATION YOU FELT ROTTEN… UNWORTHY… LIKE YOU DIDN’T DESERVE IT.
Right, yeah… I felt like I was an imposter. Now, of course, I’ve done a lot of work on myself, but back then I was really confused and I was also very insecure. All sorts of different things came into it – but ultimately I didn’t feel that I deserved what I’d got.
WHERE DID THAT FEELING COME FROM?
Well, I’d seen a lot of people work a lot longer and a lot harder than I had, and they didn’t achieve what I’d achieved. But I think it just came from childhood, actually. Maybe from childhood things. I clearly remember having that imposter complex, even through RUNAWAY HORSES (my third solo album, released in 1989). I felt that I wasn’t actually deserving of where I was and so this wasn’t where I should really be or what I should really be doing. I know that sounds like a mess. But, actually, I think a lot of people in similar situations will have gone through the same thing…
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT IT NOW?
I realise (after doing a lot of work) that after doing this for nearly forty years I’m not an imposter. I realise that this is actually my dharma, or whatever. My purpose – what I’m meant to be doing in life.
I’VE FOUND THAT, FOR A LOT OF PEOPLE WHO’VE TRAVELLED THROUGH THAT AMOUNT OF SUCCESS, THAT AMOUNT OF FAME AND ATTENTION, IN THE END THERE’S NO OTHER OPTION THAN TO ALSO COME TO TERMS WITH THE FACT THAT IT’S JUST THE WAY THE CARDS FELL…
Yeah! Yeah, absolutely. That’s certainly true. It certainly is with me, anyway… And I’m lucky they did. This is obviously what I’m meant to be doing in life. I’m grateful for it – but I would never have thought, I could never have imagined, back in 1978 when the band started, that I’d still be making music in 2017 and sitting here being interviewed, talking to you. Or whatever.
WELL, I’M VERY PLEASED ABOUT THAT FOR YOU…
Ha ha ha ha…
I WONDERED ABOUT YOUR CURRENT RELATIONSHIP WITH THE STUFF WE’VE TALKED ABOUT SO FAR. OBVIOUSLY YOU’VE BEEN SOBER FOR A NUMBER OF YEARS NOW, AND YOU’RE HAPPILY MARRIED, YOU’RE A MUM AND SO ON… BUT THOSE FEELINGS, THOSE DEMONS, ARE THEY GONE? OR IS IT A DAILY FIGHT TO KEEP THEM AT BAY?
Oh, they’re gone. They’re gone – with a lot of the work I did at the beginning of my sobriety, I think… Y’know, I never thought that I’d be able to get on stage again without a drink. I always had to have a few drinks before I got on stage. I guess that was that imposter complex we were talking about?
… YOU FELT YOU NEEDED TO BE SOMEONE ELSE ONSTAGE?
Yeah, exactly. Even though I am still actually sort of somebody else when I get on stage. I never realised before that it’s much easier to get on stage and become somebody else without a drink than it is to get on stage and become somebody else with that drink. I feel really great about that – and I feel really great about the things I’ve been doing. But that’s all taken a lot of work. It wasn’t like that at the beginning of my sobriety, believe me…
YOU HAVE A NEW RECORD COMING AT THE END OF SEPTEMBER… WILDER SHORES IS A BRAVE RECORD IN THAT IT’S NOT QUITE WHAT ONE MIGHT REASONABLY EXPECT YOU TO MAKE AT THIS STAGE – BECAUSE IT FEATURES CHANTING LINKED INTO YOUR KUNDALINI YOGA PRACTISE. IT’S A POP RECORD IN STRUCTURE, AND THERE ARE A COUPLE OF ‘NORMAL’ SONGS ON THERE, INCLUDING A STRIPPED-DOWN VERSION OF HEAVEN IS A PLACE ON EARTH, ACTUALLY… BUT OTHER THAN THAT IT’S HIGHLY UNCONVENTIONAL…
I started chanting probably fifteen or sixteen years ago, really consistently. That was when I was doing Buddhist chanting, twice a day. Back before that I was sort of dabbling in Kundalini yoga which also has a lot of chanting. Chanting was one of the tools I used to help me in the early days of my sobriety. It’s a proven science and there is no question that it’s a powerful method for dealing with everyday life. So I do know the power of chanting. Knowing its power, when I got sober I started really studying the mantras from Kundalini yoga. There are thousands and thousands of mantras. I guess about six years ago I decided I wanted to try doing a chant album, so I’ve chosen seven that were really effective for me and put them into the pop song format. It uses the same structure of verse, bridge and chorus as my previous records, but it’s done with repetitive chanting. I’m not a Kirtan artist and I’m not a chant artist, so I had to start experimenting to see how I could do it…
… A REAL CREATIVE JOURNEY, THEN?
Yeah. So I started singing these tunes into my iPhone and then putting them with mantras. I took that stuff into the studio and Dave Lopez and I came up with this album. It felt really natural. It was pretty obvious to me what it had to be, I think. Also, as with VOILA…
… YOUR 2007 COVERS ALBUM FEATURING CLASSIC FRENCH CHANSONS AND POP STANDARDS…
Yeah… As with that record, on WILDER SHORES I wanted to fuse a lot of different instruments together. So, for instance, there’s a lot of tabla, sitar, harmonium, cello and violins along with keyboards, guitar, bass and drums. It’s just a really melodic album, but also I know the mantras on it are really powerful. You can put them on in a room and it’ll change the energy.
WHEN I FIRST LISTENED TO IT, IF THIS DOESN’T SOUND SILLY, I DID SORT OF FEEL THE AIR IN THE ROOM ‘MOVE’ OR THAT SOMETHING HAD CHANGED, SOMEHOW…
I’m so glad you had that experience, that that was what happened when you listened – because that’s what this was meant to do. Chanting is really powerful. I know chanting can really help people, and I know it can change their lives. It sounds really pretentious, this, but I’m going to say it. There’s something in the voice called a naad, that’s like an energy transference. That’s exactly what chanting is. A transference of energy. When I first tried to do it, five or six years ago, it just wasn’t quite working because I wasn’t fully understanding that. So, actually, this album was meant to be coming out when it’s coming out. Doing it was a long process – but I’m very happy with it because it’s a reflection of where I’m at in my life, having really really practised chanting.
WHAT DOES CHANTING ACTUALLY DO, THOUGH?
When you chant along, what it does is… Well, there are eighty-four meridian points on the roof of your mouth. So when you chant along and you pronounce these mantras correctly, what it does is activate your glandular system. So that, of course, gives you great health… It changes your perspective on everything around you. I was warned about this years and years ago: “Be careful, because one day you’re gonna wake up and the way that you think about things is going to be completely different”… And, yes, I found that to be the case. I could go on and on about its powers, but I won’t. It’s just magic. It’s definitely magical… I really don’t understand why somebody hasn’t done this earlier, to be honest.
I WONDER WHAT YOU MIGHT ACTUALLY DO NEXT AFTER WILDER SHORES – BECAUSE THIS IS OBVIOUSLY A VERY IMPORTANT PROJECT FOR YOU, AND POTENTIALLY MAY BECOME QUITE A DEFINING ALBUM… IF I WAS YOU, HAPPY WITH THAT, I WOULDN’T KNOW WHERE’S NEXT…
Ha! Well, I dunno either! I dunno! There were ten years between the last album and this album (which in itself seems weird) and I’ve always just taken it as it comes, so I don’t know where I’ll go or what I’ll do. I love what I’m doing and I’m really into chanting, so I don’t know whether another record would be that or in English. I’ll tell you one thing – a while ago I vowed anything I did would be authentic and come from the heart. I have no idea what’s next but whatever it is, that’s how I’ll work and that’s what it’ll be.
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