These days, Belinda Carlisle is an activist, humanitarian, and friend to animals the world over. What she also is, of course, is the unmistakable voice of numerous radio hits, dating from her time with the famously rambunctious Go-Go’s, through her glamorous days as a chart topping solo artist. In this conversation Carlisle discusses all of the above, tells us what singer she may have borrowed some of her onstage mannerisms from, and describes what the media did to her that she hasn’t forgotten.
Robert Ferraro: 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 deep interest in current events, as it seems like an everyday concern for you.
Belinda Carlisle: 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 80’s and got flack for not knowing what the difference between a Republican and a Democrat was.
Robert: Ignorance is sometimes bliss.
Belinda: That’s very true! [laughs]
Robert: 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 some of us may not have considered.
Belinda: 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 9, 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.
Robert: The profile you enjoy is courtesy of your singing career, first with the Go Go’s, and then followed by more than 30 years 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?
Belinda: 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?
Robert: Pretty much. He asked if you were frightened, in the past tense, and you said. “I still am!”. You certainly looked it. With the Go Go’s done, did you fear that your music career was on the line?
Belinda: 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 5 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.
Robert: 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?
Belinda: To this day Robert, 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.
Robert: Regarding 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 way, which Madonna seemed to enjoy. Was there a time where your level of fame made you uncomfortable?
Belinda: 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.
Robert: There was an adage in your industry that claimed the perfect musical act, from a commercial standpoint, was a female artist who men want to sleep with, and women want as a best friend. See also: Carlisle, Belinda. Did you always have that type of universal appeal, say, as far back as high school?
Belinda: 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.
Robert: The physical changes you mentioned occurred 30 years ago, but did the hits you took before you lost the weight leave you with any lingering resentment toward the media?
Belinda: 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.
Robert: 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…
Belinda: Uh-oh. [laughs]
Robert: You were super expressive with your hands…
Robert: You kicked off your shoes early and danced barefoot all night…
Robert: You shook your hair back and forth a lot…
Belinda: Yep. [laughs]
Robert: …and played a lot of tambourine. And I was in complete agreement that yes, these are all Belinda things. [both laugh] Those are all fairly common gestures, but they somehow become uniquely yours when people see you do them your way on stage. Did these mannerisms come about from just you being you, or did you borrow them from someone you idolized and they became yours over time?
Belinda: 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 on stage 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 on stage. 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.
Robert: Your voice is also distinctive. I’m fairly certain that most people of my generation could hear a song of yours they had never heard before, and know it was you. When was the point in your life where you said to yourself, ‘”Hey, I have a really good voice here.”
Belinda: I always thought I had a really good voice. [laughs] Almost always. I sang background in a band called Black Randy and the Metro Squad 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 dashiki’s 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 LA 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.
Robert: You aren’t especially well known for songs 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 you’ve done off the beaten path, musically?
Belinda: 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 ‘Voilá’, which is my French album that came out around 10 yrs ago. And then my most recent album, Wilder Shores, which is really ‘out there’. I have been practicing Kundalini Yoga for over twenty-five 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.
Robert: 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?
Belinda: [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 few years ago and we decided then that if something really special came up we’d be open to it. 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.
Robert: Even if they were all in, you would rather live this life that you prefer.
Belinda: 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!
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