Belinda Carlisle on Her First Solo Pop Record in 27 Years, Why the Go-Go’s Are Finally Over, and Being ‘Born Without the Fear Chip’

Of all the things Belinda Carlisle has been mad about in recent years, her career as a pop solo artist has not been high up there, from all appearances. That changed with the May release of “Kismet,” a five-song EP that finally found Carlisle dipping a toe back into the recording studio with her first new collection of English-language pop music since 1996, including a single titled “Big Big Love,” which really did have the beat (as opposed to her last album, a mantra record).

But if there’s any pop star of her generation that hasn’t cravenly coveted the spotlight, and isn’t likely to start now, it’s Carlisle, who seems like she’d be perfectly content even if Diane Warren hadn’t talked her into finally reentering the studio for a new batch of songs. Long an American expat and constant traveler, the singer seems quite content to spend most of her time with her husband of 37 years, Morgan Mason, at home in Mexico City, with only occasional forays onto the road. She’s not making any promises one way or another about whether this EP presages a full solo album… though Carlisle will offer assurances that the Go-Go’s are “done,” having gone out on top, in her estimation, with a long-, long-awaited Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.

In conversation with Variety over Zoom, Carlisle talked about pleasing her fan base with the new EP (her fanatical European devotees finally having something to obsess over besides the endless repackagings of her ’80s and ’90s material), where her wanderlust comes from, and the odds of a collab with near-namesake Brandi Carlile.

Did the title “Kismet” come up out of conversations between you and Diane Warren, about how the two of you got together for this? The story goes that your son, Duke, ran into her at a coffee shop and that’s how you reconnected after a period of decades.

I’ve always used that word, because I love the way that it conjures up mysticism, magic, things that can’t be explained, coincidences. So it’s always been part of my vocabulary.

With Diane, I liked her from the very beginning, when I first worked with her on the “Heaven on Earth” album. We just hit it off. She’s a really nice person. I think she’s hilarious; she is a kind person; she’s an eccentric. She seems to have an instinct of what material would be good for which artist, why she is who she is.

Fast forward to about a year and a half ago, when my son ran into Diane at Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, and she said, “What is your mom doing? Let’s call her.” So they did, and she said, “Get down to the studio. I have hits for you.” And I thought, weeeell… I was planning on slowing down and retiring and living the quiet life. And I thought, do I really wanna make this commitment? But nobody says no to Diane. So I went down to the studio and she played me a couple tracks. And I’ve always been black or white. I know what I like; I have no confusion about that and never have. But I loved the song (“Big Big Love”), so I thought, OK, let’s do it. You know, I haven’t been in the studio and I haven’t done English-speaking pop for a long time. I did a few little projects here and there, but nothing like this since 1997.

“Big Love” is a song with some tempo to it. Some people expect, when you’re doing quote-unquote adult pop, that you’re gonna slow it down. So fans may be kind of happy to hear something that has some bounce to it.

They are. They seem to respond to the three up-tempos. They respond to “Big Big Love,” “If You Go” and “Insanity.” And the other two they like, too… I think I made my fans really happy with this EP.

Diane Warren and Belinda Carlisle

You’ve said maybe you were ready to be semi-retired. At the same time, you’ve said that in the past 15 years, you’d really spent a lot of time on your voice, which doesn’t sound like someone who just wants to wind it down and get out.

Well, I’ve always done vocal lessons. But I also do a daily yoga practice, and I do a lot of pranayama. And then when I started getting into breath work — and I do Wim Hof- type stuff too, which is like the ice bath with the heavy breathing — I noticed that my voice changed completely, as far as what I was able to do: better voice control, more lung capacity. That really inspired me to even do more of it and to really take it seriously. So usually for a month before I go and do a run of dates, I do it every day. I do vocal lessons and breath work every single day anyway, but I do heavier breath work. I know that as you get older, you sort of lose control of your voice, and older singers sometimes can’t sing anymore. That hasn’t happened yet. And I think it’s actually stronger than it was.

You certainly have not been reclusive since your last solo pop album in 1997. There’s a long list of things, everything from being on “Dancing with the Stars”…

Uhhh. Yeah…

Not a happy memory…

No. I should have listened to my instinct. I mean, I woke up the morning after I said yes and thought, what have I done? That was a mistake. Yeah, no more reality TV. No more.

But then you’ve had lots of other things you were more in control of — your memoir, intermittent Go-Go’s reunion tours, your French album, your spiritual album. So it’s not like you disappeared off the face of the earth or anything. But in terms of making pop solo albums… a lot of people who are in your position continue to make albums just to make albums.

I won’t do that. I actually said after my mantra album that I really didn’t think that I’d be doing another another English-speaking pop album, with original material. Because most of the great songs go to younger artists or to artists that are already in the charts. So that’s why this whole thing was kind of a surprise to me, because Diane could have easily given it to somebody else who was… I was gonna say “20 years younger,” but… 40 years younger. [Laughs.]

So was there a real shift as a result of doing this EP where you feel like being more active in the studio arena again, and/or more touring?

To be honest, I don’t know. There’s no plans to go back in the studio, at this point. I do have another project that I started before the pandemic, but it’s different from this one. But I don’t know. The touring thing… Touring is hard, and it’s not like it used to be. No matter what class you go, five-star or two-star, it’s still physically challenging. But I don’t know. I’ll just take it as it comes and see what happens.

When you refer to the pre-pandemic project, wasn’t that an album of California-related covers, songs from when you were growing up?

Yes, that’s the other project. I probably will finish that up next year — probably — and we’ll see what happens with that.

You’ve talked about how you were judged a lot on your appearance back in the Go-Go’s days. It seems like it could be challenging because, even when people are telling you how great you look now, there can be an undertone to “compared to how you looked before,” which undercuts the compliment. To the extent that you haven’t worked constantly like some of your contemporaries do, and you have some reluctance about it, is there an ambivalence that’s part of that where you associate the work with being judged or evaluated in some way that goes beyond music?

Well, it was really damaging. I mean, as a young girl, people who would reference me always would synonymously would mention how much I would weigh, or what I looked like: I was “pretty and plump.” I was “cute and chubby.” I was “svelte.” Really, for a young girl, it’s pretty damaging. I had to work a lot to get over that. And now it’s gone from weight to age. [Laughs.] Even if it’s only 1%, you are always gonna have your trolls that say, “Oh, she’s had tons of work done,” or “Oh, she looks like a hag.” And it’s not just me but other women — when there’s a high-profile woman in the press, they’ll say the name and how old they are. We don’t do that to men, but why do they do that just to women?

So, I’ve always been really sensitive. I don’t have thick skin. And social media is great, but it can be really toxic too. I just try not to read anything about myself now. And I have my own Instagram page that I set up, but … It is weird. I don’t think it impacts whether I’m gonna continue or not. I think that depends on how fun things are. But as a woman who’s done this for over 40 years … well, how do I put this? You’re treated differently in the press than a man is, for sure.

We were always wondering how the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was going to treat the Go-Go’s. It finally happened two years ago, as part of this kind of valedictory lap that involved everything from getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame to having the musical “Head Over Heels” go to Broadway to the documentary — and then, finally, the induction. But in talking with you prior to that, it seemed like it mattered less to you to than for some of the other members. But when it happens, you’re gonna take it…

Actually, it was one of the most amazing nights of my life. But I was kind of over caring about it, and really, if it hadn’t been for the documentary, we might still be waiting. Or not waiting; you know, just forgetting about it. But when you actually get the phone call that you’re gonna be inducted, it’s like, “Wow, this is great.” You change your mind.

You do think the documentary made all the difference?

Yeah, it was like, they can’t ignore us anymore — it would be ridiculous. I think people that were into that genre knew the story. But most people, especially now, they assume that you come from a TV show or you’re put together by some Svengali, like a Simon Cowell. I think Alison Ellwood captured the essence of the band in that documentary, and that was a difficult thing. Besides telling a great story, it was a charming story, too.

You’ve had some great shows or tours in recent years, including locally playing with an orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl in 2018 and doing Crypto.com Arena in 2022. But you’ve come out and said you think the Go-Go’s are done?

It’s done. It has to be done at some point, you know. I think bands can go on too long, and without naming names, there are a few. And singers as well. I always tell my manager, “I hope you’re gonna tell me when it’s time.” I don’t think that he’s gonna have to, because I probably will have pretty much felt like it’s time for me. I think I have a good sense of that. But, I mean, we did it all. I think that the Rock Hall induction was a really wonderful way to cement the legacy of the band. There’s something to be said for leaving at the top.

You’ve said you had some kind of television treatment of your life in the works, although probably not immediately?

You know how those things go. It takes forever. It’s been going on for a couple years. It’s a mini-series based on my book, which includes a little bit of the Go-Go’s, of course. But the treatment’s done, and then of course you’re about ready to go for the music (rights), and then like they change hands at the top of the company and you’re kind of stuck and have to find another place. So if it gets made, I think it’ll be really good — great writer, great producer attached — but I know those things are a long shot.

One reason a mini-series like that could have potential is that you are intriguing as someone who’s kind of been more than one person in your life. The Alison Ellwood documentary did such a good job of establishing that back in the day, when you’re crashing in the house with all these people and hanging out with Darby Crash, you’re kind of the quintessential punk-rock girl. There’s the pop success, and after that, people have this very glamorous image of you, as your image changes with your solo career. Then years later you’re doing a mantra album and practicing Buddhism and living in Thailand — a life that maybe seems esoteric compared to what peoiple remember from the ‘80s. Then there’s the journey to sobriety you’ve had. It may be inspirational or aspirational for fans to look at someone like you and go, OK, here’s someone who really has changed her life at various points.

Well, for some reason, I was born without the fear chip. I do have a chip missing when it comes to that. And I was also born a contrarian.

I think that all the changes and everything that I’ve done in my career has really been a very honest sort of representation of where I was at in my life. With my solo album, I went from the Go-Go’s, I became a young woman, I lost weight, and I was going back to sort of being influenced by the music that I grew up with on Southern California radio. Then, living in France for so long and speaking French, I got really into French pop, and I always felt like I had a chanteuse side, so why not do that? And then of course, I chant every day …

I mean, I think it was just that I was kind of born without fear. And I don’t know why that is, because I grew up in a super-Christian family where everybody played their traditional role, and there’s a lot to be afraid of. So I’m lucky in that way.

All grist for the mini-series… if it happens?

Yeah, every episode a different persona.

Belinda Carlisle

There’s been a seeming stability there, in the form of your marriage, for as many changes as you’ve made.

I’ve been really lucky that we’ve lived together for 38 years, and married for 36, 37, something like that. I’m really lucky that we’ve always had that sort of foundation for both of us to do our thing. Of course, like with any relationship that goes on that long, there are ups and downs and challenges that come along. But I’m so glad we stuck it through, because it’s better than ever now. And now we’re at a time in our life where we spend a lot of time together. And yeah, I think that helps we with my stability. Like I said earlier, I have a daily practice too that definitely helps with that too and centers me. I do feel more centered than I’ve ever been, but that’s also taken a lot of work.

You’re speaking with us from home in Mexico City, which you’ve called “the most exciting city in the world.” Why is that?

Good, good art, good food, lots of culture, so many things to do. In the city, Sundays is bike riding — the whole city closes down. It reminds me a lot of New York in the early ‘80s and late ‘70s; it has that kind of buzz. It’s beautiful. You know, we’ve lived over out of the country since 1994. We tried coming back, and it was impossible, because it was the curse of the expat —nowhere is really home. We always loved Mexico, so we thought, well, let’s try Mexico City, because we’re gypsies. And it’s amazing. I think this is it. I’m 64 now, so I can’t see doing an international move again. We’ve done it plenty of times.

The last time we talked with you, when the Go-Go’s documentary was coming out, you were in Thailand.

Actually, if it wasn’t for the pandemic, we might still be in Thailand. That was one of the very few good things that came out of the pandemic. It just got too weird there, and we were stuck in the country for a year and a half and we couldn’t really get out. And my dad died; we hadn’t seen our son for a year and a half. We just thought, this is crazy — this could go on — so maybe it’s time to go to Mexico. We left in a hurry because there were less and less flights arriving and leaving. We had the movers pack up our staff and, long story short, here we are.

Whatever the opposite of xenophobic is, that’s you. In interviews, you might be talking about how you want to go to Bolivia, and how India’s your favorite place to go in the world.

I just got back from southeastern Turkey, near Iran and Syria, and there were so many archeological things that I wanted to see. It’s considered a red zone, and you’re not supposed to go there… it’s dangerous. But we had no problem. I have a friend that I plan a crazy trip with every year. We didn’t during the pandemic, obviously, but we did the Silk Road and all the stans — we’re doing Pakistan next year. I eat it up. And when I’m not traveling and working, I’m an armchair traveler. I read classic travel books like Freya Stark or Martha Gilhorne. For whatever reason, I guess I was sort of born with that gypsy spirit.

Where does that come from, do you know?

I’m fascinated by different cultures around the world, and ever since I was a little girl I have been.  My parents would get National Geographic and I would just eat it up. And then I thought, “I want to be a travel agent so I can see the world.” And then when the Runaways happened, I thought, well, being in a band is probably a much better way to see the world.

For some people who toured as much as you have, they think, OK, I did enough traveling for one lifetime.

I don’t mind it because it used to be that I’d go to all these places and I didn’t have a day off to actually see what was around me. So now I make sure that I have time to actually learn about where I am. Even with American cities, it’s the same thing. I still love it. Traveling isn’t as fun as it used to be, as we all know — it’s a big drag — but when you get there, it’s great, wherever you’re going.

One last question. You met Brandi Carlisle once at an event and posed for a picture, and people loved that just because of the name thing. The other day, somebody wrote on Brandi’s Twitter timeline, “Why don’t you do a duet with Belinda Carlisle?” She emphatically responded, “Make it happen.” Could you see that happening, as a lark, someday?

Why not? I think she’s great. We both had a big laugh meeting each other, because people confuse both of us — I mean, all the time, still. Which is probably annoying to her and annoying to me at times, too, and funny at times as well. But I’m a huge fan of hers. And I would love it; if something appropriate came up, I would be totally into it.

Carlisle’s summer tour dates:

Sat         1-Jul-23               Peachtree City, GA          Fred Amphitheatre        

Thu       6-Jul-23               Sheboygan, WI                Stefanie H. Weill Center for the Performing Arts       

Sun        9-Jul-23               Skokie, IL                           North Shore Center for the Performing Arts              

Tue        11-Jul-23            Huber Heights, OH          Rose Music Centre at the Heights              

Fri          14-Jul-23            Hyannis, MA                    Cape Cod Melody Tent

Sat         15-Jul-23            Cohasset, MA                  South Shore Music Circus                            

Mon      17-Jul-23            New York, NY                   Sony Hall

Tue        18-Jul-23            Westbury, NY                   NYCB Theatre at Westbury

Sun        20-Aug-23          San Francisco, CA            August Hall                      

Tue        22-Aug-23          Las Vegas, NV                  House of Blues                

Thu       24-Aug-23          Ojai, CA                             Libbey Bowl                     

Sat         26-Aug-23          Anaheim, CA                    Honda Center

Sun        27-Aug-23          Los Angeles, CA               Greek Theatre

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