Heaven singer Belinda Carlisle on drug addiction, success and her newly found peace
Belinda Carlisle found international fame with her hit song, Heaven
A bottle of healthy-looking green liquid and a bright yellow banana lie on the table at which Belinda Carlisle sits in a London hotel bar. At 59, the health-conscious singer looks at least a decade younger than her age. Her skin is flawless and there’s the same twinkle in her eye that shone in the video for her breakthrough single, Heaven Is A Place On Earth.
The song was released 30 years ago, and although the intervening years have seen her battling her demons, she has come out the other side with a new zest for life. Her world today is a far cry from the one she inhabited at the height of her fame.
“I was always working, which was exciting, and I was trying to be present but it was tough to do at that kind of pace,” she says. “I was always thinking ahead and not really enjoying what I was doing at that moment. That’s just the way it is when you are young and caught up in everything. I was doing photo sessions and making videos and doing this and that and not having a lot of time to breathe.
“But now I get up at 4am, I do my chanting, meditation and yoga and do whatever I need to do. I can’t imagine my life without it.”
Belinda was no stranger to fame when Heaven was released. Back in the late 70s and early 80s, she was a familiar face in America as lead singer with all-girl punk band The Go-Go’s. She left to go solo and Heaven was her first international hit single.
“When I first heard it, it was played to me on a piano and straight away everybody was thinking this could be a hit,” she recalls. “You never really know what will be a success, it depends on what is going on in the charts, but it had the makings of being huge.”
The parent album, Heaven On Earth, sold five million copies worldwide and more hits and albums followed over the next 20 years. Belinda is surprisingly honest about how she feels about some of them now.
“I like everything on Heaven On Earth and Runaway Horses. On Live Your Life Be Free there are some good songs, but there are a lot of stinkers on A Woman And A Man – I could have phoned that album in. That was because I wasn’t really present. I wasn’t capable of making any good career decisions at that time. There were certain songs I wanted to do but they said no.
It was the first time in my life when I didn’t have artistic control.”
Part of Belinda’s inability to make good career choices was to do with her well-documented problem with substance abuse. For two decades she battled the cocaine addiction she finally overcame in 2004.
“If I could go back in time and give my younger self any advice it would be don’t do drugs,” she says. “I’ve been very honest about what I’ve done in the past and I don’t like people who aren’t. There are certain things I don’t talk about, but it’s not a big deal to me to talk about my problems with abuse.
“The theme of my autobiography, Lips Unsealed, was that you can teach an old dog new tricks. In my case, it was getting sober later in life, which I didn’t think was possible. In fact nobody thought it was possible as far as I was concerned.”
Belinda was at the peak of her success at the same time as chart toppers Prince, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, whose deaths, years later, were linked to illegal or prescription drugs.
“I thought about that the other day, about how many of my contemporaries are gone and I’m still here,” she says. “It’s weird. Who knows why? In some ways, I shouldn’t be here at all, or at least I should be in jail – one or the other. I realise now what I put my body through.
I was not kind to myself, that’s for sure. So now I’m extra kind. I was talking to one of The Go-Go’s about how a lot of those celebrity deaths are probably related to their drug abuse from years ago. I worry that I’ll get Parkinson’s disease, because that’s related to cocaine abuse.
Belinda with all-girl punk band The Go-Go’s in 1985
“I got to meet Prince, Whitney and Michael over the years. Ten years ago I was at a 80s-themed birthday party to sing a song for the Sultan of Brunei’s son. Afterwards the promoter asked if I wanted to meet the queen of Brunei. As we walked through the club, I looked up and there was Michael Jackson and Raquel Welch – and everything went into slow motion.
Michael was like, ‘It’s so nice to meet you, thank you for the entertainment,’ and Raquel was standing next to him going, ‘You’re so hot.’ It was my most surreal showbusiness moment. It was like I was in Madame Tussauds or something.”
Belinda cites yoga, chanting and meditation for helping her overcome her problems. “I have a tendency to be highly strung and I think yoga and chanting mellowed me out a lot. It’s changed my perspective of everything around me. It’s been one of the most important things to happen to my life.
“I love having a spiritual base to live my life from because I used to be the most unspiritual person. I’d always pooh-poohed it – and it’s easy to make fun of – but I had to be ready for it. I started chanting before I got sober then when I got clean.
I felt I needed all the help I could get.
When I first got sober I was in a lot of trouble in a lot of different ways, so I chanted for two to three hours a day. And when I should have been afraid of where my life was heading, I felt on top of the world instead.
So I know its power.”
It’s been more than 20 years since Belinda recorded her last English-language pop album. Her latest album, Wilder Shores, comes close, but it combines the chanting of traditional mantras over a structured, melodic pop format.
“A lot of people might think it’s too ‘out there’, but it always made sense to me,” nods Belinda. “Chanting and mantras are thousands of years old and have the capacity to help people. I think some of my fans are going to hate it and that’s OK. I don’t expect people to like it if they want a proper, classic pop album from me. It’s not about understanding the words. That’s missing the point.”
‘If there’s something I want to do, I’ll do it’
However, she hasn’t entirely ruled out another pop album. “I might do something,” she says casually. “I don’t want to try and top my previous work, I don’t want to be on the hamster wheel and I’m not delusional and thinking I ever could be that successful again.
“Lyrically, I’ve always been fussy. I couldn’t make an album like Heaven On Earth because I couldn’t sing the same sort of songs. They’d need to be age appropriate. For me to sing a pop song it has to be like a wise old woman singing – I can’t be sounding like a naive 20 year old.”
Belinda has been married to film producer Morgan Mason, son of late British actor James Mason, for 31 years. They moved in together the day after their first date and have been a couple ever since.
“We just get along well,” she says. “But through the years we have given each other space. I have definitely put him through the wringer and he has with me, too, so it goes both ways. So for whatever reason, it’s worked. When our son James came along, he was more glue to hold us together. Then, after he grew up and left, there was still glue there between us. We love each other’s company and we are best friends.”
The couple recently moved to Thailand. “We always knew that Asia was where we would probably end up one day, but only when it made sense for us to do it,” she explains. “We live in Bangkok, which feels like the Wild West meets Disneyland. The world is so small now – it’s no big deal to get on a plane and come to the UK or Los Angeles. Both my husband and I can work over in Thailand.”
Their son, who came out as gay 10 years ago when he was 14, remains in Los Angeles. Despite Belinda surrounding herself with gay friends, she confesses his sexuality came as a surprise.
“Even being as gay-friendly as I am, it’s still shocking when your son or daughter comes out,” she says. “You automatically start thinking what kind of world is this going to be like for them? I’ve always been able to relate more to gay people than straight people so it made perfect sense to have a gay son. I can’t imagine how it would be having a straight son watching the football and bringing home girls I can’t stand.”
Belinda also believes her son’s involvement with political activism has helped alter her own views of the world.
“His activism has changed me,” she admits.
“I was on the Women’s March in LA in January, I take part in Gay Pride and LGBT marches. He is hardcore and has made me a lot more socially aware of things. Now, when I look at friends of mine on Instagram and they’re on private jets or going from yachts to private jets, I can only be friends with them if they have some sort of social conscience.”
After five decades in the music business, Belinda says she has little left to prove – to herself or anyone else.
“I’ve always winged it as I’ve gone along and liked ideas as they’ve come up, from designing Indian-style homeware to recording an album in French,” she says. “I’ve also had the luxury to do that because I have had a good back catalogue to work from. If there’s something I want to do, I’ll do it.”
Heaven On Earth – 30th Anniversary and Wilder Shores are out on September 29. Belinda is on her UK tour from October 1 to 13.
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