Sometimes an interview opportunity comes along that you simply can’t resist. This is one of those occasions.
Belinda Carlisle added a delightful infusion of cuteness to the early days of MTV as the frontwoman for the Go-Go’s, then succeeded in departing the ranks of the band a few years later and forging an impressive solo career. Alas, she’s spent more time on the road than in the studio in recent years, bouncing back and forth between Go-Go’s tours and solo shows, releasing records with decided infrequency. Indeed, she hasn’t released a new album since 2007’s Voila, and given that the record in question consists of covers of her favorite French songs, it’s not exactly what you’d call representative of her usual work.
2013, however, marks the release of a new best-of set, Icon, and while it might not ordinarily be a major event, given that it’s the fourth such compilation of her solo work to be released since 1992, fans will be thrilled to know that it actually includes a new single, “Sun.”
It’s such a momentous event, in fact, that Carlisle opted to do a bit of press for the collection’s release, and when the opportunity to chat with her was pitched to Bullz-Eye…well, like we said, sometimes an interview opportunity comes along that you simply can’t resist.
Bullz-Eye: Icon isn’t your first best-of collection, but how much input did you have in selecting the contents of this one?
Belinda Carlisle: Oh, I did a lot, actually. The contents of the different collections have been predicated on the different countries who’ve had different singles, so when Icon was first presented to me… A lot of it had to do with catalog and a lot of the different “this music group signed with that music group” stuff, what was available and what wasn’t, so the track list went through a few different changes, because I wanted to include some of the stuff that maybe they didn’t include originally. So I had a big part, a big hand in it, actually.
BE: You revisit your old material whenever you do a show, but how is the experience of going back through the records to consider which songs needed a bit more of a shot at the spotlight?
BC: Well, because I work all the time, and especially in Europe, with all of the solo stuff, it’s not, like, “Oh, wow, I remember this song,” because I probably just did the song a few months ago…or even a week ago! [Laughs.] It’s fun for me to go through the catalog, but there’s no real surprises or anything. But it was interesting doing different track listings for different countries, because…well, for instance, for Russia, the song “California,” which is totally obscure here, was a big hit there. So you kind of go through the territories and change things around a little bit.
BE: I’m actually a big fan of that album (A Woman and a Man), particularly your take on Per Gessle’s “Always Breaking My Heart.”
BC: Oh, thank you!
BE: It also reminds me, however, that it’s not actually represented on the U.S. version, nor are a few of your others. Were any of your albums not represented on any country’s version of the collection?
BC: Well, you know, with this collection, a lot of it was based on the hits that were available, and also what the chart positions were, so…I couldn’t just go through and go, “Oh, I like this one and this one and this one,” because if I did that, a lot of them probably wouldn’t be available. But I’m really, really happy with the track listing on the Icon album because there’s some songs that are a little bit more obscure, like “Shades of Michelangelo,” which is a song that I loved that I actually had a hand in writing and that I was able to put on there. So it’s really good to be able to go through each track listing for each territory and fine-tune it. It’s kind of the responsible thing to do. [Laughs.]
BE: What was the process in putting together your first solo album? “Mad About You” is probably the go-to song for most people from that record, but how did you go about defining your solo sound versus what you had with the Go-Go’s?
BC: You know something? I was in such a tizzy at that time, and I didn’t really… I mean, I’ve always worked where things kind of take on a sound or a magic of their own, and that’s kind of been my experience up until recently. I kind of wing it. I have a basic idea, but what happens in the studio sometimes is that you can’t really… I mean, the combination of musicians and producers and whatnot, y’know, it takes on a life of its own. I will say that, in making the transition, like I said, I was in a tizzy, but I always knew that I wanted it to be well-produced, to have soaring love songs. Growing up, I grew up with that kind of music on California radio, I knew I had a certain sound to my voice, and I knew that was kind of the direction I wanted to go. It felt like a very honest direction. It was all about the songs for me, and I was lucky that things just kind of took the direction they did.
BE: Although the song isn’t on Icon, I’m curious what it was like to be able to sing a song co-written by Lindsey Buckingham (“Since You’ve Gone”)?
BC: Oh, well, I mean, you can imagine. [Laughs.] What can I say? Actually, I’ve started adding that song back into my live set, and it’s an amazing song. And I don’t know if you knew it, but Gregg Alexander of the New Radicals was also a co-writer on that, and he’s super talented, too. That song is amazing. That song is kind of one of those lost gems, actually.
[Actually, either Belinda didn’t hear the name “Lindsey Buckingham” or she simply got confused, because not only did Buckingham and Alexander not co-write “Since You’ve Gone,” they don’t appear to have ever written together at all. Alexander did, however, co-write Carlisle’s song “Here Comes My Baby,” so what the hell, here’s both songs.]
BE: You mentioned that “Shades of Michelangelo” has a special place because you helped co-write it. When it came to picking the songs to record that you didn’t have a hand in writing, what sort of process was involved? Did you reach out to particular songwriters, or were people just pitching songs to you?
BC: Oh, you know something? I’ve always been very particular about melody and very particular about lyrics, so I was always very, very lucky in my career to be able to work with songwriters who got that and who understood me. Very, very rarely has a song come in to me from a writer I didn’t know. There’ve been a few instances, but…not really. It’s really just people who really know me and get me. And even with the new single, “Sun,” it had different lyrics when it came to me, and Jane Wiedlin came in with Gabe (Lopez) and myself, and we reworked the lyrics to make them more sort of age-appropriate, more in keeping with my personality. Something can great melodically, but if it has horrible lyrics and can’t be reworked, then I’ll pass on the song.
BE: You and Jane still play together on a semi-regular basis, but what was it like working on a song again with her?
BC: Well, as you say, we work all the time together, so…it’s, like, she’s probably one of the most amazing lyricists that I know besides, like, Neil Finn. She’s on that level. She’s genius. And she can come up with it instantly. So she’s the can-do person I call when I say, “I need help!” [Laughs.] And she came to the rescue.
BE: Voila was your most recent studio album. Does the inclusion of a new song on Icon mean that there’s a possibility of another solo album in the future?
BC: I don’t know. It just depends. An album is a good two-year commitment, and my life is so full and all over the place. I’m still living between France and the States, which I’ve been doing for 20 years, and I have so many different things going on that…it’s a big commitment. But I’m not gonna say, “No, never.” I’ll say, “Maybe, maybe not.”
BE: Are you still planning to stick with touring with the Go-Go’s for the time being?
BC: Yeah, we work every summer. We do a tour every summer, and we’re going to tour this summer from mid-June to mid-July.
BE: Not that the bond between the members ever really went away, but do you feel that it’s been stronger since the band reunited in 2001 and recorded the God Bless the Go-Go’s album?
BC: It’s always been strong. I mean, we can go away for years at a time and come back, and it’s like no time has passed. It’s just one of those weird things.
BE: Is there a definitive Go-Go’s album for you?
BC: Probably Beauty and the Beat, the first one. The cover is amazing, the title is amazing, the songs are amazing…it’s our first album, so I’d say it defines the Go-Go’s.
BE: As far as your solo work, is there a particular record that you feel didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
BC: Probably Runaway Horses is one that…it did really well overseas, but not so well in this country. Probably that and Voila are my two favorite solo albums.
BE: In regards to Runaway Horses, what was it like having George Harrison play on one of your songs (“Leave a Light On”)?
BC: Oh, amazing. I saw the documentary on him, and I can’t even think about it without starting to cry, because…he didn’t work with very many people, and Olivia, his widow, had contacted me through a friend about 10 years ago, a couple of years after he did, and she said, “I just wanted you to give a message to Belinda that he didn’t work with many people, and he really loved her voice.” And I just…y’know, it’s beyond words. I can’t even describe how I felt about that. And he was my favorite Beatle! [Laughs.] And the coolest, I thought. I mean, John Lennon was cool, too, but for me, George was everything. When I saw that documentary, it just broke my heart. I loved it, and it was uplifting, but it was heartbreaking at the same time.
BE: Lastly, since you mentioned his name a moment ago, I’m curious: when you recorded your version of Crowded House’s “She Goes On,” did you check in with Neil Finn personally to make sure he was cool with you switching the gender to “He Goes On”?
BC: Oh, yes. Actually, Neil Finn was the one who suggested it! We have a very long history together…and a funny history. I was at the first Split Enz show in L.A., when they played at the Roxy, and I was, like, “Oh, my God, this is the best thing since sliced bread.” And then I remember that we had an all-girl party – this was during the punk days – and it was absolutely no boys allowed, but they were on tour, and they heard there was a party, as you do back when you’re young and you’re always going, “Where’s the party?” And they showed up at the door and…he never forgot it, because there were all these girls running around in negligees, and we were all, like, “Come on in!” And, uh, that was my first real introduction to Neil Finn. [Laughs.] But I was such a huge fan of Split Enz, I loved Crowded House, and I love his solo work and the work of his brother (Tim). They’re total geniuses.