Belinda Carlisle: ‘When I first went solo, I was told that I should show more flesh’

'Women become invisible after a certain age': Belinda Carlisle's new single is out this month - Nick Spanos
'Women become invisible after a certain age': Belinda Carlisle's new single is out this month - Nick Spanos

“Women become invisible after a certain age,” says Belinda Carlisle. The 64-year-old singer is not complaining. “I can go out with a hat and no make-up and no one looks at me twice. I think it’s great. I’ve been stared at since I was, like, 17. It’s nice to skate around anonymously.”

I should note at this point that Carlisle definitely turned heads strolling through a London hotel lobby to meet me for our interview. The American star is dressed in sleek designer black, face aglow with perfect make-up, evincing the glamour of a vintage movie star, and moving with the grace of someone dedicated to yogic practices. If there are wrinkles, they are not the first thing that you notice. “I’m comfortable in my skin,” she says with a warm smile. “Sometimes the ageing thing can be a bit scary, but we’re all going through it, so what are you going to do?”

Carlisle has a new single out this month, Big Big Love, a slick pop rock gem written by the great LA hitmaker Diane Warren. It is Carlisle’s first new music in six years, but more pertinently her first unabashedly commercial pop song since she lost her major label record deal in 1998. “I thought I was done with all that,” she admits. “In the States, if you’re a woman, you’re finished after 40. I mean, I was literally dropped by my record company the day after my 40th birthday.”

Warren (who composed Carlisle’s 1987 hit I Get Weak, as well as scoring over 30 top 10 US hits for Cher, Celine Dion, LeAnn Rimes, Aerosmith and more) had to talk Carlisle back into the studio. “I’ve lived out of a suitcase all my life, and after the pandemic, I thought maybe it’s time to slow down and just live a great life with my husband.”

Following a celebratory 2020 documentary, she has called time on her pioneering punk girl band The Go-Go’s. “The film cemented the legacy of the band, and I felt it was time to shut that door. We’d been together (on and off) for 45 years – it can’t go on forever. A couple of the girls didn’t feel the same way but I don’t want to do it anymore. It really is finished. It feels like a dream, like it kind of went puff, and it’s gone.”

Belinda Carlisle (back, centre) was part of the pioneering punk girl band The Go-Go's - Kerstin Rodgers/Redferns/Getty Images
Belinda Carlisle (back, centre) was part of the pioneering punk girl band The Go-Go's - Kerstin Rodgers/Redferns/Getty Images

Carlisle and her husband of 36 years, Morgan Mason (son of the great English actor James Mason), had relocated to Mexico City, which she describes as “the most beautiful city on earth.” She had one last solo tour to complete, which had been shifted multiple times due to Covid-19. Then Warren called. “She said ‘I have some hits for you, get down the studio. Only she didn’t put it so politely. She has the foulest mouth on the planet. But I’ve known her since 1987, when she was a struggling songwriter with a tiny little office in a 20-storey building on Sunset [Boulevard]. Now she owns the entire building. I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody as passionate and intense about what they do, which is why she is one of the world’s greatest living songwriters.”

Despite Carlisle’s initial reluctance, they wound up recording five songs together, the rest of which will come out on an EP later this year. “I thought I have to do this, it’s a gift.” It also led to her recording Gonna Be You with a vintage female supergroup of Dolly Parton (77), Debbie Harry (77), Cyndi Lauper (69) and Gloria Estefan (65) for the soundtrack of a forthcoming film, 80 for Brady, about a group of best friends determined to go to the Super Bowl to meet NFL star Tom Brady, starring Rita Moreno (91), Lily Tomlin (83), Jane Fonda (85) and Sally Field (76). “It feels like there’s been an attitude shift, and people might actually be showing some respect for older women. It’s better than it was, anyway.”

Carlisle is exactly one day younger than Madonna, who caused a stir when she appeared at the Grammy Awards last month looking almost unrecognisable with her cheeks and lips pumped up with fillers. Reacting angrily to online comments, Madonna complained that “once again I am caught in the glare of ageism and misogyny”.

Belinda Carlisle started her solo career in 1985 - Paul Natkin
Belinda Carlisle started her solo career in 1985 - Paul Natkin

“Not accepting her age is ageist in a way, isn’t it?” says Carlisle. This is not something I expected to hear from a fellow sexagenarian star, although Carlisle is not without sympathy. “Honestly, it’s hard to get inside her head about that. I feel bad for her. It’s apparent that she might be uncomfortable in her own skin. For a lot of women who are known for their beauty, ageing can be traumatic. I have friends who were big models – some of them have handled it, some haven’t. Unless you do the internal work, it’s gonna be hard.”

The kind of work Carlisle is talking about is not nips, tucks and Botox but self-examination. Carlisle was a heavy drinker and cocaine abuser through her career and didn’t get sober until 2005 by focusing on Buddhism. These days she is a paragon of good health. “You don’t want to hear my boring daily routine!” she protests, outlining a schedule that begins at 4am and involves chanting, pilates, yoga and listening to spiritual teachers such as Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra. “Meditation changes your perspective. When I got sober, I was terrified of going on stage, I thought I wouldn’t be able to sing any more. But it’s become much more joyful. Performing is like an energy exchange, I completely lose myself, I love it.”

Carlisle started out in the LA punk scene, playing drums with The Germs and the wonderfully named Black Randy and the Metrosquad. She then became lead vocalist of The Go-Go’s, whose ebullient power pop 1981 debut Beauty and the Beat reached number one in the US and spawned a succession of hits.

“Young girls love that band cause we were just ourselves, there was nothing contrived,” she notes, but her own confidence was affected as the media began to discuss her appearance. “I was always described in terms of how much I weighed. So it was either ‘She’s pretty and plump’, ‘she’s chubby and cute’, ‘she lost weight’, ‘she’s svelte,’ or ‘she has been hitting the backstage jelly trays’. I mean, this stuff is really damaging to a young girl. But, of course, when you get into drugs, you don’t eat, you get skinny, and then it’s like a cycle. It’s torturous, especially if you have a record company saying you maybe need to lose five pounds. I developed all kinds of food neuroses.”

Carlisle went solo in 1985 with a much more glamorous image, becoming one of the big stars of the decade with 1987’s global smash Heaven is a Place on Earth, and clocking up a dozen top 10 hits over the next 10 years. “I don’t want to be Debbie Downer,” she insists. “I got to sing amazing songs and have success a second time around. I loved it, apart from the focus on my appearance. That’s just the way it is with women. When I first went solo, I was told maybe I should show more tit. They wanted me to sing a song called Stick it in Me. I said, that’s not really me at all.”

Sadly, she doesn’t think things have improved a great deal for young women in music. “All these younger female artists are so sexualised. We’ve seen it all and done it all, and I don’t really understand what’s supposed to be empowering about being naked and greasing up your ass and wearing G-strings. There’s nothing feminist about that. It gets attention, but I think it sets women back.”

Carlisle can come across as very calm and considered but there is a forthrightness that she recognises as unchanged from her younger self. “I may look a certain way, and I don’t make that music any more, but the culture that made The Go-Go’s is deep in me,” she insists. “You can take the girl out of punk rock, but you can’t take punk rock out of the girl.”

Big Big Love will be released on March 17 on BMG