Cast your minds back to January 1988. While Kylie was planning
her transformation from soap star to pop star and Madonna began an 18-month hibernation, 5,000 miles away, a former punk rocker was planning world domination. Having already enjoyed success stateside four months earlier with her number one song Heaven is a Place on Earth, Belinda Carlisle was about to become
a household name over here too. Now with its parent album Heaven on Earth celebrating its 30th anniversary, she recalls the
highs and lows of the following three decades.
“I can’t imagine having a straight son. I’ve always been able to relate more to gay people than straight people, so it made perfect sense to have a gay son.”
“Sometimes I can’t believe it’s been 30 years since Heaven Is a Place on Earth came out and sometimes it feels like it’s a lifetime ago”, Belinda Carlisle begins from the bar of a London hotel where we meet.
“I remember when I first heard it, it was played to me on a piano and straight away, everybody was thinking, ‘This could be a hit song.’ You never really know for sure though, it depends on what going on in the charts at the time.”
It was Stevie Nicks who matched Belinda with songwriters Rick Nowels and Ellen Shipley and changed her life. “Heaven on Earth was written by people who knew me”, she continues. “They’d write songs and melodies with my voice in mind. Lyrically
I’ve always been fussy. Now it would be hard for me to make an album like that 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 naïve 20-year-old.”
As hits like I Get Weak and Circle in the Sand followed, the relentless hamster wheel of recording, touring, promotion and interviews began to take its toll on Belinda. “It was a blur”, she recalls. “I was always working, which was exciting, and I was trying to be present, but it was tough at that kind of pace. I was always thinking ahead to whatever I needed to do next and not enjoying what I was doing in the moment. That’s just the way it is when you’re young and caught up in everything. I wasn’t having time to breathe.”
Belinda is one of pop’s survivors. As she sits before Gay Times looking at least a decade younger than her 58 years, it’s hard to believe that for 20 of them, she battled cocaine addiction. She has been clean since 2004. “If I could go back in time and give my younger self any advice, it would be don’t do drugs”, she says. “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 though it was possible as far as I was concerned.”
She was at the height of her fame at the same time as fellow chart-toppers Prince, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. Both illegal and prescription drugs lead to their deaths, so does Belinda ever wonder why they died and she survived? “I do, a lot”, she answers frankly. “I thought about it the other day, about how many of my contemporaries are gone and I’m still here... 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 recently about how a lot of those celebrity deaths are probably related to their drug abuse from years ago. And I worry that I’ll get Parkinson’s disease, because that’s related to cocaine abuse.”
It has been 21 years since A Woman and a Man, Belinda’s last English language album. It wasn’t a great experience. “I could’ve phoned that in”, she laughs. “There are a couple of songs I liked but most of them are stinkers.” She’s meeting fans half way with the release of her eighth LP, Wilder Shores, which merges repetitive mantras over structured melodic
pop. “I think some of my fans are going to hate it and that’s OK”, she smiles. “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.
“Chanting and mantras have the capacity to help people. I started chanting before I got sober. Then, when I was clean, I felt I needed all the help that 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. I know its power.”
As for recording another traditional pop album one day, she hasn’t ruled it out. She’s recorded a handful of new songs over the last few years that have popped up on greatest hits and re-issues. And she’s recorded three new tunes for the 30th anniversary reissue of Heaven on Earth. “I might do a pop record one day. The criteria has to be ‘do I love it?’ The only way I can work on something is from the heart.”
Belinda lives in Thailand with husband of 31 years, film producer Morgan Mason. Their son, James Duke Mason, is a writer and gay rights activist in the US. He came out to his parents when he was 14-years-old. “We were living in a very provincial area in the mountains in the south of France and he hadn’t come out at school and there was no support system for him”, Belinda recalls. “So he was calling PFLAG [an organisation helping parents, friends and families of lesbians and gays] in LA and they were coaching him on how to come out.
“They always say ‘tell your mother first in case your father has a bad reaction’. When he told me, I was like, ‘How am I going to tell my husband?’ He’s also gay friendly but having an only son and a gay one is almost like a reflection of your masculinity. So I sat on it for two or three months. I was a wreck for that time period because it was like I had a secret and I didn’t know how to tell him.
“My husband said, ‘Oh it’s just a phase’, and I was like, ‘I don’t think it is.’ Then my son would get mad and I was in the centre between them. I told them they had to work it out and it took them a good year to do that.”
And having spent the majority of her life around gay people – hell, she even recorded the gay anthem Live Your Life Be Free – Belinda admits that it made sense her only child would be gay.
“I can’t imagine having a straight son”, she laughs. “Since high school, 99 per cent of my friends have been gay or lesbian. 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 bringing home girls I can’t stand.”
And seeing how James has become an activist has spurred her on to do more herself. “His activism has changed me”, Belinda adds. “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 now. James has pushed me in that direction and has made me become more of an activist. I was on the Women’s March in LA in January, I take part in Pride and LGBT+ marches. He’s hardcore and has made me a lot more socially aware of things.”