“I never want to disappoint”
Barbra Streisand opens up to Stellar about fighting for the truth and the sadness that inspired her new album.
arbra Streisand has resorted to comfort eating. First off, it was pancakes – covered in maple syrup – after the morning news. Now she finds that icecream helps ease the anxiety the evening bulletin brings.
“I tell you, when the news gets really bad, like it did the other night listening to [US President Donald Trump], I had to have two coffee ice- cream cones,” she says from her Malibu home. “One wasn’t enough, you know what I mean? I had to have two. I was thinking about three. Sometimes when I do that and eat chocolate before I go to bed, I can’t sleep until five, six in the morning. I get very little sleep.”
These “troubling times”, as she calls them, have been keeping her up late at night more often than not in the past 12 months. Since the ’60s, Streisand has been as renowned for her activism as her creative talents, setting up her own foundation in 1986 to support protection of the environment, gender equality and nuclear disarmament, among myriad issues. The longtime Democrat backed Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the top job in the US and, after Trump’s win, has been making her opinions widely known.
Now she’s decided to take a stand by harnessing what made her famous in the first place: music. Her latest album, Walls – which marks her first new material in more than a decade – poured out of her as she wrestled with a deep sadness and frustration about current events in her homeland, from immigrant family separations to ocean pollution.
“The songs came quickly,” she says. “It was just my mind opened, my heart opened, it came together quite easily, which I loved. I didn’t have to search for songs. It was quite a liberating experience for me. I’m so grateful having that opportunity to release my feelings in a passionate way.”
And, sometimes, they came from unlikely places: one song, ‘Don’t Lie To Me’, was formulated during a road trip with her husband, actor James Brolin. The pop radio station the couple, who have been married for 20 years, flicked to was a welcome reprieve from the “breaking reports of ranting tweets [that] were making my head spin”, she says – and the result is a more modern anthem than fans might expect.
While Streisand doesn’t name Trump in any of the lyrics or the notes she has written about the songs on Walls, he looms large in conversation. On the brink of this week’s US midterm elections, her promotional campaign is doubling as a political one against him.
“He lied from the beginning. Trump lied from the beginning, and I just honour the truth – in my work, in my life, I love the truth. I think it’s so powerful,” she tells Stellar. “I never understood as a young
A (from with STAR Kris top) IS Kristofferson Barbra REBORN Streisand in the 1976 version of A Star Is Born, for which she won an Academy Award for Best Original Song; performing in Washington DC two years ago; with her husband of 20 years, James Brolin, in 2016.
performer when people were making up lies about me… I could never figure out why it was necessary to change the story. The truth, to me, is the essence of living in a democracy and I guess what offends me so much is Trump seems to care so very little about it, because he continues to lie day after day and make up things, you know?”
Walls may be her response to the present, but she doesn’t entirely let go of the past. In one medley, Streisand intertwines the lyrics and melodies of ‘Imagine’ with ‘ What A Wonderful World’. Streisand’s right-hand music executive Jay Landers had to seek the permission of Yoko Ono for the bold reimagining of the John Lennon classic. Ono gave Streisand her blessing.
“As a matter of fact, there’s a wonderful story Jay told me when he had to get permission from Yoko Ono to put the songs together. And she told him a story that she had a friend who had a child who was dying of cancer and wanted to speak to me on the phone,” she says. “And I did, obviously… I don’t remember the conversation, I’ve had several like that and it was many years ago. And Yoko said, ‘I’ll do anything for Barbra,’ so she allowed me to do that. I have just written her a note thanking her and also hoping she liked the way it came out. That was lovely what she did. Generosity always seems to come back to you.”
The album ends with ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’, a song she has performed “at least 100 times” since she released it as her debut single in 1962. Her voice belies the lyrics – she sounds despairing of a return to happiness.
“The last time I sang it onstage, I said, ‘I’ve sung this for three presidents already and I hope to sing it again with joy,’” she says. “But this time I had to sing it on the record like I really feel, which is kind of depressed. Yet I still have a bit of hope. I just hope people come out and believe in the power of their voice, believe in the power of one vote.”
She’s so focused on things at home, she admits returning to Australia after 18 years away isn’t on the cards for now. “After I finish a little tour, which is very minor in terms of what entertainers usually do, I always say, ‘I can’t do this,’” she says. “It’s stressful for me… I don’t know, that stage fright thing. I think I’m going to forget the words. I never want to disappoint the audience: ‘Oh god, will they think I’m too fat? Is my voice OK?’ And it’s hard. That’s why I love recording. It’s very private; I do the work, I do it until I’m happy. And this was such an easy album to make, it just flowed out of me. Isn’t that interesting?” Walls is out now.
“I never understood why people made up lies about me”