Over the years, Belinda Carlisle has gone through a number of transformations, from the punkette who took the Go-Go’s from the Hollywood club scenes to the top of the charts in the early ’80s, to the glamour-girl solo artist who scored worldwide hits and Grammy nominations in the latter part of that decade.
With the Go-Go’s once again in the rearview following 2016’s farewell tour, Carlisle has embarked on perhaps her most radical career move to date. Her last solo album, 2007’s Voila, found her adopting the role of a French chanteuse — a seemingly natural move, considering she lived for years in the South of France. Now, a decade later, her new album, Wilder Shores, is inspired by her devotion to kundalini yoga and features her singing the bulk of the songs in Gurmukhi, a Punjabi language.
“I’ve been doing kundalini yoga for about 26 years — off and on at first — and I was introduced to chanting about 15 years ago,” Carlisle says in a phone interview from her U.K. tour to celebrate the 30th anniversary of her most successful solo album, Heaven on Earth. “I’ve done mantras in the past and I’ve experienced how powerful they are. It definitely helped me through lots of challenging times, especially the early days of my sobriety.”
Eventually, Carlisle thought of mixing her passion for yoga and chanting with her own music. “I just thought there has to be a way to combine what I do as a pop singer with mantra, and I started experimented with it,” she says. About three years ago, she began the project by singing mantras into her iPhone, making voice memos that she would share with producer/collaborator Gabe Lopez. “He would play guitar and I would tell him what to play, because I don’t write music. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and always envisioned: a fusion of Eastern and Western instrumentation. And I always believed a repetitive mantra could be written into a pop song format of verse, bridge, and chorus. I think it works really well and don’t know why it hasn’t been done before.”
Most of the tracks on Wilder Shores resonate with Carlisle’s past: her smash “Heaven Is a Place on Earth.” Carlisle’s new album closes a sparse, new, piano-and-vocal version of the song that originally topped the pop charts on both sides of the Atlantic in 1987.
“Broken down, the lyrics are very yoga,” she says. “In the past few years I’ve done a few yoga events where I actually performed ‘Heaven’ acoustically, and people would come up and say, ‘Wow, when it’s broken down, the lyrics are actually words of hope.’ So I always thought that an acoustic version would fit really well with the yoga material.'”
The original version of the song, found on Heaven on Earth, featured Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and Papas on backing vocals and Thomas Dolby on keyboards. The celebrity quotient isn’t quite as high on the new version — Carlisle did the backing vocals herself with Lopez — but Wilder Shores does feature some special guests. Go-Go’s guitarist and frequent Carlisle solo collaborator Charlotte Caffey appears on the album, as well as some other friends. “On ‘Har Gobinday’ I needed a gang, so I just grabbed people from yoga class who could carry a tune,” Carlisle says.
Speaking of the Go-Go’s, while on that band’s farewell tour, Carlisle worked on songs that turned up on Wilder Shores, and she surprisingly didn’t find it difficult to shift gears. “The Go-Go’s for me is like being in high school,” she explains. “It doesn’t take up a lot of brain space. It was easy for me to switch.”
With Voila and now Wilder Shores, Carlisle shows an ambition and desire to explore other types of music that is somewhat reminiscent of Linda Ronstadt, who after her pop success went on to record Spanish-language albums, country music, and Great American Songbook standards. “I’ve been there and done that,” Carlisle says, in regards to standard pop albums. “I’ve worked with some of the best writers in the world and it would be pretty hard for me to top what I’ve done, personally. Also, it’s important to have appropriate lyrics for a woman who is 59 years old. I don’t want to record the same type of songs I sang 30 or 40 years ago.”
Reflecting on Heaven on Earth, her second solo album, Carlisle says it’s hard to believe it’s three decades old. “It doesn’t really feel like it’s been 30 years,” she marvels. Carlisle recalls her big solo breakthrough with mixed emotions. “I always thought if the kind of success I had in the Go-Go’s happened a second time, I would really try to stay in the moment and enjoy it, because the Go-Go’s was such a whirlwind; there was really no time to sit back and enjoy it. There was constant touring and constant recording or something was going on.”
With her solo success crossing over to other countries, Carlisle found herself a bigger star than she was during the Go-Go’s heyday. “I think in some ways it was more satisfying and more enjoyable,” she says. Still, even with the success, Carlisle was having some self-doubts. “I always felt like a bit of an impostor. I remember being on an arena tour in the U.K. in Liverpool or Manchester and looking out my dressing room window in the arena and just seeing this huge line of people and thinking, ‘Oh my God. Why are they here? I can’t believe they’re here to see me.’ I don’t know why that is, but I never felt I was worthy of that kind of success.”
Now, however, a calmer and wiser Carlisle has accepted her past success and realizes that it was well deserved. “Whatever has come my way has been through a lot of hard work,” she asserts.
Despite her proven track record, it wasn’t necessarily easy to find a home for Wilder Shores, a title inspired by the 1954 novel The Wilder Shores of Love, written by Lesley Blanch, the godmother of her husband, Morgan Mason. “People didn’t want to really know about fusing the two worlds together,” she says. “The traditional record companies didn’t understand it and probably didn’t want to understand it, because it’s a little too esoteric. I just figured if worse comes to worse, I’ll just put it out there myself. Despite all the obstacles, I just forged on and had a blast doing it.”
Eventually, Carlisle found a sympathetic home for the album through Spirit Voyage, an online yoga retailer. “I knew Spirit Voyage, because over the years I’ve bought a lot of music through them,” she says. “And I’m a big fan of what they do. They’ve been very supportive and I think they realize that there is a space for different types of nontraditional mantra music. I love traditional, but I think there is room for both.”
While to some it might seem strange that the onetime punk rocker is now recording yoga chants, Carlisle says it all makes sense. “I was saying to someone the other day that I remember in the punk days, in the late ’70s, I would see the Sikhs around. At the time you didn’t see that in L.A. that much; that was when the whole yogi movement first came to L.A. I always thought they looked really cool, so in some ways, it’s come full circle.”