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"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
The Times FEBRUARY 9, 2007 - by Sophie Heawood
IN A PROVENCE HIDEAWAY, BELINDA'S VIE IS EN ROSE
'80s pop star Belinda Carlisle loves France so much she's gone native, she tells Sophia Heawood.
If it seems odd that Belinda Carlisle has spent more than a decade living in France and becoming as French as she can to record an album of French songs, it seems odder still that she is planning to release that album anywhere but in France. Yet that's the situation the Californian singer finds herself in, having dared to take on classic works by the nation's musical heroes - Edith Piaf, Serge Gainsbourg, Jacques Brel.
"The attitude of the French towards the songs I've done is very mixed. Some people think it's great, some people don't think it's great at all. In this country you just don't touch Gainsbourg and Piaf. And I understand that."
France, though her beloved home for fourteen years, is not always her friend. Though she is petite, the clothes in the shops of nearby Nice and Cannes are too small for her curves, and she has to drive to Italy to get something that fits. She says French women only pick at their food, whereas she prefers to eat it. Though she worked with a tutor to improve her pronunciation on this album, her grasp of French grammar is still "iffy".
Her son, who attends an international school and desires a career in politics, recently announced: "France is so awful; all it has is castles and beaches." Carlisle, who loves driving around researching the Cathars and the Holy Grail, laughs. "I thought that was pretty funny. He's Mr America - he'll go back." (Her husband, James Mason's son Morgan, worked for Reagan in the White House, but Carlisle insists that she is steering their son's politics firmly to the left.)
I tell her about Jarvis Cocker's song lyric, written after several years living in France: "You can take your year in Provence and shove it up your arse." She is much amused, admitting guiltily that the Peter Mayle books of Cocker's opprobrium were part of her motivation for moving here.
Carlisle's Provence home is full of naked women (painted), parrots (caged) and a cow (sculpted, life-size, standing guard in the shrubbery). Outside there is a swimming pool, with a view that sweeps down over swaths of lavender and hill villages to the Côte d'Azur. A vintage Citroën stands in the driveway, sweet-smelling incense burns in the hall, and the winter sun is shining gloriously as she welcomes us in and makes mugs of herbal tea.
She is calm and friendly, and apologises for being a bit of a hermit these days, though it would be ludicrous for anyone in possession of such a house to be anything else. When she sang that heaven was a place on earth, she clearly had an inkling of where in France she would spend her retirement.
Not that the woman who went from being a post-punk pioneer to a mainstream 1980s pop goddess is quite ready to retire. Though she says she will never make those kinds of music again - "I'm pushing 50; I really don't want to be a rock chick. And pop music isn't as kind to older women as it is to older men" - she's not afraid to try something new; hence her latest album, Voila.
Yet she knew little of French music until relatively recently. She was familiar with Françoise Hardy but not Gainsbourg or Leo Ferré, and when she found them she immersed herself in their records, finding the melodies and lyrics "just amazing". Then she found herself announcing to a record label executive that she wanted to record an album of French songs. "It just popped out of my mouth." So he hooked her up with the producer John Reynolds, (U2, Sinéad O'Connor), and they spent a year or so researching classic chansons and deciding which ones would work for her. She describes the experience as "just a complete blast".
"I had no constraints, no worries about what would get into the charts. If I wanted to sing with an accordion then I could. This was a total labour of love."
She adds that it has been by far the most challenging thing she has done - but also the most fun, especially as it features Brian Eno on keyboards and the world music star Natacha Atlas on backing vocals.
It's a far cry from her first experience of playing music. Back when she was in the Californian punk girl band the Go-Gos, touring Britain supporting Madness and the Specials, she was so poor that she ate the other bands' leftovers and got drunk on cough syrup: "We had Benylin parties." In London the Go-Gos shared a house in Belsize Park with various LA models and played some tough shows. "This was the late '70s, with the skinheads and National Front all turning up. There would be all sorts of fights, a lot of bloodshed. We were five little girls from LA; we had never seen anything like that. And the audience would spit on you even when they liked you, they'd gob on you. I remember just being covered in snot. Being an all-female band was very unusual, you had a hard time on stage. But it was enormous fun."
Undeterred, they decided to lie about what was going on. "We all wrote letters back home to America, saying how huge we were in England. Of course everybody believed it, and so by the time we played our homecoming show there were queues around the block, and that's when it really took off for us."
Soon they had enough fame and money to buy all the drugs they wanted, and Carlisle became a prisoner of her own success. "The Go-Gos were way bigger there than my solo career; there was about a year when I couldn't walk down the street. So I stayed at home being withdrawn and doing a ton of coke because I couldn't get over it. It was a horrible experience."
Iggy Pop, whose records had turned Carlisle on to rock music in the first place, loved the Go-Gos, but his drug-taking terrified them. "He was always really scary. I think he's sober now, but then he was completely intimidating."
Officially, her chemically-enhanced days were short-lived, but in fact they continued through her Top Ten solo hits such as Heaven Is A Place on Earth and Circles In The Sand. "I did stop - but only for a while."
Her pop days made her feel like a product, which didn't do much for her self-esteem, and her taste in music was much more left-field than what she was selling, although she insists that she still likes all her big hits. She says drugs are a sensitive subject, but then announces that she has been totally sober for the past few years after doing the 12-step programme, something she thinks everybody should do, regardless of addiction.
Kicks now come from Iyen-gar yoga, trips to see the Black Madonna in the Camargue, buying "kitsch crap" on eBay and reading David Icke.
"I love David, you should read his books! The reptiles are where he loses people. I think he was discredited purposely on television, I don't think it's any joke actually. A lot of what he wrote ten or 12 years ago"... she sees my eyes rolling. "No, every English person goes 'Belinda!' and rolls their eyes! But he predicted a lot of what's happening now, especially in America - taking away people's liberty under the guise of protection. Feeding people fear. It's really credible."
And then, after taking an unexplained call from Stephen Frears, tending to her pug Pierre and saying goodbye to the parrot she found lost in a snowstorm, she is off to the patisserie.
Voila is out on Rykodisc.