Sammy Davis Jr. once called her a "vision of nowness," but these days most people think of Belinda Carlisle as a retro-cool icon of the '80s. And for good reason. As co-founder and lead singer of the Go-Go's, she led the most successful all-female band of all time, sold millions of records and reigned as one of America's MTV sweethearts -- with just the proper amount of legendary debauchery to sweeten her pop-punk legacy.
As the '80s faded, she enjoyed a healthy solo career, a few choice film roles, collaborations with George Harrison and Brian Wilson, well-received Go-Go's reunion tours and she even posed for Playboy. Now, nearly 25 years to the day that the Go-Go's debut Beauty And The Beat hit No. 1 on Billboard's album charts, Carlisle is releasing Voila, the boldest, most non-commercial album of her impressive three-decade career and her first solo project in more than a decade.
"I was asked about making another album," she says by phone from a luxury hotel in California, "I said I wasn't really interested, but -- and it just popped out of my mouth -- I said, if I was ever gonna do anything, I'd love to make an album of chansons -- French songs."
To her surprise, the project was on and she was paired with producer John Reynolds (U2, Indigo Girls) and, like voila, the album effortlessly unfolded -- without the pressure of making a "hit" album. "For years and years, I was on this hamster wheel. Everything was kinda laid out and I can't go back there. With this, if other people like it, then great, and if not, then at least I did."
Carlisle immersed herself in French music, which wasn't difficult since she spends part of the year at her home in France with her family. For the album, she chose a batch of well-known material from the finest songwriters of the region. "Now I see that Serge Gainsbourg was maybe the first punk and the first surrealist in music," she says.
Like a mini record collection on one disc, the album includes songs popularized by Gainsbourg, Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf, presented in a dizzying array of ingenious styles, including hushed ballads and pulsing disco, featuring Brian Eno (Roxy Music) on keyboards. But the biggest challenge of the project, she says, was to actually sing in French. "It's like doing three jobs at the same time. With French, it's staying in key, emoting and getting the pronunciation right."
While Carlisle still has family and friends in California, her home in France offers a rare comfort. "I don't have a super-glam life there. It's very low-key. I get up, have about five cups of coffee, take my son to the bus for school, then on to Nice for yoga. I read a lot, cook a lot. I'm kinda normal," she laughs, almost giddy at the thought of not being Sammy's vision. "I'm totally anonymous, which is great. I can be a slob, not wear makeup and not worry about the whole 'celebrity culture' like in L.A."
And yes, she admits, it has been a long road from hanging out with L.A. punk pioneers the Germs in the '70s to singing the praises of celebrated diva Edith Piaf. But unlike, say, Rod Stewart or Barry Manilow, this phase isn't a calculated reinvention. "It was all haphazard. Like with anything I've ever done in the past, not a whole lot of thought goes into it. I just do it and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't."
While she still enjoys performing occasional shows with her Go-Go's bandmates, she's gearing up for a solo tour this spring and fall to support Voila, and continuing to savor the delicious irony her storied punk past belies. "Yeah, for the girl who [went from wearing] trash bags to making a French album ... who would have known? But, you know," she purrs playfully, "I always knew there was a little chanteuse in me."
Voila is available in stores and at online retailers nationwide on Tues., Feb. 6.
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