Q&A With Belinda Carlisle: Why She's Singing Kirtan Now
Ooh, baby, do you know what that's worth? Ooh, heaven is a place on earthThey say in heaven, love comes firstWe'll make heaven a place on earthOoh, heaven is a place on earth
Last year marked the 30th anniversary of Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth.” Perhaps not surprisingly, the pop icon released an album featuring a new version of her smash hit.
The rest of the tracks—now those were surprising. Wilder Shores, Carlisle’s first studio album in a decade, is a collection of Gurmukhi mantras and English songs from the Kundalini Yoga tradition. There’s “Har Gobinday,” a mantra for prosperity and happiness, “Adi Shakti” to awaken divine feminine power, and a spirited rendition of the savasana staple “Long Time Sun.”
At 59, Carlisle isn’t out to reinvent herself as a kirtan walla. If you catch her in concert, you’ll be treated to ’80s hits such as “Mad About You,” “I Get Weak,” and “Circle in the Sand.” She made a chant album because chanting has been a cornerstone of her life ever since she envisioned dying.
Carlisle, who shot to fame as lead singer of The Go-Go’s before going solo, secretly battled alcohol and drug addiction, depression, and an eating disorder during her many years in the spotlight. It wasn’t until 2005, after a three-day cocaine binge, that she got sober. “I had a vision of myself being found dead in that hotel room of a cocaine overdose,” she writes in her memoir, Lips Unsealed. “It came to me accompanied by a loud, clear voice that said, ‘You are going to die here if you carry on like this.’” In the years since, she has completed two Kundalini teacher trainings and co-founded a charity that aids street animals in Calcutta, India. She has also competed on Dancing With the Stars and performed extensively with the Go-Go’s, whose songs have been adapted into a musical set to debut on Broadway this summer.
Born and bred in Southern California, Carlisle now lives in Bangkok, Thailand, with her husband of 32 years. “First and foremost in my life now is my family,” she says. “I’ll always put them before work and anything else I do. Maybe I didn’t do that so much at other times because you think you have unlimited time. I know now that I have limited time. Without being pessimistic, it’s just limited. So I’m trying to make the most of everything and every day and only do things that I want to do.”
Yoga International: How did this album come about?
Carlisle: I tried it about six years ago, and it just didn’t work. I started studying the chants more and their translations, and then decided that I couldn’t really do a chant album like Snatam [Kaur] or a lot of the kirtan artists. If I was going to do a chant album, it would have to be chants put into pop-song format—verse, bridge, chorus. When I talked to record companies, they didn’t want to know about it. The pop people didn’t understand it because it was too esoteric. And the traditional kirtan labels couldn’t think out of the box. So there was a lot of discouragement. I just forged on, because I really thought it could work.
We made the album over the course of two and a half years in a home studio, and it was the biggest blast I ever had. I’d always go to [yoga] class before the studio, so I could be really open to what was coming in. I’ve never had the experience of doing anything like this, where it was almost channeled. “Light of My Soul,” I was singing it into my iPhone as I was getting off the freeway to go to the [recording] studio. It took three minutes to write the whole thing. It was definitely a divine experience, that’s for sure.
YI: Why Kundalini mantras?
Carlisle: I’ve been practicing Kundalini for about 27 years, and for the past 13 years have had a very consistent practice. I’ve experienced the power of chanting. I know how much it’s helped me. I just knew that [a chant album] was something I wanted to do, but I also know that it’s much more than just singing. It’s understanding the mantras, and that cultivates the naad in the voice, that prana in the voice. I just felt a calling. A lot of people who are fans of mine would never normally be exposed to chanting, so I thought, This is something that can bring more people to the practice and enable more people to experience the power of chant.
YI: At one point, in the early days of your sobriety, you were chanting Buddhist mantras for three, four hours a day. Tell me about your practice now.
Carlisle: I do a lot of 40-day meditations. Sometimes it’s from online teachers, and sometimes it’s self-prescribed. I usually wake up at 4:00 to do meditation and then chanting. If I’m not on a 40-day meditation, I’m practicing at least three to four days a week. It’s consistent, and it’s powerful. They say that one year of Kundalini Yoga—a consistent practice—is equal to seven years of hatha practice on a psychological level, and I do believe that’s true from my experience.
YI: You weren’t always a fan of yoga.
Carlisle: Gurmukh [Kaur Khalsa] was my first teacher, when I was pregnant with my son, and I didn’t really take to the yoga. It just seemed silly. But I loved Gurmukh. She gave amazing foot massages at the end of our sessions.
YI: The album concludes with an acoustic version of “Heaven Is a Place on Earth.” I wonder if you included the song because it was a huge hit or because its lyrics are strangely yogic.
Carlisle: When you hear it on the radio, you don’t think of it that way. But when you break it down and listen to it lyrically, it’s a very yogic lyric. I’ve sung it at a few [yoga] events for corpse pose, and people say to me afterward, “I didn’t realize the lyrics of that song were so yogic!” A friend of mine, before the album was released, said: “Why would you put that on the album? It’ll seem like you couldn’t think of anything else to put on there.” That rendition of the song, first of all, will bring attention to the album, which would bring mantra to the attention of people who would normally never listen to it. But I just think it’s perfect for the end of class. When I perform it in class, I just leave out a few of the “babies,” and then it really works.
YI: It seems ironic, because when you first recorded the song, you were anything but yogic.
Carlisle: Yeah. I grew up in a strict Southern Baptist house. I was forced to go to church, I was forced to go to Sunday school and bible camps, and it turned me off to anything remotely churchy, remotely religious, remotely spiritual. I just didn’t want to know about it. During the throes of my addiction and pain, I was dumped from my record company, at age 40, and that was the beginning of some real soul-searching and introspection. I guess it was because I was in so much pain that I knew there had to be something bigger than me, that there had to be something out there. I felt there had to be. I wanted there to be.
YI: To say you were a party girl is putting it mildly. You lived dangerously for three decades, and some of the friends you made on that path—John Belushi, Michael Hutchence—didn’t survive. How does it make you feel that you did?
Carlisle: I just think that it’s the grace of God—there’s no explanation except for that, honestly. That’s it. I have lost a lot of friends to drugs. I still do. So that’s the only thing that can explain it, just the grace of God.
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