Belinda Carlisle On Returning To Pop Music After 25 Years

As singer Belinda Carlisle prepares to mark the Fourth of July — and her own place in pop cultural Americana — with a performance at A Capitol Fourth, the nation’s Independence Day celebration in Washington, D.C., she’s also commemorating the fact that, after being written off by the music industry when she turned 40, she’s returned to pop music after a long absence with a critically acclaimed new EP at the age of 64.

“What I thought at first was a disaster ended up being a huge gift,” Carlisle tells PEOPLE of her career journey, which after her chart-topping stint as the lead vocalist for the pioneering all-female rock band The Go-Go’s and as a successful solo artist in the ’80s and ’90s, she ultimately followed her own path back to American pop after nearly 30 years away.

After living abroad for the better part of three decades — following stints in eight different countries, she and husband Morgan Mason recently settled in Mexico City.

“I think I’m done,” she chuckles — Carlisle is pleased to have an opportunity to celebrate America’s “birthday” by performing at the star-studded concert on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol, which airs on PBS beginning July 4. “I’m a fireworks fanatic,” she reveals. “I haven’t lived in the country since 1994, so since then I have been able to go to a few Fourth of July events, but for the most part I’ve been out of the country, and I do miss it.”

Her performance will include some of the enduring hits from her early career, but she’ll also be spotlighting a few songs from her recently released EP Kismet, a five-song collaboration with tunesmith Diane Warren that has received rapturous praise, her voice still remarkably in peak form — she credits daily Pranayama breathwork she does in conjunction with dedicated yoga practice.

“I’m an older singer now and I have to really do a lot of prep,” she explains. “It used to be that I took my voice for granted and I don’t at all anymore. I’m just really lucky that I’m still out there doing it, but I have to take care. I mean, when I’m on the road, I travel with three humidifiers and I have all these rituals that I do just to keep my voice healthy when I’m working.”

And Carlisle’s never stopped singing, between high-profile reunions with her Go-Go’s bandmates and more personal, experimental projects, including a French language album of that country’s classic standards (“I had always felt there was a bit of a chanteuse in me”) and a collection of Kundalini yoga mantras. She’s steadfastly followed her own path after the fickle, youth-centric pop music industry dismissed her despite her track record of now-indelible hits.

“I was dropped by my record company when I turned 40 and singing was the only thing I really knew how to do,” she says. “Of course I was mortified and panicking, but then I thought, ‘Well, who am I?’ It began like the most interesting part of my life — I’d always been defined by what I do, so I knew that there was more to that.”

“I’ve been on a treadmill since I was pretty much 19 years old with The Go-Go’s and having to come up with hits and having to go on tour — it’s like your whole life is planned out for you a year at a time,” Carlisle reflects. “So I thought, ‘I want to do something that I want to do. I don’t care if it’s commercial, I don’t care if anybody hears it, I want to do what I want to do.'”

As she lived around the world and occasionally resurfaced to perform with the Go-Go’s, she was aware that her fanbase was both going the distance with her and expanding as new generations discovered her music, including her more recent avant garde works; an appetite for new material was apparent.

“The fans were like, ‘Oh my God, why can’t you do something in English?'” she tells PEOPLE with a laugh. “I just thought, ‘Well, it’s because no great pop songs are going to come to me. I mean, it’s just not going to happen.’ They go to younger artists or artists that are in the charts.”

But that changed unexpectedly when her 30-year-old son, James Duke Mason, had a chance encounter with Warren — the multi-award-winning songwriter behind dozens of iconic hits — in a Los Angeles coffee shop, prompting them to FaceTime Carlisle on the spot.

“Out of the blue I get the phone call: ‘Come to the studio — I have hits for you,'” laughs Carlisle, who admits she was wary of committing to a return to pop recording, even given Warren’s sterling track record.

But the singer visited Warren’s studio and was instantly enamored by the music the songwriter had planned for her. “I loved it on the first listen, so I said, ‘Yeah, let’s go!’ This whole process is summed up by the title of the EP, Kismet. It’s been magical and just happenstance… I mean, I wasn’t planning on doing this, so this whole thing was quite a surprise to me — and a nice surprise for my fans, actually.”

“I had no expectations. I was just doing it for the joy of doing it,” Carlisle adds. “But of course after we finished it was like, ‘I want to promote this and I want people to hear it, because I’m proud of it.'”

Still, Carlisle’s not about to fall back into mounting an ambitious, over-planned comeback strategy. “I think I’ll just play it as it goes, I’m just going to wing it as I go along like I’ve always done,” she says. “I have no plans, but at the same time I’m not going to say never, because every time I’ve said never again I’ve been proved wrong.”

Saying Goodbye to The Go-Go’s

The return to solo work was well-timed, given that after a celebratory period in 2020 and 2021 that saw the release of the documentary The Go-Go’s and the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Carlisle and her bandmates decided to end their run on a high note.

“There’s something to be said for quitting while you’re ahead and stopping at the top, and I think you can go on too long,” says the singer, who admits some members initially resisted the notion of disbanding before coming to a consensus. “Some people had a tougher time than others,” she admits. “It’s a pretty tough decision to make, but I do think it’s possible for bands to go on too long and lose their dignity. Everybody has their own things going on in their lives, and yeah, I mean — most of us felt like it was time.”

“I’m so proud of what we achieved, against all odds,” she adds. “From not knowing how to plug in a guitar into amplifier, to three years later being the biggest band in America — I mean, that’s not normal!”

And as she preps for her performance on A Capitol Fourth, she’s pleased to recognize that many of her songs, in the group and on her own, have become part of the fabric of people’s lives and still have a potent effect on audiences.

“It brings up a lot of feelings and emotions for a lot of people,” she says. “I have those songs that aren’t my songs that do the same thing to me that bring up memories of childhood. For instance, like The Beach Boys’ ‘God Only Knows.’ Whenever I hear that song, it just reminds me of my childhood years in Burbank, California, and brings up a melancholy, almost, sometimes too. I’m very fortunate that I have some songs that do that for people out there.”

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