"I had to write this song," Streisand tells Billboard. "These times gave me energy." But while Walls is inspired by the turbulent times we find ourselves in, it's also universal, speaking to a sense of hope and resilience in the face of falsehoods and the "smoke and mirrors" described in this new single. "There's a light coming in and hope for the future," she says. "We have to grow as a nation."
Just ahead of the song's release, the icon (and we don't use that word lightly – she's the only recording artist to nab a No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 in six consecutive decades) hopped on the phone with Billboard to discuss why she returned to songwriting, how one of the songs on Walls is inspired by a scene from Funny Girl, what she thinks about Lady Gaga's A Star Is Born -- and why she turned down a chance to direct a remake some years ago.
Your new song "Don't Lie to Me" seems to be directed at a certain Liar In Chief. Would that be an accurate read?
The Liar in Chief, the Groper in Chief. Yeah, I've written many articles about this… this person… who has no manners, insults everybody, makes fun of disabled people. I don't know what to say, I've written like 15 Huffington Post pieces. This was my way to do my record, because what else could I think about? It's my protest, in a sense, about this unprecedented time in our history. What it says about America. We have to give up the electoral college system, that's what I know. I think people should vote for the president of the United Status – the popular vote should count. Give people a voice; one vote, one voice.
People have talked about it for a long time, and nothing seems to change.
I know, I don't know why. And I don't know why there's still the possibility of hacking voting machines, voter suppression, voter ID laws stopping minorities from voting. It's just so sad to me. I had to write this song. It came out.
This album has more original songwriting from you than any of your albums in 13 years – did you feel you had to speak out because of these times?
Yeah, these times gave me energy. I felt so passionate about it. And music gave me that creative way to express my feelings. I'm very grateful to have music in my life, to be able to do that. It started with me thinking the album was going to be called What's On My Mind. My last tour finished around the time of the last presidential election, and I needed to make another album. As the year started to unfold, I started to think more about recording an album that reflected what was going on in the country, because that was what was on my mind. I started to write down my thoughts, and that's how "What's On My Mind" began the album; it sets up the album. That song is about our diversity being our strength. It's a lot about immigration, but you try to make something that isn't hitting the subject over the head. You want to create a universal language in the lyric that people can relate to.
And you have one of those great political but universal songs on the album, "Imagine," via a new version of it.
We put it together with "What a Wonderful World" and, musically, Walter Afanasieff did such a good job melding them together. We had to get permission from Yoko Ono to do that even, and she did, which was wonderful of her.
You'd met him before, right? I know I've seen a picture of you with John and Yoko.
Yes! John and Yoko, they came to my 1973 concert where I was trying to raise money for Daniel Ellsberg's defense fund, isn't that funny? I sat with a lookbook, because I said, "I can't put on a show, I'll just sit with this book and people can pay money" [for requests]. So like, somebody says, "$5,000 for 'Melancholy Baby,' sing 'Melancholy Baby'!" And it was great, we got calls from Tokyo even.
We helped him. As a matter of fact recently at a party at my friend's house, Lynda Resnick, who used to mimeograph some of his papers, it was a wonderful evening, he said, "You helped us stay alive. That $50,000 helped me keep the defense alive and we won."
That's making a real difference.
And then in 1986 I was so scared about Chernobyl, I thought, "I gotta do something, a concert for nuclear disarmament, we have to take back the Senate." We put on a concert called One Voice, and five of our senators, five out of six, were elected and the Democrats took back the Senate. It shows you the power of one voice.
Well, speaking of taking back the Senate, now we're approaching the midterms. Are you optimistic?
I am, but I'm afraid to be, because we thought Hillary Clinton was going to win and then she didn't. And we weren't sure about the hacking at that moment, but I'm sure that affected her not being made the president. Desmond Child, by the way, wrote a wonderful song for this [album] called "Lady Liberty." And he told me he had the image in his mind of the last scene in Funny Girl where I'm on the tugboat passing by the Statue of Liberty.
Last week was the 50-year anniversary of its release. Does it seem like that long ago?
No. In that sense, it doesn't. Life seems to be going fast one day and then the next you're like, "Really? That was 50 years ago, I can't quite believe that." But that's how he came to write this impassioned song. You know, somebody told me a fantastic story the other night that shows what a real artist is like. The guy who designed and sculpted that statue, Bartholdi, so even though he built the statue before there were airplanes in the sky, every curl on the top of her head is perfectly done.
That's a real craftsman.
A real craftsman, and that's what I respect. Craftsmanship, reality and passion. That song is about that beacon of light has welcomed generations of men, women and children to our shores. It's an interesting song and I'm proud to say I'm in very good voice. But I think part of that was my passion for the subject – it was just there. I just put on the headphones and I could sing so fluidly and with ease. I don't know where it came from. I think God said, "I like the idea of this album," and he put his finger on my throat. When you believe in the material and have the passion behind it -- and it's something new, I wasn't revisiting older songs, so that was exciting for me.
I love recording because it's private, I love it. There's a song on here written by Steve Dorff called "Love's Never Wrong." Because love is the most powerful force for good in the universe and it transcends race and religion and sexual orientation. I was struck by the inclusive message of its lyrics. For me, it was almost like singing a song from The Normal Heart; my philosophy there, and the theme of that movie for me, was about everyone's right to love whomever they want to.
The album title is Walls, which is such loaded word these days.
When I told my friends Marilyn and Alan Bergman, I wasn't even thinking they'd participate in this album, but I told them the theme of this album and what I was trying to say and do. The next thing I know, a week or two later, Alan says "I have an idea" and showed me the lyric and I fell off the floor. I was like, "great!" [Reads lyric]: "Walls high and low, thick and thin/ they keep you out, they keep you in." These are such wonderful writers to work with, I said, "What about writing a part that talks about emotional walls between people?" And so they did that! I thought my album would be called What's On My Mind, but when I saw this lyric -- and then I had an idea for the cover, me against this wall. The wall of society, the walls of this presidency, the walls that obstruct justice. Yet there's a light coming in and hope for the future. We have to grow as a nation, we just have to grow out of this and see the light; that's all I can say.
Of course you were in the third iteration of A Star Is Born and won an Oscar for your song. I know you've seen parts, but have you seen the full cut of the Lady Gaga remake?
I haven't seen the full cut, but it's very good. Every time that film is made it's a success. I loved Judy Garland's version, I like this one a lot, and I liked mine (laughs).
And Judy -- you do "Happy Days Are Here Again" on the new album, which you did with her on her TV show and on your first album.
I know, I loved her and got to work with her, and we became friends. We talked on the phone and it was like she was passing the torch to me in a way. And Lady Gaga, I call her Stefani, well, you know, she was a success already. But she's the same age – she's 32 I think, and I was 33 when I made that movie. But it's good! It should have been made in the '90s. I thought it was going to be [redone] – I was offered to direct it but I thought, "Well, been there, done that." [At one point] it was going to be with rap music and a black cast, and then Beyonce [was attached]. But the story will always work and it's working again.