'It's freedom': Cher on singing, her mother and her first holiday album, 'Christmas'
Updated November 6, 2023 at 5:54 AM ET
Few singers graduate to one-name status, fewer still go by a single syllable.
Cher has been synonymous with glamour, invention and then re-invention for six decades and now she's once again trying something new: a Christmas album. The album combines quintessentially Cher twists on classics from the American holiday canon with new music more reminiscent of club bumping hits like "Believe" (which turned 25 this year).
The album, simply titled Christmas, was released more than a week before Halloween, leading some to scratch their heads. But Cher told NPR's Scott Simon not to think too hard about it.
"It doesn't have anything to do with anything," Cher said of her Christmas album's early release date. "You've got a song, you love it [and] you do it. That's how you do it. That's how I do it."
Cher told Simon that when you listen to Christmas, there should be no confusion: This is her unconventional take on a Christmas album.
"I picked very different songs. You know? None of them really go together. I just did songs that I wanted to do and didn't think about if they went together. They just felt like the holidays," Cher said.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Scott Simon: You dedicated this album to your mother Georgia Holt, who I gather left us just before Christmas last year.
Cher: I have to tell you something. I was happy for my mom because my mom and I are kind of similar in many aspects. But I know my mom wasn't having a good time and my mom is really kick-ass, you know? And I was really happy when she could leave it — go on to something else.
Simon: May I ask if doing these songs brought back memories of her and Christmases together with family?
Cher: Well, you know, it's strange, I wasn't thinking about those kinds of things, but my mom, even though my mom and I had such a rocky [relationship] ... we had the weirdest relationship ever.
But my mom was kind of always in me, and I took my mom's voice. There's a song that we sing together called ... "I'm Just Your Yesterday." And if you listen to it, you can't really tell sometimes which one of us is which. My mom was a big influence on me. And we fought like cats and dogs sometimes, but when I'm singing, somehow she's inside of me, even though it's different. But when you hear my mom sing, you hear me.
So yeah, my mom's kind of always trying it out with me.
Simon: Can I ask you about "DJ Play a Christmas Song"? I found that very touching.
Cher: You think of someone going to a disco on Christmas and you think, "Oh, that's sad," or whatever. But then you think, you know, people are getting together and having a good time and it might not be what you think of as a Christmas scene. But I can feel it.
Simon: You have a distinguished roster of people who join you on this, including Stevie Wonder. Do you have Stevie Wonder on speed dial and just [call and] ask, "want to sing with me?"
Cher: No, but that's what I did. I was really nervous. I was so nervous. I didn't realize my assistant was videoing the whole conversation. But I called and I was like, "Stevie, it's me. And I've done 'What Christmas Means to Me.' But there are parts of it that I just can't do. And I've tried it, and I'm not good. I need you to come and do it."
I said, "I'm sending it to you. So if you think it's OK, will you do these parts?" And so he said, "yeah." In the middle of the conversation, he said, "Cher, is this my song?" and I went, "well, I wouldn't be asking you to sing somebody else's song." And so then at the very minute he said, "do you want me to play harmonica?"
And it was like the sky just opened up.
Simon: Got to ask you about "Baby Please Come Home." You're joined by the great Darlene Love. You have a history with this song, don't you?
Cher: I did background on that song when I was 17 years old. And I remember every second of it. It's indelible because we were in the studio. You know, we were just hanging and we were inside the studio with Darlene and she started to sing the song. I think every one of us stopped breathing.
Simon: I have read that you used to have stage fright.
Cher: Still do. We do a prayer right before we go on, and I'm always thinking, oh God, please let me get out there quickly, because once I start, I'm good. But right before I start, I'm just like, whoa, I can't do this. I'm a very "I can't do this" person.
Simon: I'm wondering if that kind of helps you keep up to a certain performance level.
Cher: I don't know. And there have been some times where it just left, but then it always comes back. It's so strange. I'm not a Cher fan, but I'm pretty good on stage, though. I'm quite interesting on stage and I'm really funny, but I'm not a big fan.
Simon: I'm such a big Cher fan. Why aren't you?
Cher: Because my voice is kind of strange to me. It's like, have you ever heard yourself talking?
Simon: All the time. And I cringe.
Cher: Well, how do you like it?
Simon: I don't like it. Not at all.
Cher: OK, so case closed.
Simon: Do you think of that teenage Cher every now and then? The 17-year-old, just making her way in the world?
Cher: I actually was talking about it with my friend because when I was young, I was getting into so much trouble. I didn't do anything really bad. But, like when I was 9, I jumped a freighter. So, that was kind of really weird.
Simon: I'm sorry. You jumped a freighter when you were 9?
Cher: Yes. A train.
Simon: A freight train? You jumped on it and rode?
Cher: Yeah. And went until we were in San Bernardino. I mean, it was crazy. That my mother didn't lose her mind with me is really bizarre. I was with my friend Anita and we were coming home from school and I just thought, you know what? I'm done and I don't want to go to school anymore. I want to get out there. And so we saw this white horse in a pasture and we rode it to the end, which was quite a little way. And then I saw a train sitting there and there was a crack in the door. And I said, "let's jump on that." And then it started to go and we went to San Bernardino. So I called my mom and I told her what I did. So she came and got me, but I don't think my mom was ever really surprised.
Simon: Were you trying to get away somewhere or find yourself?
Cher: I tried to run away on my tricycle and I remember thinking, I've learned enough from these people. I have to go run.
Simon: What do you like about singing?
Cher: It's free. It's freedom. My favorite thing in the world is to stand on stage in rehearsal and just feel the music coming out of me, because I'm not a big person, but I have a big voice, and it feels really good.
Simon: That sounds beautiful. You are a big person, though. You have a big personality.
Cher: No, I have a giant personality, but I'm not a big person. I mean, I'm little, but when I'm on stage, I feel like I need to be 15 feet tall. It's always 15 feet because you can't be small and be on stage and have everybody feel it. Art is always about feeling. I think it can be the only thing that's completely about feeling.
Ryan Benk and Melissa Gray produced and edited the audio interview.
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