Features — 11 January 2019
Cher on Twitter, the songs of ABBA and how touring is ‘a kind of ministry’

By Mikael Wood

Los Angeles Times

Last time it was an old-school limousine. This time, a chauffeured Suburban. In both instances the message was clear: Yes, Cher would sit for an interview — but only while moving from one place to another.

And if the show-business legend had a lot going on when we shared a ride in 2013, as she made her way from an Academy Awards taping to a party at Soho House, she was even busier on a recent afternoon, just weeks before the release of her new album, Dancing Queen, and her tour, which includes a stop here Jan. 19 at the BB&T Center in Sunrise.

A happy byproduct of her role in last summer’s Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, the disc collects Cher’s loving renditions of 10 classic ABBA songs, including the title track and one she sings in the film, Fernando. Critics and fans hailed the feel-good, box-office hit as something of an antidote to today’s toxic political climate.

But that’s not all she had on her mind as we crawled through rush-hour traffic from Burbank (where she’d appeared on Ellen) to the Sunset Marquis in West Hollywood (where she was set to shoot something for James Corden). In November, The Cher Show — a Broadway bio-musical, which she co-produced, about a one-of-a-kind career that stretches back to the mid-1960s, when she broke out with her then-husband, the late Sonny Bono — began performances in New York.

Then she was saluted alongside Philip Glass, Reba McEntire and Wayne Shorter at this year’s Kennedy Center Honors on Dec. 2.

For all she was juggling, Cher, 72, put across a zen-like focus in our talk, perhaps because she knew there was no reason to rush — everybody else, after all, would wait for her.

Dressed in jeans and a denim jacket, her long hair blond and wavy, she also made as much eye contact as any celebrity I’ve encountered, which means she noticed when my gaze drifted at one point to an object in the back of the Suburban.

“Oh, that’s a trampoline,” she said. “But don’t pay attention to it.”

Do you ever drive yourself?

Absolutely. But not when I’m working.

Where do you go?

I go to my friend’s house. I go to Cross Creek [also known as Malibu Village], but that’s getting more difficult all the time because there’s paparazzi. You used to be able to go in as a bum — just, like, grody — and not have anybody bother you. Sometimes I’ll go to the movies in Calabasas.

Do you watch your own movies?

I might watch Silkwood if it came on because I’m not in it that much. Sometimes there’s a line in a movie I did that I really like. But not very many whole performances.

Not even Moonstruck? You did win an Oscar.

That was a nice thing. But I didn’t anticipate it. I mean, MGM hated it — they didn’t put the movie out till they had nothing else to put out. Two movies had to fail first. But look, it’s like Meryl [Streep] said: You don’t do your work for honors or medals or awards. You just do the best work you can do.

Speaking of work, you’re touring again [now].

People say, ‘Why are you doing this?’ And sometimes I don’t want to do it. But then I think at some point I won’t be able to do it. People won’t be interested, or I won’t physically be able to do it. I wonder if I’ll be sad. It’s not that I really like performing so much — I like the people.

The dancers and musicians?

No, the people in the audience. You’re probably not going to understand this, but I think that performing is a kind of ministry. I’m not using that word in the sense that people use it. But you’re giving things out to people and they’re getting something. For that 90 minutes or two hours, your job is to take them out of themselves. When you’re enjoying art, you don’t have a chance to think about your mortgage or how much you dislike Trump or if you have an illness or whatever.

Are you a religious person?

I think I’m a spiritual person. I went to Nepal — which was an accident, really — and I met this man. As one does.

My favorite part of your concerts is usually —

The talking? I do it the same way Sonny and I did it. We were broke and owed the government a ton of money, so we went into these dinner theaters, and it was a nightmare. So we just started trying to make the band laugh, and if it was funny, we’d keep it in. Then all of a sudden, after these monologues, it was like standing room only.

Do you use a prompter onstage?

Yeah, but I don’t look at it. But I get nervous if it’s not there.

I think it’s hard for people to understand how you might forget the lyrics to a song you’ve sung thousands of times.

I don’t forget lyrics. But it makes me feel safe. And truthfully I don’t care what people think. I’ve been up and I’ve been down. People have hated me and then they thought I was great.

Setting aside those disgusted by her liberal views, people have seemed pretty high on Cher for quite a while.

When she announced that she’d made Dancing Queen, the internet’s collective response was a kind of hysterical gratitude, as though she’d given us a gift we didn’t even know we needed.

On our drive, I told her I thought she’d reached a sort of national-treasure stage where she could basically do no wrong in the eyes of her super-devoted fans. She disagreed, pointing to the lukewarm reaction to her last album, 2013’s Closer to the Truth.

But it’s certainly the case that Dancing Queen is better than it needed to be, with livelier singing and more vivid arrangements than you often get from similar late-career tribute records.

Cher said the project — which carries the happy endorsement of one of ABBA’s masterminds, Benny Andersson — began as something of a lark. Yet she clearly ended up taking it seriously.

You’ve said that ABBA’s songs are more difficult to sing than they appear. How so?

The first thing is that those girls have different ranges than I do. They have girl voices.

And your voice is what?

Someplace between Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen. But some of the songs go from really, really low to really, really high; I’m at the absolute tip-top of my range. I had a hard time with two: Dancing Queen and The Winner Takes It All. I was singing high, but I couldn’t get some of the words. I had to go back and do a couple of lines again.

What else was hard?

When the girls were singing, they were kind of boxed in. They were Benny’s vision, you know what I mean? Sonny did the same thing to me. But I kind of stretch it out where I can. Some of the songs you can’t stretch — Waterloo, which is one of my favorites, and Mamma Mia. Everybody said, ‘Don’t do those two, they’re too iconic.’

An ABBA covers album without Mamma Mia? That’s like a club sandwich —

Without the bacon. Well, I don’t eat bacon. But without the tomato.

That’s a moral objection?

No bacon or veal.

But you’re not a vegetarian.

I’m not a big meat-eater. I was very poor when I was young, and my mom was from the South, so we ate vegetables: black-eyed peas, okra. I never really grew up with an idea that meat had to be part of a meal. I like fish OK. But I haven’t eaten veal since I saw how it’s done. I went with my son on a field trip to a working farm at a college. We walked into this barn — they didn’t guide us there — and they had these little guys in the dark. I said I’ll never eat it again. It’s just not worth inflicting that kind of pain on a creature.

So you grew up without money. What did you spend it on once you had it?

My first new car. And a house. That was the first time Sonny or I owned a house. It was in Encino. But I got us out of there right away. I like being in town.

Right in the mix.

My parents were right in the mix — beautiful and artistic. I didn’t even know there were ugly people till I was 11.

An obsessive consumer of political news, Cher has made no secret of her disdain for President Trump, especially on Twitter, the social-media platform they both love.

“trump took 10 million dollars from Fema,Be4 Hurricane Season,& Gave It 2 ICE,” she wrote recently in her trademark style. “Was So Pres Could Build Internment camps 4 young Ppl,Children,& babies.”

In the Suburban, Cher said she feels she has to speak her mind — and that she hardly fears her haters now that she’s “old as mud.”

What are your forms of escapism?

I like to listen to audiobooks.

Novels? Nonfiction?

Nonfiction. I don’t care for fiction; I just never got into it. I like history and biographies. But I want to turn off the television. I used to go bed with it on, and that was not a good thing.

Do you wish you’d gotten the Kennedy Center Honor when President Obama was in office?

It would’ve meant so much to have him in the audience. But Trump [didn’t attend], so I’m OK.

Have you seen the Kennedy Center video where Obama weeps as Aretha Franklin is performing for Carole King?

And Carole’s going nuts. It’s so great.

Now that Aretha’s gone, that clip makes me think about the importance of appreciating older artists while they’re still around.

I think we tend to do it afterwards. But nobody’s going along in their everyday life thinking Aretha’s going to die. It’s like John McCain. I didn’t agree with him on anything; I tweeted things about him and how I hated his politics. But he was a mensch, and I didn’t even realize how sad I was until he was dead.

Does anyone vet your tweets?

What do you mean? It’s just straight from my phone to the world.

Some public figures have social-media consultants. People say Trump writes some of his tweets and that others are written by —

Someone who can speak English.

Or just some political operator.

I don’t know. I don’t care about him. But I make all my mistakes myself.

How do you think about emoji?

The same way I think about hieroglyphs — they tell a story. I have certain emoji that mean I’m really happy about something. One is cake. Another is the little ghost.

The ghost says happiness?

Well, yeah — he’s dancing. Sometimes I have emoji that I put together, which can take other people a while to understand. I have two that I put together that I love. Are you familiar with all the emoji?

I am.

OK, you know the section where the world is and the ocean is? There’s one in there where a woman is blowing something — air, maybe a storm, I don’t know. So I put her together with a snowflake, and for me that means cool.

I’m not sure I would’ve gotten that on my own.

No. But it makes perfect sense to me.

 

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