American Idol Season 3 champion Fantasia’s life struggles have been well documented — in her memoir and accompanying TV biopic Life Is Not a Fairytale, for starters, as well as in her VH1 reality show Fantasia for Real, which chronicled her recovery from a 2010 breakdown and overdose. But through it all, Fantasia’s grandmother, Addie Collins, was always there for her, reminding the girl she lovingly nicknamed “Tasia” of the importance of family — especially during the holiday season.
“My grandmother, pretty lady she was, and she was my biggest fan,” Fantasia reminisces to Yahoo Entertainment. “She played a big role in my life, from when I was a little girl to winning Idol. She was that woman that I would call whenever I was going through so much, when people was talking about me. She had all the right words, all the right things to say. … She would always say, ‘If you fail, get back up again. Brush yourself off. No matter what you did, God will forgive you. You forgive yourself, and you keep it moving.’ It was those talks, those moments on the phone, that kept me going and kept me inspired. I have to think of those, to this day, because I can’t pick up the phone and call her. I can’t hear her voice now. But what I do have is the memories, and I can still hear her saying to me, ‘Keep going. Anything worth having is worth fighting for.’”Fantasia gave birth to her second child in 2011 and married businessman Kendall Taylor in 2015, and she became a (step)grandmother herself last year when Kendall’s son from a previous relationship became a dad. But sadly, Collins — whose birthday was actually Christmas Day — died two and a half years ago, making the holiday season bittersweet for the settled-down Fantasia and her growing family. (“I don’t think it will ever get easy,” she admits.) However, the 33-year-old singer has found the best way to honor her grandmother this season: with a new holiday album, Christmas After Midnight.
“My grandmother always played music during the holidays, all day long, all day long,” Fantasia remembers fondly. “It was the Temptations’ ‘Silent Night’ [which Fantasia covers on her holiday album], or the Jackson 5’s Christmas album, or the Mariah Carey album. She made sure there was always music playing through the house, keeping that Christmas spirit going. That is what I wanted to do with this album, and to go back in time. I’ve dedicated this album to her, and I prayed over this album. I said, ‘With this album, let families come back together again, because they’re breaking up.’”
Fantasia elaborates on that last thought: “When we lose the grandma, when we lose the grandpa, we lose the family. We lose the love. That’s what I wanted this album to do, with me also stepping outside of the box and singing the songs that I know she loved: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Ray Charles, all those people who came before us. Those people who were really singing about something. Singing about love. That’s why I dedicated it to my grandma, and that’s why she was so special to me, because she left me with something. That’s what we need more now in this world, in this day and time. We need men and women to stand up and lead our young people, and leave them with something, leave them inspired, leave them encouraged — because they’re not right now.”
The jazzy-but-genre-hopping album, which was produced by Ron Fair (“He’s an amazing producer, a genius”) at L.A.’s Capitol Studios and Nashville’s Blackbird Studios, is Fantasia’s first release on her own Concord Records-distributed imprint, Rock Soul Entertainment. It features a mix of favorites, including unexpected covers of James Brown’s “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and Fantasia explains, “I started in gospel, but when you love music, you don’t put a label on music. That’s why I like to call what we do now ‘rock soul,’ meaning you love all genres of music, all different sounds. I don’t want to be boxed in. [In the studio] I was saying, ‘Musicians, don’t box yourselves in, either! I want you to play from your spirit, and play what you hear. Play from your soul.’ Everything that you hear, on this album, when it comes down to the music and the way I sing it and arranged it, vocally, it’s all coming from a passionate place, a loving place.”
“Hallelujah” is an interesting choice, not just because it’s not a holiday song per se, but because it has been covered so many times — and by so many American Idol contestants! — that it’s almost impossible for any singer to switch it up and make it fresh. Fantasia, however, was up for the challenge.
“We played ‘Hallelujah’ totally different,” she says of the stunning track. “I’ve listened to ‘Hallelujahs’ several times, with different people, and I loved it, but I wanted to do my own. When we started recording it, I said, ‘No, no, no.’ We stopped. I didn’t enjoy how we were doing it the first time. I said, ‘We can’t do it the same way everybody’s been doing it. I want the guitar player to just give me something bluesy, give me something moody. When you hear this song, what do you feel?’ And we just stripped it down, and he made it a different song — Fantasia’s version. That’s what made me so excited. I remember, I think I cried that day in the studio because there was something about the guitar player’s licks and his mood and the words to the song that made me very emotional. I think that’s what makes the song so freaking dope.”
Fantasia is on the road with her “Christmas After Midnight — A Holiday Concert” tour through Dec. 14, and she feels that excitement and emotion every time she hits the stage. “It’s a rush. I don’t need any alcohol. I don’t need any drugs. I’m getting all my high from music.” She also feels gratitude, taking inspiration from how much her late grandmother appreciated the little joys in life.
“She would ask me for the simplest things. I brought her to stay with me in New York for a while. I wanted her to see me in my last Broadway show, which was called After Midnight [which inspired Christmas After Midnight]. I said, ‘Grandma, what store do you want to go to? I’m going to get you whatever you want.’ She looked at me and said, ‘Tasia, I want you to take me to the thrift store.’ I’m like, ‘Grandma, we’re in New York City, and you want to go to the thrift store?’ But that is what I loved about her.
“And that’s how I appreciate and look at life now. Because when I went through all those bad times, and then I lost everything,” continues Fantasia (whose past money woes have included a 2013 battle to avoid foreclosure on her North Carolina home), “now I look at life, and I’m like, it’s not about the cars we drive. It’s not about always wearing labels. It’s not about staying in the hotels that cost this much money. No, it’s about getting up in the morning, and just listening to the birds chirp. Just being able to have the ability to hear. Just being able to have the ability to live to see another day, because some people do not do that. As I watch my little brother [Xavier Barrino], who’s 24 years old and in the hospital from a motorcycle accident right now… he still can’t walk, but I watched him go from not being able to talk and not being able to eat, to now, he can talk and he can eat.
“It’s those moments that my grandmother used to try to remind us of: ‘Don’t worry about that. Just understand that you’re still here. The Lord allows you to see another day to make a difference, and to just be a blessing to somebody.’ She made herself a gift to people, meaning she gave back to the community. She made sure people had clothes, socks, shoes, and food on their table, and if they needed help paying their rent, she did that too. She would even invite people into our home. I see the same things with me; I try not to give so much of myself away that I forget about myself, but I did want to keep that tradition going, by giving back to the world my music. That’s what I loved about my grandma, and I thank her. I do. I thank her for giving me that.”
This article originally ran on Yahoo Music.