Get the eggnog ready! According to Ana Gasteyer, the two most important facets of the holidays (besides celebrating and connecting) are sugar and booze. That’s why she croons about the combination on her new Christmas album of the same name, a whimsically retro yet tenderly earnest record that includes a range of classics, forgotten gems and original tracks marking the jolly season.
The Saturday Night Live veteran who recently starred in Netflix’s Wine Country is ending 2019 with a bang. Not only is she marking the release of Sugar & Booze with a nationwide tour and a companion show for Audible featuring a slew of guest stars including Patti LuPone, but she was also recently revealed to be the tree on Fox’s The Masked Singer.
Billboard caught up with Gasteyer to get the holiday dish on the making of the album, a career filled with music and her booze of choice: “I make drinks that are not too strong because I like to have a lot of them.”
Christmas came early for you this year with the New York Post recently listing “Sugar & Booze” as one of the best Christmas songs of the year alongside John Legend and Lea Michele. Congratulations!
I know! I couldn’t believe it. I was so excited. We’re the little engine that could. It’s a labor of love and a passion project.
Between your recent turn on The Masked Singer (where you were appropriately, the tree), your role in Netflix’s Wine Country and the release of Sugar & Booze and its subsequent tour, it seems likes 2019 has been a banner year for you.
Yeah, it feels crazy. I really have to say, I’m so happy to write these songs and get them produced and get them on the record. I really wanted a full quarter of the record to be original songs. This might be the year I can finally stop answering the question, “Oh, do you sing?” That would be a great accomplishment for me. But more than that, it’s all been incredibly creative and incredibly fun. To be on the road with real musicians is really a joy; we travel with a glockenspiel and jingle bells and it’s as happy as a musical event as you can think of. As for Wine Country, it’s another aspect where you reach a point in your career where you can start to kind of opt into the joyful parts of things. I feel very, very, very lucky and very aware of how hard it is to get to do what I do and how fun it is for me. I just hope people enjoy it too.
Throughout your career on Saturday Night Live, whether with Deandra Wells and the Culps and into your theater and stage work, I’ve noticed this thread of parodying and honoring lounge-style music and crooners. Would that be fair to say? Where does that come from?
Yeah, for sure. I think it literally comes from the fact that in the modern landscape you don’t have as many entertainers who cross boundaries as much as those late ’50s/early ’60s era of performers did. It’s a focus on lyrics and a focus on the mood of the music and the humor of music. There’s a wit that existed in the ’50s and ’60s and I just think I missed my era. When I set out to make a record, it was no coincidence that it’d be focused on the holidays because they have this automatic nostalgia and throwback to them which makes it a little less conspicuous. But it’s the kind of music that I like.
What’s interesting is that Sugar & Booze isn’t necessarily a comedy album. There are funny moments, but there’s also tenderness on there too.
I would not call it a comedy album, personally. It’s not only reductive, but if I were to make a comedy album I’d hope it’d be funnier. I’m obviously a person who loves comedy and I’m a funny person, and I like whimsy and humor and delight and joy and all the things that surround comedy, but it’s a musical album with my personality in it.
As a concept, you note that sugar and booze are the two most important aspects of the holidays, and sometimes they’re combined if you’re so lucky. How did you go about writing the title track?
(Laughter) What’s funny is that it was pure inspiration. I really wanted to write about what I love about the holidays and wanted to capture what hadn’t yet been captured in a song. My biggest goal for the original songs were that they felt old and felt like they existed from the days of yore. There are so many great holiday novelty songs that I decided to live in that genre. The hook from “Sugar & Booze” literally came to me in a dream. I wish I was joking but I am not. I woke up (singing) “the best part of the hol-i-days,” with that sort of rhythmic beat and I wrote the song with my friend Nicholas.
“He’s Stuck in the Chimney Again” has lyrics like, “Old St. Nich-o-laus, he looks re-dic-alaus, Oh what a pick-a-laus he’s in” and is very quirky. I understand it has a unique origin.
That song was written by Cy Coleman and Floyd Huddleston. Cy was one of the great American songwriters. When we set out to make the album, my music director Tedd Firth and I listened to hundreds of hundreds of hundreds of holiday songs and as you know, there are few that get recycled annually that are great and there are few that get recycled annually that are not great. It was really important to Ted that the songs themselves were structurally sound and there are a lot of Great American Songbook songs that we hear annually that we wanted to hone in on, so we included songs like “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm,” and “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let it Snow!” and “Sleigh Ride.” (We were looking for more) and came across this Cy Coleman demo of “He’s Stuck in the Chimney Again” which was found in a trunk after Cy died. We called his people if we can record it and they said yes. It’s exactly my kind of song: it’s rhythmic, it’s percussive, it’s lyrical, and it’s fun and funny.
Your former SNL cohort and Wine Country co-star Maya Rudolph also makes an appearance on the album.
It’s a total coup! Not only is she a phenomenal musician, but she’s a fantastic harmonizer and she’s a hoot to do things with. When I wrote this woke anthem “Secret Santa,” I thought it had a goofy, retro Cuban feel. I thought she’d be perfect for the song and she was a game participant. That was an incredible experience.
What are your Christmas traditions? Is there something you have to do every year or else it’s not the holidays?
Yeah, well we definitely have relationships with music like everybody does. I love throwback music and it’s a great time of year for our favorite crooners. We always watch movies like two of my favorites, It’s A Wonderful Life and White Christmas, during the wrapping mania. However, this year I’m touring like crazy, so we’re kind of missing the holiday season in a sad way. But it’s also really fun because I’m throwing a Christmas party as I’m performing these shows.
How long do you leave your Christmas tree up?
It depends how busy we are! This year, we’ve sort of been celebrating Christmas for awhile because I started to record Sugar & Booze last January. So I think we’ll probably want to get the tree down quickly and go into a different mode for a little while. I like to lean in hard, sugar and booze it, have a great time, and scene! Close it up and put it away.
Do you sometimes feel that pressure during the holidays to squeeze in the time to watch these movies and bake cookies and the traditions and everything that goes with it?
Not to be too cheesy, but that’s what the record is about: connecting with people, because I think what it really comes down to is who you want to spend it with and how you want to celebrate. The words “celebrate” and “connection” are really the most important aspects. Oddly, I’m talking about (the concept of) having sugar and booze from the heart: having people over, having some good food, have some good drink, laughing with them and there’s your holiday. Life is hard and we need a week off and check out our brains for a few minutes. The older I get, the more I realize that’s what it’s all about. So I wanted to make a record that felt like a gift or party that you can put on and feel festive without having that sense of obligation. Turn it on, make yourself a cocktail, talk to somebody and feel the happiness of the holidays.
Okay, let’s say it’s around 10pm on Christmas and you’re done with everything and can just kick back and relax and have a drink. What booze do you indulge with?
There’s this really fantastic punch that I make with vodka, cranberry, a little bit of Grand Marnier and something sparkly. I make drinks that are not too strong because I like to have a lot of them. Prosecco is good for that too.