A large sitting room, TriBeCa. Panelled satin curtains tiddally ebb and flow in the wind before rainspray coats them, and the blackened Greenway dock outside. On the wall hangs a large sailor blue chrome bull’s head: to the left of it, one of Greenwich Hotel’s plunging 30ft foot atelier bays, and to the right, Mariah Carey, one of the biggest selling female artists of all time, draped in s/s Dolce and Tom Ford.
Mariah is the 90s-birthed hollaback pop what dusty was to civil rights movement radio: without her, there’d be no place in the pop culture patios for the Thug-Love duet (pop-girl and gang-guy partnerships – see 1999’s Jay-Z hype-manned “Heartbreaker”) and no time for either Christina’s melisma Olympiads (the outer limits vocal soars of 199’s “Hero”) or the whistle register (Mimi’s Minnie Riperton trademaker – her octave-defying reach). Oh, and Christmas would be no mare than a Bailey’d pickled after thought (1994’s unbreakable “All I Want For Christmas.”)
In person, she’s kind and careful to answer questions with decimal point precision. We chatted for the best part of an hour but it felt like five minutes; journeying everywhere from our favourite Stevie Wonder songs (hers is “Golden Lady”, and I comment that it reminds me of one of her ballads from 1995’s masterpiece, the lullaby laden Daydream) to what it feels like to score more number one singles than Elvis Presley. For someone who changed the face of pop in the 90s and hip-hop in the 2000s, she’s humble and conscientious and brimming with compliments.
The setting’s just as lavish as I’d expected (I half anticipated Kate Bush to magic from the tidal satin). Rumours from previous interviews are ten a penny (“she’s rarely ever less than four hours late to these things” / “she likes puppies and magnums, and lilies and a chause longue.”). But Mariah embraces and percolates the mystique surrounding her – and besides, she and I know, well beyond words, just how much of a miracle she is. And not least on the big screen: she’s starred in under a dozen films in her career, but the roles are pure power. Her part as an impassioned social worker in 2009’s Previous landed her a Palm Springs International Film Award as well as across-academy nominations: Screen Actors Guild; Broadcast Film Critics Association; loads more.
Starting as we mean to drink on, Mariah dips a paw into the Swissmar wine cooler that parts us – “You’re Prosecco, right?” – and I notice it’s gloves in lace. Has she strained it mothering her twin toddlers, Moroccan and Monroe? No, back in July doctors told her she’d likely lose the use of her left arm after falling down a flight of stairs during a video shoot for “#Beautiful” – the first track to be taken from her newest, as yet untitled May LP (it’s her 13th, and the first since 2010’s follow-up to Merry Christmas, seasonal soundtrack Merry Christmas II You).
The setback (“They couldn’t find a pulse. I know from the doctors’ faces that they were feeling nervous,” she explains) left the singer agonised, petrified for her future performing career, and determined to continue. But leave it to Mariah to remain sanguine (“I never, ever acknowledge the negative. I will not go there.”). She got right up and continued filming before checking into A&E.
The track is a huge Stax soul groove; a future radio play frenzy born from sooty vinyl needle-crackle Motown, and filled out by verses from the era’s biggest contemporary offspring, Miguel. The same goes for Blue Magic ballad “The Art of Letting Go,” which makes me feel like I’ve climbed inside a velvet-lined snug in the Moroccan massage parlour-themes wing of Mimi’s NYC apartment. One line in particular hit me like a barbed arrow. “I will no longer live in your dominion!”, she hollers.
Caressing the cooler like a mystic would she shew stone, Mariah goes to lengths to pan out how sutured she’s felt her whole life. Silenced by everyone from her former boss, Sony Records USA owned Tommy Mottola whom she married at 18 (he was 37), to her life-long battle with stage fright, the singer claims that the album sees her on righteous form, freer from her personal and professional shackles than ever before.
“‘The Art of Letting Go'” [once the album title] is important because it helped me let go of fear; fear that I will never reach my true potential. It’s true that becoming a mummy has helped me to become a stronger person, but this album is about reclaiming myself, and that I am not going to be pushed around by anyone anymore. This album is ready when it’s ready. Not any sooner.”
Long before Mottola, ‘riah had it tough as a mixed race kid in surburban Long Island. By the time she was three, her dad had left her, her LaGuardia-trained opera singer mother and two siblings, the broken fam – part Venezuelan, Irish and African-American – spend the rest of Mariah’s pre-adolescence relocating (she counts 13 moves, in total). In radically segregated areas, the singer felt misplaces at every turn. “Forget racism, I mean we were properly in danger so many times. Our dogs were poisoned, our cars were blown up. I didn’t fit in anywhere,” she says, explaining that the singing lessons she started when she was five helped her escape the troubles. “My kids are never gonna see what I’ve seen. It’s more than most adults will ever see because I haven’t opened up that chapter to the world. One day in a book, maybe I will.”
The darkness that beckoned adulthood at too young an age is what keep her grounded, she says. It’s also the reason, however, why she “always feels the rug could be pulled from under [her] at any point. Growing up with nothing, you learn to never feel secure.” After her split with Mottola, Mariah vowed never to marry again. “I never thought I would get married ever, and I really didn’t want to the first time around,” she admits. Things changed in 2008, when she met – and subsequently wedded – TV personality, rapper and TeenNick owner Nick Cannon on the coast of Antigua.
She claims that her first two records, 1990’s Mariah Carey and the following years Emotions, were Motown moments rawer, edgier and far more emotionally impactful in demo form. Her latest, she says, is the album those damaged demos should have turned into. “I went abroad to record it. I escaped New York – kinda like Kurt Russell in that film but, y’know, way more fabulous,” she winks. “With those first albums, I recorded the high notes in ‘Visions of Love’ on a drum mic – a PZM – which gave it this real old crispness. I wanted to get back to that.”
Mariah spent much of last year busy downsizing her recording space, setting up a studio in her apartment. “I didn’t care if it was half the size of the room we’re in now,” she claims. “Just so I had the babies near me. It’s weird that I still call them babies, because they’re growing up so fast. But y’know ‘They’ll always be my babyyy.'” Things regularly get karaoke around Mariah, who breaks into glorious song – more often than not, when taken from her own greatest hits set – whenever the moment fits.
Does that mean Dem Babies (a catch-all she uses after setting up dembabies.co – a dedicated domain features pictures of the twins in oversized bunny ears and various other Disney ephemera, proceeds of which go to charity) make it onto the record? “Yeah, actually! Roc- I call Monoe Roe, so it’s like “Roc ‘n’ Roe!” – got really involved. There’s a song on the record called ‘Supernatural’ that I haven’t talked to the media about before – it features Roc and Roe. Especially Monroe, that’s her song. She opens the song, actually. I couldn’t believe what I heard when she sang into my phone that first time. It was something along the lines of ‘Goo goo goooo.’ For a two and a half year old, she has a steady vibrato.” And a whistle register too, right? “That too [Mariah then starts whistling some of Roc’s high pitched lines. It goes on for a few minutes]. I’m a great whistler, you know.”
Hushed anthem “You’re Mine (Eternal),” is remixed for verses with Trey Songz – but don’t expect any of the slow rap-speak realness she broke into on “Heartbreaker” or “Always Be My Baby,” though. (Though if you’re reading Mariah, I suggest the following aliases should you change your mind: Lil Mim C, MC Care Ryde, Yung Mimi). “I mean, A$AP Rocky is on the record as is Wale, who did lots of the production,” she explains. “But the fad with rap now is that they sing-speak. Singing is back. I grew up on Grandmaster Flash and Sugarhill Gang and when I went to the record company in the late 90s with ideas to incorporate hip-hop into the music – well they thought it was a brand new genre. I was like ‘guys, this has been around for the past 20 years. Can you please just listen to me?'”
In between collaborations and acts of philanthropy – Mimi regularly contributes to the lies of Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Fresh Air Fund, amongst others – she became a judge on a series of American Idol last year” “Idol was a good experience, but it was also a living hell.” she shrugs. “It was fun because I was involved in the contestants – that’s what motivated me. But it was a political cluster. I can live with what happened, and I wore some nice clothes…”
It’s not unfair to say that in her own fabulous, fantastical self-made Narnia – where Dem Babies, spontaneous showgirlship, and hair that flows like molten gold have the final say – Mariah is only and ever about keeping the read REAL, and waving compromise to one side. “Make it magical, make it magical, make it magical,” she chants to me and her publicist at 11pm, ahead of the 15 interviews that follow that night. “Let’s all sing it!”