Finally, almost two hours after our allotted interview time, the call comes down from the fifth floor of the Sanderson hotel. Mariah Carey is ready. Except that, actually, that’s not strictly true. With a few pictures still to be taken, I’m afforded an opportunity to shake hands with some people who travelled over here with her: the hair guy; the US label manager; the guy who controls the schedule; the security guy; the driver; the camp make-up guy with the forward baseball cap; the camp make-up guy with the backward baseball cap, the publicist and the promotions woman. “We had the bed removed yesterday,” explains the promotions woman. “That’s understandable,” I say, as the last few molecules of oxygen disappear.
“The diva thing?” smiles Carey, pulling her peach dress over her knees, “Diva can mean a lot of different things. There’s good diva and there’s bad diva.”
The evening before our rendez-vous, she performed at Live 8. Many singers would have been nervous about following Madonna with her miracle famine survivor. But with twenty singing African orphans in tow and a dress that appeared to be sewn onto her, Mariah was also unforgettable. Her requests for a microphone stand went either unnoticed or unheard; then when she tried to get one of the orphans to say hello to the watching world, numb terror descended upon the poor thing. I put it to her that many people for whom Mariah remains synonymous with the d-word may not have been surprised by what they saw.
But appearances can be deceptive. To her credit, she seems no less amused than the rest of us by what happened. “It was fine in rehearsals,” she says, “But when he saw himself on the huge screen, I think totally freaked him out.”
“Nightmare,” I say. “You must have wanted to strangle him right there and then.”
“Do you know they’re orphans?”
“Sorry, I didn’t literally mean it about strangling him.”
“Right, ok… but they were actually so cool, all of them. Anyway, he did say hello in the end, but he didn’t scream it like I wanted him to.”
When it comes to brazening out ignominies, of course, Mariah Carey has seen it all before. In 2001, her record deal with Virgin (reportedly worth $80 billion) ended almost as soon as it began when she starred in semi-biopic Glitter – a movie which, according to one review at the time, “provided absolutely no intentional pleasures for adult moviegoers.” Anchored to the film’s awfulness, the eponymous debut album performed so badly that Carey’s new paymasters panicked and paid her a further $28 million just so that she didn’t record any more albums for them. If Carey can laugh about it now, it’s probably something to do with a month spent atop the US album charts with current album The Emancipation Of Mimi.
At the time, she says she remembers a kind of panic setting in. Convinced that with enough promotion, she could “save the project”, Carey threw herself to a “21-hour a day promotional schedule.” Now she says she realizes that her friends were worried about her, “but when they called on me to see if I was ok, I’d be like, on a five minute lunch break. After a while, they stop calling anyway.” That the film’s release date was 9/11 hardly helped matters, she adds. “If you look at the film now, well… it’s not great. There are a few spots on it that are ok. But it was kind of unfortunate that the film came out when it did. It was a good idea that was completely homogenized by the studio.”
With the benefit of some hindsight and a lot of therapy, she adds that her ensuing collapse – on her mother’s kitchen floor – was the culmination of factors that could be dated all the way back to beginning of her career, when her long-held acting ambitions were smothered by a husband whose name she still would still rather not utter if she can help it.
Seasoned Carey-watchers will, of course, need no introduction to Tommy Mottola – the legendarily flamboyant Sony godfather who swept the teenage Carey from waitressing to Grammy-chomping global dominance. He gave her a career; under the circumstances she felt it impolite not to give him what he wanted – her hand in marriage. Aged 23, Carey said goodbye to her friends and her mother (her Venezuelan father had fled the family home when she was three) and moved upstate to the town of Hillsdale with, to quote its official website, “its open spaces, rural character and friendly people”.
“It wasn’t all bad,” she insists limply, “I had a barn with horses and all that kind of stuff. But [Tommy] loved it. He was very much like let’s go stare at the foliage. After a while though, I got to calling it Hills-jail.””
That’s understandable. No-one wants to stare at foliage when they’re twenty.
“I don’t even want to stare at it now,” she agrees. “So imagine how I felt about it then.”
But she must have been into the idea to start with. Even if love had made her temporarily take leave of her senses.
“The idea? The idea was one thing, but a three and half hour ride in the car when the radio station stops about an hour into the ride – that’s not much fun. And we would do this every Thursday. I would want to put on my Wu-Tang Clan CD and he would want to listen to Frank Sinatra.”
It’s the briefest of snapshots, but it explains so much about Mariah Carey’s 90s output – how a street-smart young New Yorker became the global queen of staid supper club R&B. No matter how much her recent output may have improved, there are people around the world who will struggle to forgive her for the likes of Hero and Boys II Men-abetted atrocity that was One Sweet Day. For her part, Carey doesn’t seem over-eager to make a case for their artistic worth. If her marriage to Mottola left her with nothing else, their liaison made her wise to the artistic compromises necessary for maintaining a pop career. After her 1990 breakthrough hit Vision Of love, she wrote Love Takes Time in half an hour: “I was like, ok, I understand what I have to do. It needs a simple melody and a lyric that isn’t too specific. Those aren’t necessarily my favourite songs, but they grow on me and I associate them with a period of time and other people say that they loved that song and it did such and such for them, so that’s cool. But the songs that I tend to like the best are the grittier songs that not everybody will necessarily warm to.”
By “grittier”, she’s referring to the songs written during the latter years of her marriage to Mottola, when they moved into a new mansion in New York. One such tune can be found on 1999’s Rainbow album. “I gravitated towards a patriarch,” she sings on Petals, “So young predictably/I was resigned to spend my life/With a maze of misery.” “I called it Sing-Sing,” she says, alluding the notorious US prison. Why? Because all I did in that house was sing, sing. And then it burned to the ground.”
For some reason, probably surprise, I react by laughing.
“Don’t worry. I’m glad that it burned. I wish it had burned when I had lived there… because, well… never mind.”
Why did it burn down?
Her answer is disarmingly candid. “I don’t know, and um, it’s a mystery – but somebody collected a lot of insurance and it wasn’t me.”
Regrets? There are just a few. She wishes she had “one of those smart, older women” in her life to warn her against jumping into situations “with both feet.” Her mother – “an opera singer and late-hippy who was one of those ‘free-to-be-who-you-are’ types” didn’t fit the bill: “She always felt that he was more of a contemporary of hers than I was.”
All things considered then, it doesn’t take a genius to work out what a song like 2002’s “comeback” single Through The Rain was about. With her marriage, the Virgin debacle and that breakdown all behind her, America offered Carey the leg-up of redemption after a soul-baring Oprah interview. The song was another one of those that she wrote to order – not a bad trick if you can manage it. “Through The Rain [was] specifically made to be mass appeal,” she says – but it earned her the right to make an album that she says is “100 per cent Mariah.” Compare the middle-aged cabaret dreck of those early singles to the block party R&B and ripe hip-hop jams of The Emancipation Of Mimi – complete with cameos from Snoop Dogg and Nelly. Mariah Carey, now 35, sounds like a woman living out her career in reverse. And thankfully, someone’s finally told her that it really isn’t necessary to sing eight notes when one would do perfectly well.
“Did you not like that? Well ok. Some people do. But yes, there isn’t the pressure to bring down the house from the first note.”
She must also be aware that it’s a singing style that has left a grim legacy across the karaoke bars of Europe and America. Doesn’t she sometimes feel a little sheepish about that? “You think that’s all my fault? To be fair, karaoke did exist before me. And people with big voices did exist before me. Would it be ‘diva-esque of me to object?”
“I’m not sure,” I say. “Like you said, diva can mean a lot of different things.”
“Well, my mother was an opera singer. So I’m comfortable with the old-fashioned meaning of the word diva. And if somebody said you were the cupcake diva of Manhattan, that would be ok. But I’m not, like, this hysterical woman – I promise you.”