Mariah Carey is remembering the highlights of a trip she made to Los Angeles early last year. "I met Michael Jackson," she says. "He didn't know who I was, though."
Jackson would have had to spend the rest of 1990 sealed in a hyperbaric chamber to stay ignorant of Carey. Her debut album, Mariah Carey, full of catchy pop hooks and octave-busting crescendos, spent 22 weeks at Billboard's No. 1 spot. The first single, "Vision of Love," was everywhere at once, from boom boxes on the beach to in-flight airline sound systems. Two Grammy Awards capped the breathtaking rise of a twenty-year-old from Long Island who had been sweeping hair off the floor of a beauty salon barely two years earlier.
Now, with Mariah Carey having sold 7 million copies worldwide, the singer sits behind a mixing board at Right Track Recording on West 48th Street, finishing her new album, Emotions. "I still don't think of myself as a big deal," she says. "There's so many pop fads, I can't start thinking of myself as a big deal." In some ways, Carey seems to have remained downright girlish, doodling on a legal pad with a grease pencil as she talks, drawing tiny red hearts all over the page.
But it's clear Carey's trying to grow up and change musically. Unlike Whitney Houston, who's looked to hip-hop to spice up her slick pop sound, Carey looked backward for inspiration, to the soul and rhythm-and-blues of the late sixties and early eighties people like Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder. "There's a rawness about those periods in R&B that's somewhat lacking today," she says without a hint of irony. "Emotions has a little bit of an older-type vibe, a Motown feel. The music I like is vocally driven."
Carey's got miles to go, however, before her music approaches the fierceness of Franklin's. Emotions still has plenty of Top 40 sheen, particularly on the cuts produced with David Cole and Robert Clivilles, of C&C Music Factory. The trio collaborated on four up-tempo numbers, including the album's title song, which has an irresistibly bouncy bass line and Carey's signature vocal trick soaring high notes that most singers couldn't reach from the top of the Empire State Building.
But on other tunes, Carey's reined in the pyrotechnics a bit. Inspired by the Mahalia Jackson tapes she buys off late-night television, Carey's written "And You Don't Remember," a sentimental, gospel-heavy song about a fractured relationship that glides along on the whoosh of a Hammond organ. A jazz ballad called "The Wind" draws on Carey's sadness over the drunk-driving death of a young friend. Horns and the soulful guitar of Cornell Dupree, a veteran of some of Franklin's gems, punctuate the sassy "If It's Over," a song Carey wrote with Carole King. "She called and wanted me to do a cover of 'Natural Woman,'" Carey says. "I didn't want to, because Aretha's one of my idols and that's an untouchable performance." So King flew in from her home in Idaho and spent a day improvising with Carey.
Fame has also brought in less welcome guests. Gossip columns have said Carey and Columbia Records president Tommy Mottola were making private music together. ("I read that stuff and I throw it away," she says.) A critic dismissed her as "another white girl trying to sing black." (Her father is black, her mother white.) As she talks about these bumps in the road, Carey starts jabbing a small square of the legal pad with the grease pencil, over and over again, creating an oily red smear.
Carey's certainly happy with her new album, though, and she's shooting a new video to show her Emotions. There'll be no tour, unfortunately "I like to travel," Carey says, "But it messes up my voice, because I have problems sleeping." With the rash confidence of a 21-year-old who's on top of the world, she says it wouldn't trouble her if Emotions bombed the success of her first album has given her a sense of security. "If I wanted to stay home and write songs and make a moderate living, I could do that," Carey says. "I'm not worried that I have to go back and waitress."