In the ten years or so since I've been flying to New York and LA, I've learned to anticipate my landing in each respective city with entirely different emotions, because both cities are, of course, entirely different. The moment you step off the plane at JFK, New York assaults you. There's the chaos of the antiquated airport, the gruffness of the staff, the "lines." Then, once you've been through the melee of baggage claim, there's the smell of kerosene jet fuel, car exhausts and the frenzy of cab shysters, baggage porters, double parked car services, Carey bus personal and confused tourists. Yup, that's JFK. It slaps you about a bit and says, That's just a taste of what's to come. Be warned!" Thus, when we began our descent over Kennedy airport, pas the Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn and finally on to Queens, I prepare myself to pick up the pace and stay alert.
By comparison, landing at LAX is comparable to landing at a shopping mall on a Tuesday afternoon. So clean, quiet and Californian. Then entering Hollywood, after leaving my home in Brooklyn is like visiting... Mars. If JFK punches between the eyes, LAX (admittedly not one of the world's most sedate airports) and beyond, is like someone gently taking hold of your hand and injecting you with a hallucinatory drug. Thus, when we're told we're flying over the Grand Canyon, about an hour from touch down, I remind myself that the unreal is about to become reality.
The Mondrian Hotel on Sunset Boulevard is owned by Ian Shrader, once co-owner of Studio 54, NYC's '70's disco playpen to the rich and famous. The glitterballs and platform shoes may be out of his life but the rich and famous are still very much a part of it. Walking past the Mondrian's outside pool, I found myself staring (gawping may be a better description) at a gorgeous black/chinese looking woman, having lunch. As she looked up, I realised it was Dawn Robinson, ex of En Vogue. Then there was the vaguely familiar blonde on the mattress with the baby, wearing a bikini top that struggled manfully to contain her plentiful chest. When I spotted that the guy with the pony tail in the red shorts who sat down beside her was Michael Hutchence of rock group INXS, I knew who she was. Oh, yeah, and then there was Elizabeth Hurley. She was there, too. And Sean "Puffy" Combs had just passed through. He'd left his insignia on the blackboard in the men's room, where guests are invited to register their scribblings in multi-cultured chalk. "BAD BOY NYC" made me feel strangely proud to be a New Yorkian.
Mariah Carey was also staying there. In fact, she was lying in front of me in bed, her brown/blonde head against a pillow and deeply tanned body covered by a white sheet. Yup, it's perfectly true, I interviewed Mariah Carey in bed. Well, to be annoyingly accurate, I wasn't in bed... she was. But I figure that's near enough for any amount of darkly stored fantasies! I was sitting in front of her, trying to remember what it was I was supposed to ask her. You see Mariah Carey had been out all night, filming the video to the rap version of her new single "Honey" with Puffy and his crew. She had apparently clambered into bed at five in the morning and by seven in the evening, she'd managed to crawl out, out on the slinkiest of black silk mini dresses, apply a touch of make-up, walk down to the interview suite, before crawling back into bed to hold court with yours truly. Lucky old yours truly.
"Why I'm in bed is because I'm so exhausted because last night I was being hoisted up by a helicopter and I was hanging on top a rope fifty feet up in the air. You know, just an average day!" she joked, explaining the plot of her new female James Bond-type video. "Have you seen the regular "Honey" video when I'm on the jet ski?" she asked enthusiastically. "Well in this one, I'm on the jet skis and it's Mace and The Lox (Bad Boy Records rappers) in a helicopter and they throw down a rope and I grab it and they save me. So last night me and Puffy and the guys were in this water tunnel thing doing that. It's cute."
It's hard life but someone's got to live it. Let's face it, Mariah Carey is living most female singer's dreams. She does interviews in bed, she hangs from helicopters, she sells millions of records, she has the pick of every producer in the music business, she has a great voice, she writes well, she looks great, she knows me... (that part was a joke) (Really? Ed) and she appears so happy and carefree in every video, you'd think she didn't have a care in the world. Maybe she hasn't. Her latest album, "Butterfly," her sixth (if you include her Christmas album) contains collaborations with Puffy, Missy Elliott and of course, the ubiquitous Walter Afanasieff on a slew of pop/R&B power ballads.
Mariah, though has been more in the news of late because of her personal life than her music. As if you didn't know she and Sony Music head Tommy Mottola have ended their five year marriage (the two met after Mottola was given a demo tape of Mariah at a music biz party in the late '80's), she also just changed management from the firm he was affiliated with and if you read between the lines of songs on "Butterfly," it seems like she's poured her heart out into her music.
"This album is probably the most personal album I've written. It's very, very personal," she confided. "Lyrically, there are a bunch of songs on there that relate to me personally, where as before I'd imagine certain scenarios or write about other people's situations, this is more about me."
"Well, "Butterfly" is a very personal one and... I don't really want to get into the others!" she laughed somewhat embarrassed. And that's about the extent of what Mariah will offer us on the subject of her music in relation to her marriage.
She flatly denies though that the song most would immediately relates to her recent personal trial and tribulations, "Breakdown," with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony guesting, is about her personally.
"Oh, no way is that about me," responds Mariah with some passion. "I don't want anyone to think that, even though I'm sure they probably will."
It's understandable that Mariah isn't too keen to discuss her personal life. Get her on to the subject of music though and you can't keep this woman quiet. I pointed out that on "Breakdown," Mariah sings in the same manner as Bone Thugs-N-Harmony rap.
"It's a completely different type of singing for me," she stated. "I love what they do and I think their style is so unique. You can tell in a lot of R&B their style is starting to penetrate. I was very inspired by them when I came up with the song and I told Puffy let's do a Bone Thugs type track. We got Stevie J (Puffy's right hand producer) to lay down the track and I wrote the melody over it. I wrote the song to fit in with that type of style they do and I realised it's really hard to sing those types of rhythm. They make it sound so easy. Now, having experienced the difficulty at first hand. I respect them even more."
Indeed, "Butterfly" sees Mariah continuing the theme she started with her last album, "Daydream," surrounding herself with the hottest R&B hip-hop talent around.
"Missy (Elliott) to me is on the cutting edge of where R&B is going today," enthused Mariah, when brought up the collaboration for "Babydoll." "I think because she's a rapper her lyrical sense is different from someone who's just a singer and a writer. She uses references only a rapper would use. The first time I heard her was on that MC Lyte Record ("Cold Rock A Party") when she was doing that "Hee hee ha" thing she does. I loved it and I asked who was singing in the background (Mariah sings) and I found out it was her. I was intrigued by that and then I found out she wrote "If Your Girl Only Knew" (Mariah sings again) for Aaliyah, so I got the Aaliyah album and heard everything I liked was Missy. So I called her and went to Virginia. I already had the idea for the chorus of "Babydoll" and I asked Missy what melody ideas she had for the verses, which I never usually do but I wanted her flavour. So she came up with that skipping, choppy approach.
"We wrote that in a hotel room in Virginia and she was already hung over from a Timbaland birthday party the night before," laughed Mariah huskily, "and I should have controlled the amount of Cristal that I gave her because I kind of lost her half way through the session! She's just cool. Really talented. I think we complemented each other musically, because her philosophy to writing is just write it and not to be obsessive over it. For me, though I have people scrutinize what I do. She had one line, 'You can beep me 911 and I'll come running quick as the cops' and I told her that I didn't think that particular line was working too well for my particular song. That's how we came up with 'I'm gonna leave my cellphone turned on in my purse by the bed' line, which is lke what? on a Mariah Carey record. It's kind of a reality song of what people go through when they're waiting for that special someone to call."
One thing that becomes apparent about Mariah, when talking to her, is that she has an acute sense of who she is and how the public, perceives her. Although she's made it a point to work with the hottest and newest R&B/hip-hop producers, she also knows that a large chunk of her fan base exists because of her ballads and in particular her work with long time collaborator Walter Afanasieff.
"My biggest album so far has been "Music Box" because we had "Without You" and "Hero" back to back. The ballads that I do with Walter definitely require more focus when singing, than the uptempo stuff. Songs like "Whenever You Call (from the new album). But the second single, "Butterfly," the title track isn't a typical thing I'd do with Walter (Mariah sings part of it). Originally I'd planned to do it as a house record with David (Morales). I sang it in the Bahamas at Chris Blackwell's (Island Records' head) studio. It was all about the whole freedom of the feeling of being there. That style of singing is really about what comes out of your mouth at the time. It can only come from being inspired. It's a gift from God. It's not sung in a traditional ballad style. Also, because I write my own stuff I don't have a demo singer sing it for me. And I don't sing with a producer in the room, so I'm sort of figuring it out as I go along, too."
Mariah, has a hands-on role to every element of her music, because although she doesn't play keyboards, most musical ideas she uses stem from her.
"That's why I don't use tracks people might submit to me," she stated. "Because I like to come up with my own musical ideas, even down to the loops. Like the idea to use the Tom Tom Club for "Fantasy" was mine and I came up with the idea to use the Mobb Deep loop for "The Roof" which I did with the Trackmasters, which, by the way, is my favorite song on the album."
"Honey," though came from what would appear to be an unlikely source.
"Q-Tip, from Tribe Called Quest came up with that idea, to use the "Body Rock" loop and he played it to me over the phone and I knew immediately that this was the happy, light summer vibe I needed. Then we thought it out and put "Hey DJ" on top of it and Puffy came in with all his ideas so it was a collaborative effort. That's what I'm about. I don't just get a producer to come in and invent or reinvent me."
As Mariah explained, though, carving a niche for herself within the young urban market hasn't been an easy endeavour.
"I think the beginning for me of going in a more urban direction was doing "Dreamlover" with Dave Hall. Although it's still poppy, it has a loop under there and the feel was just different from what I'd done. I still love that song. I knew I always wanted to go in that direction anyway but it was sort of always a struggle because when record companies see that they can have success with you as one thing, it gets very frightening and unsure for them to see you do something else. Because I started out at doing this so young and with them seeing me as this kid, it's easy to fall into patterns of being reluctant or even scared to not really do what you really want half the time. There are songs from each album that I'm always going to feel proud and close to and feel they're representation of me, like "Vanishing" from my first album, which I still think is one of the best things I've ever done. Then there are some that I'm like 'Urghh! That sucked!'
A song Mariah's always loved, though, is Prince's "The Beautiful Ones" from "Purple Rain," so much so, in fact, that she's chosen to cover it on the new album, reinventing it as a duet with Dru Hill.
"The Beautiful Ones" is my favorite Prince song ever. It makes me think over growing up (in Long Island), when the "Purple Rain" soundtrack was so big. I used to sit at home and think about this kid, Matt who I was in love with and cry listening to "The Beautiful Ones." It's really the only remake that I've done that's from that period teenage years. It works well because Cisco from Dru Hill who sings the first verse has that gruff, masculine sound and I'm doing a lot of airy stuff, so the contrast works and Devante (from Jodeci) produced it which gave it another element."
At this point the conversation we started to veer off at a tangent as Mariah and I started chatting about other favorite songs and albums with names such as Stevie Wonder, Minnie Riperton, Al Green, Michael Jackson and Rick James flying out of Mariah's mouth enthusiastically. "See, what I've got to do is show you my CD bag, so you can see all the CDs I carry around with me. I also make up my own compilation CDs."
Mariah asked her sister to bring in her CD bag. I sat next to her and we started leafing through, playing certain compilation CDs she'd had made up on her recordable CD player.
"Let's see what I've got here," she began. "Okay, I have to have the Jerky Boys. Oh, this is a good one, too, Stevie Wonder. "Hotter Than July." "All I Do" is my song. But what I do is I get all my favorite songs and have these CDs made up (Mariah starts playing one, which starts off with R. Kelly's "Be Happy" moving on to gems from Debarge, Luther, Mary Jane Girls, Aaliyah and more).
What else have I got here? Mobb Deep, Foxy (Brown), more Jerky Boys, Ella Fitzgerald, the 'Booty Call' soundtrack. Meanwhile, Katie (Mariah's sister) and I were going through old high school flashbacks (as we passed CDs by Def Leppard, Blondie and a "Totally '80's" collection), Allure, Erykah Badu, Anita Baker, Total."
And so it went on, with us chatting about songs, old and new and producers with Mariah cueing up cuts on the CD player coming across as a total music junkie. Just as well then that Mariah coins a healthy living from her passion in life. Considering that amount of records she sells per album, Mariah's been churning out new material at a much faster rate than her contemporaries such as Whitney and Janet Jackson. It's been, in fact, almost a Princely rate of an album every year or two, which added to the fact that Mariah has yet to really tour extensively, means her life is spent semi-permanently in the studio.
Her consistent output plus shrewd business moves has helped Carey back catalogue become quite a valuable commodity.
"One thing I'm glad I did was that I never sold my publishing, because I almost gave away my publishing for $5,000 when I was 18 and totally broke and trying to get a record deal," she revealed. "Well, it wasn't all my publishing but at the time I was really broke. I went to a meeting with a certain company and there's a song on my first album called "All In Your Mind" which was never released. The guy heard that and wanted to give me a deal for $5,000 or $10,000 or something. I'm so glad I believed in myself as a writer not to do that and just to stick it out. It was so tempting, though, when you have 5 dollars for the week to live on. To this day I still own all my own publishing."
If there's one definite vibe that Mariah gives off, it is that she wants to lead the young, twentysomething life that others her age group lead. That means being free to go and do her own thing and collaborate with whoever she wants, with no restrictions. That, I suppose, is where the them for "Butterfly" comes in. She wants to be where the action is and not closeted or protected from it.
"I love Puerto Rico because it's fun and there's a lot of young people," she stated, when I asked her about places other than New York where she likes to spend time. "It's a cool atmosphere and it's also a beautiful island. I hate the islands when they're just boring, you know and there's nothing to do. I have some friends down there, so I shot the video there. I'll probably end up having to have a place here (LA), for when I'm in town but it's not my favorite place. I'm from New York, my family's there. And plus, you know, there's just that young, creative energy there. It's a whole different world."
And this is where we came in...