"When you're involved in a situation where you're really young and you're surrounded by stronger, older, powerful people who are in cahoots with each other, you think you're pretty powerless but you're not! Until someone comes along and tells you that you're not powerless, you don't get it unless you're than precocious and you already know. It's not that I didn't know what I was contributing it was just that I felt afraid, scared and insecure and frightened on a lot of levels and no one really empowered me."
I'm talking to a flu-afflicted Mariah Carey chilled out on a recliner in jeans and tight black T-shirt (yes, yes, I know!) in a luxury suite at the Peninsular Hotel on 5th Avenue, a stone's throw away from her record company Sony's palatial enclave on Madison Avenue. However, reading between the lines during my interview with Ms. Carey, it would appear that the one time "Queen Of Sony" now entertains only long distance relationships with her label. Her latest album is entitled "Rainbow" (her sixth studio album, not including MTV Live, Christmas and Greatest Hits projects). Despite her status as the highest selling female artist of the '90s, it seems hardly to have been set on the launch pad with the fanfare of previous releases.
It's perhaps because of this that Carey seems to take particular pride in telling me that her latest single, the playful "Heartbreaker" with its 'catfight in the restroom' scene is currently the most requested video on MTV.
"I didn't discuss it with the label," she says of the short. "We just did it and they were probably really surprised." It would appear that with "Rainbow," perhaps, more than with any other of her albums (so called because the album thematically focuses on metaphorical blue skies after the storm) Carey was left to her own devices entirely. "It used to be that every little thing I did was a major group discussion. Now I do what I want and what I think is right for me. Sony have found themselves n a position of having to trust my judgement because up to this point in my career my instincts have been pretty much on." Even long-time writing partner, Sony Music in house tunesmith Walter Afanasieff, suddenly became unavailable to fire up the usual Carey power ballads, forcing her to look elsewhere.
"He was busy doing other things!" she says with a roll of those exquisite eyes whilst at the same time applying some lip balm and firing my already fanned fantasies even further, when questioned about Afanasieff's lack of input. "I'm actually glad I got the chance to work with Jimmy (Jam) & Terry (Lewis) and David (Foster) because they added a different dimension musically. A ballad track in the old days would become too grandiose" she says as an ill disguised dis to Afanasieff, "but these guys kept it musical and big but still rooted in R&B. They got the subtlety of what I wanted to do. There was no ego about it. It was all musical love which is great and a terrific environment in which to create music. I've felt for a long time that on cross-over ballads I've recorded there was always this desire to achieve the same feel that was created for cross-over hits like "On Bended Knees" (Boys II Men) which came out around the "One Sweet Day" time.
In addition to Jam & Lewis, Carey also re-teamed up with Jermaine Dupri for the choppy acoustic guitar-laced funk of "How Much" (featuring Usher) and the currently high flying Kevin 'Ske'kspere' Briggs (TLC, Destiny's Child) for his typically quick-fire, sing-along "X-Girlfriend," Ballad hitmeister, Diane Warren, also helped out on the defiant, "Can't Take That Away (Mariah's Theme)" and the dramatic "After Tonight."
"We have our own different styles," Carey says of working with Warren. "Her thing is sometimes the exact opposite of what I do and I'm forced into a position of having to say 'No Diane, I hate that stuff, it's just not me!' She gets really obsessive over her music and her lyrics and again, from time to time I'll be forced to tell her 'No Diane, we just said that word two lines ago, we can't use it again,' However, Diane and I have a good relationship so I can completely honest with her. She's very cool, funny, talented and unique."
The most obviously personal song on the album of Carey is the dark, autobiographical, "Petals." I've often wondered if there's/Ever been a perfect family/I've always longed for undividedness/And sought stability," and later "I gravitated towards a patriarch/So young predictably/I was resigned to spend my life/With a maze of misery."
"I can't say exactly what it means because it's very personal," she admits. "The reason I called it 'Petals' is because it's about relationships that are now static and I don't think I could ever really pull them back in. It's also about parts of my life that are now gone. Then it leads into "Rainbow" which is the hopeful and optimistic part and then into "Thank God..." which is happy and fulfilling. "Petals" is the last song I recorded for the album," she continues. "The bridge addresses my anger about those people who saw me in a really bad state but just let it go. These are the people who are supposed to be close to me but they were afraid to say anything. ("So many I considered/Closest to me/Turned on a dime and sold me/Out dutifully/Although that knife was chipping/Away at me/They turned their eyes away and/Went home to sleep...). There are people that I want to say certain things to and I hope they hear it and get it on a lot of levels."
The independent spirit of "Rainbow" is showcased by the fact that it marks the first album that Carey has recorded not only out of New York (she's currently being a townhouse built in Tribeca, downtown NYC) but also out of the US, with vocals being laid to tape in the idyllic island of Capri, Italy.
"I went there because I would never have got it done in this period of time," she explains. "My pager, my phone would have been going off, people would have been coming down to talk to me. Capri was so clear and beautiful for my voice. It really helped me be in great vocal shape. I needed to be out of the pollution. I basically slept in the studio. I had a bed and breakfast in a separate part and then I'd go and record, then sometimes go for a sleep on a boat, swim for a few hours. It was a great combination of work and relaxing. The town's people and the store owners were all really cool. They were all (adopts an Italian accent) 'Hey Mariah, ciao Mariah.' You couldn't catch a cab anywhere. You'd have to walk, so it was a healthy experience too."
The obligatory cover arrives in the form of Phil Collins' '80's ballad smash, "Against All Odds" with Jam & Lewis producing and Carey letting the vocal floodgates open.
"I decided to do the cover on the way to the "Heartbreaker" video shoot," she explains. "My last cover was a little more obscure "The Beautiful Ones" by The Artist. "Against All Odds" reminded me of specific memories of growing up and the park where I used to hang out. Then recently a friend of mine was going through a really emotional time. They had just lost someone very close to them. When I spoke to Jimmy and Terry about it they thought it was a great idea and we all thought we should keep it pretty close to the original."
Much speculation has been bandied about as to whether this could be Carey's last album for Sony. Her rate of release, since debuting at the top of the decade has a decidedly Princely feel to it. Nine albums in nine years really is quite some going for someone of her stature. Whether she has now fulfilled the obligations specified on her contract and will move on or conversely stay, is yet to be decided, however, in conversation she does little to mask the strain.
"My situation is far more complex and unique because of the personal aspect of what it used to be (Mariah was once married to Sony boss Tommy Mottola) so I have to do what I do and do it to be best of my ability," she says of her current relationship with her label. "I know there's a lot people up there who still work very, very hard for me and I still have a good relationship with, so I do what I do and trust my instincts and my desire to have fun and express myself on a song like "Petals" or "Can't Take That Away."
Unlike her earlier works, in recent years Carey albums have tended to be all star collaborations with a who's who of contemporary artists and producers lending a hand. (Master P, Snoop, Usher, Jermaine Dupri, Joe, 98 Degrees, Jay-Z, Da Brat, Missy are all featured on the new project). Indeed, she seems to make it her business to keep up to date on her new hip-hop and R&B.
"My favorite record out right now is Ginuwine's "So Anxious," she informs me. "I just went out and bought it."
"You bought it?" I replied surprised. "Couldn't someone give it to you? I mean it is on Sony, through Epic 550."
"Oh really! well they don't give me nothin'!"