The media might want to tag Mariah Carey's imminent Charmbracelet as her bid for a pop comeback, but the artist begs to differ.
"To compare a studio recording with a soundtrack recording isn't fair," she says, referring to 2001's Glitter, the Virgin album that accompanied the motion-picture box-office disappointment of the same name. With Nielsen SoundScan registering stateside sales of 557,000, it is the first Carey-related set to miss the million-selling mark. Carey's previous studio collection, the 2000 Columbia release Rainbow, sold 2.9 million copies in the U.S.
"But it's cool," she adds. "I'm used to dealing with people who will manipulate facts and situations in order to create juicy copy and meet deadlines."
Carey does agree that Charmbracelet - the first offering from her new Island Def Jam-distributed Monarc label (due Tuesday  in the U.S. and Monday  internationally) - marks the start of a fresh chapter, following a period of personal and professional problems.
Last fall, the artist was hospitalized for extreme exhaustion, which was followed by a much-publicized split with Virgin in a reported $28 million contract buyout by parent company EMI Recorded Music. It was a one-two punch that Carey says provided invaluable life lessons.
"First of all, I learned that if people see that you're willing to work at an inhuman pace, they will push you until you fall down," she says. "I've always been scrappy and willing to do whatever it takes to make things happen. That's still the case, within reason. But last year, I learned that [I] eventually have to face the fact that I'm not a machine. I'm a human being with emotions and a threshold for exhaustion and pain, just like everyone else. I pushed myself hard, and I worked until I hit the wall."
As for her brief alliance with Virgin - which resulted only in the aforementioned soundtrack - the singer describes it as a "well-intentioned mistake. Sometimes, I find that my mind is still set in the ways of a young girl who didn't have money," she says. "When you have the mind-set and you're in a situation where crazy money is being thrown at you, sometimes you just grab it. Well, never again for me. I will never make a snap decision for money again."
She now views her move from Columbia, where she racked up 15 No. 1 hits on The Billboard Hot 100, to Virgin as being "too quick," despite a strong relationship with then-label president Nancy Berry. "We tried to prepare for the release of a soundtrack in four weeks at a time when the label was going through internal changes," she says. "It wasn't terribly realistic, but we tried our best to make it work."
In retrospect, Carey believes the rocky road of the past year has not only made her stronger but also gave her the inspiration to form Monarc with industry veteran Jerry Blair.
Unlike her now-defunct Columbia imprint, Crave, she terms her new label as "something I truly want to do. I loved the artists I worked with at Crave, but this is a more organic scenario for me."
While the media dined on the details of Carey's trials and tribulations, the artist concentrated on "getting some much-needed rest" and revisiting her original intention in life making music.
"I started writing and recording the songs that would later go on this album before I had a deal," she says. "I needed to be absorbed in the process of making music purely for the sake of expressing myself for a while. There were no deadlines, no pressures. I made music as a means of centering myself after all of the drama I'd endured. I found incredible inner peace and clarity in the creation of these songs."
The artist's rejuvenated spirit can be felt throughout Charmbracelet, a 15-song opus that is best described as classic Carey. She produced the set with longtime collaborators Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Randy Jackson, and Jermaine Dupri, as well as up-and-comers 7 Aurelius, Just Black, Dre & Vidal, and Damizza. Joining the artist on various tracks are Jay-Z, Kelly Price, Joe, Ice Cube, and Mack 10, among others.
The set shows Carey combining richly textured pop ballads with earthy, R&B-inflected hip-hop, sewing them together with well-drawn lyrics whose themes dart between romance and self-empowerment.
"This is the album that Mariah needed to make," says Lyor Cohen, chairman/CEO of the Island Def Jam Music Group (IDJMG). "It speaks of her immeasurable strength and versatility as an artist."
For Carey, it was simply a matter of capturing the events and passions of her life on tape. "Each song represents a moment in time," she says. "Of course, some stories are more obvious than others."
The delicate "Sunflowers for Alfred Roy" is a mournful elegy for Carey's father, who died earlier this year. It's a song that she says she sang only once. "What you hear on the album is the only time I ever sang it straight through. It was too emotional an experience to revisit. I can't even listen to it in front of other people."
More uplifting are two of Carey's favorites: "Subtle Invitation," with its smooth, swing-jazz inflections, and the gospel-flavored "My Saving Grace." "These are songs that just brought me such joy to sing," she says. "They're not punched in a million times. It's just me in front of the mike, performing from the heart."
There also is a complex, string-laden revision of Def Leppard's "Bringin' on the Heartbreak," which the singer says is an example of her musical diversity. "I love going from showing my Minnie Riperton influences to hip-hop to rock. It's all me. For 'Heartbreak,' it was fun to go back to a song that I loved singing when I was in school. I think we bring some fresh elements to it."
With the songs of Charmbracelet in place, Carey says she has dived head-first into the promotion process, to the delight of Cohen.
"She understands that we're in a time when artists and labels must remain focused and diligent," he says. "There are no guarantees for success. We're not just competing with other music acts, we're competing with videogames, movies all forms of entertainment. It's important to be competitive, and that includes making a record that you can get everyone excited about, from top to bottom."
For the first step in introducing the project, Carey hosted fans at an album-listening event that was taped for an MTV special that will air Tuesday (3).
"She's got such a loving fan base," Cohen says. "We wanted them to have some sense of ownership of her and her music. That was important to Mariah."
The program will also feature an interview with John Norris and a live-performance segment. On the same day, Carey will be the subject of an hour-long interview with Oprah Winfrey.
Other TV elements of the marketing include a BET special and appearances on Dateline, Total Request Live, and Larry King Live. Also, an autograph-signing appearance Dec. 11 at the Mall of America in Minneapolis will be captured live on Today.
"The idea is to selectively choose television/media appearances," says Julie Greenwald, president of Island Records/executive VP of IDJMG. "We don't want to book her everywhere and anywhere, but rather in special places where she'll reach the widest possible audience."
Beyond TV in the States, Carey is devoting considerable time to international marketing. She recently completed a month-long trek through Europe, hitting what Greenwald describes as "every major television and radio outlet possible." She will revisit Europe in early 2003.
Charmbracelet is preceded by the single "Through the Rain," which went to radio the first week of September, several weeks ahead of its originally planned shipment. Greenwald says, "We were forced to jump on it early, due to a leak."
Since then, the track has built a solid audience at top 40 radio, where it received 1,213 spins on 127 stations for the week of Nov. 11, according to Nielsen Broadcast Data Systems.
Unlike previous Carey singles, "Through the Rain" will not be issued commercially. Instead, Greenwald says the track is available via digital download on sites that include pressplay.com and rhapsody .com. "It's an excellent way of putting the single out there for people to have without distracting from the album, which we feel so strongly about."
In addition to "Through the Rain," Island Def Jam also served Carey's hip-hop base by issuing a promo-only 12-inch pressing of the set's rhythm-rooted cuts "Boy (I Need You)," "Irresistible," and "You Got Me" to hip-hop radio specialists and club DJs.
For Carey, who is managed by Louise McNally in New York, the ultimate element in promoting Charmbracelet will be a tour, tentatively planned to start in the spring.
"I've been dying to sing these songs live," she says. "It will be exciting to hear them come to life in a new way."
Most of all, it will be a moment of victory for the singer, who notes that "it's nice to be in a happy, serene place" after her recent life and career challenges. Still, Carey acknowledges that some of her strongest music has followed difficult times.
"I could not have written this album, which I truly love, without having gone through those hard times. That was the case with my first album, and Butterfly, and a few of my other albums. Sometimes, the greatest art comes from pain. It would be nice to not have to go through that, but I'm growing to accept that life is full of bumps in the road. The gratifying part is when you can come out on the other side tougher and wiser and with some great songs."