THE MARIAH NETWORK
The outrageously successful singer talks to B&S about her new "Daydream" album; working alongside some of the industry's most prestigious names and her ever increasing maturity. Jeff Lorez puts his tongue and eyes back long enough to complete the interview.
The record company biography states that since her debut in 1990, Mariah Carey has sold 60 million records worldwide, a third of those in the last two years. That's a lot of records and a helluva lot of money. Make no mistake about it, Mariah Carey is big business. Amongst the biggest business Sony Music has. Forget the fact that she's married to the main man at her record company people can't be forced to buy records and buy hers in the droves they have. Since her eponymously titled debut and on through the brilliant "Emotions" (in my opinion, an album yet to be matched), the EP "MTV Unplugged," '93's "Music Box" and last year's "Merry Christmas" (which actually sold 8 million copies worldwide), Mariah's appeal seems to be the fact that she leans noticeably towards R&B/soul but not so much as to alienate a large MOR/across the board audience who are drawn to the obvious pop/commerciality of cuts such as "Dreamlover" and the sugary power ballad, "Hero" from her last album. Add the fact that she could probably sing the phone book and make it sound soulful, is very easy on the eye and her racial ambiguity must be a marketing person's dream and you could be forgiven for thinking that Mariah was created to sell records.
If she's delicately straddled the thin line between R∓B credibility and pop commerciality in the past, her latest album, "Daydream" will undoubtedly endear her more to her "urban" following. Check the names involved Babyface, Jermaine Dupri, Boyz II Men, Dave Hall, David Morales, Puffy and O.D.B. on the remix to the first single, "Fantasy." At 60 million records sold Mariah can call the shots and who wouldn't wanna hang with her?
Lying back on a leather couch at Sony Music's Manhattan recording studios, sporting leather jeans and a skin tight cut-off sky-blue jumper, showing a perfectly honed mid-riff, Mariah, her voice slightly hoarse after a satellite taping of Top Of The Pops, was, unfortunately, in a talkative mood. The new album seemed the obvious place to start and in particular, her ongoing musical relationship with ever present co-writer and producer Walter Afanasieff, who again takes co-credits on the bulk of the new tracks.
"This album is even more of a true collaboration between us. Certain songs don't have the usual, predictable, Walter/Mariah thing. There's a song called "Underneath The Stars" which we did and it was my idea to have a '70's type, Minnie Riperton era vibe. I wanted it to sound authentic so got a real Fender Rhodes type sound. I just think we stretched in a lot of ways. In the past, just because of time we would write the song, music and melody together and I'll sing a bunch of different melodies over it and he'd go home and I'd write the lyrics and he'd work on the track. This time we worked together for the most part on every song we did from the inception of the idea to the completion of the track except when I do my vocals which I do alone."
"Because I'm shy! No, because I don't like people around me in the studio. I feel more freedom that way. I just don't like having a producer in the studio when I sing. Some people I don't mind, but generally I'd just rather do it by myself. I did a song with Boyz II Men on this album. Me and Wanya (Morris) get along well and we had a lot of fun together. He's crazy. He was over my house. We were doing an acapella version of this song. It's intimidating to sing with someone who's a great singer in your face. But he encouraged me and the vibe was good. Sometimes when you're with someone who's not a singer it's different because they don't know what you're going for."
"Daydream" marks her fifth album in as many years. It's been an intense entrance to the industry and an equally intense learning period.
"Some songs on my first album I love and will always love like the song "Vanishing" and other songs I wrote when I was in high school, so it was a different time for me. Some of the things that I did with other people that I had just met and written songs with, now I'll think "ahh-that was okay" (Mariah indicates indifference) and some things I hate. Now it's a lot more controlled but originally it was this mad rush. I was perpetuating that too because I felt a lot of pressure to get things done."
"Emotions," for me, was Mariah's breakthrough album in terms of well rounded credible songs, particularly the uptempo material, with which she collaborated on with David Cole and Robert Clivilles.
"That's a different vibe than this album. David was great to work with. We really had a special thing together. It was very sad that he passed away. He was such a great fun person. I have a lot of fun memories of recording that. But no matter what, having a producer in there was more pressure for me than me singing by myself. When I listen to songs I've sung on this album by myself, I feel a calmness about them as opposed to some of the songs in the past. Some of the songs I did do with David and Robert, like "Make It Happen," I'll listen to and like it. I'll always remember recording it. It was four in the morning at the studio and I was messing around at it and David was actually asleep at the board. We used to work non-stop. Then when I came up with the part that goes (Mariah bursts into song "If you believe in your soul"), David woke up and put his hand in the air and just said "Yes!".
If Mariah feels somewhat ill at ease about singing in front of a producer, I wondered how she handled singing in front of thousands of people in '93, as part of her first ever tour.
"It's not that I'm shy about singing in front of a producer, it's just that it's annoying to have to deal with another personality. It's more uncomfortable for me to sing in front of a small group of people than thousands. We just did this satellite broadcast for Top Of The Pops. It was just uncomfortable because it was just the grips who work on the set. It was like a corporate morgue in there. It was very dead. When we did the tour I got into it. The first show, I was scared because I'd never done it. I mean who does that? I never done a show before in my life and it's like "Okay, time for my first show now. It's the Miami Arena!" After than I realised I had to let go and the shows got better. I came from another perspective where I never performed. Most people perform from a young age but I came from the studio and I write songs and sing. I grew up over the last couple of years and feel more comfortable and I like doing all of it now but before the idea of performing never really appealed to me."
Working with an array of different producers on the new album, has, undoubtedly brought about a stretch in Mariah's vocal performances. The killer cut for me from the new collection is the Babyface collaboration, the infectious ballad, "Melt Away," and it shows Mariah taking a step to the left from other ballad performances.
"I really love working with Kenny (Babyface) because he's smart and really easy to work with. I'm the kind of person where if someone starts playing something on the piano I can write a melody on top. It's one of my favorite things to do. He's the kind of person who can just sit down and come up with something, so we really vibe with each other. Believe it or not my natural voice is very low. A lot of times people think I talk like (Mariah puts on a squeaky little girl voice) "Hi! How are you?". I was just experimenting on that song, singing an octave lower than where I normally would and Babyface said, "You should start it out lke that because not a ot of people have that low range like that"."
Mariah Carey and O.D.B. may, at face value be a strange pairing, but then again it's easy to forget that Mariah, is essentially a 20 something New Yorker whose tastes pretty much mirror those of young, like-minded urbanities.
"One thing you can say about O.D.B. is that there's no other rapper out there that sounds like him. He's just got this completely unique style and you now it's him as soon as you hear him and that's rare. I mean and I listen to everything. I constantly listen to music, to the radio. I'm a radio addict. I always wanna try and experiment. In the past I felt confined that I had to do things in a certain way vocally and this time I tried to play more."
It was her desire to branch out that also paired her with Atlanta-based hot shot producer, Jermaine Dupri for the songs "Always Be My Baby" and "Long Ago."
"Manuel Seal who works with Jermaine, he's the guy singing (Mariah bursts into song) "So Funkdafied" (the hit single by Jermaine Dupri protégée Da Brat) and Jermaine and I did those songs together. Manuel, sings and plays too and Jermaine does a lot of the programming drums and bass. I always felt that Jermaine had a really unique style. When I heard the tracks he did for Da Brat or Xscape or Kris Kross in the beginning, I always felt I could sing something over those. We actually did the tracks together so I think they had both of our vibes."
The two tracks are certainly a departure from Jermaine's usual style adding a softer pop undercurrent that is a constant in Mariah's music.
"Dave Hall hates writing major chord type stuff that's really up. Whenever we write together he says, "Oh, so I guess you wanna do one of those happy joints, right?!" I'll say, "C'mon Dave, people like that stuff." Then we saw the success of "Dreamlover" I guess that made him more open. I like to do sadder things, too. One of the tracks Jermaine and I did, "Long Ago" is more down and minor and jazzy. I can't just work with someone and let them completely reinvent my sound. That's what remixers are for. For my album I have to stay within a certain framework. I mean you can't have a big ballad next to something that sounds like a rap record. But I do like remixes and that's why I'm looking forward to Jermaine remixing the tracks we've done together. On one of those I brought in the rapper (from Wu Tang), Little Viscous and he's doing some stuff on there."
"Daydream," more than any other of her albums, sees Mariah extending the limits of what could possibly be the two extremes of her audience. On one hand she has an abudance of slushy/MOR ballads penned with Walter Afanasieff and on the other she has Puffy and O.D.B. flippin' the script. Does she ever worry she's spreading herself a little too thin?
"I'm constantly thinking that when I'm making the album but I'm not gonna let that inhibit me. I really wanted Puffy to do the remix and the first thing I said to him when I met him was, 'I wanna get O.D.B. to come and do this' because his flavour is perfect for the track. A lot of my audience I'm sure isn't familiar with that but hey... you know, what can you do?"
One way of satisfying her diverse musical inklings is to pen songs for others.
"It's a lot less stressful to write for other people. I'm working with a couple of different groups right now for my label. One's called Blue Denim who are two female rappers and singers. One is Salt's (from Salt-N-Pepa) little sister. We've been collaborating on things together with a lot of hot producers."
Starting her own label in conjunction and prior to releasing her fifth solo album; writing for others (Mariah's just had a home studio completed); making tentative plans for a US tour, shows Mariah work ethic remains undiminished. However, she now feels considerably less stressed about work than she once did.
"When I first started doing interviews and things everybody made me so paranoid. I was a really scared kid that just got thrown into this thing so quickly. When I look back on it now I realise that I was doing this stuff when my friends were freshmen in colleges and that was when I was putting out my album and it's crazy thing when you think of it like that. I was just a nervous person. I didn't want to be perceived in the wrong way. Back then I didn't know I could say, "No, I don't wanna do that. I don't feel comfortable. I didn't know I could relax and be myself."
Boy, wasn't that something of a realisation!