THE MARIAH NETWORK
Before she even entered kindergarten, Mariah Carey dreamed of someday becoming a singer. She had one distinct advantage growing up surrounded by music and musicians. Her mother Patricia, a singer with the New York Opera, coached her young daughter who yearned to sing the Pop and R&B she was listening to on radio.
Since her debut album hit the street less than a year ago, millions have sung along to Mariah's music as it played on radio stations everywhere. Together with songwriting partner Ben Margulies, she perfected her craft, and composed a magnificent repertoire showcasing her amazing vocal talent. That blend of soulful Pop, sensitive lyrics and one-of-a-kind delivery catapulted her to #1 on Top 40, Urban Contemporary and Adult Contemporary charts simultaneously, a feat rarely accomplished by anyone who steps in front of a microphone.
Mariah and I met in Los Angeles several days before her appearance on the "American Music Awards."
DAVE SHOLIN: What's the background of your first name? I've only heard it in a song.
MARIAH CAREY: My mother got my name from the song, "They Call The Wind Mariah," from the musical "Paint Your Wagon." I never really heard it, I only heard everyone's parents' renditions when I'd go to someone's house as a kid. All the fathers would sing the song to me pretty scary (laughs).
DS: Your first album literally happened overnight, but you're anything but an overnight success.
MC: I've been singing since I was four years old. My mother is a vocal coach and an opera singer, and I started singing when I started talking. My earliest memory is wanting to be a professional singer. I've been working toward this goal since I was twelve years old, working with different studio musicians. I went out on my own when I was seventeen waitressed, coat checked, hostessed and did all the things that people do who are trying to "make it" in show business. After I'd waitressed, at one or two in the morning, I'd work in the studio 'til eight o'clock in the morning writing songs and doing demos with Ben Margulies, my writing partner. I condensed about ten years of hard work into about four.
DS: What are your earliest memories of wanting to sing?
MC: I was ALWAYS singing. As a kid, my parents had to drag me away from the radio and make me go to sleep because I would just sit there for hours and sing whatever songs were popular at the time. I've just always known that music is what I wanted to do with my life.
DS: Do you recall some of those first songs and artists that may have stuck with you over the years?
MC: Well, I have a brother and a sister who are nine and ten years older than me, so when I was four they were listening to Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and Aretha Franklin, and a lot of old R&B really influenced me and I just kept listening to it and loving it.
DS: What were some of the things your Mom advised you to do or taught you that you use today? Did she have to push you to train?
MC: Because my mother is a vocal coach and also an opera singer, people tend to ask, "Oh, didn't she tell you to sing Classical music? Did she make you sing? Did she chain you to the piano and make you do vocal exercises?" Actually, she never had to force me to sing she almost would have to tell me to shut up after awhile because I was always singing. She never tried to steer me into doing Classical music or anything that I didn't want to do. She was just always very supportive. As far as helping me vocally, she would tell me certain breathing techniques to help me not strain my voice and teach me how not to do the wrong thing with my voice. I learned the basics from her and developed my own style from my influences.
DS: How do you guard against straining your voice when you're continually hitting some of those higher notes?
MC: I make sure I'm singing correctly and not abusing my instrument. I try to get as much sleep as I can and to warm up before I start singing some of the songs with really hight notes on them. I try and sing them an octave lower first. My voice is kind of like three different ranges and I try to improve each one of them.
DS: There are several versions going around about how you were signed and how your tape got passed to Tommy Mottola. Can you set the record straight once and for all?
MC: As I told you. I was waitressing and hostessing, and one day a friend of mine who played drums for Brenda K. Starr came to me and told me that one of her backup singers had quit and they needed another girl. I really didn't want to do it. but then I sort of said. "Well, it's got to be better than doing what I'm doing now." So I went to the audition and she (Brenda) was just such a great person. She really became a great friend to me and was very supportive. One night she brought me to a party for CBS Records. We had just come back from doing a show together and she handed my tape to the president of CBS Records. I never expected him to listen to it. He tells me he went out into his car to leave, put the tape in the tape deck on his way home, heard the first two songs, turned around and came back to the party to find me because there was no phone number on the tape or anything. But Brenda and I had left and it was Friday night. He tried to find me all weekend through her managers, but no one knew who I was. Then on Monday I got this message that he had called and wanted me to come to CBS Records. I was so excited. I went up there with my mom, sorted out the details and that really was the beginning of it.
DS: This demo tape that Tommy got, had you shopped it around?
MC: It's really hard when you don't have the right connections you don't have a manager, you don't have a big time lawyer behind you saying, "listen to this person's tape." Executives, A&R people get thousands of tapes a month, a lot of them, and they really don't have the time or the desire to sift through all the tapes and listen. I was working really hard with Ben Margulies, my writing partner, on getting a record deal, but we didn't know anyone.
DS: How would you define your music or how would you like it defined?
MC: It's really hard to define my own music because it's so personal and it comes from inside me, so its really hard to categorize it or to put it into any specific say, "It's this." or "It's that." I just really feel that music is the most important thing to me in my life and I put a lot of myself into it both in my singing and my writing. I enjoy doing it and I hope that people who enjoy my music can get that out of it.
DS: Let's talk about your relationship with Ben Margulies, your writing partner on most of these songs. How did it begin and what has it become?
MC: I met Ben Margulies when I was sixteen. My brother paid so I could make a twenty-four track demo tape in Manhattan. We needed someone to play keyboards for a song I had written with a guy named Gavin Christopher. We called someone but he couldn't come, so by accident we stumbled upon Ben. He came to the session, although he really can't play keyboards very well; he's really more of a drummer. It became a big ordeal, but after that day we sort of kept in touch, got together and just sort of clicked as writers. We worked very hard together before we had a record deal, before anyone would listen to my tape or anything, so Ben's been there from the beginning as a believer and he's really a very talented person. Right now I'm writing for my second album. I'm working with some other people and also with Ben.
DS: Can you briefly walk us through the writing process that you and Ben go through? What are some of the things that take place?
MC: Either I will have a melody idea I'm working on, or Ben will have some chord and I will have some chord changes. We'll just play around with them for awhile and I'll sing around five or six different melody ideas on top of it and then take it home and write the lyrics.
DS: When you were writing some of these, were you writing with a radio format in mind?
MC: Well, when I first started writing with Ben I didn't have a record deal; I didn't have anyone to really guide me in any way. All I had was my love for music and the type of songs that I knew I'd like. So I didn't think of any radio format or anything. We just sat down and wrote from what was inside us.
DS: You said on the liner notes that, except for four, a lot of these songs were written before you were signed. Was "Vision Of Love" one of the four new tunes you put on the album?
MC: I wrote "Vision Of Love" right after I signed my record deal with Columbia. It's a celebration of how I was feeling at the time and it's a very personal song. It's not really just a love song, it's about feeling good. I was at a very big turning point in my life at the time, so it's kind of about everything going on for me.
DS: Speaking of celebration did you celebrate when you and Ben finished this song? Did you listen back and say, "Wow! We're going to have a hit?"
MC: I really didn't think that "Vision Of Love" was going to be a big Pop hit because it wasn't like everything that was going on at the time it wasn't a Dance record, it wasn't a Rap song, it wasn't Heavy Metal. It really didn't fit any particular format to me, and I was pleasantly surprise that it caught on the way it did. It makes me feel great because it's one of my favorite songs I've written.
DS: What was it like working with various producers on this project? Dealing with different styles?
MC: My first album was a lot of experimentation. I was kind of scattered in a way. I had most of the songs when I signed my record deal, but it was so overwhelming for me to go from being in this tiny studio in the back of a woodshed up to working in these incredibly vast, big time studios. It was a big transition and I think that on the next album I'll have more of a total picture mapped out before I go into the studio I'll have everything written and know exactly who's going to co-produce with me.
DS: "Vanishing" is such a phenomenal song. Just you and the piano was that your concept?
MC: "Vanishing" is my favorite song on the album, and I knew that it should only be piano and vocals because when I did the demo of the song, it was a piano/vocal and it was really raw. Just the emotion of the song came across. We tried putting a drum track on it, but it just took away from it. Then I said, "Well, maybe this could be a commercial song if we put music on it," but I decided it was better to just preserve the integrity of the song leave it really simple.
DS: Were you as surprised at the appeal of "Love Takes Time" as you were at the appeal of "Vision Of Love?"
MC: I wrote "Love Takes Time" after the rest of the songs on the album were already mastered and the album was actually being pressed. I was doing a little mini-tour, going around to ten states doing an acoustic show with a piano player and three backup singers. I brought along the demo of "Love Takes Time," to one of the shows. I handed it to one of the executives, they played it in this room and everyone said, "You have to record this!" It's a hit! You really have to put it on this album." I said, "No," because it took me so long to finish the album in the first place and I was really not looking forward to doing it. But I went and recorded it with Walter Afanasieff. We got it done in three days.
DS: "Someday" is your first uptempo hit with a lot of different mixes. It looks like it's headed to number one, too.
MC: ...(laughs) I got my fingers crossed. I wrote "Someday" awhile ago. It's one of the oldest songs on the album and I wrote it with Ben. He was playing this drum groove and some chords, and we put the song together. I took it home, wrote the lyrics and we had it on the shelf for a long time. It was one of the original songs on the demo that got my record deal, so I guess it was good luck.
DS: There are so many aspects to relationships between people. It seems that you've proven you don't have to be older to be wiser. You have a lot of insight into those different sides of a relationship.
MC: When I was a little girl, my mother used to say that I was six going on thirty-five. Grown-ups would be amazed at how I could just sit there and act like an adult. I've always been really independent. I went out on my own at a very early age and I experienced a lot of things that most people don't experience at that age. I observe life and write about what I see.
DS: Is there something about Gospel music, something magical that makes you love it so much?
MC: It's really the spirituality and the incredible free singing and the realness of Gospel music that I love there's just such a rawness there and a lot of the singers are just so incredible. I love it. I listen to it more than I listen to Pop or R&B.
DS: What has the transition from being a fan to a star been like?
MC: I can never forget the music. That's what got me here and that's what I love. I've said it before anybody can be famous. You don't have to be especially talented or anything, and knowing that really keeps me grounded. I'm really fortunate to have all the success I'm having, but if down the road I put out an album that's just me expressing myself in another way and it's not a Pop album, I know that there might not be all this hoopla. As long as I do something that I feel proud of that makes me happy, then that's enough for me. I'm living my dream and it's great!
DS: Do you pinch yourself ever so often trying to soak in everything that's happened in the last year?
MC: It's amazing to look around and say, "Wow! I'm actually doing this." Working so hard for something and wanting something for so long, when you finally begin to grasp it it's an amazing feeling. I can remember just being devastated when I was waitressing and saying, "How come I don't have my record deal yet?" Though I don't think I would've ever given up even if it took me ten years.
DS: One last thing. You mentioned you're working on your next album. Are you feeling pressure to get it done? Can we expect any surprises?
MC: I'm currently writing for my next album and trying to spend as much time on it as I can. It's something I really enjoy, too, so it's not like, "Ugh, I have to make time for doing this." It's just that I have so many other things to do now. What I'm trying to do is just have all the songs completed before I go in the studio. I'll probably be co-producing most of the tracks, maybe with Walter Afanasieff, who produced "Love Takes Time." The production may be a little bit more spare, but hopefully the songs will be able to stand on their own. But it's not going to be an incredible departure from what I'm doing now. I'll just be a little more in control.