The Pop-Gospel According To Mariah Carey

The New York Times (US) September 15, 1991. Text by Stephen Holden.

Mariah Carey has the air of an ambitious teen-ager who was forced to grow up too fast. One-half diffident youth, one-half brusque sophisticate, she seems to be a woman who doesn't believe in wasting words. And her shyness is only partly concealed by the determined set of her jaw.

One day last July, the 21-year-old singer, who had been up until 6 in the morning, was back in the studio by 2 in the afternoon, helping mix final vocals on her new album. She was clearly relishing her workhorse schedule. For, appearances to the contrary, Ms. Carey did not magically ascend from nowhere 15 months ago to the top of the pop charts.

"Most people don't think I've paid any dues," she said during a break at Right Track Recording in midtown Manhattan. "But I condensed 10 years of work into 3. It was like fast-forwarding. I worked around the clock. I would waitress until midnight, then go to the studio and work till 7 in the morning on the album, then sleep, then do the whole thing again, day after day. No one helped me out, and I lived on very little money."

That debut album, "Mariah Carey" — one of the most intensively promoted in Columbia Records history — has sold more than five million copies and won Ms. Carey a Grammy for best new artist of 1990. The follow-up, "Emotions" (Columbia 47980; all three formats), to be released Tuesday, arrives less than a year and a half later. Coming so soon on the heels of her megahit, the release cuts against conventional wisdom in the record business. Most pop stars wait two to three years between albums.

"I discussed it with everyone," she said. "We decided I should put out a new album soon, because I was growing so much from the last album.

"I wanted 'Emotions' to be more sparsely produced than the first one," she continued, "and for the most part it is. I also wanted to use the influences of all the music I loved, like Motown stuff and Stevie Wonder. I felt the uptempo songs were a little over produced on the first record."

Both records feature Ms. Carey's technically impressive and impassioned pop-gospel singing. Few vocalists in any musical genre have voices as flexible as Ms. Carey's nearly four-octave instrument.

The new record should mute critical dismissals of Ms. Carey as a Whitney Houston vocal clone, even though their albums have been made by many of the same hands. In the last year, Ms. Carey has succeeded in stealing some of Ms. Houston's thunder. Sales of "Mariah Carey" have exceeded those of Ms. Houston's third and latest record, "I'm Your Baby Tonight," by some two million copies.

Ms. Carey is uncomfortable discussing the comparisons. But Walter Afanasieff, who helped arrange Ms. Houston's three albums and co-produced several tracks on "Emotions" with Ms. Carey, is not.

"Mariah is a songwriter and producer as well as a singer," he said. "Whitney doesn't write songs and doesn't produce. She usually comes in and sings at the last stage of the recording process. Whitney has a beautiful voice, but Mariah has infinitely more control. Mariah will have 40 ideas of what to sing on a particular lick and choose the best. I think 'Emotions' will show a total separation between the two."

Although most songs on "Emotions" stick to the pop-gospel format of the first album, Ms. Carey's profile has been dramatically sharpened with leaner, springier arrangements. And her vocal trademark — in which she leaps into a high coloratura register and swings like a virtuoso trapeze artist — is showcased much more effectively on "Emotions." If Ms. Carey's sonic feats are comparable to those of Yma Sumac or Minnie Riperton, what distinguishes them is a rhythmic charge. At the opposite extreme, Ms. Carey's dark lower register is showcased powerfully for the first time in "If It's Over," a collaboration with Carole King that harks back to Ms. King's late-60's classic, "A Natural Woman."

Here and there, Ms. Carey's singing takes on a raw, rockish edge that recalls the soul belter Teena Marie. And on the album's final cut, "The Wind," she moves promisingly into the realm of jazz-torch singing. The song was discovered by Mr. Afanasieff on Keith Jarrett's "Paris Concert" album. Ms. Carey added her own lyrics.

The only sign of pop immaturity on "Emotions" can be found in Ms. Carey's lyrics, which describe the rapturous highs and desperate lows of romance in blunt, strung-together pop cliches, with minimal rhyming. "You've got me feeling emotions," go the opening lines of the album's title song. "Deeper than I've ever dreamed of/ You've got me feeling emotions/ Higher than the heavens above."

Ms. Carey, who seems much too practical to be the tortured romantic her lyrics suggest, insisted that her writing does not mirror a tempestuous love life.

"Sometimes the inspiration is more real life than romance, but I make it about love because it's easier to write about, and more people can relate to it."

Ms. Carey's no-nonsense attitude reflects the pragmatism of someone who has always viewed herself as independent. Her parents were divorced when she was 3. Her father, an aeronautical engineer, is black and Venezuelan. Her mother, Patricia Carey, who is of Irish descent, is a vocal coach and opera singer who was a soloist with the New York City Opera in the late 60's and early 70's. Her brother and sister, who are 9 and 10 years her senior, left home by their late teens. Beginning at age 7, Ms. Carey said, her only baby sitter was a little radio.

"My mom and I almost grew up together," she said. "We were like a team. She used to bring me with her everywhere, and I was like a young adult at 5 or 6. Because she sometimes worked during the day and at night, I often had to stay home alone. It was what gave me my independence."

The family moved 13 times, though at least during her teens Ms. Carey was able to stay in one place, Huntington, L.I., long enough to make friends. While most of them went off to college, she moved to New York to pursue her career. Obsessed with pop music since she was a toddler, Ms. Carey began songwriting at 13. Through friends of her brother, she met Ben Margulies, her first important collaborator. Together they wrote six songs for her first album, including the No. 1 hits "Vision of Love," "Someday" and "Love Takes Time." The two are now estranged because of a business dispute.

"When we met she was 17 years old and I was 24," Mr. Margulies recalled the other day. "We worked together for a three-year period developing most of the songs on the first album. She had the ability just to hear things in the air and to start developing songs out of them. Often I would sit down and start playing something, and from the feel of a chord, she would start singing melody lines and coming up with a concept.

"I'm looking forward to getting back together in the not too distant future and working again like we used to. Hopefully, art will prevail over business."

Through Manhattan's musical network, Ms. Carey landed a job as a backup singer for Brenda K. Starr, a dance-music performer who became her outspoken champion. It was Ms. Starr who, at a record-industry party, dragged Ms. Carey over to meet Tommy Mottola, the president of CBS Records (now of Sony Music Entertainment), and gave him her tape. Mr. Mottola made Ms. Carey his protegee and served as executive producer of both records (published reports have linked them romantically, though neither will discuss their relationship publicly).

The personalized star treatment undoubtedly jump-started her career, but it's likely her phenomenal gospel voice would have propelled her to the top of the charts anyway. Though Ms. Carey sounds as if she grew up singing in a Harlem church, she discovered gospel in a roundabout way.

"When I was a little girl, my brother and sister were listening to records by Al Green, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight," she said. "When I got older, I found out that Al Green and Aretha Franklin had recorded gospel records, and I went out and bought them. From there I discovered the Clark Sisters, Shirley Caesar, Mahalia Jackson, Vanessa Bell Armstrong and whoever. I love that style because it's so free and real and raw."

She was never tempted to study opera, although she has the voice for it. "I respect incredibly all the years of vocal training you have to have to sing that way," she said, "but it's just not me." Still, without her mother's example, she probably wouldn't have become a professional singer.

"Because my mom did it for a living when I was young, I knew it could be more than a pipe dream," she said. "My mom always told me, 'You are special. You have a talent.' She gave me the belief that I could do this."

If Ms. Carey is a major pop celebrity, she is the temperamental opposite of a star like Madonna, who demands attention, revels in controversy and loves performing. Although she has performed in public, Ms. Carey has yet to embark on a tour. Sooner or later, she realizes, she will have to make the leap.

"I'm not a Broadway type of person," she said. "I'm something of an introvert, who is happiest when I'm creating in my own little world in the studio. I'm not into performing. I have to make myself do it because it comes with the territory. If I toured, I wouldn't have had another album out for at least another year. It's so hard on my voice. I need a lot of sleep, and my songs are all strenuous. Because I'm not a dancer-slash-singer, when I go out there people don't want to hear me just breeze through them. They want to hear every note. I'm definitely not going to do a full-out tour for this album either.

"I don't want to be about hype and media," she continued. "I don't want to put myself in everyone's face and make them sick of me at this early stage of my career. I make pop music. That's what I do, and it makes me happy. I want to be around for a while."