The Making Of Mariah Carey

NOVEMBER 3, 1993: From nowhere, Mariah Carey, 24, had sold 20 million albums in a little over three years. She had also just married Tommy Mottola, worldwide president of Sony Music Entertainment, arguably the most powerful man in the entire music industry. But Mariah Carey was scared stiff...

Q (UK) June 1994. Text by Phil Sutcliffe.

She had never played a gig in her life before and now she was about to make her debut in front of 15,000 people at the Miami Arena.

"I was OK until I had to walk up this ramp on to the stage and I heard this deafening scream and it was kinda like everything in my life, this whole incredible whirlwind I'd been going through, it had all been leading up to that insane moment — and there I was."

She breaks for breath, all pumped-up energy, throaty, twisted New York vowels and ramshackle sentence structure. She's sitting on a studio control room sofa at New York's Hit Factory, but her tracksuit and trainers don't seem inappropriate; she puts so much into every waking moment that even talking is an athletic event.

"That was so intense," she says. "And then they killed me. Not the audience — they knew it was my first show, they were very supportive. I got really bad reviews, though. Well, there were a lot of critics out to get me: this girl's sold all these albums, she's never toured, let's get her. So they did. I turned on the TV in bed that night and the CNN guy was saying, The reviews are in and it's bad news for Mariah Carey. It really hurt me a lot.

"Still, I learnt. The next show I did, in Worcester, Massachusetts, I put all my anger into it, let go all my inhibitions and just lost myself in performing. Not like this is what matters to me, but the reviews were raves."

In pop music, Mariah Carey is an irresistible force. She's proved it. She's got what she's always wanted. To sing, to be a star.

"I definitely couldn't get through my life without music and it's been like that since I was a kid," she says with the unbridled American fervour which discomfits diffident British souls. "All I ever wanted to do was sing. And my mom always told me, You are special, you have a talent, and, If you believe you can do something, you can do it. It is not an unrealistic goal."

Unabashed, she raises the aspirational stakes a further notch.

"I prayed very hard for this to happen and it happened," she says. In her world, religion and ambition make natural and most sincere bedmates.

But the other thing is, she sets off on another rolling conversational riff, "I don't even think about what I've achieved, I haven't focused on it and I wish I had, because I really want to enjoy it, and I don't know if I am enjoying it, because I'm just going through my life like a bulldozer. I still haven't marveled at it."

The making of Mariah Carey began years before she was born, in the harsh experiences of her family. She was the third child of Patricia, a white Irish-American opera singer/coach, and Alfred, a black Venezuelan aeronautical engineer. In the '60s, their mixed marriage brought them hellish times. Crazy stuff, says Mariah. Their cars were blown up, their dogs were poisoned...

Her brother and sister, nine and 10 years older than her, suffered too. Morgan had cerebral palsy and epilepsy as a child, but it was Alison who got picked on because she had the darkest skin. "They'd shout racial slurs at her and beat her up," says Mariah. "Then my brother would go in and fight for her, even though he was handicapped. It was tough."

The Careys divorced when Mariah was three and Alison went with their father. Mariah and Morgan lived with their mother on Long Island always on the edge of town, it seemed.

"I guess when you're part Irish and part Venezuelan, you're not completely connected to any one thing," she says. "You grow up like that in a suburban neighborhood with rich kids, you're not popular because you're different. And I never had any financial security. I dreamed of possessing things. Lucky for me I had my music to hold on to as a goal. It was like, These people may not think I'm as good as them, but I can sing!"

She reckons she thought that way from the age of four. Forever listening to records or the radio — Chaka Khan, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight — she loved doing her party pieces for her mother's friends from the New York opera and jazz scene.

Then, she went through a phase of being left home alone most nights. Her mother had to quit the opera and take two other jobs to make ends meet and her brother proved an errant babysitter: "It was scary growing up like that. I never really felt stable. I always felt the rug could be pulled out from under me."

Contrary to the orthodoxies of extreme ambition, Mariah Carey spent her youth refusing to learn almost everything.

"When I'm good at something, I focus on it. When I'm not good at it, I couldn't care less," she says airily. "I'd be in math class and the teacher would say, Mariah, what are you going to do in life? You need this to get into college. I'd say, I'm not gonna go to college, I'm gonna be a singer."

Any collegiate potential she might have had went out the window as soon as she was 13. That was when she swapped day for night permanently. Through her brother's contacts, she got involved with a bunch of hopeful no-hopers in Manhattan who were fervently recording demos and needed back-up singers. Every evening, she'd travel in from Long Island after school, record through to the early morning, be home and in bed around 5am, then up in time to be three hours late for school again.

At least the upside-down life gave her a vocal trade mark. When her mother badgered her awake after a hard night in the studio she found her voice was no more than a Minnie Mouse squeak, so she worried at it until it became that Minnie Riperton seventh octave.

Soon Morgan had introduced her to her first writing partner, Ben Margulies, seven years older than herself, not really much cop on the keyboards, but with nocturnal access to a room at the back of his father's wood shop, one microphone and an eight-track reel-to-reel. They hit it off (though not in the "walking out" sense). She left school and moved into the city. She was 16.

"It wasn't a big deal," she says. "My whole life I knew I was going to do that. I remember being 10 years old, mom driving up out of the Midtown Tunnel and me in the back seat saying to myself, I'm going to live in this city. Through the day I did all kinds of waitressing jobs, hostess, coat-check. I didn't tell anyone there what I wanted to do, though, because every waitress in Manhattan is like, Really I'm an actress. Really I'm a singer. I didn't want to be that. It was too sacred."

She and Margulies sent out rough demos and several labels, including Warners, expressed immediate interest — then stalled for months on end. But when a publisher offered to send one of their songs to Whitney Houston, she refused. No one else was going to get their hands on her hits.

So the nocturnal regime at the wood shop continued: the young singer a touch self-consciously paying her dues.

"It was a year of days on one slice of Munster cheese with a bagel or some pasta, because that's all I could afford." she says. "But it was fun. I was learning, collaborating. Well. it was also a year of crying yourself to sleep every night because you want to do something so badly. It sounds exaggerated, but it's a long time, especially in a young person's life."

Famously, self-made Mariah became corporate Carey via a modern-dress version of Cinderella with her demo tape in a cameo role as the glass slipper. The fairy story, set in 1988, goes like this: Brenda K. Starr, a dance diva she's singing back-ups for, takes Mariah to a Friday night music business party and thrusts her towards a CBS label boss called Jerry Greenberg. She gives him a cassette. But another hand reaches out and snatches the tape from his fingers. This hand belongs to Tommy Mottola, President of Columbia Records, USA. After perfunctory greetings, he leaves. He plays the demo in his car. Two songs later, he turns round and drives back to the party to find the singer whom he can transform into a princess of pop. But by now it is midnight. She has gone home, and no one can remember her name...

The next day, though, Mottola's task was rather easier than Prince Charming's. He had more contacts. By the following Monday, Mariah Carey was in his office with her mother. The contract was signed within a month.

Carey had been discovered. She was designated a "priority artist". Not to put too fine a point on it, the boss had placed his balls on the line.

She became the subject of strategy. Expensive producers with formidable commercial reputations were brought in: Narada Michael Walden (Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston), Ric Wake (Taylor Dane), Rhett Lawrence (Michael Jackson). After a year sequestered in various New York and Los Angeles studios, the selling began. It was big-budget, high-profile; also subtle, sophisticated. One of the most intense efforts to launch an unknown artist a record company had ever undertaken, business people say.

She sang at the American record shop owners national convention (no tatty mime, but a live set accompanied by the late soul piano great Richard Tee and a gospel group). Then it was a meet-and-greet tour of major city radio stations and stores. Along with heavy advertising, that covered the groundwork with the trade.

Next, the promotion men turned to TV, securing several prime placements unavailable to the average debutante. Carey was two months off her first record release when she sang The Star Spangled Banner on television before the first game of the 1990 National Basketball Association finals. Following which, Johnny Carson's Tonight Show and Arsenio Hall also proffered her their enormous audiences. She could hardly have had a more resonant fanfare.

What's more, it worked. America fell at her feet. The singles exploded. Vision Of Love, Love Takes Time and Someday (all co-written with Margulies) were successive Number 1s. In February '91 she won Grammies for Best New Artist and Best Pop Vocal Performance Female.

However, most of this hullabaloo more or less passed Carey by. She'd gone straight back into the studio, her "cocoon" or "security blanket" as she calls it. I was so out of touch. The important thing to me is all that happened before Tommy and I were involved other than professionally and he believed in me and obviously he was right. I had a great push from the company, but if I didn't come through myself, I wouldn't be here right now.

Carey has done her share of living happily ever after. Her debut LP sold six million in America, since when a workaholic three further albums — including her Unplugged — have bitten off and chewed most of the rest of the world's charts (the UK succumbing this Spring, after earlier ups and downs, when she had simultaneous single, album and video Number 1s).

After three years of publicly denying her relationship with Mottola while he extricated himself from his previous marriage, the wedding last June found her flanked, among a luminous multitude, by Springsteen, De Niro, Streisand. Her new home is an upstate New York mansion where, as portrayed by Hello! magazine, she lives a countrified idyll surrounded by friendly Dobermans, Jack Russells, horses, pink roses and Mottola's large collection of shotguns, pistols and hunting knives.

Not to mention her greatest hero Stevie Wonder rang up and sang his Happy Birthday to her answerphone and she was voted one of the 100 Top Irish-Americans of the year.

But life's not just like that, of course, not where there's fame and fortune up for grabs.

First there was her rift with Ben Margulies. While she cautiously evades specifics, it seems that in pre-CBS days she signed a contract with him which gave him, she avers, nearly half of the millions from her massive debut album rather than just the publishing to which he was obviously entitled.

"Be careful what you sign. You hear it a thousand times and I heard it a thousand times," she says, shrugging, resigned. "When you're struggling, you still do it. I blindly signed. Later, I tried to make it right so we could continue our professional, our artistic relationship, but he wouldn't accept it. What can you do?"

Meanwhile, her stepfather had turned nasty. Separated from her mother, he sued Carey for millions on the grounds that he'd bought her a car and dental work and she hadn't repaid him. It was a fantasy and the judge threw it out, but still it was degrading.

And then she started to realise she was losing her oldest friends. "I've been disillusioned a lot especially in the past year. I think I'm constantly being let down. I'm sure I'm a giving person and a loyal person. I've tried to hold on to friends from high school, but suddenly it's, Oh, I know her. I'm like a topic of conversation. Since I was a kid I've always thought of myself as a hard-ass, always smart, street-wise, not vulnerable — but I am.

For all her success, it's unclear whether many people really care about Mariah Carey as an artist. For all the platinum discs, it's hard to place her. She can sound as frothy as Kylie and then rip out a hair raising vocal crescendo that could only come from someone who's listened to Aretha — and with love — all her life.

"I stand by my pop songs, definitely," she says. "I've had to put up with a lot of people accusing me of being either 'too white' or 'too black' and I hate that, but music for me is such a celebratory thing; sometimes when I'm writing it's coming from such a place of happiness. And then there are the schmaltzy ballads, I acknowledge that's what they are, I'm a realist about it, I have a sense of humor about it, but the truth is sometimes it's OK. Y'know, there are moments when you can't resist schmaltz. People are affected by it; they're moved; it can help them.

"One person could say Hero (her eighth American Number 1) is a schmaltzy piece of garbage, but another person can write me a letter and say, I've considered committing suicide every day of my life for the past 10 years until I heard that song and I realized after all I can be my own hero. And that, that's an unexplainable feeling, like I've done something with my life, y'know? Here I am the propped-up doll tralala singing a song — and it meant something to someone. So you can critique it to the end of time, I've done my job."

Although she has neither reason nor inclination to back off dance-pop, her gospel instincts have been evident since Vanishing, the Richard Tee collaboration on her debut album, and they came on strongest in the MTV Unplugged session last year.

"I think singers like Vanessa Bell Armstrong and The Clark Sisters are the best singers in the world," she says. "I have a pretty good knowledge of gospel now and although it's not like I grew up in church, I love it. It's hard to explain, but sometimes when I'm singing gospel, everything seems to be right. I'm not thinking, I don't know how I'm going to sing the next line, because I'm letting go, the choir's wailing away and there's an uplifting, spiritual moment where the voices connect with the music and what I'm feeling... it comes from somewhere else and it's such an amazing gift."

Could it be she's describing the exquisite no-place where sex and religion meet, the divine G-spots Aretha seems to sing from nearly all the time?

Carey looks thrown. She starts to babble.

"You're asking the wrong person in putting these two things together because I am probably the most superstitious person. This is just taboo to me. I wouldn't even necessarily discuss those two things in the same paragraph, but if... I dunno, I think I'm gonna get into trouble whatever I say."

She laughs herself to a stumbling halt.

After a burst of such verbal chaos it's no surprise to hear Carey concede that her writing is not 'lyrically driven'. It's certainly the area in which she's taken her most vigorous critical cannings, chiefly provoked by the gung-ho of songs like Make It Happen: "If you believe in yourself enough/And know what you want/You're gonna make it happen", or earnestly philosophical fatuities such as "There's got to be a way/to unite the human race/and together we'll bring on a change" (There's Got To Be A Way from Mariah Carey).

Again she's not about to let it lie.

"Maybe someone will hear one of my singles and go, Oh, please, that's such a tired lyric. And I'd acknowledge, yeah, I just had to get that finished — it fitted but it wasn't the most moving line I ever wrote," she says. "But then you could look at album tracks like The Wind (from Emotions) which is about a friend of mine who died because of a drunk-driving accident."

That song flows from personal experience, which may be the key. It's not as if she's had an uneventful life. Wouldn't real-life stories, rather than amorphous generalizations or dewy platitudes, open up more substantial possibilities for her? I tell my stories in my own way, she insists. Not everything has to be soul-searching, gut wrenching, heart-rending. I'm not going to kill myself digging in night and day for that inner pain. If I did, I think it would be too heavy. I would hurt people and I would hurt myself. I'm not ready for it.

She gathers herself for one final free-form crescendo, like Streisand or Ethel Merman belting out a Broadway showstopper.

"Right now, I'm 24 and my style is what you hear. Mostly I'm choosing specifically to write lyrics that might inspire someone because I've been blessed with a positive and incredible life, I've been blessed with this ability no matter what I went through, no matter how horrible I felt growing up, no matter how inadequate I felt I was, no matter how poor I was, no matter what — I'm here."