"This wasn't even going to be an album."
It's just past 6 on an October Saturday evening, and Mariah Carey is in a room in Manhattan's Four Seasons Hotel, doing what she's been doing all day: Talking about her soon-to-be-released new album, "Rainbow" (arriving in stores Tuesday). Her ninth album in less than 10 years, it's sure to be one of the season's biggest sellers, as well as one of the most significant albums of the 29-year-old singer's career.
But, as Carey explains, a new CD wasn't even on the drawing board a few months ago. Originally, she had hoped to spend the latter part of the year shooting "All That Glitters" "my long-awaited movie" and had started the summer writing songs for specific scenes in the film.
"Then they pushed back the date of the movie," she says. With several soundtrack-bound songs ready to go anyway, Carey decided to use the free time constructively, and headed into the studio.
One of those tunes was a deceptively upbeat soul/pop romp called "Heartbreaker." Built around a sample from the Stacy Lattisaw oldie "Attack of the Name Game," the track had a bouncy, good-time groove harking back to the roller-disco craze of the early '80s. "The movie is set in the '80s," says Carey. "That's why it was kind of retro, cutesy."
To lend that old-school groove a more contemporary feel, Carey and co-producer DJ Clue brought rapper Jay-Z in to lay down some rhymes. But Jay-Z did more than rap. "Jay-Z and all those guys were in the studio going, 'This [song] is hot. You should put this out now,'" recalls Carey. "I was like, 'They're right. I have to get it out. It's a summer record. I should, I should, I should.' "
She did, she did, she did. And Jay-Z was right "Heartbreaker" was hot. Not only did the single go straight to No. 1, it stayed there for two weeks, a feat that pushed Carey's cumulative time at the top to 60 weeks, breaking the Beatles' old record. It's an amazing feat, but one Carey declines to crow about. "I don't even like to talk about that," she says, sounding almost embarrassed about having upstaged the Fab Four.
Having such a big hit was a mixed blessing, though. These days, nobody settles for just a single there has to be an album somewhere along the way. The question facing Carey was: What kind of album?
"I was like, OK, if I'm going to do this, I'm either going to use some of the songs from the soundtrack, or do a completely different album," says the singer. "I just did a completely different album. But it's the quickest album I've ever done."
It's also, in many ways, her most personal album to date. From the domestic drama of "X-Girlfriend" to the romantic ecstasy of "Bliss," to the soul-baring honesty of "Petals," "Rainbow" takes the listener deep into the heart of Carey's inner life. Yet for all its personal revelations, the album manages to retain the pop savvy of her previous releases, thanks to chart-bound tracks ranging from the joyous, gospel-schooled "Thank God I Found You" to her roof-rattling remake of the Phil Collins oldie "Against All Odds."
Of course, for Carey to have a hit on her hands is hardly stop-the-presses news. She's one of the most popular recording artists in the world, having amassed global sales in excess of 120 million albums and singles. And her success is largely the result of her own ideas and effort, as Carey has co-written or co-produced (in most cases, both) every one of her 14 chart-toppers.
Even so, the young woman curled into a hotel chair with a plate of Chinese food hardly looks like the world-conquering diva her stats would suggest. Instead of designer duds and chilled Cristal, she's sporting a baby blue tank top, and jeans with the waistband cut off; the beverage bubbling in her glass is just mineral water.
But even dressed down, with her hair up and only the slightest-traces of makeup on her freshly scrubbed face, she exudes the sort of beauty and presence that would make heads swivel almost anywhere. Make no mistake Mariah Carey is genuine superstar material.
Not that she thinks so. Carey used to be "really insecure" about her looks, and even now seems less-than-convinced about her beauty.
Still, things aren't as bad as they once were. "I used to feel like I had to cover one side of my face," she says of earlier insecurities. "I didn't show my forehead for the first six years [of my career]." It wasn't that Carey thought she was ugly; she just wasn't convinced she was beautiful, and so depended on others for feedback.
Unfortunately, what she got wasn't always the best advice. "A lot of people played into the insecurities that I had as a kid," she says.
Carey's childhood laid the foundation for much of her self-doubt. The youngest child of an interracial couple her mother was Irish-American, her father black and Venezuelan Carey grew up feeling like a square peg in a round-hole. It wasn't just that her classmates mocked her for being neither black nor white; Carey also felt cut off because she didn't have anyone to look up to who seemed like her.
"I didn't have one person that I looked at as, 'This is what I am,'" she says. "I felt different than my mother but very similar in a lot of ways. But I knew I wasn't exactly like my mother, and I knew I wasn't exactly like my father. And my brother and sister were older, and had their own issues and things going on. So I didn't really feel like I had one strong person to relate to, or to aspire to be like to look up to and say, 'Well, if they did it, I can do it.' "
All Carey had was herself, and the gift of music. "I didn't grow up feeling equal to a lot of people around me, except I had this special thing with music," she says. "I always felt gifted in that way. So that kind of evened itself out."
Except that Carey, so used to depending on herself for the esteem she didn't get from her peers, had a hard time accepting the adulation her music earned her. "You don't feel deserving of it," she says. "I guess that whole struggle influenced a lot of the decisions that I've made, and that I still make."
She doesn't elaborate, but it's not hard to fill in the blanks. Her parents separated when she was 3, and after growing up in the New York suburbs, Carey moved to Manhattan at 17, to pursue a career in music. She landed a job singing back-up for Latin hip-hop singer Brenda K. Starr, but her biggest break came in 1989 when, while working as a waitress, she was able to slip a copy of her demo tape to Sony Music chief Tommy Mottola.
Not only did Mottola sign the young singer to his label, but he courted her for himself. Despite a two-decades' difference in their ages, Mottola and Carey married in 1993, in a ceremony reportedly inspired by videos of Prince Charles and Lady Diana's wedding.
Unfortunately, that proved an all-too-appropriate model for the union. Within four years, the couple had separated and divorced. Although both have described the split as amicable, Carey tends to refer to her marriage obliquely, as "the relationship." Her ex- husband's name never comes up in the interview.
Carey's life as a divorcee, however, is at the heart of "Rainbow." Not that she was leading a wild life as a newly single pop star. There were rumors, of course, linking her with everyone from rap producer Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs to film star Leonardo Di Caprio. "None of which were true," she says. "Which I would have admitted. Why would I have not?
"But those things were kind of funny to me, and they were really funny to my friends. Because I might want to go hang out in clubs and have fun and have a good time. But I'll be leaving by myself, or with my girlfriends, at the end of the night.
"I am not a promiscuous person."
It didn't make matters easier that she hadn't really dated much before getting married. "I mean, prior to that, I was in high school. A date was a different thing," she says, laughing.
So, single again, she found herself in an unusual situation. "I came into it with a bizarre kind of handicap, which was, 'Hi. Here I am. You know me, you know my music, and you have this preconceived notion of who I am,' " she says. And that made it hard for some men to accept her for who she was.
"I'm not perfect, you know," she says. "I'm not that ad image. Because how could you ever live up to something that you just see on TV and listen to on a record?"
In recent months, Carey has settled into a happy and seemingly solid relationship with Mexican pop star Luis Miguel (the apparent subject of the album-closing "Thank God I Found You"). Nonetheless, the ups and downs of Carey's post-divorce love life are vividly rendered on "Rainbow," from the romantic intoxication of "Bliss" to the emotional frustration of "Heartbreaker" and "X-Girlfriend."
Carey admits that the album does take a few liberties with the facts. "I did try to tell a story," she says. "When I wrote 'Bliss' and 'How Much,' I wrote them closer to now, in a happy space. But in sequencing [the album], I thought the best thing to do with this is make it into a story. Because even though I wrote 'Bliss' and 'How Much' for this point in my life, I could easily relate them to what I was going through a couple of years ago, where I was at that moment of heartbreak where you keep going back to the wrong person, and you think everything's great."
There's a fair amount of drama after those songs, what with the heroic determination of "Against All Odds" and the romantic mind games of "Did I Do That?" But "Rainbow" truly comes to a head with "Petals," a song in which Carey addresses the people in her life who have loved her and hurt her, and tries to convert that pain into acceptance and transcendence.
"'Petals,' to me, is the best song on the album, and is probably one of the best songs I've ever written," she says. It's the kind of song that comes straight from the heart, and directly addresses important emotional issues. "And when I write, those songs come the most quickly to me," she says. "Like that song 'Looking In' from the 'Daydream' album. I wrote that song in like 10 minutes, and 'Petals' was similar to that. Because there are things that are so vivid and honest in my memory that it's easier [to draw on that] than to write a song like, I dunno, 'Heartbreaker.'
"It probably would be easier for me to write a whole album like that," she says, and laughs lightly. "But I don't know that that's what I want to do, or if that's what my fans want."
Still, there's a definite, heartfelt happiness at the end of this "Rainbow," and the significance of that isn't lost on Carey. "Somebody made an interesting observation, which is that this is the first album that ends on a no pun intended on a high note," she says. "Usually, the last song [on some of my albums] is more of a kind of depressing downer, everywhere from the first album having 'Vanishing,' to 'Butterfly' having 'Outside,' which was about me being multiracial and feeling how I felt about that. That was 'Butterfly.' But this album has the uplifting song at the end."
So what does it all mean? Maybe that Carey, despite all the drama she has gone through, manages to see herself less as a superstar than as a real person.
"I think my main thing is that I've stayed grounded and real as much as one can when you travel around the world with entourages, and bags of shoes and clothes," she says. "But for the most part, I look at it all as an outside observer, and can still laugh at myself, and not take myself that seriously."