High Life!

So, said Columbia Records, howdy fancy a trip to Madrid to interview Mariah Carey? Hmmmm, difficult one that. Jon-Andre Holley, for the sake of a quiet life, agrees to the proposition.

Blues & Soul (UK) May 26, 1998. Text by Jon-Andre Holley.

Let's talk axioms. Y'know adages, proverbs, wise ol' sayings, that sort of thing. To be perfectly honest with you many such short-literary works have oft times struck me as being dubiously vague and of questionable benefit to one's imaginary handbook for living. I mean 'every cloud has a silver lining...' C'mon, I wasn't born yesterday. That's not much benefit to those poor should who have been dumped upon from a great height is it and, 'sides, what about those people who live out in southern California. As Tony Toni Tone once said, 'It never rains there' and they sho'nuff ain't got no clouds in their bluest of blue skies so, answer me this, where can the residents 'Cali south' find their particular proverbial gilt-edged salvation, eh? The next thing they'll be telling me that Santa Claus really does exist and he's sharing digs with Elvis and Tupac as we speak. Surely, we know better than that... don't we?

That said, there is one maxim that has never failed to ring true to my rapidly seasoning showbiz-journalistic lugholes. Y'know, the one that reads: 'it's relatively easy getting to the top...the difficult thing is to stay there.' After all, one can fill a whole directory with the names of people who have ascended to the pinnacle of their profession only to come thudding back down again with an air of inevitability and, oft cases, nursing more than merely a bruised ego.

The list is endless: from Jack and Jill (the 'Adam and Eve' of hill-tumblers) to Vanilla Ice. Catch A Falling Star? Not in every case, alas.

Take the ex-Tory PM, now to be seen quietly willing away his time as President elect at Surrey Cricket Club (talk about a Major change of scenery). Or what about the currently estranged, but once mega-big, Bobby 'other 'arf of Whitney' Brown and many other along the way. Whatever happened to Five Star I hear many of you asking (not)? They were once set to be as big as any of the current teen acts around. Actually, if any of you can put me in touch maybe we can do the former 'fab-five' for our Whatever Happened To... series...The point is that sustaining one's position at the summit of any entertainment field has proven to be an insurmountable task to many. This is why, for whatever reasons — luck, talent, genius, sexual favours or a happy mix of all of these — those chosen few that actually do manage to remain at the very peak for the duration of their careers tend to enjoy the same luxuries and accompanying lofty level of hero-worshipping that is only, otherwise, afforded to those artists who do the whole 'rebel without a cause, die young and be revered, forevermore, as a cult-figure' bit. Like it or not, the truth is, we, the people, cannot help but find such characters fascinating and, in general, worthy of a whole lifetimes worth of Diana-like analysis and coverage. That, my dear learned B&S readers is partly why I'm here...

SO WHERE precisely is "here"? Well, believe it or not (and, after all you've only got my word for it), I am currently slumped on the bed of my personal room in a five-star hotel somewhere deep in the heart of Madrid. Yes, Madrid, paella, Flamenco dancing, bull-fighting, occasional attempted military-coups by geezers with Mickey Mouse hats and...and...Mariah Carey. The big-voiced pretty-faced gal originally tagged the 'white Whitney,' that was before we found out she wasn't actually white (in the politically correct sense) at all, moreover, a truly mixed-race less comprising Celt, Central American and African descent, a la Ryan Giggs if you will. Mariah has, as I'm sure y'all are very aware, gone on to become the single biggest selling female artist of the decade and one of music's largest selling artists. Period.

We're all familiar with "Music Box." We've all at some point gazed into loved one's eyes accompanied by the melodramatic strains of "Can't Live If Living Is Without You," "Hero," "Got To Be There," "Butterfly" or any one of a number of best-selling Mariah big ballads. Concurrently, we've all, at some stage got down to the funky sound of 'urban Mariah' through ditties such as "Fantasy," "Dreamlover" or the recent hit record "Honey." Where others have failed, Mariah has succeeded in simultaneously straddling both dance and MOR markets. In short, Mariah Carey is one of the very few female vocalists who could safely claim to be both a 'chanteuse' and a 'diva' in the modern sense of the words. She is also a long-term phenomenon and, at ten-to-midnight, this humble scribe, with open laptop and suitably fantasy-ridden is but ten minutes away from a visit (albeit a formal one) to her bedroom. I gotta pinch myself...

TWO DAYS later and I am standing in the middle of one of those anonymous aircraft-hangers. The type that inspired Humprey Bogart to utter that famous good-bye to Ingrid Bergman prior to the latter departure from a windswept and foggy Casablanca. Well, it's not so foggy here, but it is pretty windswept and pissing down with rain. To be perfectly honest with you, I feel pretty 'anonymous' myself as I stand next to a colleague, waiting to board a plane, Mariah Carey's own private jet, to be specific. I should be excited I guess. I was scheduled to be interviewing Mariah in her bedroom prior to a few days stay in sunny Spain. Now, here I am, with my vacation protracted, about to interview her on the way home to London and, what's more, it's still pissing down! The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain. Not always.

Once on board I begin talking with some of Mariah's personal entourage. Her best friend is there and so are her security guards. All are very friendly. We play some word-games to pass the time before launching into the sky, the plane is very much on the small side so I am quickly informed not to be too perturbed if we rock 'n' roll a little. Isn't that what it's all about, I surmised...Some minutes later, it's my turn. Mariah turns around and ushers me to the front. By this time my nerves are getting a tad fraught, despite my attempts to regain composure. I hate flying as it is and, well, I've been psyching myself up for the best part of forty eight hours...not that I'm the nervous type or anything.

My state of mind is distracted at once by my interviewee's initial observation that I look like the actor, Gary Oldman. I reply that I feel like an 'old man' as small plane flying is definitely not my thing.

We settle down to our conversation and Mariah immediately reverses the roles asking me what I thought of her newie — "My All" released in the UK on May 18?

Aghast, I reply with non-committal affirmation of its qualities.

"Well, a lot of people have said that it's their favorite song on the album so that means a lot to us (Mariah and Walter Afanasieff). I really love the song, the words hold great meaning to me..." I mention the fact that it seems to crystallize, in one single, what she has achieved musically in that the original is a classically 'Mariah' drop-dead-slowie and the new versions, courtesy of the ubiquitous Morales, are ostensibly club tracks.

"I love both versions because they each provide the song with its own character..." enthuses Mariah before she embarks upon an unprompted statement that smacks her personal catharsis.

"You see, a lot of people have said that I just jumped onto the whole dance music bandwagon thing after it was big but anyone who knows me will tell you different. I come from New York. I've always been influenced by dance, r 'n' b and hip hop music. So when I work with Jermaine Dupri, or Puffy or get Mobb Deep to remix my song like I did with "The Roof" then no one should be surprised. Just because they think I do only ballads...

"People say, 'How come you've just started working with Puff Daddy?' but I was working with him in '95 when he did the remix of "Fantasy" with Mase and The Lox. They also say 'oh, she's got the latest flava with Wishbone and Krayzie Bone (from Bone, Thugs and Harmony) guesting on "Breakdown." But, that was something I, personally, really wanted to do so badly. It was just so fresh and innovative and cool. Puffy and I thought it would be a good idea and it turned out to be great..."

True. The other thing that some onlookers level at Mariah is that in 'jumping on to the bandwagon,' as they perceive it, she has, further, started hanging out with those cats of a more so-called 'streetier' persuasion simply to maintain the new image. Such misconceptions are cruel and inaccurate. After all, public property or no, who are we to cast such aspersions. Just because someone is obscenely rich and mega-famous that doesn't give anyone leeway to make outlandish judgements on said person's life. And yet, invariably, it does. That is what many of us, I'm sad to say, thrive upon. Sure, we are all gossips, look at me and what I do. But there is a line to draw and a responsibility to uphold. The irony of it is, that speculation is often caused by misinformation. The desire to have one's own private life remaining so, which leads to candid snippets being handed out to the public like individual components of a jigsaw, leading to 'Chinese whispers' that when pieced together present a completely far-removed reality.

In this case, it is nearer to the truth to say that Mariah has always been into her dance music and always been into her ballads. Basically, she is a big, big music fan. How do I know? Well, our interview was delayed for ten or so minutes whilst she took notes on a proposed and quite brilliant new track she has done with Jermaine Dupri for his new album. A cover of the old Rainy Davis club hit "Sweetheart."

Secondly, when I tell her I dig Erykah Badu, Mariah promptly embarks upon a rendition of the whole of "Baduism" — thoughtfully sung to me so that I could forget the increasing wind tossing our diminutive flying machine to and fro in the void. This new mutated a capella, musical form (a type of "Careyism" if you will) was a joy to the ear. Maybe a collaboration, Mariah? She offers a wry smile and merely accredits her Dallas-based luminary. Talking of luminaries...

"I've actually been friends with Jermaine Dupri and Puffy for a long time. The point thing is that before everybody always came to my house and I never went out..."

I mention yet another adage (maybe they do carry some sense), this time the old Muslim one involving a stagnant mountain and a positively mobile Mohammed. To which Mariah nods in agreement, one suspects, with half a mind on the vast volume of recent speculation involving her personal affairs.

In spite of the fact that Mariah was chillin' with Jermaine, Puffy and the rest, the media have, at some stage, made indelicate comment with many high profile publications carrying sensationalist pics of Jermaine, Puffy et al with the supposedly 'reinvented' Mariah. All have assumed that she is romantically involved with each at some point or other, claiming that, following her divorce to record company head and former husband Tommy Mottola, Mariah unleashed her wild self on the unsuspecting music biz social-scene, instantly becoming some sort of wildly abandoned party-animal.

The reality is, that Mariah does love to have fun; hell, she is young, rich and very famous, but she is also an extremely responsible person. She has every reason to have gotten lost in all that stardom thing but, instead she is consciously down-to-earth about the whole game. Hours from taking off she had been given a ring by an adoring Spanish girl with an accompanying letter stating how it was given to her by her grandmother and how she wanted to give it to Mariah, her idol.

"That makes me feel so bad..." confirms Carey. "I wish she had given it to her loved one or something. But what can you do? I wanted to accept it because there was so much love behind the giving of the ring to me but I don't deserve it..."

"The least I can do is give people such as this girl something back by way of paying attention to them and not talking what I do for granted..."

At this point the wobbly plane knocks over Mariah's glass of vintage which spills on to her beloved CD bag. Fortunately, in the best tradition of chivalrous Brits, I swoop low to take a one handed catch just underneath the lady's slightly wet deep blue denim jeans. 'Your glass' I offer to a round of thankyous. 'Just keeping the British hand-up' I surmise...to myself. Mariah wouldn't have heard anyway, she in now frantic about any perceived damage to her case — further evidence were it needed that she is a person steeped in musicality. Eventually everything is serene once more and we resume our talk. A bit of light relief is required me thinks. Let me see. Ah, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Mariah's old friend from "Heaven." The Wu Tang Clan, with a zany, off the wall character and neat line in clothes... it did the trick... Mariah is in fits...

"Hah, hah! Good ol' O.D.B. He's a classic, he's a classic. I mean I was at my friend's house doing something like making the coffee whilst she was watching the Grammys on TV/ When I came back, my friend had this dumb expression on her face I was like 'what?' and she said 'you are not gonna believe this, ODB just grabbed the mic outta someone else's hand and got on stage and said: 'I paid a lotta money on this suit and I didn't get no (Grammy) award!' (Reference to ODB's Grammy outburst at the Grammys) I mean he did look good. He looked a million dollars, didn't he...? Sure did. I remark that he looked great in her video. Complete with processed flat middle parting and way-out suit.

"He did, he sure did..." repeats Mariah in agreement. "...I don't know what his visual reference was but he looked great. I can recall him saying 'I'm the ruffest'..."

Well into our journey now. I enquire as to Mariah's immediate future plans. "Well we're gonna go to a health place outside of London and sit around for a while..." she begins tongue firmly-rooted in those gorgeous high cheekbones of hers. What about movies? I wonder. Maybe a co-starring role with her near-namesake Jim Carrey... in The Mask Two, or a lead in the next Tarantino flick (Jackie 'not so' Brown anyone?). Anyone who's seen the jet ski scene from the "Honey" video knows that she's more than up to it.

"Actually, I've been offered a movie part that involves a very seventies type of theme. I love Tarantino 'though I haven't seen Jackie Brown yet, I never seem to get the time. The film will have seventies style soundtrack too which will probably be my next music project. No names yet though..."

Hmmm. The mind boggles... or should that be 'bogles.' Time for landing, London is suitably wet and the wind is really beating against the plane as we begin our descent. Mariah asks me if I am nervous. 'Extremely,' I reply. 'You heard of the Clark Sisters?' she enquires. 'Yup, one of the best Gospel groups bar none' is my edgy reply. At this point, she launches headlong into one of their most resolute Christian anthems. By this time the plane is thrashing down, rocking from side-to-side like a bad Oasis concert, even the bodyguards are bracing themselves. The plane touches down, having forced its way through the hail and shower, the screech of the wheels can be heard as Mariah's voice reaches Wembley stadium levels. The wheels come out and we scrape against the runway in what appears to me to be a futile attempt at stopping. At last we come to a halt and, ever the professional, Mariah's vocal tails off into a sweet bouquet of an ending. A big resounding cheer is let out. That has simply gotta be the best concert I have ever attended. Maybe this whole proverb thing makes some sense after all and every cloud does truly have a silver lining after all and there, really is no place quite like home. Or, to borrow a phrase from another, of the more irreverent maxims that exist...'It's not over until the curvaceous lady sings.'