The Second Coming Of Mariah Carey

The 'Glitter debacle well and truly behind her, Mariah's back... stronger, wiser and more focused than ever. Her intimate, new "Charmbracelet" album is an emotive mix of octave-defying ballads and seductive urban flavas. Recording it served as a therapeutic process to get the lady right back on track...

Blues & Soul (UK) December 3, 2002. Text by Helen Jennings.

Would you pay £150 for Mariah Carey's half-eaten lunch? No? Well one fan did at a recent auction for the aforementioned turkey and salad sandwich left behind by Ms. Carey at Atlanta radio station Q100. Not many singers can lay claim to such die-hard following but her achievements to date speak for themselves. With 15 chart-toppers, over 120 million record sales worldwide and two Grammys, she was the only artist to top the charts every year in the 90s. But that was then. Her much publicized post-Glitter meltdown last year almost spelt the end for Mariah. Almost. With a new single, "Through The Rain," and an upcoming album, Charmbracelet," she's back — in shape, on top... and over here.

A suitably diva-like six hours late for our interview, Mariah reclines in her hotel suite in tight jeans, plunging top and stripper wedge hills. How she fits five octaves into such a svelte frame is anyone's guess but, although calm and composed, she's tired after dashing back from TOTP. "They had a butterfly set for me and then all this pyro exploded, which was cool, but I was scared my hair was going to catch on fire. Not a good look!" she chuckles. "And after this I'm going to take a nap for an hour which is going to be a splendid moment." This is the new Mariah talking, one who has learnt to look after herself — it's taken 32 years but this ain't Kansas any more, or New York for that matter.

Born to Patricia Hickey, an Irish opera singer and Alfred Carey, a Venezuelan/black aeronautical engineer, her multi-racial family was victimized in middle-class Long Island. Crosses were burnt in their garden, pets were poisoned and, after her father left when she was three, her mum was forced to care for her three children and move house more than a dozen times. "People have a lot of misconceptions about how I grew up," she recalls. "It definitely was rags to riches, but the rags part was intense." Such an upbringing took its toll on Mariah's sister, Alison, who turned to drugs and contracted HIV. But Mariah turned to music for escape.

Singing along while her mother practiced her role in Verdi's Rigoletto at the age of four, she started writing her own songs by junior high and began working as a session singer at 14. "I always wanted to be like the people on TV so my mum coached me and I started learning piano... but the formal structure wasn't for me. Music was always a gift — something connected to freedom and creativity — I wouldn't have felt as free if I'd known the rules."

Never one to follow the rules, she'd already written most of her first album by the time she moved to Manhattan the day after she graduated from high school. Becoming a backing singer for Brenda K. Starr, there were a few other ill-fated occupations along the way. "I worked in a hair salon where they gave everybody names. I have issues enough with my name as it is ( her mum called her Mariah because it was a good stage name) so when the guy there said 'Your name is now Echo,' I was like okey dokey smokey, ran out the back and never went back."

Subsequent turns as a waitress ("which was a joke, I was the worst waitress in history — the cash register confused me!), coat check girl and hostess proved similarly fruitless but it wasn't long before Brenda took her to a party and handed her demo to CBS big wig Tommy Mottola. "It was one of those bizarre situations," she says. "Apparently he got into his car, put in on and then drove back to find me."

The rest, as they say, is multi-platinum selling, record-breaking history. Her first album led to four consecutive number ones, seven more record breaking albums on Columbia and one ill-fated marriage to Mottola, 20 years her senior. Single again, Mariah dropped her girl-next-door image to become an R&B babe on Butterfly and, by 2000, she'd been honored with a Billboard Award for Artist of the Decade and a World Music Award for Female Solo Artist of the Millennium. Can she get in her NY apartment for gongs? "I worked my hind quarters off to earn those awards so it's nice to look at them and go, you know, this represents basically most of my life. The millennium thing especially just sounds huge, so that moment was very rewarding."

Less rewarding was what came next. Her new deal with EMI/Virgin, reported to be worth $128 million fell apart when the disastrously unsuccessful Glitter project did likewise. Suffering a very public breakdown, Mariah was hospitalized amid rumors of a suicide attempt before convalescing with her mother. Looking back, she sees the episode as a turning point in her life. "Everybody has problems but as a celebrity it's really hard to live under a microscope," she sighs. "Last year I was burning the candle — forget both ends: basically it was just the wick left! So I've changed the way I live my life. If I need to take a break, have some fun, take a nap, I'll do it. Before, I never wanted to disappoint anyone. But if you start off like that as a young artist and record companies see that you're willing to do an album a year, they'll milk you dry. It's the nature of the job."

No longer the diva-in-distress, Mariah signed a new own-label deal with Island Def Jam to create MonarC Music before another personal blow — the death of her father from cancer this summer. "He said something to me that makes me feel badly: 'There's only so many really happy moments in life and I feel that we have shared most of those together.' So, for me, life should be a party when it can be. A lot of people don't realize I have a sense of humor but laughter is what gets me through."

Another lesson learnt, it was these very real experiences that gave birth to the songs on Charmbracelet. "Recording this album was a freeing, therapeutic process for me. I went to Atlanta to work with Jermaine (Dupri), to Phillly to work with Vidal (Davis), to Minneapolis to work with Jimmy (Jam), to New York to work with Jus (Blaze). But I spent most of the time in Capri where there were no pagers, no phones, no stress. I never felt this close to a record before... there's a lot of personal songs on there."

Even the title is an intimate reference. "My grandmother had a bracelet that she wore all the time. One of the charms was a mustard sees with Matthew 17:20 on the back, which basically says if your faith is the size of a mustard see you can move mountains. And that's what the album us saying...each song has its own little charm."

An emotive mix of octave-defying ballads and seductive urban flavas ("You Got Me" features Jay-Z and Roc-A-Fella labelmate Freeway). it's the first single "Through The Rain" that most sums up her past year. "That was the first one I wrote for the album. It's basically saying that no matter what happens, you have to turn a negative into a positive and press on."

Always looking forward, she's busy nurturing new female artists on MonarC Music as well as her ever-burgeoning acting career. A bit part in the 1999 flick The Bachelor, a starring role in Glitter, and a guest slot in Ally McBeal readied her to co-star alongside Mira Sorvino and Melora Walters in the gangster flick Wisegirls. "I loved doing that movie. It's an edgy independent project, which is what I meant to start out doing so homogenized from where it started that I lost the type of say that I wanted. But Wisegirls is totally different. I'm this drug dealing waitress from Staten Island, which is completely different to myself, so that's cool." At least all that bad waitressing came in handy in the end!

Keeping her fans happy is more than the product for Carey though. She regularly organizes meet-and-greet events and runs Camp Mariah, career awareness holidays for inner city kids. All this leaves little time for dating. Although she's notched up baseball player Derek Jeter and Latin pop star Luis Miguel in recent years, she's single now and claims you could count the amount of men she's been with on one hand. And, contrary to recent rumors, Eminem ain't one of 'em. No prizes for guessing who she's referring to in the Charmbracelet track Clown."

As time is always of the essence, we left her to have that all-important nap before her Halloween party. "I always have a Halloween party in New York...they've become infamous events," she glows. "You guys don't dress up for Halloween but in NY, everybody walks around like they live to dress up. Of course I'm all about the ensemble so tonight I'm going to see how many British people come in fancy dress." B&S will be the ones in skeleton outfits by the bar...