A Special Gift

Global superstar and award-winning actress Mariah Carey is about to hold another title: mum. At the launch of her Christmas album in New York the singer talks to Alexandra Wells about music, marriage and her love of all things festive.

The Big Issue (UK) November 1, 2010. Text by Alexandra Wells.

It's a very clear but very chilly evening in New York, and there's a definite thrill of anticipation in the air at one Manhattan's most trendy music venues, located in the borough's smart Upper West Side. Gathered here tonight are the great and the good of the music world, including performers, producers, music executives and label CEOs, — as well as a smattering of models, designers and fashionistas — New York's beautiful people. As the Champagne reception draws to a close, the crowd file into the auditorium to take their seats in front of the main stage. It's decorated in such a way that the only thing missing seems to be Santa Claus — and his little helpers.

"Yes, Christmas has come a little early to New York this year," says Grammy Award-winning songwriter and music mogul, Antonio "L.A." Reid, as he takes to the stage to introduce the event. He's standing on fake snow, and very close to a carefully positioned decorative tree. All around him are jolly holiday decorations and huge piles of brightly wrapped Christmas presents. And in the background, through a glass wall of windows that overlook the famous Broadway, the car headlights and traffic signs twinkle — very appropriately — in red, green and yellow, like a back-drop of shiny Christmas baubles. Manhattan, it seems, can't help but join in the winter festivities as well. "But you see," Reid continues, "Christmas is her real love, and the holiday she enjoys the most. It's very special for her."

The "She" he's referring to happens to be the biggest selling female artist of all time, Mariah Carey; global superstar and the acknowledged possessor of one of the most remarkable voices in music (an alto with a five-octave range). This evening, we're all here to help Mariah unwrap the largest — and most important — present under the tree: her second festive album Merry Christmas II You. "I hope you enjoy it," says Reid, nodding to cue in the music. Spontaneously, almost the entire audience begins to smile and clap as the first single from the album Oh Santa, fills the room. It's just so happy, upbeat and infectious; so toe-tapping good.

"Did you like it? I'm so glad!" says Mariah enthusiastically when I speak with her the next day. We're sitting in a cutting edge hotel in Manhattan's fashionable Soho district. This is the second time that I've met the singer, and she recognises me instantly, jumping to her feet and greeting me like a long-lost friend. And, just as before, Mariah exudes an air of almost impossible glamour, as well as an innate and unfathomable 'star' quality. It seems to come from more than just her worldwide fame, so it must be that certain 'x' factor that Simon Cowell et al, are always searching for on Saturday evening television, but rarely find.

Carey is tall at 5ft 9ins, but even taller in her requisite 5-inch heels. She's dressed in a simple, elegant black jacket and matching trousers and her famous caramel-coloured hair blow-dried straight and shiny.

This album is Carey's second collection of festive songs since her first offering, Merry Christmas, released in 1994. That record produced the single, All I Want For Christmas Is You, which has a habit of entering the charts each time it's re-released. How, then, does anyone top a classic like that? "Well," muses Mariah, "For me, one of the most important ingredients in making a really good Christmas album is 'timelessness' — it really has to stand the test of time. So I wanted this album to have something for everyone, which is why I've included traditional ballads, like The First Noel and Little Drummer Boy, as well as writing some original material. But even some of the new songs can have both a traditional and modern sound. For instance, with the first single, Oh Santa, I've tried to combine that orchestrated introduction that many Christmas songs seem to have, along with an updated 60s retro sound. And somehow they really seem to work together."

Merry Christmas II You is, in fact, a wonderful mix of old and new, and there is indeed something for everyone on this album. She collaborated on several tracks with award-winning composer and arranger Marc Shaiman, who has also worked with Oscar winner Barbra Streisand. One of their songs, Christmas Time Is In The Air Again has a nostalgic, 50's feel and is very reminiscent of Bing Crosby. "It's one of my favourites," confesses Mariah. But the biggest surprise of all, perhaps, is O Come All Ye Faithful, in which Mariah duets, for the very first time on record, with her mother Patricia."That was a very nice moment, and I'm just very proud of the whole album," says Mariah simply.

Carey seems happy and relaxed, and this obvious contentment might possibly be explained by her successful marriage. In fact, we met days before she announces she is pregnant. In 2008 Mariah surprised the world by announcing that she'd tied the knot to musician, writer, award-winning actor and multi-millionaire CEO of Teen Nickelodeon, Nick Cannon. Cannon was once cited by People magazine as one of the Top 10 Most Successful Young People in Hollywood, and indeed he does seem to have much in common with his hard-working, high-achieving wife. They are both similarly multi-talented entertainers who attained a high level of success at a very young age. Yet there appears to be absolutely no professional jealousy between this couple; only a great pride and support of each other's career and achievements. "There's no competition between us," says Mariah. "We're each other's greatest advocates."

Mr and Mrs Cannon, in fact, seem to manifest a sort of kind-hearted, almost old-fashioned integrity. "On our first date together in a restaurant, we both spontaneously said grace before we started eating," remembers the singer. "So immediately we connected on a sort of spiritual level. That's never happened to me before."

The couple also share something else in common. "I am probably the most festive person I know," laughs Carey, who starts planning Christmas sometime in June. "And Nick is probably the second. We're both a little over the top in our festiveness, but it's nice to be married to someone who enjoys it as much as me." Yet, for all her privilege and wealth, the singer is also a realist. "I'm aware that for many people, Christmas can be quite an unhappy or lonely time. On the album there's song that says, 'So many souls hurt, so many don't have enough when Christmas comes.'"

And that 'many' that Carey sings about must include, of course, the countless homeless all over the world. An enthusiastic supporter of The Big Issue and its aim to help the vulnerable in society, Mariah is keen to talk to the magazine whenever the chance arises. Equally important to the singer are her own philanthropic causes, which have earned the star a Congressional Horizon Award. Carey is co-founder of Camp Mariah (part of Fresh Air Fund) which enables inner-city adolescents to explore educational and career opportunities while enjoying camping adventures outside the city. She's also a keen supporter of the Make-a-Wish Foundation, a charity that grants the wishes of children who have life-threatening illnesses.

Mariah Carey has come a long, long way from the little girl who grew up on New York's Long Island, singing at home with her mother, Patricia, an Irish-American opera singer. Carey's father, Alfred, was an aeronautical engineer of Afro-American and Venezuelan descent, and her parents divorced when the singer was three. By the time she was a teenager, Mariah's vocals were in demand as a back-up singer in New York. Her life changed almost overnight when someone gave her demo tape to Tommy Mottola, then entertainment chief at Sony Music. And the rest, as they say, is history.

In less than two decades, Mariah Carey had become the biggest selling female artist of all time (200 million record sales worldwide and counting), a talented businesswoman and one of the richest artists in the music industry. And now, with Mariah's critically acclaimed performance in the Oscar-winning film, Precious, which earned her two coveted awards, including Best Breakthrough Performance at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, Carey's long-held dream of acting success is coming to fruition at long last. She won't mention any names, but a number of A-list Hollywood directors phoned the singer after seeing her performance. "I was like 'wow!' They took time out of their busy schedules to call me," says the excited star.

Surely with so much achieved, the singer can now afford to take a well-earned break? "Are you kidding?" asks Mariah. "I've got Christmas to plan. I've been waiting 12 months for this."