For the American pop icon Mariah Carey, who walks and talks just as she sings sultry, curvaceous and with feeling music seems to be more than merely an occupation. It is a passion, certainly. An obsession, perhaps. She herself is not certain. What she does know, she says, is that deconstruction is the fast path to ruin. Her songs, their meaning and, ultimately, their impact are, Carey says candidly, for others to interpret.
"I like to leave things to people," she says. "It's only fair to allow people to feel the way they feel about the song. Music is very personal. Extremely personal. I remember as a kid if somebody sang a song, I wanted it to be about me. That song became about me and whatever, whoever I had a crush on that week. I wanted that to be my song."
More certain is the commercial impact of her work. In a career spanning more than two decades, Carey has sold more than 200 million records worldwide, making her one of the best-selling music artists of all time. That's less, according to the somewhat unscientific algorithm of declared sales, than either Elvis Presley, Madonna or the Beatles, but more than Whitney Houston, Queen, the Rolling Stones and Abba. Whichever way you look at it, she is in esteemed company.
On stage, Carey is an immense presence, packaged with benchmark-setting precision and with a range that one US critic once described as "a sound that nearly changes the barometric pressure in the room". In person, she is smaller in scale, a whirlwind who seems, in equal parts, to evoke queen of soul Aretha Franklin, Latin film icon Lupe Vélez, and sultry Hitchcock heroine Kim Novak.
We meet at New York's Greenwich Hotel in fashionable Tribeca. Within her rented boudoir is a mixture of subtle influences: Carrara marble, Tibetan silk rugs and smothering English leather armchairs that seem to envelope us as we sit down. Our interview was scheduled for 8pm, then nudged to 10.45pm. But as with so much in the hectic world of Mariah Carey, the schedule slides further and further behind.
When we finally sit down to talk, it is at 2.45am. Lesser mortals have fallen by the wayside around us, but Carey is powering on like an Energiser bunny. She has pulled a week of all-nighters putting the finishing touches on her 14th studio album, Me. I Am Mariah … the Elusive Chanteuse. She is also on the promotional trail, perhaps in part because the first three singles released from the album Beautiful, The Art of Letting Go and You're Mine (Eternal) were met with a mixed reception on the charts.
A central theme to the album, as with the 13 that preceded it, is love. Cast an eye over her discography and you'll see titles such as Without You, We Belong Together and Always Be My Baby. Pressed on the question, Carey isn't so sure. Perhaps it is the case, she says, if you look only at the singles. "But if you asked somebody who knew all the album cuts, they'd say the central theme would be the need to be loved versus [being in] love.
"A lot of my songs sound like they're happy love songs, but they're actually sad songs," Carey says. "The songs that are really intrinsic and really close to who I am are those songs that still have a lot of longing and still are full of ... they're still written by someone in need of something."
Carey's new album is defined by that dichotomy, she says. "There are songs that are in that vein, they're uptempo, they're feel-good records, but they also have an element of darkness to them," she says. "I feel like I've been in this fight, like I'm a boxer, and I'm coming to the end of this journey and I'm getting ready to release this album that I want the world to hear simultaneously."
The 44-year-old singer-songwriter/actress was born in Long Island to a family with a spicy cocktail of ethnicity: African-American, Venezuelan and Irish. (Her grandfather changed the family name from Nuñez to Carey when he emigrated to the US.)
Her mother, Patricia, was a mezzo-soprano opera singer whose early decision to introduce her daughter to music would shape her destiny in a fashion that Patricia could never have possibly imagined. "My mother had the good sense to know that if she had pushed me into it, tried to force me to sing opera, I probably would have rebelled completely and not done it," Carey says.
In any event, her voice displayed extraordinary range: from its native alto through soprano to the whistle register, the register above falsetto. (Most performers sing in modal register, which is below falsetto.) The unique structure of Carey's voice is, to some extent, her calling card. Opera, she says, remains a powerful influence on her. "There are certain songs that I love that I'll hear and remember for example, Stride la Vampa [an aria sung by the gypsy Azucena in Giuseppe Verdi's Il Trovatore], I can't get out of my head. I know I heard that as a child over and over and over," she says.
"[But opera] would have required way too much discipline for me and for me music is the opposite of discipline," she says. "You do have to be disciplined, but these few years have also been about me exploring my voice and exploring different styles, and asking myself, must we do that because it's comfortable or maybe right here I just want to play. So, I feel like there has been a bit of learning as well."
Carey met her second husband, actor Nick Cannon, during a shoot for the music video Bye Bye (from her 11th studio album, E=MC²) on the Caribbean island of Antigua. The pair married in 2008 at her Bahamas home and, in 2011, had twins: Moroccan Scott Cannon, known as Roc, and Monroe Cannon. Monroe's first name is from iconic film siren Marilyn Monroe Carey is a big fan.
Marriage and starting a family has, she says, "allowed me to be, maybe a little bit more, I don't know if the word is 'raw', or if the word is 'pure', or maybe it's somewhere in between those two places. I have always kind of been the matriarch of this family, of everybody I know. Now it's more important because I am responsible for them for the rest of their lives. That's how I look at motherhood."
Carey is described by most as a singer/songwriter/actress, though she has had mixed fortune with the last of those three. Her performance in the 2009 film Precious is the standout, winning plenty of positive notices. Her music credentials, on the other hand, are rock solid. There are the numbers: she's the third best-selling female artist of all time in the US, behind Barbra Streisand and Madonna. And there is the illuminating mosaic painted by the music itself, a blend of R&B, hip-hop, pop and soul, with nods to commerce and sentiment, including Christmas albums, a soundtrack album for the film Glitter, and a personal album, The Emancipation of Mimi, which many consider to be one of her best.
She concedes that there is a sense of autobiography in every album, in the songs themselves, or in the sequence of tracks. For her upcoming album, Carey says she is yet to finalise that sequence. "But I've always known what was the first song and what was the last song on this album. The Art of Letting Go was meant so the fans knew, okay, this is an album that's going to have some depth to it, but it's also going to have fun."
As she gets older, she says, each decision comes with more consideration, each track with more patience. "In the beginning, don't forget, I made album after album after album, so there was no break." The moment of revelation was, she says, when she heard people singing her songs back to her in other countries. "That's really impactful, especially when it's not an English-speaking country."
It is close to 4am now and it looks as if the grind is getting to Carey. The buzz of her entourage has dimmed to a quiet hum and the woman who is by reputation so good late at night, looks tired in the early morning. We part ways with a brief chat about Australia "I have memories of Australia that I'll just never ever get over," she says and the one song from her own musical biography which remains a standout: Close My Eyes, from her sixth studio album, Butterfly. "That took four years to write, only because I kept writing it in my head. It chronicles the journey of my life, yet leaves it open at the end."
It is particularly resonant with young women, Carey says, who still write to her about the song. "A lot of fans, especially young girls who were abused or had things like that happen to them, have told me the song got them through it," Carey says. "That's what motivates me to do an album like this; there are songs that may be a little deep or real, whatever the case may be. I felt like I needed to do that, because sometimes that's what I need, you know."