In his office, Island Def Jam chairman Antonio "L.A." Reid is playing tracks from the unfinished CD The Emancipation of Mimi. The volume is high. A Dyptique candle burns; the Mona Lisa screensaver on his 20" iMac smirks at him as he strides across the room, grinning madly as he plays air keyboards.
"Isn't it fantastic?" he asks as he dances.
It is, of course, hard to take the head of a label seriously when he's enthusing so wildly about his own product. What else is he going to do? But that aside, it's clear that what we're listening to is a return to form, of sorts. It may not be a '90s vintage, multi-multi-platinum piece of finely honed diva pop. But it is a compulsively listenable collection of vibrant, self-assured, dare we say understated R&B songs.
And hovering around the album, swooping in and out of each song, is the Voice. If it ever went away, it's back. That sometimes-husky, sometimes-silky thing that is stretchier than elastic and yet simultaneously accurate to at least ten decimal places.
It's been a long journey for 34-year-old singer Mariah Carey. From her position as the MOR queen of the early '90s, she cleverly reinvented herself in the second half of the decade as R&B's first lady with a series of high-profile hip-hop collaborations. Financially, The Emancipation isn't ever going to be the runaway 25-million seller that 1993's Music Box was, but these are clearly songs from someone who's as artistically sure-footed as she's ever been.
L.A. Reid leans across the desk. "The real thing I've learned about Mariah," he says, "is that she's an innocent. At heart, she's a little child."
"Really?" says Blender skeptically. After selling tens of millions of records worldwide, after being married to one of the most powerful people in the record industry and dealing with some of the most hardnosed names in hip-hop, she's a little child?
"Yes," insists Reid. "In spite of everything..."
From an e-mail exchange with Mariah: In your head, what age are you?
"For better or for worse... I am eternally 12. I'm stuck in 7th grade and I just keep getting left back."
At the appointed time, Carey sweeps into Lure for our face-to-face interview. It's a large but chic fish restaurant in Manhattan. The maitre d' flutters. As always, Carey has a small retinue in tow. Her new manager, Benny Medina, who is never far away, places himself at the sort of distance that is tactful but still within eyebrow-raising distance.
The same team was there last night, too, at the photo session, along with Jack, Carey's Jack Russell. Then, Carey had been polite, deliberately un-pop-star-like, inquiring, "How's your hotel? And the weather where you're from?" with the sort of solicitousness of one keen to avoid appearing too diva-esque.
Tonight she's taking time out from a last-minute session re-recording vocals for a track with Jermaine Dupri. She freely admits she hates doing interviews when she's in what she calls her recording phase, but what can you do? Time clearly presses.
Shall we order? Blender asks.
"Sure. What are you getting?"
I think we should get some skewers.
You like chicken?
"I'm not in the mood for it."
She scans the menu, not wanting anything. She eventually picks a bowl of clam chowder, of which she will toy with three or four small spoonfuls.
There are three things that every feature about Mariah Carey will mention; let's get them out of the way:
1. At 18 she was spotted by Sony Music mogul Tommy Mottola; they married in 1993 and split four years later.
2. In 2001, shortly before the release of her flop movie Glitter, she had a very public breakdown, gabbling nonsensically on MTV before checking herself into rehab.
3. Famously, she has a five-octave range. (Actually it's probably closer to four and a half, but even that's technically pretty remarkable. Occasionally journalists will say she has a seven-octave range, but that would make her a cross between a bat and Paul Robeson.)
Tonight, after the interview, she will return to the studio to complete work on her tenth studio album. What sets The Emancipation of Mimi apart from Carey's discography is that it takes aboard the new spirit of R&B authenticity brought to the table by singers like Alicia Keys. Carey says much of it was recorded live, which makes it much more organic-sounding than anything she's done before. She'd find herself picking up a riff from the guitar player, or singing a part for the horn players to repeat. "They hear where you're going and they'll take you to a place where you may not have gone."
The track "Say Something," with Snoop Dogg, was recorded in L.A. with the Neptunes. "I love Snoop," she says. Every time they meet, he tells her how much her debut single, "Vision of Love," meant to him. "That's, like, my song," he says. He was in prison when he heard it. It was his favorite behind-bars tune.
She likes to repeat Snoop's anecdote. It underlines a point she is keen on making: As far as she's concerned, right from the start, she's always been an R&B singer. Her real home has always been urban America.
In L.A., Snoop, Nelly, Pharrell Williams and she were all in the studio together. That in itself was a radical departure for Carey, who usually demands to be alone in the room when she sings. "So it was all of us hanging out, and it was really fun. It was probably like it was in the old days like in the Motown era, you know what I mean?"
Alongside the sessions in L.A. and Jermaine Dupri's studio in Atlanta, much of Mimi was laid down in her preferred recording location of recent years, the posh Mediterranean island of Capri.
"They leave me alone in Capri. The townspeople treat me like I was born there. It's very Ciao, Maria!'"
She spends a lot of time there now. She'll be there at the studio up at the top of the hill until six in the morning, watching the sun come up over the sea through the studio's big glass windows.
That's where she recorded her favorite track on the album, the if-Motown-went-gospel soul of "Fly Like a Bird" a song that sees her return to the full-on vocal backflips of the old days. It's a spiritual song she dreamed up in the moments before she went to sleep one morning. She roused the studio back up so she could demo the tune. Later she recorded it properly, gazing out the Capri studio's window, inspired by the sight of clouds in the Mediterranean sky.
Mariah is a night owl who usually sees mornings only from the wrong side. She's never found sleeping easy. Exhaustion was one of the factors that contributed to her breakdown in 2001. "It's still an issue with me," she admits. "It's not so bad. It's a question of getting myself solidly balanced. But I'm much better at sleeping because I have to be."
She's learned to take regular breaks. She relaxes at home with her cat Willy D and the dog Jack, playing The Sims on her Mac or watching movies like Mean Girls. There are days she doesn't speak. Friends call her and she doesn't pick up. Instead she texts them: "I'm having a vocal rest." She's aware it sounds ridiculous, especially when they answer mockingly, "That's a good one. I'm having one tomorrow."
L.A. Reid said he thinks you're happiest at Disney World on a roller coaster.
"He did? Well, he asked me if I believed in Santa Claus."
Which of course you do.
The thing is, the Voice and Carey's psyche are closely linked. In surprising ways, the Voice is a big part of who she is.
"I feel like it's always been my secret, my voice. Ever since I was little."
Like all the best stars, Carey had an unhappy childhood. She is the daughter of an Irish-American opera singer and a Venezuelan/African-American aeronautical engineer.
There's a photograph of her, age 3. She sometimes looks at it and recognizes the child's eyes, but to her there's something really sad in them. It's as if, she says, "they've seen the horror." It would have been taken at the time her parents were going through their split, which was acrimonious. Afterwards, Carey's mom, Patricia, raised her. She lived with her brother Morgan, who was nine years older, and sister Alison, ten years older. As a child, Morgan was diagnosed with cerebral palsy; sister Alison became pregnant at 15, got involved in drugs and prostitution and contracted HIV.
Carey says she saw "a lot of messed up stuff around the house." With her mother having to work long hours to support them, the older siblings would be left in charge, but Carey frequently found herself alone when her siblings bunked off. The radio kept her company.
"Maybe I grew up a little too soon. I think I did. Maybe because of that, I held on to that beautiful quality of childhood."
She grew up insecure, uncertain of who she was. "Being biracial, not being pretty... having such a difficult upbringing in a lot of ways," she says. "I don't like to say that, because it sounds woe is me,' but music brought me out of it."
In fact, she remembers exactly the moment when the Voice became an important part of who she was and more important who she was going to be. She was in first or second grade, walking along the street with her friend Maureen and singing a song from South Pacific they were performing it in school. Mariah didn't even notice that Maureen had stopped singing along with her until she told Mariah, "When you sing it's like there's music that plays with your voice."
It was one of the first moments she ever started to feel confident in herself. From then on she convinced herself that the Voice would make her a star, would take her away from all this.
She started listening to Morgan's Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight records, wondering how Minnie Ripperton did that thing with her high notes. "This," she told herself as she practiced, "is going to take me where I need to go."
Even later, in high school, when she wouldn't even tell her school friends about it, or she'd even sing deliberately badly to disguise her talent, she'd know. I'm just as good as everybody else. Because I have this secret. This gift. This thing I know they can't do. You just wait.
Unbidden, a waiter brings some sushi. "That's sweet! Thank you."
It sits on the table for a while.
Because she was raised by her mother the opera singer, everyone assumes that's where the Voice came from.
But Mariah will remind you her black father grew up in the Pentecostal church. Indeed, her parents were married in the Mount Sinai Pentecostal church on Harlem's 137th Street and Lenox Avenue. Her mother might have provided the genetic material, but gospel ran in Carey's blood as well.
So as she grew up tuning in to the New York R&B station WBLS when she was left alone in the house, it all made sense to her. In fact, growing up with a white mother in a white neighborhood, the Voice was a way for her to rediscover her blackness.
Seventy-five percent of the female contestants on American Idol try to emulate your vocal style. Are you aware that you've spawned a lot of truly terrible singers?
She laughs. "I'm sorry about that," she apologizes. "But I don't really watch those shows."
You first hit the charts 15 years ago this year. There's a new generation of female singers out there Hilary Duff, Lindsay Lohan [one of her ex-husband Tommy Mottola's signings]. Do you ever wonder where you fit in?
"I've never looked at myself as a Top 40 artist although other people did-"
Your ex-husband, for instance?
She laughs briefly, but ignores the bait. "I was an R&B singer first, and R&B fans are less about trends. When they love you, you have a fan base. Pop is a different thing."
So what advice would you give this new generation?
"I don't feel they need advice. They started in a different way from me in a way that's very foreign to me. I had to really struggle. I had a difficult childhood. Music was my solace. If you love it, do it. If you don't love it, leave it alone."
We'd better eat some of this sushi. The chef will be mad at us if we don't.
"Yeah," she agrees. She picks a single morsel of fish, dips it in the chili, and eats it.
Last November she woke after sleeping 15 hours, tired from working late in Atlanta. When she picked up her pager, she saw all the messages. One was from urban music entrepreneur Damon Dash. "I'm sorry to have to tell you that ODB passed away."
Ol' Dirty Bastard represented a crucial turning point in her career. In 1995 she was moving away from Tommy Mottola's vision of her, figuring out who she could be by herself. It was Carey who insisted that he release a Sean Combs remix of "Fantasy" featuring Dirty, from the edgiest New York crew of the time, the Wu-Tang Clan. At the time, few of her audience would have even heard of them, let alone ODB.
Once and for all, the track cemented Carey's links to the hip-hop community; it remains one of the greatest moments of her back catalogue. These days, as Carey acknowledges, the remix has eclipsed the original. "The classic now is the urban version. It's one of my favorite records ever."
She loved ODB the way he insisted on wearing a wig in the "Fantasy" video. He, too, was a sort of innocent. "He was just so into it, and present. He loved doing what he did. Even when he was clowning, he really took it seriously."
She met up with Dirty when he was released from prison in 2003. She feels he should never have been sent there.
"I think that contributed to whatever it was that brought him down," she says sadly. "It's tough, because I feel that some people go through such deep stuff that it drives them to do things that are detrimental to their health. One thing leads to another, and it ends up killing them."
A waiter shimmers up to the table and suggests a glass of wine. Carey hesitates, declines. "If I had one, I'd be up all night. Maybe I should have some beverage like cranberry or orange juice. How many calories would that be?"
The waiter doesn't know quite how to answer that one.
Carey glances around. At the next table they're drinking something pink. "That looks really good." The waiter tells her they're strawberry martinis.
Carey's face falls. In the end she requests a fruit juice and soda. In a little glass. With a straw.
The biggest and best-known failure in Mariah Carey's platinum career was the movie Glitter. It arrived at just the time when everyone was happy to see the great Mariah the biggest-selling female artist of the '90s fall flat on her face.
She has given up trying too hard to defend the movie. "It was," she now acknowledges, "all over the place. It's one of those things that was thrown together. But it doesn't matter, 'cause it made me stronger."
The scale of its multimillion-dollar failure totally overshadowed the fact that her performance in the following year's indie thriller Wisegirls was actually, well, pretty impressive; she plays a sassy waitress working in a mob-owned Italian restaurant. The movie gained her a standing ovation at Sundance, but she put her movie career on hold last year to work on The Emancipation of Mimi.
The other consequence of that failure was that when the movie's soundtrack album, Glitter, failed to match Carey's previous track record, selling a mere two million, the company, Virgin, dropped her with a $28 million dollar payoff.
Rumor No. 1: You've squandered all that money you were given by Virgin/EMI.
"On what?" she says archly.
You don't have a personal yacht on Capri yet?
"No. I'm a very practical person. I'm very conservative. That sort of thing makes me laugh. It's so wild."
But people expect it of you.
"Yeah. And I'm not saying I don't buy diamonds. I just bought a new bracelet yesterday," she says showing off the sizeable rocks that adorn her right wrist. "But I didn't even used to buy the stuff until I learned that this" she rattles the jewels "is an investment. It could be in the bank but it's on me. I haven't bought a fleet of cars. I don't know about cars."
So, rumor No. 2: You didn't buy a $318,000 Mercedes Maybach the other day?
"No! I do have a Mercedes, but living in New York I don't care about what I roll in. For me it's just a place to put my bag."
"I know. I'll pretend for the sake of this article, though."
She buys shoes, of course. Too many to wear. But she says that's because of the New York winter she spent wearing her mother's size-too-small shoes and swearing that one day she'd have a whole room full of shoes. Which she now does.
Rumor No. 3: You're going out with a 28-year-old employee of yours [who happens to be sitting two tables away right now with her manager].
The Carey jaw drops for a second. There's rare a flash of irritation. "Oh. Honestly! At this stage in my life, I'm not even getting into that stuff. I'm not getting tied down in any relationship." Pause. Then, just in case we're getting the wrong idea. "I don't have casual flings either."
Benny Medina, her aforesaid manager, flits up to the table, checking if she's OK. He sees she's barely eaten a thing and suggests it would be a good idea to have some food before they return to the studio. It will be a long night.
She tells him she wants to eat but doesn't want to order in front of the Blender journalist because she doesn't want us to know what she orders.
You do stuff like that when you're Mariah Carey.
Mariah Carey likes to play the innocent. Of course, you wonder just how innocent someone can be who has fought so doggedly to get to where she wants, has earned millions, clearly has a canny business head and who has remained on top of her game for a decade and a half. Not that innocent.
But she's clearly in love with the idea of innocence. Which isn't a surprise. It's a compensation for having to grow up too young, first with her family and then again when as a teenager she started dating a man 20 years her elder. She has sung about that young girl growing up, trying to cling to innocence, on songs like "Petals" or "Close My Eyes."
But, curiously, listening to the new album, it's clear there's nothing about her childhood on it except for the title itself, The Emancipation of Mimi. "Mimi" was a childhood nickname given her by friends and family. And that's why it's an emancipation. She doesn't feel like writing those songs right now. This is happy Mariah. "This was really kind of let me have some fun.'" It's about realizing she's free now. "I'm not saying anything negative about anybody from the past. I'm not dealing with an oppressive structure. Everything is OK. I'm making a record. This is fun. And this," she says proudly, "is why I started singing."
The waiters start arriving with trays of succulent food, compliments of the chef. She thanks them warmly and profusely.