A stream of cynical journos shuffle into a theatre-like space in the West End's Soho Hotel. Having gorged on free champers and canapés, most look ready for an afternoon kip, and appear decidedly not in the mood to listen to a selection of cuts from the new Mariah Carey album. Titled "The Emancipation of Mimi" there are few, your own B&S scribe included, that have much faith in the music. Mariah is oh-ver, done, buried, gone. Yeah, she has that 5-octave vocal, a back catalogue of big-ass hits and some 125 million (count 'em 1-2-5 million) albums sold. But, nah, the last two albums flopped, she's gone mad, her voice has weakened, she can't sing and she's a spoilt diva who can't act for shit, right? Forget Mariah.
CEO and main man at Island Records, LA Reid however, has other ideas. Gliding into the room on a wave of expensive cologne, sharper threads than even Andre 3000 could muster and a graceful air that screams understated elegance, the man married to Pebbles wakes the snoozing hacks from their slumber. "Don't mind me if I jump and dance around a little," he smiles. "In fact, please feel free to join in." With a flick of his hand, the sound man queues the music and the unexpected happens. The music is quite good. Very bloody good in fact. By now you'll have heard the sexy-sassy-soul Jermaine Dupri-produced jump-off single "It's Like That," which missteps slightly by including Fatman Scoop (though there is a version without thankfully). Also to come are another JD track "We Belong Together," a striped back but bass-heavy banger, and two fairly standard issue but still pretty tight Neptunes numbers featuring Nelly and Big Snoop Dogg. The highlight though, and Mariah's personal favourite she'll inform B&S a few weeks later, "Fly Like A Bird." Recorded in one take, the Patti Labelle-tinged ballad is produced by Big Jam (of Sounds of Blackness fame) and is really rather lovely. Nord keys trill, live drums snap and Mariah really takes it to chuuuuch. "Now that's soul music right there," grins Reid, as the track comes to a close. Even Nina Mishkov seems impressed.
Reid knows though that he's facing a potentially tough time with the MC project. In the '90s Mariah arrived just as Whitney-mania had peaked, and the 19 year old with frizz-ease issues scooped up No 1 singles with "Emotions" and "Vision of Love." With that trill and numerous guests including most famously ODB, Carey had the '90s on lock selling a staggering 40 million copies of her album "Music Box" alone. And then the ill-fated Glitter project happened and the world watched Carey crumble. A very public breakdown, an album and film flop then, the final humiliation, Virgin paid Mariah $28 million to effectively leave the label. Ending up at Island Def Jam, things weren't about to get much better. "I think it's an uphill battle," admits Reid when questioned how he thinks the album will see, particularly considering the sales disaster that was 2002's "Charmbracelet." "We'll do everything we can and hope that the magic happens. But Mariah is in a great space, she's ready to work and she has the goods, talents and commitment to make it happen," he adds.
A month or so after Reid's London visit, B&S is woken from Sunday slumber to the dulcet tones of Miss Mariah Carey, live and direct from New York City. It may only be 6am in the Big Apple but a studio bound Mariah is awake and ready to tell us herself why on earth we should still care about her. "I think he was talking about after we did "Butterflies." It was a really difficult period for me, what with the way Glitter was received," she says by way of response to Reid's comments. "I had no control over Glitter or when it was released, which was september 11th 2001." Carey wasn't only blamed for the film's failure, she was panned for her acting abilities, and saw everything she had worked for the image, the music, the sales decimated. 'Mariah the diva' had arrived. "People seemed to confuse the film character with me," she sighs. The film was not about my life, it just happened to be similar because I specifically asked that the girl be bi-racial because that was an important thing for me to portray. So the whole image of the film kinda overshadowed the music and the whole thing became so massively distorted and hugely blown out of proportion," It was a pretty bad movie though, right? "Well, you know," she laughs, "it made me a stronger person in the end so I regret not a bit of it."
Just before Glitter was released Carey suffered a rather public breakdown. Appearing confused during TV interviews, leaving garbled messages on her website and numerous excitable newspaper stories suggested Mariah was a woman on the edge. "well, again that whole situation was wildly exaggerated but it all took its toll," she admits. "You know I had been working solidly, no holidays at all since I was 18 and then I entered into this incredibly destructive relationship that I should never have been in in the first place." As legend has it, Carey went to a party with a friend. While there her demo was passed onto the then head of Sony Records, Tommy Mottola. Entranced by both Mariah and her voice, he signed the singer and married Mariah. Four years later, the pair divorced and the MOP Mariah Mottola had created became an Ol' Dirty Bastard thing of the past.
"That was just this terrible, incestuous relationship where I was married to the head of the record label, his best friend (Benny Medina) was my manager and his brother was also involved. So there were some really bad decisions made and I was really unhappy creatively and in my personal life," says Mariah of the relationship that no doubt contributed to her problems a few years lter. "So, all I can say is what happened, happened and without sounding too preachy or cliched it has really helped me become the person I am today. I had to go through struggle and turmoil in order for my life to be the way it is today and for me to be who I am today."
Nowadays a very much happier Mariah has emerged to promote her new album. Rather than worry about record sales, the singer decided to create an album that she was proud of lyrically and musically and that would be a lasting journal of who she is. "It represents all she's been through and how she feels," says Reid. "She's still Mimi but she's now grown-up and free."
"Mimi is my childhood name that all my friends call me," Mariah explains of the album title. "No one, except for my mother or people who don't know me, call me Mariah," she says. "But calling the album "Mimi" was actually LA's idea. He'd heard my friend call me Mimi and thought it was real cute. So it just evolved very naturally."
The whole recording process itself came about quite organically, says Mariah. "Fly Like A Bird" was recorded in one take, producers like Scram Jones were sourced after chance meetings, while the Snoop and Nelly collabs came about because they happened to be in the studio when she met up with the Neptunes. "Working with the Neptunes has taken a little time," she says. "Before I guess I would have been reluctant to work with them because of ego, basically. I wouldn't want to work with them when they had already worked with some R&B singer, you know? I didn't want to be following anybody. But, we got together in the studio and Snoop is in one booth and Nelly is in the other and we just decided to do it there and then," she laughs.
As for sales expectations, Carey is taking a similarly laid-back attitude. "I don't care what anyone says, no one sells 40 million albums these days. Who do you know who can do numbers like that? I would never expect to sell like that anymore," she insists. But how does Mariah Carey define success these days? "I did a TV show recently of some new songs. I looked out into the audience and they know all the words every single one. The album is not even out yet and the fans know all the words. That they're excited about it means everything.," she swoons. "I feel so differently about everything now really my friends keep telling me how much better I look and how I seem different. I just feel good and I loved recording this album and now I'm excited about getting it out for people to hear."
Record sales, single spins, success and failure, are no longer measured by the same stick it seems. What's important to Mariah Carey in 2005 is rather more regular fare. "I never wanted to be famous," she insists. "I only ever wanted to sing and make music. That's all. This other stuff happens but really that's not why I'm doing this. I feel so ready to work," she says before heading off to lay more vocals, "Right now, life is just really, really good."