Everyone wants Mariah Carey's number. But the question is, which one? How about 200 million, the volume of albums she's sold during her career. Or maybe it's 18, the amount of #1 singles she's scored 17 of which were self-penned. Or two, the number of times she's now graced our cover. This time around, the world's truest star invited V's Stephen Gan over for a glass of a wine and to talk about her return to the studio with Roc Nation, the power of songwriting, and the intersection of pop and hip-hop.
Stephen Gan I hear you're back in the studio.
Mariah Carey I'm in the studio starting a new album of regular music...
SG Regular music?
MC Meaning it's not a Christmas album [laughs]. I'm kind of restarting, and I'm working with Roc Nation now, so that's great. I had a really incredible meeting just a musical, good meeting of the minds with Jay Brown, Jay-Z, and Tata [Tyran Smith], who's an incredible person. We all just kind of threw some ideas around, so we're starting from the musical place rather than, like, what's the hook? It's gotta be done that way.
SG How does someone like you join Roc Nation and team up with Jay-Z? How does the conversation happen to come out to, "Let's get back in the recording studio?"
SG Is that all just organic?
MC Well, the first time I worked with Jay[-Z] was for the album Rainbow, on the song "Heartbreaker." We were at Mr Chow's in New York this is before everybody in the world knew who he was. But we lovers of hip-hop knew who he was, and were very in awe of him, his talent, where he came from, his whole story and everything. So we talked that night and ended up collaborating. I did something for him once, and then we talked about him doing this for me, so that was the first time we worked together. We just have a history as friends and as collaborators, so it's kind of a thing that's already been established. Now, I've been getting to know Jay Brown a lot better: I've always known who he was and really respected and admired him so much. The way he does business is just awe-inspiring, you know what I mean? Like, they've really done an incredible job together, he and Jay. And they're both named Jay [laughs]. So we've been going back and forth with different writers, different ideas. When I say writers, I mean cowriters, because I am a writer.
SG Of course. What do you want people to know about your songwriting?
MC It's something that I think a lot of people don't give women enough credit for, unless they are known visually as someone strumming a guitar, or they're behind a piano most of the time. I also have that diva thing attached to me; I mean, I'm sitting here doing an interview in lingerie. But I was just like, you're totally gonna understand that this is what I'm gonna wear! Why should I wear something uncomfortable? This is what I like.
SG What's the process been like, working on new music?
MC I've already been in the studio last year and the year before that, just playing around and doing some music, some other things. I don't want to give away too many people that I'm working with, but there's a different approach that I'm taking as an artist. I think it's like a fresh start. A lot of people see that whole other image. They see this diva; they see hair, makeup, bod, clothes, whatever it is and hand gestures [laughs] and they're like, oh. They don't think songwriter. But I look at myself as a songwriter first, and then a singer. That's what I love to do the most.
SG How do you feel out, "Okay, now's the time to pounce, now's the time to record, now's the time to create, now's the time to brew?"
MC [Before,] I was in a different place in terms of who I was working with for the business side of things, which is everything. The whole thing is business, really. I consider myself more of a musician first than a business person, I don't necessarily think of things that way; it's music first. That's the most important thing for me. That's why I think there hasn't been that synergy of, oh my gosh, we're going to do this fashion moment with Mariah. I mean, only certain people get that. That's why we love Karl [Lagerfeld] so much. I think he kind of gets the kitsch element [laughs]. Certain people get that: "Let her come in and be wacky and have fun, we'll do some cute shots, and it is what it is." In the music business, if you care about the Grammys and submitting your stuff before a certain time frame, you want a single out in the summer, and then you want to have your record [out] before the Grammys [consideration] deadline, which has changed. Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn. I mean, I have five Grammys. That's cute. There's people that have been doing this half the time that have twice as many [Grammys]. I won two Grammys the first year I started, but after that, [the Grammys] are like, "We don't go with the people that are selling a lot of records and are popular; we're gonna go the opposite way." So I got screwed out of certain years. I wasn't bitter about it. I was just like, okay, well, I guess I'm not standing here barefoot onstage singing and trying to go a certain way. I'm just me.
SG Yes! There's real honesty there.
MC I mean, tell me the truth. If you were to see me walking around suddenly with, like, I don't know, suspenders, baggy pants, probably there'd be a neon bra with a low-slung tuxedo shirt, some green hair, probably little shorts, some high boots wouldn't you be like, what the hell is she going for? Yet if somebody else did it, it'd be like, oh my gosh, genius, it's heaven. [Laughs.] I'm not trying to make fun of anybody's way of analyzing something. Personally, I don't care, I like what I like. So I feel like it's trying too hard if I suddenly was like, I think I'll do the pink hair thing. No! I actually like my hair my color. Like, I'll go different shades of blonde and dark blonde, but that's not changing things drastically.
SG It's being focused with what you want and what you think works for you. It's a good thing. I think you're constantly kind of sculpting and forming the Mariah image, and it's unwavering in what you like. That's a really commendable thing: people come and go, fashions come in and out, and you have staying power, doing your thing. That's very rare.
MC I appreciate that.
SG Karl describes you as someone very genuine and touching. If there was not that honesty, I don't think you would have touched as many people as you have in your life.
MC I mean, that's how I feel. But the truth is, most people, if they know me, they know me for the songs that are the most well-known. Or, maybe when they were going through a certain experience they heard a song on the radio that affected them in a specific way. People will come up and show me a tattoo of the entire side of their body with a song called "Side Effects," a duet with Young Jeezy that Scott Storch produced, from the E=MC² album. It's pretty amazing; it's like, that wasn't even a hit song. You can actually go online and see different fans' tattoos. That's the hugest, highest compliment I can ever imagine: they actually tattooed lyrics I wrote on the side of their body.
SG Fandom has changed so much over the years.
MC Everything is totally different than when I started as a kid. All I knew was the radio. When I first heard my song on the radio, it flipped me out. I couldn't believe it. I lived through that experience; I wouldn't trade it. I remember writing "Fantasy," then watching it evolve, and being able to sneak Ol' Dirty Bastard onto the song [laughs]. Now, still hearing it and having people walking down the street going, [deep voice] "Me and Mariah," saying ODB's raps for me...Now, everybody's like, "Oh, it's so innovative, a pop artist working with rappers!" I'm like, are you serious? Do you know how much shit I had to go through just to be able to work with anyone in hip-hop? It wasn't done because I thought it was cool. Yes, I thought it was cool in the sense of enjoying myself, but it wasn't like I was trying to be something I wasn't. Now, every genre is mixed together. Back then, the rap category had just started.
SG Is there anything you would like to say to the younger people out there?
MC I tend to not put people in categories, because when I was still a kid, I was like, I'll never forget what it feels like to be a kid and to be misunderstood. For real! Because I'm biracial, that's one thing a lot of my fans of all different ages and backgrounds tend to talk to me about. They're like, [your music] helped me get through this. A lot of people are like, you helped me come out to my parents because a song like "Outside" from the Butterfly album describes feeling different than others and not having people who understand. Growing up, there wasn't that one idol that I was like, They're exactly like me. So, it was a combination of a lot of different people that inspired me. I just had to go off that. But I think there are people and certain songs I've done that are deep album cuts that most people don't know. But the "lambily" ["lamb family," Carey's name for her fans] and the lambs, they're like, these songs help protect me. What I try to do is make songs that other people relate to.
SG Which young artists inspire you?
MC Well, Childish Gambino I enjoy a lot of people that you wouldn't think of. Ever since I was a little kid, it's only been, like, what song do I like on the radio? I would take the radio from the kitchen and listen under the covers. That's the only thing that could put me to sleep, listening to music, being lulled to sleep by music. We've lost a lot of legendary people in the past few years now. George Michael, obviously Prince, and so many people that we miss. But there's so many super-talented people out there now. I love Kierra Sheard, a gospel artist who's the daughter of Karen Clark Sheard that's something that will inspire me. But there also might be a young rapper I'll meet from another country, that I'm, like, whoa. You gotta keep an open mind. Getting a chance to be heard is almost harder because before it was like: You have a hit song; it's on the radio. Boom, there you are. Now, you never know what you're gonna hear from one day to the next, which is great, but I think it makes the life span of the artist shorter, perhaps. I could be wrong.
SG You seem so happy now.
MC Aw, that's good! I've gotten to a place where I could move onto the next thing and the next thing. I've had to overcome a lot over the past year and those are things that I don't personally want to talk about, but we're here now, so that's good.