The first time I interviewed Mariah Carey was around 15 years ago. I was Billboard’s newly minted talent editor and she was already a superstar. Her sweet, often angelic vocals made me think I’d be talking to some fragile creature, but she was a down-to-earth, slightly tough, city girl. And so she has remained. I interviewed her again last week for AOL.com. She’s sold another 100 million or so albums, become richer than Croesus, and divorced and remarried since our first talk and she lives in that rarified air where only first names are necessary. But there’s something about Carey that remains open and vulnerable in a way that still surprises me and makes interviewing her a delight. Below is my conversation with Carey with some additional material:
Mariah Carey doesn’t go around proclaiming herself the Queen of Pop, but she would have good argument to do so. With 18 No. 1 songs on Billboard’s Hot 100 to her credit, she is a lock to surpass the Beatles’ record of 20 No. 1 to claim the title — in fact Carey’s the lone artist within striking distance. The only question is will the Fab Four’s record tumble during the run of ‘Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel,’ Mimi’s just released CD.
Given Carey’s aggressively happy marital union to ‘America’s Got Talent’ host Nick Cannon, no one would be surprised if ‘Memoirs’ floated along on the puffy clouds of connubial bliss, one joyous paean to the glory of love after another. But they would be wrong. As much as ‘Memoirs’ celebrates the unexpected rapture she’s found with Cannon, the collection mourns heartbreak in all its wrenching disguises.
Carey, who co-produced ‘Memoirs’ with Tricky Stewart and The-Dream took time out on the ‘Memoirs’ release day to talk to PopEater about her surprising bedside reading material, cross dressing, unsightly facial hair and her emotional message to those who feel the five-octave superstar needs to change her tune.
You’ve compared this album to taking pages from your private diary. How hard was it to revisit what were clearly some painful times?
You know what? It was easier to revisit the painful times because they’re over and I wanted to let out how I was feeling. And in a way, letting it out when there’s also humor attached to it is more therapeutic.
You can be very funny, but it’s not a side you usually show on your records until now on songs like ‘Obsessed’ and ‘Up Out of My Face.’
It’s interesting because my friends know that my sense of humor is like 70% of who I am. It’s had to be that way since I was a little kid. But my work didn’t always tend to reflect that and I think that collaborating is fun and so, therefore, whatever you’re feeling, you can bounce it off of somebody, where if you’re just by yourself, maybe you wouldn’t have the guts to say, “okay, maybe I’m just going to say this one line.”
You told Elle that your favorite song is ‘The Impossible’ because you’re in love for the first time. Did you fear love would never happen for you?
I don’t think I feared it because I guess I almost didn’t believe in it. I always had a connection spiritually and I felt that maybe that’s where I was supposed to be and I made music and wanted to be creative. But, you know, I didn’t really trust people. I didn’t really trust [sighs] what it would be like to be in a relationship again because I’d been, you know … so many times it had been disappointing. But the situation with Nick is totally different because we’re very similar. We have a lot of the same likes and dislikes and we have so much fun together.
What would surprise us that you do for fun?
I go for walk in a semi-disguise. That’s fun to me. I like to go to public places and do things that I would never get a chance to do. The other night, I went out wearing all Nick’s clothes.
Did anyone recognize you?
Yeah, a couple of people. But the thing is if they recognize him, they’re going to … if he’s holding someone’s hand and walking with them, they’re going to look and go, “Who is he with?”
And if he’s holding someone’s hand, he better be with you.
Exactly! You know that’s right.
How did Nick influence this album?
I think being with Nick had a big influence on this album because we would just drive around and listen to it and there would be little things we would [suggest]. Just even little ad libs or things that I would do that would become our favorite little part. He’s really into different groups from back in the day and so that’s a really specific style and even if it’s just a “yeah” (sings softly) like that, I did something that I knew he would think was cute. I might do it just to make him laugh and then that would be his favorite part. [laughs]
What do you want people to learn about you from ‘Memoir’ that they may not know about you yet?
I think there are a whole lot of different songs. They should hear the subtlety of ‘H.A.T.E. U.,’ but also the pain in that. And there’s other songs like ‘Angels Cry’ [and] ‘Languishing.’
Well, I feel like, “This is the way I feel sometimes” and I’m sure other people feel the same way. You don’t have to be someone in the public eye to feel this way. It’s kind of more about your personal relationships — and I don’t want to say which ones I’m referring to — and how you feel about the people that are in your life and/or may be just observing your life. I just think that is like the antithesis of ‘Obsessed.’ I think that’s why I made it the interlude to ‘I Want to Know What Love Is’ because it was, I don’t know, like [quotes lyrics]: “Those ancient buried recollections/We transform them and select them/you have yours, I have mine/That’s fine.” There are a lot of people who rewrite history and change things and you’re like, “I don’t remember it happening that way.”
You work very hard. Do you ever get to rest and breathe?
I do sometimes and it’s better now because we have more places to live. Nick had a place out in L.A. and then we decided, OK, let’s just do something together and really make it work for both of us and that’s really been cool. We have a place in the Bahamas and so we can go to different places without having to rent them and do all that nonsense. So it’s nice, it’s relaxing and you can calm down and experience solitude.
In a recent USA Today piece, journalist Alan Light was quoted as saying that you’ve “affiliated [yourself] with urban musicians and that’s a young person’s game. It would be good for her…”
[Interrupts] I heard it. I don’t agree. I heard the quote and he said he preferred that I stand there and sing.
Well, he said it would be good for you “to reestablish herself as a vocalist because that’s her strength.” How do you assess both parts of that comment?
OK, either he likes urban music but he doesn’t like me singing urban music or he’s someone who wants me to stand in the middle of stage and sing ballads. And that’s cool, I’ll do that, but honestly, my fans want to hear a variety of songs. Even back in the day, I was singing…People don’t realize that ‘Dreamlover’ was based on a loop that a lot of rappers have used so that was way back when. I don’t think people realize that it was a pop song [but] underneath it all it was produced by Dave “Jam” Hall, who would mainly work with Mary J. Blige and rappers. It’s always been a love of mine to sing R&B music. But the thing is you can sing a song like ‘The Impossible’ or ‘H.A.T.E. U’ and you don’t have to belt or sing out the whole time. I think ‘I Want to Know What Love Is’ does what he is referring to. Can I say one more thing? If they can’t hear that I’m a vocalist from ‘I Want to Know What Love Is’ then I just don’t know what they want me to do.
In August, Nick quoted the book of Genesis when he was tweeting a response to Eminem for taking you on in the song “The Warning.” Then in Ell, when asked about where you wanted to be 10 years from now, you quoted Matthew 6:34. Were you always a student of the Bible or is that something that you two brought out in each other?
Actually, a friend of mine’s mom gave me a student bible about 2004. You read it three times and then the last time you’re reading every word, you’re not skipping things, so I have been reading that bible pretty much every night for years and I learned a lot. Now I have to figure out, okay, what’s my next bible? Is it going to be a devotional, because I really feel there’s a lot we can learn. I’m not a religious fanatic. It’s just something that I’m very spiritual and I do feel calmer when I read even just a little bit of the bible and go to sleep.
What did you take away from playing a very plain character in the movie “Precious?”
I think I’m less insecure…because you go that far, even allowing them to do a faux ‘stache on you, it’s just sort of like, “Okay, this isn’t my greatest angle, but I’ve definitely looked worse.”