Speaking from her Butterfly Lounge home studio in Los Angeles, in her familiar raspy tones, Mariah Carey is a riot of torrential positivity. “I was just in the booth doing a new song that I’m suuuuuuuuuuuuuper EXCITED about!,” she enthuses, before screaming in the whistle-key of the high note she hits in ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’. “Arrrrggggh! I can’t! I can’t even go into it. I don’t know if you guys are going to like it in England, but I hope you are. It’s not a Christmas song, it’s …” She catches herself: ‘Oh, I don’t want to go into it. But I’m excited.”
She certainly is – especially considering it’s around 45 minutes past midnight in LA when we talk via Zoom audio. But then the 52-year-old is famously a night-owl; a legacy of her traumatic childhood where she developed sleep problems. In Greenwich Mariah Time, 12.45am is probably equivalent to 9.45am. We received our first glimpse of The Butterfly Lounge in the video to her festive single, ‘Fall In Love At Christmas’, which dropped in November, a seasonal slow-jam with gospel singer Kirk Franklin and a pyjama-clad Khalid, featuring a romantic flurry of snow and a choir.
That ‘Fall In Love At Christmas’ nails the Yuletide brief isn’t a surprise, because Marah is the undisputed Queen of Christmas – although it’s a tinselly title she memorably rejected in 2017, saying: “That is not my appellation”. However, as she writes in her autobiography, 2020’s The Meaning Of Mariah Carey: “I live Christmas to Christmas”. Every year, she visits her own winter wonderland in Aspen. Glasses overflow with butterscotch schnapps. Santa visits the house and her family ride and sing on a two-horse open sleigh.
The walls of The Butterfly Lounge are festooned with awards – a reminder of her 200million records sold and 19 Billboard Number One singles (the most by any artist other than The Beatles) she’s notched up over her 30-plus year career. Mariah can now hang up another accolade: on the day we meet, ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ – which finally topped the US and UK charts in 2019 and 2020 respectively, two-and-half decades after its original release – is certified Diamond in the States, denoting 10million copies sold. What does that landmark mean to her?
“It means that someone smarter than myself suggested I do a Christmas album as a young, young girl and I was like: ‘Hmmm – doesn’t that happen later in life?’” She laughs – one of many throaty laughs that erupt like joyous fireworks throughout our chat. “And then I said, ‘But you know what? I love Christmas!’. And if you read my book…”, she trails off, leaving the ‘you’ll know why’ dangling.
“Someone smarter than myself suggested I do a Christmas album. I was like: ‘Hmm – doesn’t that happen later in life?’”
This season means more to her than most: the fantasy version she conjured in her head (one with Santas, snowmen, twinkling lights and clattering reindeer hooves) represented a place of security and mental escape from a grim upbringing. She wanted a picture-perfect Christmas, but her family life was as chaotic as a snowglobe. She’d visit her “guncles” (gay uncles) and gaze in awe at the meticulous care they placed into decorating their tree.
Mariah says they nurtured her inner-showgirl and self-confessed extraness. “I think my guncles would have embraced all of this,” she coos of her two Christmas albums, 1994’s ‘Merry Christmas’ and 2010’s ‘Merry Christmas II You’, and various, brilliantly OTT seasonal TV specials. “They loved me and made me feel like I wasn’t weird or different or other.”
When she wrote 1994’s ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ on a cheap Casio keyboard aged 22, Mariah was channeling that little girl’s iron-clad spirit. In her autobiography, she writes that for her videos, she would also build a fantasia. It came in the throes of her first marriage to her first husband, the Sony Music CEO Tommy Mottola, who discovered Carey when she was 19; he was 25 years her senior. The marriage lasted from 1993 to 1998.
In the book, she alleges that he kitted out their mansion in surveillance equipment that monitored her every move, and writes: ‘I created the fun and free girl in my videos so that I could watch a version of myself be alive, live vicariously through her – the girl I pretended to be, the girl I wished was me.’” Mottola apologised for his conduct during the marriage in his own memoir, 2013’s Hitmaker: The Man And His Music, adding “if it seemed like I was controlling, let me apologise again”, suggesting that his “obsessive” nature contributed to their “success”: “The problem was that I was the chairman of Sony and her husband at the same time.”
How does Mariah feel when she watches the ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ video – Christmas tree, fireside, frolicking in the snow – now? “Well, I remember certain things that weren’t great about that time, but I also see my true happiness shining through,” she replies.
“I reached out to Britney Spears because I wanted her to know, ‘You’re not alone’”
It has to be said that Mariah is an absolute hoot: funny, self-aware and revelling in the sheer extraness of her persona. This is the woman who, when asked a question about the world-famous Jennifer Lopez, once sassed, “I don’t know her”; a much-memed moment that has gone down in online infamy. She peppers her conversation with drawled “Dahling”s and, whenever she refers to one of her songs, sings a pitch-perfect lyric from it – hitting those vertiginous high notes with marksman precision – rather than say the title. She’s half old-school Hollywood broad like Bette Davis, half-Mary Poppins. She’s also a pro: despite her megastar status (and having influenced everyone from Ariana Grande to Beyoncé), her interview technique makes you feel like she’s linking arms with you as she drags you from one party to the next.
Over the last year, she’s been recording at her Butterfly Lounge studios in LA and Atlanta. It began when she was remodelling her house in her native New York because she needed more space for her two children, 10-year-old twins Moroccan (‘Roc’) and Monroe (‘Roe’) , aka “dem babies”. Amazingly, she can make the bureaucratic matter of planning disputes sound gloriously camp. “No offence to New Yorkers; they know I love them. They know I represent hard for them. I rep for my New York fam! But listen, they need to lighten up on that!”, she says, laughing.
Anyway, she was feeling down about potentially missing her annual Christmas family extravaganza because of COVID regulations: “My kids go to Aspen – it’s their bag and that’s my bag, and I would have been miserable if we didn’t go, right? That sounds terrible but it’s true!”
She was texted by her friend, the filmmaker Tyler Perry, who sent her an internet mash-up of her 2005 hit ‘We Belong Together’ and Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s ‘WAP’. “I was like: ‘Oh my God this is insanely dirty,” she laughs. “But I’m a hip-hop fan and I get it, right? So I’m looking at that and [Tyler] asked me: ‘How are you?’ And I was like: ‘Do I tell him how I really am?’ I said: ‘My crew can’t find a house for me in Atlanta, my band are all based there and I need to make music.’ And he found me a house in five freakin’ minutes. And that’s where The Butterfly Lounge was born.”
In a way, lockdown has been a blessing for her, she reflects. Unshackled from the demands of touring and promotional duties, her voice – which is famously five octaves and laid down the template for pop-melisma – is now match-fit: “Thankfully, I got to rest my voice during COVID and though we don’t wish it on anyone, I was able to sleep and it gave me my voice back in a way it hasn’t been here in years.”
So the past year has seen an array of artists dropping by to collaborate with her for an upcoming unnamed project. Lambs (her devoted fanbase, known as the Lambily) have speculated upon a duets album or gospel record, but she’s keeping her cards close to her chest.
“This coming year, we have amazing stuff coming with both young artists and classic artists,” she enthuses, insisting it’s not Christmas music. “But it is a spiritual moment – like my songs like…” She erupts into song: “‘We’ll make it happen…’” from 1991’s, erm, ‘Make It Happen’, and … ‘Any time you NEEEED a friend’, from 1993’s, erm, ‘Any Time You Need A Friend’. “It’s like those songs, but new songs as well. I don’t want to say it’s a gospel thing ’cause that’s too one-sided. But no-one knows this yet! You’re the first one!”
Tonight, she’s also discussing potential actors to play her in the upcoming screen adaption of The Meaning Of Mariah Carey, which she’s in the early stages of working on with powerhouse director Lee Daniels – she earned rave reviews for her acting in his films Precious (2009) and The Butler (2013). Does she have any tips for the performer tasked with portraying her?
“Personally, I want a great actress,” she says. “I don’t think she has to be a great singer because I can sing all my songs the way I would as a little girl. Like if you want me to go… ‘Somedaaaaay-hey-hey!’ [from her 1990 song, yes, ‘Someday’] – like, that’s how you do it!”, she mic-drops. “But one of the things people don’t know is that I do impressions. I can sound like me when I was younger. I’ve watched a lot of movies and adaptations of people’s life stories and I’m like, ‘Why wouldn’t they just use that person’s voice?’ I don’t wanna hear somebody else singing like The Great! I really don’t!”
Strangely, I find myself asking Mariah Carey what her best impersonation is. “Well, gimme the area we’re talking about,” she laughs gamely. “It may not be a famous person!”. Does she imitate any of her musical peers at parties?
“Well… I … won’t…. schay…I schpeak… like Aretha Franklin but… occasionally… people say we schound schilmar amounts…,” she laughs, adopting the Queen of Soul’s speaking style. She’s performed with the late legend, whom she calls her “North Star”. And then it hits you like eggnog: as if it isn’t surreal enough to be speaking to Mariah Carey on a rainy 8.45am in my kitchen, here I am talking to Mariah Carey pretending to be Aretha Franklin.
The Meaning Of Mariah Carey is a bracing page-turner that candidly outlines her brutal early years. She writes that, when she was 12, her sister Alison drugged her with Valium, offered her cocaine and tried to sell her to a pimp (Alison has denied this). Mariah also addresses the “invisible visibility” of growing up biracial – she’s the youngest child of an African-American father and a white Irish mother – and the racism and misogyny she faced from the music industry. In the wake of this year’s Framing Britney Spears, the documentary that explored the star’s harrowing treatment from the press, the media is now facing a reckoning with the way it has traditionally treated women artists.
Like Britney, Mariah worked too hard, succumbed to exhaustion in 2001, faced a family she feels betrayed her and battled a controlling music industry – all while the media treated her mental health like a bloodsport. Does she feel an affinity there?
“I’m not sure it’s an affinity,” considers Mariah. “I think everybody on this planet deserves to be free and what they did to her, what I saw, was horrific. So I reached out to her through a mutual friend because I wanted her to know: ‘Guess what? You’re not alone.’ I remember when I was going through a lot of stuff years ago, Prince reached out to me and gave me a Bible and he talked to me for hours. He’s an amazing person and he cared about the music business and the industry being so screwed up – which it is. You’ve got to be a giving person. It doesn’t matter whether they’re my best friend or whatever, I just felt like it was the right thing to do.”
She’s always danced to her own beat. With her remix of 1995’s ‘Fantasy’, which featured Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Mariah laid the groundwork for the rap-R&B crossover sound that dominates today. Yet it was a bitter fight to incorporate rap – part of her identity since she was raised on Curtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash, Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick – into her sound. In the book, she says it was liberating for her to hang out with rappers, but suggests this represented a threat to label execs.
“I do think women now get appreciated more. It’s a whole different thing”
“It’s really difficult to be black Irish,” she says today, before short-circuiting with her gallows humour and keen eye for product placement. “Which is why, by the way, my new liquor is called Black Irish! Oh dahling, it’s freakin’ amazing! But the point is, I called it Black Irish because to me that’s what it means.”
From the moment Mottola signs her, she writes, “he tried to wash the urban (translation black) off me.” When she recorded the ‘Fantasy’ remix with Ol’ Dirty Bastard in 1995 and played it to Mottola, she writes that he recoiled with: “The fuck is that?”, and that he once commented of Sean Combs, who is now a mogul approaching billionaire status: “Puffy will be shining my shoes in two years”. (Mottola has long taken issue with Mariah’s depiction of him, describing her version given in a 1996 Vanity Fair article as “harsh” and “untrue”.)
“Record company people are now younger and they grew up with rap artists being superstars,” Mariah says today. “When I was like: ‘This dude ODB….’, they were like: ‘Who?’ And I’m like” – she laughs incredulously – “Right! OK!’ She performs a snippet of ODB’s verse from her ‘Fantasy’ remix (“Me and Mariah go back like babies with pacifiers”) and adds of her late friend, who died in 2004: “Thinking about him makes me sad and I hope he’s resting in peace. But look, me and a lot of the hip-hop artists that are still living, grew up together and watched each other shine and grow and I’m grateful for them because I was able to say: ‘I want to work with this one and that one’. It just happened to be that I liked the grimiest of the grimiest!”
“I was always like: why should it be such a big deal?,” she says. “Oh, she likes hip-hop? Like, no other kid ever loved hip-hop?! But because I have lighter hair and paler skin than most mixed kids – like, it’s frickin’ stupid and it made me so angry when people wanted to talk about that.”
Life in the studio has always been a sanctuary for Mariah; a laboratory where she can “write, sing and produce – all these things that are the truth of who I am,” she says. Despite the 18 US Number Ones she’s penned – and her induction into the 2020 Songwriters Hall Of Fame – you feel, like a lot of women, she’s never been given due credit for these skills. In the next year, this should reverse as she’s planning on providing a peek behind the creative curtain.
“One of things we’ve been doing in The Butterfly Lounge is that [her boyfriend Bryan] Tanaka has been filming behind the scenes, which I hate,” she laughs in tongue-in-cheek diva mock-horror. “So it’s not me all glammed-up; it’s just me writing and producing – which most women are not seen doing. Maybe they are and don’t care how they look – but they’re not me!” Things are slowly changing, however. “I do think women now get appreciated more. It’s a whole different thing. And those talented women artists know I fully support them.”
“Darling, have the best Christmas ever! I love you and am sending you so much good cheer!”
Her book reveals that she recorded a secret grunge album during the peak of her “manicured career”. While recording ‘Daydream’ in 1995, Mariah did double-duty by co-writing, producing and singing on ‘Someone’s Ugly Daughter’, an out-of-print alternative rock album by the band Chick. She says her daughter, Monroe, loves it and asks her to play it in the car. “She says: ‘Can we please listen to it?’,” laughs Mariah.
She explains that Monroe “doesn’t love everything I do”, though her daughter is currently canning one of her upcoming collaborations, which Mariah is keeping secretive about for now: “There are some friends of ours singing on it with us, and they’re superstars and young teenage girls and it’s amazing. I’m super-excited about it coming out next year.”
Does she think her autobiography changed people’s perceptions of her? “I hope so!”, she says. “The company we did it with didn’t really promote it, because to promote me doing something, dahling, I gotta tell you: it’s freakin’ expensive!”, she laughs. “We’ve got to do the hair, the make-up da-da-da.” Mariah, fabulously, doesn’t do faux-humbleness. Unlike big stars who try to convince you how boringly just like you they are, Carey luxuriates in the excess and opulence of being her. She knows what it’s like to be poorer than most of us, dahling, and realises it’s far more fun to live out the wildest dreams she harboured as a little girl yearning for the perfect Christmas.
Before we bid farewell, she gives a congratulatory shout-out to Lil Nas X, whose 2019 viral hit ‘Old Town Road’ became America’s longest-running Number One single (19 weeks), beating the record she and ‘Boyz II Men’ set with 1996’s ‘One Sweet Day’ (16 weeks): “I love Lil Nas! Yay Lil Nas! Break my record – let’s break another!”. And then she’s off back to the vocal booth in a parting puff of pure showbusiness: “Dahling, have the best Christmas ever! I love you and am sending you so much good cheer!”, leaving you with a festive afterglow.
Face it: more than anyone else, Mariah Carey is Christmas. Santa who? To quote the beloved diss she coined: “I don’t know her.”
‘Fall In Love At Christmas’, by Mariah Carey and featuring Khalid & Kirk Franklin, is out now via Sony Music.