Mariah Carey is in a happy place with projects, love life
Mariah Carey could really use a nap. After a few hours of restless sleep, she rose at 4:30 a.m. to prepare for a performance in Central Park to promote her new album, Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel. In the past, this scenario would have been a source of anxiety for the singer, who has long struggled with insomnia and worried about its effect on her famously fluid, multi-octave-spanning voice.
But sitting in her hotel suite as evening approaches, Carey, 39, seems alert and unruffled. “I felt really good about myself today,” she says. For starters, she got positive feedback on the morning gig, taped live for The Oprah Winfrey Show, from her backup singers. “They’re really talented, and they don’t give me compliments all the time.”
Another factor contributing to Carey’s contentment is sprawled on the bed behind her, sleeping soundly ó or at least pretending to. “Nick, I know you’re awake,” she says teasingly, as actor/rapper/TV host Nick Cannon, to whom she has been married for 17 months, stirs and mumbles, “Uh-uh.”
Before she met Cannon, 28, “I wasted my time with stuff that wasn’t really real, in my personal life,” Carey says. “I was always more focused on my career. But now I have this support system.”
The tracks on Memoirs, out Tuesday, hardly present a unified portrait of a blissed-out newlywed. The album “was going to be about women’s empowerment,” Carey says. “There are songs on there that are just saying (to men), ‘I don’t need you.’ ” The first single, Obsessed, accuses a wannabe beau of “lyin’ that you’re sexin’ me,” chiding him, “Finally found a girl that you couldn’t impress.” The song, which has sold more than 1 million downloads, peaked at No. 7 on Billboard’s Hot 100. It recently topped USA TODAY’s rhythmic airplay chart and is at No. 12 and rising in top 40 airplay.
In the video, Carey appears both as herself and in a couple of male guises, one of them a goateed, hoodie-wearing chap bearing a suspicious resemblance to Eminem, who launched a media feud in 2003 by suggesting in his Superman single that Carey had unrequited designs on him.
Asked if the rapper inspired the tune, Carey says, a bit coyly, “I wouldn’t ever call anyone an inspiration for that song. But I’m happy (that) all the people who have been stalked and abused now have an anthem.”
Carey insists, though, that Obsessed was crafted with a generous dose of humor, as was much of the material on Memoirs. Even the angelic reference “is a wink and a nod” to previous album titles, among them Butterfly, Charmbracelet and Rainbow. “People were saying, ‘Oh, she’s going to call her next album Unicorn.’ There are so many jokes on this album. It still makes me laugh thinking of them.”
Co-produced by Carey and contemporary urban/pop wizards Christopher “Tricky” Stewart and Terius “The Dream” Nash, Memoirs was “a really fun project. We’d sit around quoting movies, having a really great time. Dream was literally rolling around the studio floor.”
Mr. and Mrs. C
The process wasn’t entirely lighthearted. Carey points to Languishing, a plaintive interlude preceding the album’s closing number and second single: a gospel-flavored reading of the power ballad I Want to Know What Love Is, a hit for the rock band Foreigner 25 years ago. Cannon was instrumental in selecting the cover, which is positioned at No. 20 and No. 30 on the adult-contemporary and urban AC airplay charts, and climbing both.
“Nick and I talk about music a lot, and we were talking about that song. I knew that if I was going to do it, I would have to bring my own thing to it.” Carey also credits the track’s co-producer James “Big Jim” Wright, who honed his gospel chops with Sounds of Blackness, and American Idol judge Randy Jackson, a veteran musician and longtime Carey confidant who lent additional production. “I wanted more drums, and Randy got a drummer who works predominantly in church, which took it to a different level.”
The label has furnished Memoirs with various bells and whistles, including a bonus enhanced disc with four remixes of Obsessed and two versions of the video. The CD booklet consists of 34 pages compiled with Elle magazine, featuring ads for Angel Champagne, Elizabeth Arden and the board of tourism for the Bahamas, where Carey has a home, and where she and Cannon wed after a whirlwind courtship.
Island Def Jam Music Group chairman Antonio “L.A.” Reid, who served as co-executive producer of Memoirs, got the idea while reading “one of those niche magazines where they sell ad pages with luxury brands, then give the magazine away. I thought, ‘We reach more people with our CDs than these (publications) do,’ and we need more ideas for how to generate revenue. I’m having many conversations (about this) with other artists,” among them Carey’s labelmate Rihanna.
Carey, who approved all the merchandise, says, “I love Elle, and the products are all things that I like. I thought it would be good to incorporate these little bits of my life and share my happiness with fans that way.”
Clearly, neither Carey nor Cannon, her second husband (she was married early in her career to Tommy Mottola, then chief of Sony Music, her record company at the time), is reluctant to advertise their domestic beatitude. In conversation, Carey pulls her shirt up ever so slightly to reveal a burnt-orange butterfly tattoo on her lower back, with “Mrs. Cannon” inked delicately down the stem. Cannon, in turn, has “Mariah” branded in sprawling black letters across his upper back.
The couple met in 2005 at the Teen Choice Awards, but started dating in March 2008, when Cannon directed and appeared in the video for Bye Bye, a single off her last studio album, E=MC2. “The first thing I said to him is, ‘I’m going to call you Mr. C,’ ” Carey says. “And the first thing he said was, ‘I’m going to call you Mrs. C.’ And we just started doing that.”
Later that month, it was Mariah’s “anniversary.” (“I don’t call them birthdays,” she says. “I refuse birthdays.”)
“We were on this island, and my security didn’t want people around me ó I guess they were being protective ó so they planned for him to be on another part of the island that night. But I snuck over to where he was and woke him up with a piece of pineapple, and we stayed up and talked all night. When he had to go in the morning, neither of us wanted to leave.” They tied the knot just over a month later.
A precious opportunity
Carey’s lucky breaks have not been limited to the romantic arena. Director Lee Daniels, who cast her in last year’s Tennesseeó one of several films in which she has quietly picked up good notices since 2001’s aggressively maligned musical Glitteró thought of her again when he needed an actress to play a dowdy social worker in Precious, his adaptation of Push, Sapphire’s acclaimed novel about an abused, underprivileged teenager trying to overcome her wretched circumstances.
Precious, which arrives in theaters Nov. 6, boasts Winfrey and Tyler Perry as executive producers and has already earned top prizes at the Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals. Carey’s role was originally intended for Helen Mirren, but the younger star, who had read and loved Push, happened to call the director shortly after he learned that Mirren was unavailable.
“A light bulb went off in my head,” Daniels recalls. He offered Carey the part, “but I told her, ‘The only way you can do this is if you lose your entourage and come to set without any makeup on, and be prepared for me to make you look even plainer.’ I actually had somebody on standby, in case she wouldn’t do what I wanted. But she gave her spirit to me, and became the Mariah I know: a girl who listens and is loving and nurturing.”
Carey concedes that assuming the character’s glammed-down appearance wasn’t easy. “I was like, keep me away from every mirror! But Lee gave me several gifts. He gave me what I needed to get to the truth of this woman, and he gave me a certain lack of self-consciousness. Because you can’t be self-conscious and look like that.”
Still, Carey’s confidence has its limits. The negative press surrounding Glitter and her subsequent breakdown stung, despite her ability to defy critics by rebounding with 2005’s best-selling album, the-six-times-platinum-plus The Emancipation of Mimi. She would consider doing another movie musical, “but it would have to be with an incredible director, someone who’s really a genius, because I’ve been burned by that.”
She’s susceptible to stage nerves, as well. Singing I’ll Be There at Michael Jackson’s memorial service in July, she was still shaken by the pop icon’s unexpected death “and didn’t know I was going to go on first.” She delivered an emotional but vocally tentative performance. “I wish I had done him more justice.” (Memoirs is dedicated “to the King of Pop” and Carey’s pastor.)
Former Spin and Vibe editor Alan Light says Carey “faces the challenge that all those at her altitude face now. Nobody sells records the way she used to, even as recently as Emancipation of Mimi. How do you scale expectations when that’s the field you’ve played on?”
Light is particularly eager to see how Carey’s career progresses as she enters her 40s. “She is so much a pop artist, and has so affiliated herself with urban musicians, and that’s a young person’s game. It would be good for her to get out and sing in front of people more, re-establish herself as a vocalist, because that’s her strength.”
Carey, who last toured in 2006, did two Las Vegas shows recently and has another pair scheduled for October, but she still isn’t sure when she’ll do a concert trek again. She has plainly thought about embracing more grown-up challenges. Having or adopting children is one consideration, “though I’d want to be in a position to handle that as well as possible.” As Memoirs’ title suggests, she’s inclined to look back now and then ó but not, these days, with anger or regret.
“There’s a little bit of almost every album I’ve done on this new one,” Carey says. “It’s like I put everything in a blender and made drinks for my friends. They’re festive drinks, though some are bittersweet. I’m at such a good place in my life, and that allows me to be honest. And to enjoy things.”
Mariah Carey is in a happy place with projects, love life