‘I love Christmas more than anything’: Mariah Carey on stardom, songwriting and her favourite time of year
For all that Mariah Carey means to Christmas, it pales in comparison as to what Christmas means to her.
For agnostic, pop culture obsessive millennials like me, Mariah Carey is to the Christmas season what Santa Claus is to small children, or Jesus Christ is to Christians. So when she trills a “Helloooooooo!” in her unmistakable musical tone over an audio-only Zoom call in early December, it wouldn’t be hyperbole to describe the moment as Christmas coming early.
It’s going on half past midnight in Los Angeles, and Mariah is leaving her studio, The Butterfly Lounge, to put her 10-year-old son to bed. Moroccan, the “Roc” to twin sister Monroe’s “Roe” (aka #demkids, fka #dembabies), can be heard in the background chatting away to his mother. Mariah splits her attention expertly, apologising for being late to the call and conspiratorially telling me how she’s been finishing up vocals on “one of the best songs that I ever did…” before the line cuts dead. I panic but in a moment she’s back – the interruption was caused by “someone” (but definitely not Mariah herself!) hitting the mute button inadvertently.
“Are we live to the world of England and Britain and all the land?” Mariah says next. She’s home already – The Butterfly Lounge, I come to learn, is a nebulous concept; it can be anywhere in the world, but is currently located on the other side of her lawn. Almost immediately she’s back to gabbing away with me like we’re just two gals gossiping at a Christmas party.
I decorated my Christmas tree on 1 December, drinking hot chocolate and soundtracked by a playlist stacked heavy with the elusive chanteuse herself. I’m feeling festive, and expecting Mariah to be in the same mood, but her schedule isn’t allowing it. Work on her next music project is keeping her from enjoying her most favourite time of year until the middle of the month. “It’s [at] the point where there’s a Christmas room, two rooms away from me, where we’ve been doing interviews,” Mariah says. “I walk by it holding my hands over my eyes so I can’t see it, because I can’t get into it until I’m fully there.”
Although she isn’t ready to throw herself fully into the season yet, she has just watched her new Christmas special for Apple TV+, which premiered a few hours before we spoke. Directed by Joseph Kahn, Mariah’s Christmas: The Magic Continues bookends two performances around a long ‘side of stage’ chat with Zane Lowe: the first is her latest single, ‘Fall In Love At Christmas’, a softly romantic Christmas ballad featuring R&B star Khalid and legendary choirmaster Kirk Franklin, the second is an even punchier version of the sparky ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’ cover that she recorded for her very first Christmas album.
“The other day, my daughter came in and was like ‘when are we getting rid of all this hideous Thanksgiving stuff?’ and I’m like ‘girl… we aight, okay!’ It’s going to be Christmas 24/7 for a month. People wanna kill me”
In comparison to the family-friendly pomp, camp and sparkle of 2020’s Mariah Carey’s Magical Christmas, a more storyline-driven special, The Magic Continues is a decidedly more grown-up affair, featuring tastefully decorated trees and a huge art deco stage. Thankfully there’s still sparkle in abundance. Mariah, dripping in diamonds and wearing a custom-made bronze, beaded, Dolce & Gabbana dress, provides most of it.
“It’s definitely more chic,” Mariah says. “I don’t know if you know, but that dress weighed 60lbs. If you watch the special carefully and you see the gorgeous guys lifting my train and carrying me out, they’re really using their actual strength.”
Mariah has a list of accolades as long as both my arms that go far beyond the festive season. Her influence on music and pop culture is unparalleled. In recent years, she has embraced the legacy of her 1994 hit ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’, becoming – in some parts of the world – as synonymous with the period as mistletoe, fairy lights and chestnuts roasting on an open fire. The move has given her a longevity that looks to outlast much of her peers. Since the release of her second Christmas album, Merry Christmas II You, in 2010, Mariah’s dominance of the tail-end of the year has ramped up, bringing with it televised specials, a children’s book and social media slots galore.
This year, when the clock ticked over from Halloween night to 1 November, a video appeared on Mariah’s Instagram page depicting the singer taking a candy-cane striped baseball bat to some Jack O’ Lanterns, declaring it time to “smash that pumpkin and treat it as pie… ‘cause we still gotta get through Thanksgiving!” The holiday season was open for business only when she declared it. Don’t think she’s not in on the tongue-in-cheek excess of it all though.
“I can’t condone being called the Queen of Christmas! Mary is the Queen of Christmas! The Mother of Christ!”
“I am a traditionalist in my own way, even though I acknowledge the fact that a lot of this stuff is nonsense that we’re talking about,” Mariah says. “So basically, I do the smashing of the pumpkins and then we get rid of that and make it a Thanksgiving moment. It’s so funny, the other day, my daughter came in and was like ‘when are we getting rid of all this hideous Thanksgiving stuff?’ and I’m like ‘girl… we aight, okay!’ It’s going to be Christmas 24/7 for a month. People wanna kill me.”
Mariah’s full-bodied commitment to the holidays has led to her being dubbed ‘the Queen of Christmas’, a title that she isn’t altogether comfortable with as a committed Christian.
“I can’t condone this!” she says, in mock outrage. “Mary is the Queen of Christmas! The Mother of Christ!” I tell her that when I think of the Christmas story, I think of Mariah Carey. “And that’s how old you think I am as well,” she teases. “No, but really. I always felt that it was a little bit disrespectful, and I rebuke that. But Christmas is very real to me. I love it more than anything.”
For all that Mariah means to Christmas, it pales in comparison as to what Christmas means to her. In her literary memoir The Meaning Of Mariah Carey, released last year, Mariah details for the first time her neglected upbringing as the white-“passing” youngest of three children born to a black man and a white woman in New Jersey, barely two years after Loving vs Virginia overturned state laws banning interracial marriage in the US. Growing up around violence and poverty, subjected to vicious racism and bullying, and regularly left to fend for herself, Christmas for Mariah tended to be memorable for all the wrong reasons.
“I always wanted a beautiful Christmas, every year. I just wanted it to be, I don’t know…” she trails off, laughing about the late hour making her emotional. “I just wanted it to be special and everybody to care about each other and that didn’t happen.”
It wasn’t until adulthood, and subsequent superstardom, that Mariah was able to gain back some control over not only how she was spending the holidays, but how the rest of the world would too. ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’, which Mariah wrote mostly by herself on a “janky” keyboard (“yes, Walter Afanasieff and I wrote the bridge chords together, but really those are my lyrics and my melody”), cemented her in the Christmas canon.
“My last Christmas concert before Covid-19 was Madison Square Garden. All races, all ages, all faiths, all people. After growing up as a kid that wanted to cry every day because I didn’t fit in, that made me so happy”
Considered a modern classic and a holiday standard, in 2019, it finally hit the top spot on the Billboard charts, 25 years after its release. In December 2020, it went to #1 in the UK. This year, Mariah is celebrating a diamond certification in the States for 10 million copies sold. The Spotify streams alone just hit one billion. Even the ringtone sales are double platinum. It rakes in an estimated $600,000 in royalties every year.
Beyond the sales and the figures, Mariah is moved by the song’s ability to bring people together in the way that she desperately longed for as a child. “My last Christmas concert before Covid-19 was Madison Square Garden,” she remembers.
“All races, all ages, all faiths, all people. After growing up as a kid that wanted to cry every day because I didn’t fit in, that made me so happy. Then I went on Instagram and saw all the people in the subway singing ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ together…” There’s a beat while she gathers herself. “It makes me wanna cry. I’m a drama queen! No, I’m not a drama queen. I’m an emotional woman!”
Mariah is a drama queen, though. She has an acute sense of occasion and knows exactly how to make a moment ‘festive’ even when that moment is just a 30 minute, transatlantic phone call. She sprinkles “daahhhling!”s through her speech like glitter, describes her outfit in detail – black Balenciaga slides, a Louis Vuitton windbreaker – with barely a prompt, and never misses a single opportunity for self-promotion. Part take-no-shit New Yorker, part spoiled Valley girl, while her theatrical tendencies endear her to her many fans, they have also earned her a (not always affectionate) reputation for being a ‘diva’, a reputation which has at times overshadowed her formidable talent.
Her memoir has gone a long way to facilitate a reappraisal of her behaviour over the years. It details the full account of her suffocating marriage to then-CEO of Sony Records, Tommy Mottola, as well as the truth behind her infamous 2001 ‘breakdown’, and its eerie similarities to the situation that led to Britney Spears being placed under conservatorship just seven years later. The book also reflected on the insecurities she held as a mixed-race child with unkempt hair, bringing new context to her quirks and idiosyncrasies, and illuminating just how easily we flatten public figures – particularly women – into caricatures that fit narratives we establish for them.
“Usually when we see people who are singer/songwriters they’re in jeans and t-shirts, hiding behind a piano, they don’t wear makeup. Even watching the Apple special tonight, I’m like… yeah, the dress has a 60lb train! And by the way, you think I wanna do that?”
Of course, for Mariah’s fans (her Lambs, known collectively as the Lambily) and anyone paying more than surface attention to her lyrics over the years, there was little in the book that was all the way surprising. Mariah has written autobiographically her entire career – the 2009 album which gave us the hater-blocker anthem ‘Obsessed’ was literally called Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel. In many ways, the book reads as a sort of ‘behind the music,’ with lyrical excerpts from the relevant songs littering chapters. And yet, sifting back through the reviews of her albums over the years, it seems that not a single critic picked up on the story being told.
“Yeah, isn’t it funny?” Mariah says, wryly. “I mean, I get it. Usually when we see people who are singer/songwriters they’re in jeans and t-shirts, hiding behind a piano, they don’t wear makeup. Even watching the Apple special tonight, I’m like… yeah, it’s a 60lb train! And by the way, you think I wanna do that? I just wanna look the best I can look.”
Being celebrated for her songwriting – and production – talents is important to Mariah. “This year we’re gonna see me in the Songwriters Hall of Fame,” she says, her voice softening as her tone fills with genuine happiness. She was inducted as part of the 2020 class, alongside the likes of The Neptunes, Eurythmics, and the Isley Brothers, but the ceremony itself has been delayed due to the pandemic. It feels like a long overdue accolade for a woman who has co-written and co-produced 19 Billboard number one singles – more than any other artist or band that isn’t The Beatles – yet is often overlooked when the lists of great songwriters are compiled.
Her new project, perhaps, will finally paint Mariah in the light in which she should be seen. It centres around her mobile studio, The Butterfly Lounge, originally located in Atlanta, where Mariah’s band is based. She moved there earlier this year, into a house that screenwriter and director Tyler Perry found for her, and built The Butterfly Lounge in a downstairs room. The studio can be glimpsed in the video for ‘Fall In Love At Christmas’ – it’s where the song, “and a bunch of other new songs”, were written. In LA, the work continues.
Although she’s playing coy with the details, it seems that the pandemic induced downtime from touring, promo and the regular grind of being Mariah Carey. The pace of the last 20 months has given her a chance to take care of her precious voice and just enjoy the magic of creating. The song she mentioned earlier – the one she describes as one of the “best songs” she ever did – is a collaboration with some of Mariah’s most loved and respected heroes (names reportedly confirmed so far include Brandy and the Clark Sisters, leading some to speculate a duets album, a gospel sound, or both). “I just… I worship them, they’re incredible,” she says. “What I love about The Butterfly Lounge is that it can be anywhere and we can write anything. And there have been so many new artists coming through being like, ‘let’s work, I’m so excited to work with you, let’s go’.”
Fans can rest assured then that there will be brand new, original Mariah Carey music next year. She is in talks with streaming services about bringing The Butterfly Lounge to screens, in what will likely be a behind-the-scenes look at the creative process. The design is to show Mariah in her element as an artist and musician, proving that she is more than a singer, more than a superstar, more than Christmas, and certainly more than a diva. “No, it’s not really diva,” she says of the proposed film. “It’s about producing and writing and recording and doing background vocals. And my band. I really have the greatest band in the world. So that’s what’s happening next year.”
Mariah famously refuses to acknowledge the passage of time, but the recent release of her memoir and her archive compilation album The Rarities, released to celebrate the 30th anniversary of her debut, proves that she can’t fully ignore it, even if just for commercial reasons. As our conversation wraps up, I’m curious to know whether she looks back on the life she has lived so far – the albums sold, the records broken, the lives touched – and is able to comprehend the magnitude of her impact on the world? “I don’t know!” Mariah says, after a long pause. “I really don’t know. I’m thankful to be able to channel music that comes through me, and that’s it really. I’m a songwriter and I’m thankful.”
Mariah Carey’s ‘Fall In Love At Christmas’ ft. Khalid and Kirk Franklin is out now on Sony Music