Mariah Carey is losing her voice.
Well, one of them, anyway. She has two. One is a full-throated, octave-spanning powerhouse, the kind of voice that can bring an audience to its feet. That's her public voice -- the one she used to power her way through hits like "Vision of Love" and "Hero," the one that built her reputation.
Her other voice is more private. Airy and intimate, it's the sort a mother would use to soothe her children. Until recently, it has been the voice Carey has kept for herself. "This is me," she says of it. "I sit around all day and hum to the radio in my airy voice. I've always been really comfortable doing that.
"But somehow, it always seemed like everybody liked me to do the belting thing more."
It's not hard to see how Carey would get that impression, given the number of belt-it-out singles her fans have sent to the top of the charts. But that seems to be changing. "Honey," her current single, is sung almost entirely in that airy voice, and it entered at No. 1.
But if her audience has no problem with that airy voice, Carey does. "Right now, I'm dealing with these allergies," she says, sounding slightly hoarse over the phone. "[The pollen] attacks my breathy voice first, and my belting voice stays with me." To demonstrate, she tries to whisper a bit of melody, but all that emerges is air.
"It's so depressing," she says, disheartened. "But it'll be all right."
Of course it will. Despite the effects of pollen at the moment, Carey has the comfort of having found her true voice, and it comes through loud and clear on her latest album, "Butterfly."
Instead of the slick pop and lush, dramatic balladry that were the staples of her early albums, "Butterfly" offers a funkier, more street-wise Carey, one whose musical playmates include such hip-hop stars as Q-Tip, Missy Elliot and Sean "Puffy" Combs. One track finds her trading rapid-fire phrases with members of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony; another has her working through the Prince oldie "The Beautiful Ones" with Dru Hill.
While it's not hard-core R&B;, it's worlds away from the Journey and Harry Nilsson covers she once did.
This new direction had some in the music industry worried. As they saw it, Carey's core audience was a pop crowd, listeners who couldn't care less about "def" rhymes and "dope" beats.
On top of pop
They had good reason to worry. At 27, Carey is the decade's most successful pop star. Since her 1990 debut, she has seen a dozen singles go to No. 1, while her album sales have topped 80 million worldwide. All told, her recordings earn an estimated $200 million a year for Sony Music, a sum that puts her at the very top of the pop music heap.
"Everybody sort of puts her up there with Whitney [Houston]," says Alan Light, editor-at-large for Vibe magazine. "But Whitney hasn't put out a record since '90. It's been only soundtracks and singles since then. In the meantime, Mariah has put out seven albums.
"This really is a pretty serious juggernaut," he adds. "I don't think that she's perceived as nearly the force that she is."
Nor is she given much credit for creativity. In contrast to fellow divas like Houston and Celine Dion, Carey composed the bulk of her hits, and shares production credits on her last two albums. She takes an active role in cutting backing tracks, and handles the vocal production by herself. She's no producer's pet; in the studio, even hit-machines like "Puffy" Combs defer to her judgment.
In that sense, she's more like Madonna than any other pop diva, a singer whose success reflects a genuinely individual vision. Granted, Carey has yet to produce a hit with the kind of cultural resonance Madonna achieved with "Like a Virgin," "Material Girl" or "Papa Don't Preach," but that probably says more about the difference between the two singers' ambition than their ability.
Madonna's background was in rock and in the theater, and from the beginning she wanted her music to make a statement. Carey, by contrast, is first and foremost a singer, and tends to focus more on melody and emotion. Indeed, the most impressive thing about her artistic growth has been the way she has increased the emotional subtext to her songs without oversinging (the musical equivalent of chewing the scenery) or losing sight of the melody.
Perhaps that's why she's so confident when she says, "I don't feel like I alienated any audience doing this record."
"Certainly, hearing about this record before it was out, I was prepared for a much more radical departure," says Light, who points out that Carey's first single, "Vision of You," topped both the pop and R&B; charts. "Mariah already exists as an R&B; phenomenon. That's nothing this album is trying to create."
Maybe not, but its hip-hop content is clearly a point of pride with the singer. Take the way she talks about "The Roof," a dreamy number built around a sample from a little-known Mobb Deep rap, "Shook Ones."
" 'The Roof' is my favorite song on this record," says Carey. "I've been wanting to [use that sample] for a really long time. Just having the sample of when he's saying, 'I got you stuck off the realness' -- two years ago, people would have had a heart attack if I said I wanted to leave that voice on [the record]."
Inner self revealed
Much of "Butterfly" is personal and for different reasons. "I think each song on this record has its own little story to tell, and it evokes its own imagery and emotions," she says. "And each song will always evoke a different emotion for me when I hear it."
"Fourth of July," for instance, is a slice of Carey's past. "I have a lot of vivid memories from different Fourth of Julys in my life," she says. "I can think back to being 5 years old and remember where I was. When I wrote that song, it was sort of like painting a picture. It's a very visual record.
"Also, there's a song called 'Outside,' that's sort of about my own feelings being multiracial, and growing up feeling like an outsider in every situation. That was one of the first songs I did for the album, and the end of it is very emotional. It's a personal thing."
Carey's mother is Irish-American, while her father is of African and Venezuelan ancestry, and she spent much of her childhood being excluded because she was neither white nor black. Worse, her parents divorced when she was still a girl, something that only intensified the young singer's sense of not fitting in.
"Not really having one specific sense of belonging, not having one strong upbringing -- you know, a lot of people don't realize what a blessing it is to be one thing," she says.
Music, she says, kept her from being crushed by the jeers or indifference of her peers. "I felt that I was special, because I knew that I could sing," she says. "I always had music. That carried me through all the craziness that was going on around me when I was a little girl -- moving around so much, not having a lot of money, and to add not feeling stability. That's why there's the line in the song, 'Close My Eyes': 'A part of me will never be quite able to feel stable.' That's real.
"People might think I'm completely out of my mind when they look at that," she adds. "'Oh, she's sold all these millions of records, and she must be so rich. ' There's always something in me that feels insecure about a lot of things, you know? It's like a need for safety. And a lot of what I've gone through over the past few months has made me feel unsafe in a lot of ways."
Chief among those things is the breakup of her marriage to Tommy Mottola, 47, president and chief operating officer of Sony Music Entertainment. The two, married since 1993, announced a "trial separation" on May 30.
Considering that Carey records for the company Mottola heads, there was some speculation that the split would have more than marital repercussions. A statement issued at the time assured ,, that the two "look forward to continued success in their professional relationship."
Still, that hasn't stopped speculation over the state of their affairs -- particularly hers. Although Carey insists that she is not involved with anyone at the moment, she has been linked to a number of celebrities, including Q-Tip, "Puffy" Combs and New York Yankee Derek Jeter. Then there's the rumor that the video for "Honey" -- which opens with Carey bound to a chair in a large mansion, being menaced by a mobster -- was an allusion to the Carey/Mottola marriage.
"All the speculation about that video being about my personal life is just ridiculous," says Carey. "It was just a James Bond spoof, and me having a good time hanging out in Puerto Rico." (Mottola was unavailable for comment.)
While Carey may not like the gossip, she seems to have resigned herself to it.
"All the rumors and speculation, and all the drama, is always going to be there," she says. "But I spoke to Tommy today; we had a really good discussion, and I feel good about that."
Coping with life
That Carey recognizes the difference between what gets said about her by people she doesn't know, and what gets said to her by people she does, says a lot about how grounded she is. It also speaks to the effort she has put into coming to terms with the changes and problems in her life. It is also worth noting that she has an additional tool for dealing with those issues: acting.
"I've been studying acting this past year, and it has really been a learning experience, and a growing experience for me as a person," she says. "Because it has helped me deal with a lot of emotions that I blocked for a long time, like childhood things that I didn't deal with. Like when I was a little girl, and my mother's friends would say, 'If this kid makes it, after all she's seen and been through, it'll be a miracle.' I blocked out a lot of that stuff.
"I feel like I'm in a very good place, creatively and personally," she says, the emotion audible in her voice. "I mean, honestly, my life is in disarray right now, but I feel like I'm at the best and most creative place that I've ever been in.
"I threw myself into this album in that way. There were peaks and valleys emotionally, and each time I went through those peaks and valleys, I put it into the music. Because there wasn't a day I wasn't recording.
"So releasing this album is like losing a piece of myself. I almost wanted to keep it to myself, you know?"
Hear the music
To hear excerpts from Mariah Carey's new release, "Butterfly," call Sundial at 410-783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6101. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.
Pub Date: 10/12/97