Dec 03 2010

A Very Carey Christmas

Mariah Carey's Christmas album aims for retro sensibilities with a modern twist

By Will Fifield for Costco Connection Magazine 

This November Mariah Carey released Merry Christmas II You, her second Christmas album and 13th studio recording. Her career stats are staggering.

If you measure success by music sales, Carey is golden. Since she began recording as a solo artist in 1990, she's sold more than 200 million albums, singles and videos, making her the top-selling female recording artist in history.

If acclaim is the mark of artistic achievement, she has a myriad of music awards that certify her place in the industry, including five Grammys and 28 Billboard Music Awards.

If talent were the litmus test, Carey's five-octave-plus vocal range and impressive technical skill would be evidence enough. Even casual listeners recognize her mastery of melisma, the ornamental and often incredibly high string of fluttering notes that dresses up many of her songs.

"I think of myself as a songwriter, first and foremost," Carey recently told The Connection via phone from her New York apartment. For her, the process of capturing the melodies she hears in her head and the song concepts that come to her is what makes her successful. She says writing is a huge priority for her because her songs serve as the structure in which her voice operates.

Carey, who sometimes works out song ideas on piano or guitar, or, on occasion, simply sings vocal hooks into her cellphone, took a very collaborative approach in writing new songs for Merry Christmas II You.

The first person she enlisted was Randy Jackson, her longtime musical director. Other producers include Jermaine Dupri; James Poyser, who has worked with the likes of Aretha Franklin, the Roots and Lauryn Hill; and five-time Oscar nominee and multi-award-winning composer Marc Shaiman.

"With this record, the through line is retro classic yet modern, a hard line to walk. We wound up marrying the traditional and modern. I've worked with rap artists, so that's kind of become my sensibility. I lean that way. But I also grew up listening to traditional jazz standards. On this album, I didn't want to do anything that would take listeners back to the '90s," Carey says.

The new album contains a new recording of "All I Want For Christmas Is You," the featured single from Merry Christmas, her first Christmas album, recorded in 1994, which has sold more than 12 million copies to date. It also includes "Oh Santa!," a very upbeat single. She co-wrote "Christmas Is In The Air Again" and "One Child" with Shaiman.

"With Marc Shaiman, I had to alter the way I normally write, which is pretty much off the cuff," Carey says. "We went back and forth on lyrical concepts. He's genius. He's Broadway. But he's also fun to work with. While we worked on 'One Child,' which tells the story of the Nativity, it was funny because Marc is Jewish and kept saying things like 'What's going on? There's a king involved?' We started laughing and had a really great time." She says Shaiman's string arrangements are stunning, but the album explores another side of retro classic as well.

"Sometimes I will come up with a piano line or a horn line," Carey says. She says she sang a horn line to James Poyser, who was able to develop it into what became "When Christmas Comes." "It has a kind of '70s R&B feel," Carey says. "It evokes a Minnie Ripperton-Donny Hathaway vibe."

Other Christmas songs on the album include "The First Noel," a medley of "Little Drummer Boy" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem," and a medley of "O Come All Ye Faithful" and "Hallelujah Chorus," a duet she sings with her mother, Patricia, a vocal coach and opera singer. Carey says the entire album was produced with Nat King Cole in mind, even where it departs from his timeless style.




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