One might think that on the 25th anniversary of her seminal 1997 album “Butterfly” and the release of her new butterfly-themed Chopard jewelry collab with Caroline Scheufele this week, Mariah Carey would be all about butterflies, the beauty of winged flight and transformational-metamorphosis metaphors.
Mariah Carey is not corny like that.
“You know, I didn’t have a thing with butterflies when I was a kid,” she says during a phone interview. “I wasn’t one of those little girls who had a fascination with butterflies, even though I knew children who did. It is just something that happened. When I made that album, I was leaving a point in my life that was extremely stifling and I had to go through an actual metamorphosis to become a grown woman who was strong enough to get out of that situation. It was me breaking through, to become free enough to fly.”
The “stifling” that Carey is referring to is her marriage to Columbia Records executive Tommy Mottola, whom she married in 1993 (when she was 23 and he was 43) and divorced five years later. Though Mottola guided the five-octave vocalist-songwriter through chart-topping success (Carey was the first artist to have her first five singles reach #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100, from “Vision of Love” to “Emotions”), he also kept the singer on a diet of sunny pop and with a buttoned-up, girl-next-door image throughout their marriage and her early career.
She separated from Mottola while working on “Butterfly,” and began shading her bright R&B with edgy elements of hip-hop and collabs with Sean “Diddy” Combs, Missy Elliott and the Trackmasters production crew. For her transition into a rougher-edged form of soul, Carey’s “Butterfly” was certified five-times platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in the US, and sold over 10 million copies globally since its 1997 release.
“You know, there were random circumstances with butterflies at that time, too, like leaving the house we lived in for the last time — a place I call ‘Sing-Sing’ — while writing the song ‘Butterfly’ and seeing butterflies as I left. It was like when someone passes away and you see something symbolic,” she adds. “I was leaving a very difficult period, a reality that was very tough to get through while having to put on a public persona…. A happy face.”
Carey says that such a symbol, seeing butterflies while departing the worst part of her life, is filled with meaning for her audience. “That’s something that my fans and I share without having to say it,” she says, “one that is representative of that era that is unspoken between us.”
She does allow that this week’s butterfly theme does mark the end of one era and the beginning of another.
“It’s immortalizing that valuable, important moment to me in a diamond creation, a major butterfly necklace – and the music of that moment,” she says. “It was then and there I was able to gain my freedom. There’s no price you can put on that. There is nothing more valuable than freedom.”
Recalling how the music of “Butterfly” represented liberation “in a major way,” the euphoria she felt during the first writing and recording sessions for her sixth studio album at New York City’s Hit Factory studio stands out. “If you’re listening to ‘Honey,’ that’s celebratory,” she says, pointing out the first track from “Butterfly.” “You can hear a sense of emancipation there before I ever did ‘The Emancipation of Mimi’ [her 2005 comeback album]. This album, ‘Butterfly,’ consists of slivers of my life back then.”
Talking about one of the extras on “Butterfly,” an a capella version of “Outside,” Carey says that a recent listening session for inclusion on the 25th-anniversary package made for a striking playback.
“I hadn’t heard that in years,” she says. “When I mix my records, layering my own background vocals, which is one of my favorite things to do as a producer, layer after layer, texture after texture — I’m in that moment. Hearing that back now, thinking about how my lyrics are about mainly being an outsider, growing up biracial, and that being the bane of my existence then in so many ways — that was the first specific song about that topic that I wrote and sang.”
Carey goes on to say how many fans and friends have acknowledged their otherness with her “Outside” anthem, and how they relate to its sunburst of emotion. “I’ve since heard about people having tattooed its lyrics to their bodies, and deeply connected to it, so when I listened back to the a capella, you can really hear the pain in it. I’m not feeling that pain now, but I can hear its root, its core, coming through its lead.”
Also included on “Butterfly 25” is a new version of that album’s track “The Roof,” this time with Brandy, “a singer who, like me, loves great background vocal arrangements and blending vocal textures together,” and with whom Carey says she has plans to collaborate with again soon.
Beyond freeing herself, lyrically, to express the latent, hidden emotions of being trapped in a marriage, the emancipation of Carey, musically, on “Butterfly” includes leaning further and deeper into the ‘90s hip-hop vibe with Diddy and Missy Elliot. Considering that her albums before “Butterfly” had been filled with song suggestions from her ex-husband (such as Journey and Badfinger covers), the sleek street chic of Diddy’s Bad Boy rap was a welcome tonic for Carey.
“That music is what was going on in the world, and back then, New York was the center of it all,” she says. “Even if you weren’t from New York City, if a record was big in New York, it was guaranteed to break all over the country. That was, to me, perfectly normal. So when everybody looked at me weirdly, like why did I have to go writing with Missy or the records I did with Bad Boy, it wasn’t weird to me. [People] certainly weren’t expecting my collaboration with ODB [the late Wu-Tang Clan rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard] on the ‘Fantasy’ remix right before I did ‘Butterfly,’ but that could’ve given them a hint. At that point, no one who was considered a ‘pop’ artist was working with Ol’ Dirty Bastard. But what I was listening to at that point was on the cutting edge, newer artists and writers or radio stations like WBLS [in New York]. I was interested, at that point, in doing what I felt. And growing up in New York, being in New York, I loved hip hop. But corporate didn’t.”
Thankfully, corporate did not win out when it came to hip-hop and “Butterfly.”
Another more personal victory for Carey and the 1997 “Butterfly” album came with her covering her good friend Prince’s “The Beautiful Ones” in collaboration with the hip-hop-soul vocal unit, Dru Hill. Though Carey had been a longtime Prince fan before that, she did not realize how much the Purple One usually loathed having his work covered by other artists.
“He did not like [covers], nor did he believe in the concept,” she says. “I only found this out years later, around the time I was doing ‘Glitter,’ when he told me so. And I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God’ — but then Prince told me how much he loved my song ‘Honey,’ and I was dying. For him to have even known that song was major to me. Plus, at the time of ‘Butterfly,’ he defended me to record executives who didn’t understand my decision to make an album like that. The execs didn’t understand me veering from a successful formula. But Prince understood.”
Speaking of royalty, just a week before Queen Elizabeth II’s death, Carey was a guest on Meghan Markle’s “Archetypes” podcast on Spotify in an episode titled, “The Duality of the Diva.” Once together on the podcast, Carey and Markle discussed intimately what it meant to be called the “difficult” version of diva and their shared experiences of being biracial women.
“I don’t know that I should be an authority on anybody but myself, but to preface my answer — I did not meet the Queen,” she says. “I am, however, obsessed with the show ‘The Crown.’ And the podcast with Meghan, I felt, was an important moment and one that I truly enjoyed — getting her take on things, she’s had her journey and I’ve had mine. There are some similarities, like being biracial. I tend to dwell on that topic because I just can’t get over it. It’s always a thing, whether I bring it up or someone else does. I assume that’s why it was interesting for she and I to talk for her podcast. There are so many misconceptions about her and about me — you can’t even realize how many misconceptions.”
On that note, one thing that Carey would like to clear up – in preparation for the November 1 release of her long-discussed fairy tale book, “The Christmas Princess” (co-written with Michaela Angela Davis, who collaborated with Carey on her 2020 memoir “The Meaning of Mariah Carey,” and illustrated by Fuuji Takashi) – is the whole “Queen of Christmas” tag that has given other holiday-music makers pause.
Yes, Carey’s version of “All I Want for Christmas Is You” was ranked in 2021 as the No. 1 on Billboard’s Greatest of All Time Holiday 100 Songs chart. No, Carey did not give herself the title of the “Queen of Christmas.”
“I have not taken that title, but this has become a thing,” she says with a laugh. “Other people have said this to me, and about me. And the book is about a little girl who discovers that she has this connection to Christmas.”
But beyond Prince, the Queen and Christmas, Carey is most pleased to hear how the original “Butterfly” helped change the sonic and social landscape, and helped to create something that is mainstream now: pop, R&B and hip-hop to commingling on one album.
“It was not a conscious thing that I did,” she says. “It was just music that I wanted to make. To be able to able to talk about the butterfly – as a symbol – was symbolic of what I had to fight for: my freedom. It was a very difficult business, a male-dominated business, that I got into as a teenager and had to keep fighting to get through. I had to earn and fight for my freedom before, during, after, and still.
“So, people do tell me that ‘Butterfly’ paved the way for rap and pop collaborations,” she concludes. “But at the time, I didn’t think that; I just thought this music is perfectly normal. Why would I want to stay in a box?”