It always comes back to Christmas, and Mariah Carey, for Walter Afanasieff. Sadly, though, Mariah hasn’t come back to him for some time now.
“We had a falling out,” the Grammy-winning producer and co-writer of arguably the greatest Christmas song of all-time, says of his former collaborator. “I would have hoped that in 20 years, she would have knocked on my door – but she hasn’t, so…”
Across a 30-year career in music, the songwriter/producer has played a hand in massive global hits as varied as Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On (for which he won a Grammy in 1998) and Ricky Martin’s She Bangs. He has shared a studio with some of the biggest singers in pop, from Beyoncé to Barbra Streisand. But his legacy will undoubtedly be defined by the fruits of one afternoon’s labour in 1994 with then-budding starlet Carey – the ubiquitous Christmas smash, All I Want for Christmas Is You.
Now, 24 years after its release, the song sits at No 5 in the Official UK Chart, and No 6 in the Billboard hot 100 in the US, after entering the top ten for the first time in December last year. Together, the pair birthed the last Christmas song to become a true staple of the season and the bane of retail workers everywhere.
But, despite their shared history – they co-wrote several of her other hits, like Hero, Forever and Anytime You Need a Friend – Afanasieff and Carey won’t be toasting their annual royalty cheques with a glass of celebratory eggnog this December.
There are a few reasons, he suggests, why this might be the case. First and foremost, the 1997 separation between the singer and her ex-husband Tommy Mottola, the former head of Sony Music Entertainment.
“The reason we stopped working together was primarily because she and her husband, who was the chairman of Sony Music, got a divorce. And I was under an exclusive contract with him. So, she left the building, she wasn’t even on the label anymore, but I couldn’t go and work with her because he wouldn’t let me. So she found that to be a little bit of a slap in the face.”
On top of this, he says, there were jealousy issues.
“Singers like Mariah, Celine, Whitney [Houston], Barbra [Streisand],” he says, “they’re all very insecure creatures.”
“If you start working on a song with another singer, the jealousy comes out. They’re very, very jealous people. So, I was working to put food on my table. I can’t only work with Mariah, I have to work with other people, and I think that was a bit of a problem ‘cause I was working, at that time, with Celine [Dion], and there was a girl named Lara Fabian, too. So, I don’t know, we just parted ways.”
While he’s still got love for the singer, he admits he’s disappointed by the way she speaks of their work together.
“She doesn’t like to acknowledge other people. It seems to be a problem with singers. If you see a singer talking about something that they wrote, they will probably say I wrote the song when I was 12 years old, or, here’s another song I wrote.
“It doesn’t matter how many interviews she’s done or when she’s on stage, she’ll never ever say ‘here’s the song that I wrote with Walter’. She’s made it her modus operandi [to neglect to mention his name when discussing the song]. We wrote the song together, my name is 50%, her name is 50%, we have equal shares.”
He cites a particular interview, with Billboard in 2017 after the song reached the Hot 100 for the first time, in which she appears to suggest that she had conceived the song at a young age.
“She came up with some crazy, crazy story over the last couple years that she wrote All I Want For Christmas Is You when she was a kid on her Casio [keyboard],” he says. “And I go, that’s crazy, I wasn’t with you when you were a kid writing that song on the Casio, so why am I 50% owner of the song? It’s crazy stuff.”
The story of how the song came together is well-documented. As Afanasieff tells it, most of it was done in under an hour, after Carey had put some vocals to a rock-inspired piano melody that he had improvised while they were working on original tracks for her Christmas album, Merry Christmas.
“We wrote the music very quickly, and organised it very quickly from beginning to end, give or take a few of the production things that I did,” he says. The entire track was built on his computer, with no live instruments required. The two went their separate ways to finish their parts (Afanasieff the music, Carey the lyrics) before getting together some time later to record her vocals.
“When we wrote together, we would usually come up with the melody and the music together, a little bit of the lyrics, the title, the chorus, whatever, and then Mariah would go off and write the bulk of the lyrics to say what she wants to say. She would call me up and go, ‘does ‘reindeer click’ make sense?’”
On the whole, he speaks very fondly about his time working with the singer. He says they had a working relationship unlike any other in his professional career.
“The chemistry was so good,” he says. “And we wrote a whole bunch of songs, we were partners. Not exclusively – she wrote with other people and other people produced her as well, but I was the main guy.”
Afanasieff is particularly nostalgic for this period in his life during what he perceives to be the glory days of pop music, when the radio was dominated by singers with giant voices like Diane Warren, Carey, Celine Dion and Whitney Houston. He’s less sure about the “crazy crap” on the radio today.
“[Writing songs] was so much fun back in those days. There was no… today we have rules and regulations; there’s this formulaic process to pop songwriting now that really does not invite big ideas, new ideas. It’s a very simple four chord formula, all taken from the four chords in Let It Be by The Beatles.
“I loved the 1990s, because everyone just let loose. We had the big ballads, and Whitney was singing, Celine Dion was singing and Mariah was singing, everyone had a bigger voice and a bigger song and a better song, and more incredible lyrics, and it was a more powerful process and required more talent. Nowadays it’s like anybody can do music.”
And he reckons that Carey has, over time, adapted and changed with pop music in order to remain relevant. He hasn’t listened to her new album, Caution, which features collaborations with a variety of A-list and indie producers, like EDM-pioneer Skrillex, alt-R&B artist Devonté Hynes and Drake collaborator Nineteen85, which has proven a hit with critics.
“The foundation of her career, the parts that made her a superstar were the bigger songs like Hero, My All, One Sweet Day. And, in between, she came out with a couple of cool ones like Dreamlover, and Visions of Love. So, her big voice lent itself to a bigger song. Along the way, though, she wants to be commercially successful. She wants to be on the radio. To be on the radio and to be Mariah Carey is almost like a contradiction to me. Because a lot of her fans, that I know of, her lambs, love that bigger, better song from her.”
In the years after their professional relationship ended, Mariah leaned heavily into R&B, with hits like Heartbreaker, featuring Jay-Z, I Know What You Want with Busta Rhymes and sultry jam Touch My Body.
“It’s very, very hard to get on the radio these days,” says Afanasieff. “You have to be very hip-hop, very edgy with the lyrics, very sexy and dirty and promiscuous, and it doesn’t knock on the doors of the great songwriters anymore.”
Despite their falling out, Afanasieff is grateful for Carey’s impact on his life, which is a good thing, because he’ll probably have to hear her voice over and over around this time each year for the rest of his life.
“I love Mariah Carey,” he says, “she’s the greatest thing that ever happened to me. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go both ways.”