Spotlight on Mariah Carey -- With her soulful debut album and single, ''Vision of Love,'' the singer steps out of the background

Mariah Carey isn’t afraid to make noise. As ”Vision of Love” — the very first single from Mariah Carey, her very first album — climbs toward the top of the charts, she finds herself sitting on a leather couch in her management’s Manhattan office answering questions about her river-deep, mountain-high voice. ”I’m an alto with a five-octave range,” she says, ”and then there’s my whisper register.”

Whisper register? Pulling a tumble of sepia ringlets off her forehead, she offers a demonstration. First, a rippling, soulful ”ooh” comes rolling effortlessly from her throat: alto. Then, after a quick breath, she goes for the stratosphere, with a sound that nearly changes the barometric pressure in the room. In one brief swoop, she seems to squeal and roar at the same time: whisper register. Another quick breath, and then Carey says huskily, ”I’m sorry. I’m really tired. I was on Good Morning America today.”

If she ever gets a chance to rest up, the windows of America are doomed. But when will that be? For the past few months, Carey’s been busy making promotional appearances in such disparate places as Cleveland, Ohio, and Milan, Italy, for ”the guy who distributes the records, the guy who stands | behind the counter, the guy who programs the radio station.” Everybody but the guy who goes to concerts. To date Carey has yet to sing for a paying audience of her own, and she may not do that until her next album. So Columbia Records, her label, has been using radio and television to market her gospel-heavy pop sound. ”Vision of Love,” with a pyrotechnical vocal that resembles the work of Whitney Houston, was the No. 2 song in the country last week and her debut album has surged into the top 10. ”It all seems like a dream,” says the 20-year-old New York City native, who has wanted to be a singer since she was 4.

A little over two years ago, Carey was waitressing while sharing a Manhattan apartment with three others. ”I didn’t buy clothing,” she remembers. ”I bought food and paid the rent.” Then she landed a job as backup singer to Brenda K. Starr (”I Still Believe”). Seven months later, Starr walked up to Tommy Mottola, president of CBS Records, and thrust a tape of Carey’s songs into his hand. That demo brought Carey a record deal and her own apartment. ”It was a great turning point in my life,” she says.

Then came the hard part. Carey set to writing more songs and working in the studio. The process had its frustrations, as a series of producers and record executives meticulously pored over her session tapes. ”From the demo to the finished songs, we went through a lot of different stages,” she says. ”The production got to be a headache. Different drum sounds, different synths, the strings weren’t loud enough.” The intense scrutiny did mean, however, that Columbia considered Carey to have significant commercial potential. And she has now realized it, with the help of a major promotional campaign featuring Carey in tight, low-cut clothing.

Strangely, for someone with such a well-developed theatrical delivery, Carey has seldom performed live. So, where did she learn her craft? Her mother, Patricia Carey, who sang with the New York City Opera in the late ’60s and worked in folk music and jazz, taught her the fundamentals but never tried to steer her toward any particular style. Carey’s gospel orientation developed after she listened to her brother and sister, 9 and 10 years older, play R&B records. She’s not a churchgoer, but she can rattle off all her gospel favorites, from the Clark Sisters to Al Green. Not on the list, however, is Whitney Houston. The similarity of their bombastic, highly decorated styles is due to ”the same influences,” says Carey, who gets asked about the likeness all the time. ”When you’re new, people have to have a reference point. For me, it’s Whitney Houston.”

In fact, Carey wishes her album had less of the show-stopper quality that resembles Houston’s work. ”I’d be happier if it were a little more raw,” she says. And she would have preferred not to have Columbia emphasize her sex appeal. But, Carey makes entirely clear, ”I’m very happy with what’s happened. I’ve got a great record company.” It has helped her achieve remarkable success, which she has barely had time to contemplate. ”It’s hard for me to feel that it’s real,” she says. ”I can’t touch it. I still feel like the same person who’s been striving for a long time. I still feel like me.”