Renowned Writer/Producer Walter Afanasieff Tells How He Co-Wrote With Mariah Carey The Holiday Classic, “All I Want For Christmas Is You”
Update: In December 2022, Mariah Carey’s hit “All I Want For Christmas Is You” reached number one again on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Here’s our interview with Walter Afanasieff, who wrote & produced the song with Carey.
Walter Afanasieff is a two-time Grammy Award winner who has written and produced songs with several of the biggest artists of the past three decades. He has co-written & produced three, number one hits on the Billboard Hot 100 chart: “One Sweet Day” (Mariah Carey & Boyz II Men), “Hero” (Mariah Carey) and “My All” (Mariah Carey). He’s also known for producing the #1 hit ballad “My Heart Will Go On” (Celine Dion) for the blockbuster movie, Titanic.
In addition to these hits and other credits, Afanasieff is now known for co-writing & producing a song that seems to grow in popularity each holiday season. He and Mariah Carey wrote “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” which was first released in 1994. Impressively, it has become the most successful holiday song to be released in the past 50 years. ASCAP has recently named “All I Want for Christmas Is You” as its #1 Holiday Song.
This song has not only topped Billboard’s Holiday 100 chart (spending 33 weeks at #1), but it has reached the Top 10 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart for the past two years. This holiday season, “All I Want For Christmas Is You” reached a new high of #3 on the Hot 100.
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Walter Afanasieff about how he co-wrote “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” But before we get started, here is more information on this song, and a list of Afanasieff’s other key credits.
Afanasieff and Carey recorded “All I Want for Christmas Is You’ in August 1994, and it was released in November 1994. The song is featured on Carey’s first holiday album, titled Merry Christmas. This album contains three original songs written by Carey & Afanasieff, plus seven holiday standards recorded by Carey.
Over the years, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” has been recorded by many other artists, including Fifth Harmony, Michael Buble, Lady Antebellum, Idina Menzel, Jim Brickman, Ingrid Michaelson, Samantha Mumba, Big Time Rush, Bowling For Soup, Amber Riley and Cee Lo Green.
In addition to Afanasieff’s credits listed above, he has co-written the hit songs “Can’t Let Go” (Mariah Carey) and “She Bangs” (Ricky Martin). Afanasieff has won two Grammy Awards, for Producer of the Year (Non-Classical), and for Record of the Year (for producing “My Heart Will Go On” for Celine Dion). He is an excellent keyboard player and programmer, who often plays all of the instruments on a recording.
Here is Mariah Carey’s original video of “All I Want for
Christmas Is You.”
More recently, Afanasieff co-produced songs on each of Barbra Streisand’s last three albums, including five songs on her new album, Walls. He co-wrote the title cut “Walls” with legendary lyricists, Marilyn & Alan Bergman. In addition, he produced Idina Menzel’s 2014 album, Holiday Wishes.
Here is our new interview with Walter Afanasieff:
DK: Congratulations on your song “All I Want for Christmas Is You” making the Top 10 again on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Walter Afanasieff: Thank you. I feel very fortunate and blessed to have a song that’s been the #1 song on the Christmas chart, and is back in the Hot 100. It’s been 24 years now (since it’s been released), and every year it seems to be getting more popular. It’s just crazy.
DK: Back in the day, how did you start working and collaborating with Mariah Carey?
Afanasieff: I believe it was 1989 when I first met Mariah. At the time, I was working at Narada Michael Walden’s studio in Northern California. Mariah was working on her debut album for Columbia Records, and there were a couple songs that were still needed for the album. At the time, Tommy Mottola (then Head of Columbia/Sony Records) reached out to (hit producer/writer) Narada Michael Walden, who at that time was my boss. Tommy asked Narada [for songwriting & production help] with Mariah.
Narada told me, “We’ve got this new singer named Mariah Carey coming out and she’s going to write for a little bit.” At the time I wasn’t a writer there; I was just Narada’s keyboard player & arranger. When she came out, Narada and Mariah started to write a couple songs…I think they wrote (the hit) “I Don’t Wanna Cry” together. Then Tommy asked Narada to sweeten and enhance the production on Mariah’s song, “Vision of Love.” So “Vision Of Love” was the first song I started working on. We spruced it up some, and Narada gave it a new facelift. And that led to Narada starting production on the other songs he was working on with her. So I started working on the arrangements for these songs and Tommy Mottola took notice. He goes, “Who’s this guy that’s doing all the tracks, all the music?” And at the studio, everybody says, “That’s Narada’s guy Walter—he does all the programming and music.” So Tommy says, “Oh, I want to meet this guy.”
Here’s the video of Mariah Carey performing “All I Want for
Christmas” with James Corden and many stars
including Adele, Lady Gaga and Elton John.
Then Tommy called me and met me, and he kind of said, “If you’re the guy who does all this stuff for Narada, you should be working for yourself. How about this? I’ll give you a song, and if you can do it for me in one day, and you do a great enough job, I’ll give you a deal.” And I said, “Okay.”
So Tommy sent me a rough demo of a song called “Love Takes Time.” I did the track, and I got on an airplane and flew to New York that night. I recorded Mariah’s vocals the next day, mixed it in New York, and flew home. Mariah and Tommy loved it, and that kind of sealed the deal. (“Love Takes Time” became Carey’s second #1 hit).
(As a result) I found myself with a new gig—I became her songwriting partner and producer. So right after Mariah’s beautiful, successful first album, we started on her second, third and fourth albums.
DK: When did you start working with Mariah on her Christmas album?
Afanasieff: Between her second and third albums, Mariah wanted to do a Christmas album. She said, “I love Christmas music—it’s my favorite holiday in the world.” So the record company said, “Sure, let’s do it.” Back in the early ‘90s, it wasn’t as common for a newer artist to record a Christmas album. They would usually wait until much later in their career to do so.
DK: Can you talk about how you and Mariah wrote “All I Want for Christmas Is You?”
Afanasieff: My memory may be a little bit different than Mariah’s, but this is what I remember. It was the summer of 1994, the year her Christmas album came out. Normally, Christmas albums are recorded in the summer, and mixed by around the middle of September. During the summer, Mariah and Tommy would rent a beautiful house in Westchester or in the Hamptons (in New York state). In the summer of 1994, I flew out and joined them, and we started to work on plotting out and picking the songs for the Christmas album. We decided to write three original songs.
In the house they had a piano, which was in the living room. We started to work on Christmas music, and write these three songs. One of the songs was a more classical song called “Jesus Born On This Day.” Another song was a slow, romantic and sad love song called “Miss You Most (At Christmas Time).”
Here’s is Fifth Harmony’s video of “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”
For the third one, we wanted to do an uptempo song and have it be very fun and uplifting. So we started this rock & roll piano idea. The reason we did this rock & roll idea, was because a lot of the albums that you hear for a Christmas album have old school rock & roll. It’s got a Phil Spector vibe to it. So it’s either like Phil Spector, or it’s more gospel, like “Joy To The World” and “Hark The Herald Angels Sing,” done very gospelly. So the song started to go towards this rock & roll style.
I was sitting at the piano—I started playing this sort of boogie woogie, and Mariah picked up on what I was playing with my left hand, which was the melody from the bass line. And she goes, “Oh that’s cute.” So she starts singing that melody (which became the opening line, “I don’t want a lot for Christmas”).
Now we go to the next chord, and then I usually like to change things up and not do it like everyone else does it, so I went to the minor chord, and I repeated that. And Mariah says, “Yeah, that’s kind of cool.” And we get a couple of cool chords in-between (he sings “make my wish come true”) and then the chords for (the title), “all I want for Christmas is you.”
We got the music pretty much done, and then Mariah would write the lyrics. I flew back to California, and she would call and ask for feedback (on certain lyrics). And lo and behold, the lyrics came out and we had the finished song.
DK: With the production of “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” did you play all the instruments on this recording?
Afanasieff: Yes. I did the programming and keyboard playing in my studio at my house in California. On this song, I programmed everything on that song that you hear musically, except for the vocals.
DK: About a decade later (in 2003), “All I Want for Christmas Is You” seemed to get a big boost, when a young actress sang the song in the hit movie, Love Actually. Do you think this movie use helped make the song more popular?
Afanasieff: Oh for sure. Mariah can be very selective in licensing her songs, but she said yes to licensing this song for Love Actually. I think she liked the idea that a talented young girl would be singing her song. And it’s great that Love Actually has become a popular Christmas movie, so people would see it every year.
DK: Thank you Walter for doing this interview. Currently, what projects are you working on?
Afanasieff: I recently finished producing and arranging several songs for Barbra Streisand’s new album, Walls. And I was tickled pink that I got to co-write the title track “Walls” with the legendary lyricists, Marilyn & Alan Bergman (who wrote “The Way We Were” and many other hits). That was a huge honor for me to write the music to their lyrics.
These days, I’m heading more into the film scoring part of my life. And I continue to enjoy working with great artists like Barbra Streisand, Josh Groban, Andrea Bocelli and Michael Buble.