Celine Dion Shows Edge, and Tries Out New Characters, on 'Loved Me Back to Life'

Alix Malka/Feeling Productions

Celine Dion

For her first English-language album in six years, Celine Dion has tapped current songwriters like Sia and Ne-Yo for a sound that reminds people-or at least her son-of Rihanna

Celine Dion packs two ­albums right now as she travels the country, and soon Europe -- Adele's "21" and Rihanna's "Unapologetic." She may soon add a third to that collection, however.

"How do you spell 'Avicii'-A-V-as in 'envy'?" Dion asks on the phone from her home in Las Vegas, just learning of the Swedish EDM phenomenon for the first time. Her interest is piqued because Avicii's "True" features three songs by Audra Mae, a young singer/­songwriter from Oklahoma who's also the grand-niece of Judy Garland. Mae penned two standout tracks on "Loved Me Back to Life," Dion's first English-language album in six years-including the powerful "Breakaway," which features arguably the grittiest, most authentically "rock" vocal we've ever heard or would expect from Dion.

Her last album may have been titled "Taking Chances," but Dion takes even bigger stylistic leaps on "Loved Me Back to Life," teaming with Sia for the stuttery, dubstep-lite title track and lead single; Ne-Yo for the stadium-sized duet "Incredible"; Eg White for "Water and a Flame," a snarly ballad originally recorded by Daniel Merriweather and Dion's vocal hero Adele; and Mae for both "Breakaway" and the propulsive, minor-key "Somebody Loves Somebody."

"I have always been jealous of people who, they go out at night, they have a drink or two-or three or four-and the next morning they feel hoarse and sound bad," Dion says of meeting Mae. "But then they take their guitar and they sing, and you just cry because it's so raw. It's so heartfelt. So painful in a good way. And I was just like, 'I want to be broken apart a little bit too. I don't have that broken life, which is great, but can I borrow that from you? Please teach me.' And she taught me. She was a big influence for me."

Dion has had aspirations of trying her hand at acting, so "Loved Me Back to Life," out Nov. 5, is her trying out different characters, in many cases. "It's been a very fun project," she says. "What I've done [in the past] is something I'm very proud of, but am I going to give my fans what I've done already? No, so they're getting something else. It's a little edgier but definitely fresh and modern. Because of the words, the approach, how they mix it and how they capture the voice without surrounding it with so much maple syrup."

Dion hasn't had a top 40 hit since 2003's "I Drove All Night," and the pop landscape has only gravitated toward even more beat-driven dance tracks and hip-hop in the ensuing decade. Besides, she's been spending most of her time performing her greatest hits at her now-groundbreaking residency at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, which has grossed a staggering $493.7 million in box-office receipts since debuting in March 2003, according to Billboard Boxscore.

That's why the promotional plan for "Loved Me Back to Life" began early, with Dion appearing on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" on Sept. 6 for an interview and a performance of the title track, and again on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" on Sept. 9. This week she's in New York, where yesterday she played both "Today" and "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon." She'll visit "The View" tomorrow, Oct. 30. "With Celine, we need big television. We're not going to get her on top 40 radio," Columbia chairman Rob Stringer says. "Every year there's one record that captures that adult consumer, and we're hoping Celine does that because she put out a French record last year that sold 1 million in France, and she's doing tons of television."

Most notably, she'll perform an intimate, private concert for Pandora Presents at New York's Edison Ballroom. The 1,200-capacity show is a significant underplay for Dion, who's used to playing to crowds of 4,100 at the Colosseum, and even larger when she's on tour-she'll do a limited tour of Europe in late November, including seven nights at the 16,000-capacity Palais Omnisport de Paris Bercy arena in Paris. For the Edison Ballroom show, Dion will perform hits and selections from "Loved Me Back to Life" primarily to the fans in the New York tri-state area who've added her Pandora station and listened passionately.

"We've done these in a variety of cities across the country," Pandora head of music partnerships Tommy Page says, "and are able to determine the artist for each city by analyzing the musical preferences of our local listeners through stations they have created and songs they have 'thumbed up.' We are so honored and excited to be a part of what we believe will be a historic event."

Dion has also been embracing social media platforms with this album cycle, joining Twitter in early September (@celinedion has more than 103,000 followers), posting more frequent updates on her well-followed Facebook page (14.5 million global likes) and even participating in a Reddit Ask Me Anything Q&A on Oct. 31. "For adult artists, we all know the real challenge is, 'How do you let your fans know you've got something new?'" Columbia senior VP of marketing Greg Linn says. "We gave a track to Perez Hilton to premiere and it was great-we instantly saw a reaction from fans, a jump on Amazon and instantly felt the pulse rate pick up a little bit. It's really wonderful that Celine and [her manager/husband] Rene Angelil are really open to a wide range of ideas, many of which didn't exist the last time she had an album."

Columbia marketing manager Chris Poppe says a paid TV and digital advertising marketing campaign will roll out in several stages even after release week. "We'll hit again for Black Friday, and then we'll unveil an entirely new campaign in December. It really is all about reminding people, 'If ever there was a gift for you to buy this holiday, this is it,'" she says.


Even with less attention from the mainstream than her '90s heyday, there were limits to the edge that Dion was willing to incorporate into her new music. "Am I going to start singing with Eminem? No," she says. "I'm not going to be Rihanna. No one can be Rihanna except for Rihanna. This album was about, 'How can I not do what I've done?' But for people who, if they like what I've done, I don't want them to think, 'Let's not go so wild.' I just want to do the songs that I love. But what songs, and how? Just by the approach of the production-not too much reverb, really dry, no effects on the voice, borrow some new words here and there."

There was a point where "Loved Me Back to Life" was going to sound more like the show fans pay upwards of $80 a ticket to see in Las Vegas, consisting primarily of covers with a handful of new songs, mostly ballads. But as more songs came in, Columbia delayed the album from its initial fall 2012 release, and most of the covers were scrapped in favor of original collaborations with Sia, Babyface, Ne-Yo and Swedish songwriting trio Play Production. Of the songs featured in Dion's show, only Stevie Wonder's "Overjoyed" (featuring guest vocals from Wonder himself) and Janis Ian's "At Seventeen" were kept, along with Billy Joel's "Lullaby (Goodnight My Angel)" for an exclusive deluxe edition Target will issue on release date.

Dion knew she was onto something different when her eldest son, 12-year-old Rene Charles, was impressed. "He couldn't believe it. He said, 'They must have made a mistake. Ne-Yo and Sia, they don't write for mama. They write for Rihanna.' RC's my toughest crowd. I'm his favorite mama but I'm not necessarily his favorite singer. He listens to Eminem and is about to be 13. He's not going to listen to 'Because You Loved Me.'"

Even the expected parts of a Dion album are delivered with new twists. For instance, "Unfinished Songs," her latest pairing with Diane Warren ("Because You Loved Me," "If You Asked Me To") isn't a string-swept ballad but rather their most uptempo outing since 1992's "Love Can Move Mountains." Warren went to see Dion's show in Vegas in 2011, hoping to score a few minutes with her post-show to play an early version of "Unfinished Song" that they planned to record that week during the singer's time off. Though Dion prioritizes her family life ("I do my job as quick as I can and then I come home-it's wonderful and I'm so happy to do it, but now I know I have it better," she says), she remains committed to nailing the perfect take in the studio.

"Here's what's so impressive about working with Celine, what separates the good from the great," Warren says. "I went to her show, and it's almost two hours. She's not lip-synching. She's singing songs that aren't easy to sing. Then we went in the studio at 11:30 at night and she stayed until, like, 4 a.m. and would not leave until it was perfect. I kept thinking, 'That's why she's going to be around forever.' A lot of times you work with singers and they're like, 'Aw, I'll finish next time.' She just came from two hours onstage and then really sang her ass off. Not that she needed to-she got it right the first time. There's too few people like that."

Ne-Yo, who recorded "Incredible" as a duet with Dion as well as backing vocals for his song "Thank You," adds, "I've always prided myself as a songwriter that can sing a little bit. You don't take 'can sing a little bit' next to one of the greatest voices in the world," he says. "I'm happy to say I feel like I held my own, but I'm pretty sure the other guys playing on the team with Michael Jordan knew they weren't as good as him, they were just happy to be there. ["Incredible"] is definitely one of those songs that makes you feel invincible, like I can accomplish anything. With the [Winter] Olympics coming, if somebody don't pick it up, then somebody's not doing their job."

And although Dion doesn't write her own material, there's one song that's perhaps her most autobiographical since 2002's "A New Day Has Come"-"Always Be Your Girl," penned for her by husband-and-wife songwriting duo Dana Parish and Andrew Hollander. The couple was clicking through cable channels in October 2011 when they happened upon Dion's documentary on OWN, and was struck by Dion's open personality and her struggle to expand her family-twins Nelson and Eddy were born in 2010 after numerous attempts at in-vitro fertilization.

"We didn't know she was making a new record," Parish says. "We were just really inspired by this documentary and her life with her children. So the next day we got together and wrote 'Always Be Your Girl' about what she might say to her kids."

The song soon got into Angelil's hands through Parish and Hollander's friend Peter Lloyd, then of Razor & Tie Music Publishing, and was an immediate favorite of Dion's. "Rene said, 'It's the first original song that we've found for the record,'" Hollander recalls.

Two years after she first recorded it, Dion still has a close connection to "Always Be Your Girl."

"I have a picture of [Rene Charles] right now in front of me because, for the first time, I let him go to Montreal by himself with his godfather and one bodyguard. I said, 'Listen, I'm going to let you go to Montreal without mama.' And when I think of 'Always Be Your Girl,' that's what I thought about with him, when he's going to leave and when he's going to meet his wife and have his heart break and things like that. I'm always going to be there. 'I'm the first woman of your life, I'm your mother'-that will never change. But it made me tear a little bit inside, in a good way. This song was mainly for him, but of course I will translate it to my twins a little later on. They're far from flying on a plane by themselves."

In the meantime, Dion is grateful for the stability her Las Vegas residency has brought to her life (she recently put her Florida mansion up for sale, to the tune of $72.5 million, to spend even more time in Vegas). She hopes it soon does the same for Britney Spears, who begins her multi-year stint at Planet Hollywood just before Dion returns to Caesars Palace on Dec. 30.

"That's going to be good for her," Dion says of Spears. "Because she's an amazing performer, and everybody deserves a second chance. I wish her very well and am glad she'll be our neighbor. I can't wait to get a chance to see her show."