There are probably a lot of great things about being Celine Dion. Countless fans. Untold riches. Myriad awards. But the best thing?
"I don't have to do anything I don't want to do," says the French-Canadian siren in her lilting accented English. "I'm in the greatest place. I'm 45 and in the middle of my life. I'm cruising. All the decisions I'm making are coming from a grounded place."
One of those recent choices was to return to the studio to record her first English-language album in six years.Loved Me Back to Life, out Tuesday, was assembled with the help of a small army of modern and old-school hitmakers, ranging from Ne-Yo and Sia to Stevie Wonder and Diane Warren.
The sound on the album is at once familiar and new. Dion's unmistakable vocal instrument always remains squarely in the foreground, but there is a bit less of the lush and layered drama that has been common to her oeuvre. And that's by design.
"For 30 years, I've had the same recipe, which puts a lot of reverb on my voice," Dion says. "But for this album, I wanted to break from that. There are no effects on my voice. It's very pure. Very direct."
Wasn't that scary?
"No, because I have nothing to lose," she says with a laugh. "I'm not looking for career attention, for more success, more money. I'm just singing songs I chose because I love them."
Dion's résumé needs no buffing. The five-time Grammy winner has sold more than 200 million albums worldwide, played to 3 million people over five years at Caesars Palace's Colosseum in Las Vegas (to the tune of $400 million in ticket sales), and has pipes that helped lift James Cameron'sTitanicto box-office heights. And did we mention she also does a mean business with albums recorded in French?
But her long-germinating album drops into a music scene that seems to evolve by the month, in which social media and the Web allow established stars to be upstaged by a Korean rapper or two comedians from Norway singing about a fox.
"It's certainly an interesting time to be Celine Dion," says Ian Drew, editorial director atUs Weekly. "She's got those golden pipes and amazing range, but you wonder where that fits into a top 10 list where no one really sings in that way."
Drew says the talented diva has made a smart move in making her vocals onBack to Life"less booming and more restrained." And ultimately, despite the fickle nature of pop these days, he says there's always room for someone with an amazing voice at the top of the charts.
"When people say to me, 'Oh, no one just sings anymore, it's all gimmicky stuff,' I just say one word: Adele," he says. "Besides, Celine's demographic is an older one, and they're the ones who still buy albums. She will be fine."
Dion saysBack to Lifecame to life thanks to only the quality of the songs she received, a crucial element in the career of someone who is, like Frank Sinatra before her, solely an interpreter of songs.
"I'm not a songwriter, someone with a theme in my heart that must get out," she says in her typically frank manner. "So I was waiting to see what sound the writers would set for me. I'm so thankful to them."
For one husband-and-wife writing team, contributing to Dion's new album was the surprising result of a late-night TV-watching session.
"We were up watching a documentary about Celine on (Oprah Winfrey's) OWN network, and it talked all about her struggles to have children and how joyful she was when she succeeded," says Dana Parish, whose writing partner is husband Andrew Hollander. (Dion has Rene-Charles, 12, and twins Nelson and Eddy, 3, with husband Rene Angelil.)
"So even though we had no idea she was working on an album, we thought it'd be cool to write a song for her and came up withAlways Be Your Girl, celebrating the mother in her," Parish says.
After their publisher got the demo track to Angelil, who also manages Dion, the shocked duo got word almost instantly that Dion not only loved the song, but wanted to know if they had anything else for her. They came up withThankful.
For Hollander, whose work has been largely with indie bands and film scoring, writing for Dion was a "surreal experience ... When Sony played us the mixes, hearing that voice we all know so well singing something we wrote was totally magical."
Adds Parish: "The command in her voice is rare."
Songwriter Diane Warren has written more than a dozen songs for Dion over the years and, forBack to Life, providedUnfinished Songs, the theme for the almost identically titled 2012 feature film. She says the key to Dion's success hasn't just been finding the right tunes for her unique voice, but her staggering work ethic.
"She recorded my song after finishing her usual show (in Las Vegas), and she spent from 11 p.m. until 4:30 a.m. in the studio," Warren says. "She nailed it the first or second take, but she insisted on doing it 50 times. She's a perfectionist."
Dion is convinced that if there's magic in her latest release, the credit goes to her family.
"When you're a parent, you sing better," she says. "It becomes a pure pleasure, rather than something I have to do. I'm more mature now. I learned to say no."
And it helps when the people you're saying yes to have names such as Babyface and Wonder. On the new disc, she joins the latter for a duet on his 1985 hitOverjoyed, although, much to her regret, not in person but via the magic of digital technology.
"Hopefully, we'll get together one day," she says. "I can still remember buying his album, that orange one (1976'sSongs in the Key of Life), I kissed it so much. Then, when I was 10, I went to see him in concert. Just amazing."
Regardless of howBack to Lifecharts, Dion soon heads back into her Vegas-centric routine for a series of performances at the Colosseum from Dec. 30 through March 19. She also returns to the Strip as a producer ofVeronic Voices, spotlighting a one-woman vocal tour de force who covers singers as disparate as Tina Turner and Dolly Parton. And Celine Dion. "I wish I could sing my songs as easily as she sings them," Dion jokes.
Although Las Vegas has a hard-won reputation as an adult playground, for Dion, it is a "place where people live normal lives, they love their kids and go to church." She thinks that side of Sin City should prove stabilizing for Britney Spears, whose new residency at Planet Hollywood begins Dec. 27.
"If Britney wants to give stability to her family, I really can't think of a better place," Dion says. "I'm not a wildcat. I don't smoke, drink or do drugs, and Las Vegas has been wonderful for me. I wish (Britney) the best there, and I will make time to see her."
For Dion, being a mother and mentor clearly have new resonance as she heads squarely into middle age. Perhaps she has another album in her soon. But perhaps not.
"The choices are mine to make," she says.