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POP MUSIC

Coming In Loud and Clear

Celine Dion has a voice and knows how to use it. She's the top-selling singer in the world right now and in the midst of a sold-out tour. Now, that's nothing to laugh at--or sneeze at.

March 16, 1997|Mary McNamara | Mary McNamara is associate editor at the Los Angeles Times Magazine

A lot of things about Celine Dion are, well, excessive. First there's the numbers thing. Number of records sold since debut album in 1993: 20 million. Age when she recorded first album: 12. Children in her family: 14. Age difference between the 28-year-old Dion and Rene Angelli, her manager-husband: 27 years. Number of Grammys this year: 2, for best album and best pop album, "Falling Into You." Position in sales of records worldwide in 1997: 1.

Then there's her voice. Pure and powerful, without any hitches or quavers or distinguishing scars. The kind of voice you pretend you have when you're in love and driving as fast as the law allows down the Santa Monica Freeway one fine summer morning. Not, however, a commiserative voice. When you listen to Dion sing a sad song, even her no-holds-barred version of "All by Myself," you get the feeling she has never had one of those nights--you know, when you sit on the couch chain-smoking, trying to decide between getting drunk, dying your hair black or killing yourself. No one can feel really really bad and sing quite that perfectly, quite that loud, at the same time.

Of course her back story is a happily-ever-after story, in an excessive kind of way: The last of all those children in a poor but musical family living in a small Quebec village near Montreal. Brother gets her pre-pubescent demo tape to manager Angelli, who promptly mortgages his house to pay for her 1981 French-language debut record. National stardom in Canada. She learns English, and in 1991 records the pop version duet of "Beauty and the Beast," from the Disney movie of the same name. International stardom. Records "Color of My Love." It goes gold. Marries Angelli. Records "Falling Into You," with tracks including "Because You Loved Me," from the movie "Up Close & Personal."

Then there are those songs. Not shy songs, not subtle songs. "You were my strength when I was weak / You were my voice when I couldn't speak / You were my eyes . . . saw the best . . . lifted me up . . . gave me faith. . . ." Took out my trash, shined my shoes, we get the picture.

Finally, there's her schedule. An interview with her from New York on the day before the Grammys is very enlightening. Celine Dion, like much of her music, lives fortissimo.

Before she gets on the phone, Angelli offers in a strangely soothing voice to run through her schedule, which includes singing at the Junos (the Canadian Grammy awards--she won four), the Oscars and a 15-city U.S. tour, including a March 25 date at Universal Ampitheatre. All the shows are sold out. On April 15, she will be in Monaco, at the World Music Awards, accepting her third consecutive award for outselling every musician everywhere.

When Angelli hands the phone to Dion, she is very friendly, polite, her voice is charmingly accented and, well, quiet. She has a lot of happy, grateful things to say; one has to interrupt her occasionally to ask non-happiness- or gratitude-

related questions.

The Times: That's a busy schedule.

Celine Dion: I hate to hear it all laid out like that. I don't want to know my schedule. I've worked with Rene for 15 years. I trust him not to do too much. But I only want to hear one day at a time. I give a lot of energy, and knowing what I had to do in the next three days would overwhelm me.

Times: So what was on for today?

C.D.: We just arrived from Asia [where she was on tour] so I'm fighting jet lag. I'm ready to go to bed but there's rehearsal and sound check [for the Grammys] later today so . . .

Times: Are you nervous?

C.D.: I'm always afraid to talk about these things. I am honored. To be accepted, to be recognized, that's what I want. Since I was 5, I wanted to be part of it--to be on stage, not to take home awards. If I don't win, I will still be the baby of the family. I will still call my mother every day. Winning is not the most important thing. I am still on my honeymoon. When I do shows and people sing along, this is where I feel the strongest and the happiest. Except in the kitchen with my husband. If I bring an award home, I will be proud of the people I work with.

Times: When you say "home," do you mean Florida [they have a house in West Palm Beach] or Montreal?

C.D.: Montreal. When I have time off, I go to see my family for a while.

Times: Who do you consider your musical influences?

C.D.: My brothers and sisters, frankly. Yes, I listened to Aretha Franklin, Stevie Nicks, Janis Joplin.

Times: Janis Joplin?

C.D.: Yes. Oh yes. But I began singing, recording my own songs so young, I didn't have time to be influenced by other people. My brothers and sisters would be practicing in the basement. I would listen to them.

Times: Do they still play?

C.D.: Yes, some. They are not as lucky as I am, but they are so talented, they all have different talents. It proves to me every day that talent is not enough. Why me? You know, why me?

Times: What do you think about your contemporaries?

C.D.: Like who?

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