Shania Twain


As Shania Twain gears up to release her first album in 15 years, Now, it’s worth remembering that throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the Canadian-born singer-songwriter was one of the most successful music artists in the world. A five-time Grammy Award-winning international superstar and the top-selling female country artist of all time, Twain was also a legitimate crossover phenomenon who sold 90 million albums worldwide. Dubbed the Queen of Country Pop, she released three Diamond-certified albums, 1995’s 12x-Platinum The Woman In Me, 1997’s 20x-Platinum Come On Over (the best-selling studio album in Soundscan history by a female artist in any genre), and 2002’s 11x-Platinum Up!, plus a string of indelible hits including “You’re Still The One,” “From This Moment On,” “That Don’t Impress Me Much,” “Honey, I’m Home,” “Man! I Feel Like A Woman!” and “Come On Over.” “Equal parts grit and pluck, Twain straddled country and pop with infectious hits that were upbeat and empowering,” Billboard wrote of Twain in December when it honored her with its Women in Music “Icon Award.” “She injected country twang with rock’n’roll muscle and feminist bravado, casting herself as a self-reliant modern gal.”

For 12 years, while ascending to the music industry’s highest heights and managing every detail of her career (including editing her own videos), Twain’s life was a non-stop blur of writing, recording, touring, and promotion. As she relates in her candid, best-selling 2011 memoir From This Moment On, Twain knew things were spinning out of control when her assistant had to insert bathroom breaks into her schedule. (“If people hadn’t forced those breaks on me, I would never had taken them myself,” Twain says today.) In 2004, after completing a 96-city tour in support of Up!, Twain walked away from it all to retreat to her home in Switzerland and essentially retire from performing, with the explanation that she was taking time off to focus on raising her toddler son. While that was true, what the public didn’t know was that Twain had contracted Lyme disease, which led to chronic, severe nerve damage to her vocal chords. “I thought I would never sing again,” she says. “I had given up on singing. But the survivor in me thought, ‘Well, I can still write. I can get other people to sing the songs.’”

It’s not surprising that Twain figured she’d just become a songwriter-for-hire. Because if there’s one theme that has persisted throughout her life, it’s perseverance. By now, her story of survival is well-known. Eileen Regina Edwards overcame an impoverished upbringing (five kids crammed into a room where they slept on a dirt floor, not enough food on the table) in Timmins, Ontario. Her biological father had abandoned the family and Twain was raised by a chronically depressed mother and volatile stepfather who often became violent toward her mother. To soothe herself, Twain turned to music, listening to everyone from Dolly Parton to Stevie Wonder, teaching herself to play guitar, and writing songs. Twain’s mother noticed her daughter’s talents and soon young Eileen was being shuttled to radio and TV studios, community centers, senior citizens’ homes, “everywhere they could get me booked,” she says. At eight, she was often pulled out of bed to sing with the house band at a local club after alcohol sales ended at midnight. When Twain was 21, her parents were killed in an automobile accident and she took on the responsibility of raising her three younger siblings. To pay the bills, she worked at a Las Vegas-style revue in Huntsville, Ontario, where she lived in a cabin with no running water and washed her clothes in a stream. Twain eventually landed a record deal with Mercury Records on the basis of her original material and, in 1993, released her self-titled debut album, which caught the attention of rock producer Mutt Lange. The two eventually wed and went on to co-write Twain’s biggest hits, transforming Twain into one of the best-selling music artists of all time.

In 2008, Twain suffered yet another painful loss when she discovered that Lange was having an affair with her best friend. The couple divorced and Twain, sidelined from singing, threw herself into telling her story in her autobiography. She also wrote a bunch of very angry songs. “I had to either face my fears or give up,” she says. “There was no in between. There was no other cure than my music, so that’s what I turned to. I was tired of what I couldn’t do so I focused on what I could.”

As she healed both her voice and her heart (she married her husband Frédéric Thiébaud in 2011), the angry songs gave way to more emotionally complex, nuanced songs — these are the ones that appear on Now. The album is a vivid testament to Twain’s gifts as a songwriter, something that may have been overlooked during her years churning out blockbuster hits and eye-catching videos in the ’90s. “I’m a songwriter first,” she says. “That absolutely drives everything.” The album delves into pain and despair, but it also celebrates the joy of coming out of the darkness and blossoming into wholeness on the other side. “Home Now” finds her searching for purpose after sustaining so much loss. “I had to go through a lot of life — not knowing my real father, my parents dying, my marriage ending, losing my voice — to get to where I am right now and to where I can actually say that I’m home,” she says. “’Home Now’ is about that journey.”

Twain’s marital split may have originally served as grist for the songwriting mill, but it was merely the catalyst that opened the floodgates for what wound up being an examination of her entire life. “I hadn’t produced any songs for so long, it was like a creative bottleneck had built up over the past decade,” she says. “The songs are about every time those feelings of abandonment and rejection came up,” Twain says. “’Where Do You Think You’re Going’ is about all the relationships I’ve had — with family, friends, partners — and the potential of future hurts that create anxiety about being left behind. The divorce opened up a Pandora’s box for me emotionally, but the emotions I experienced were familiar. I knew them already. It was like I was being reintroduced to them.”

While “Who’s Going To Be Your Girl” explores Twain’s grief (“it’s about the sadness of realizing that you’re not the priority in someone’s life,” she says), and songs like “I’m Alright” and the album’s first single, the jaunty pop hoedown “Life’s About To Get Good,” make pointed references to betrayal, the latter two tracks open up into the positive realization that she is going to be okay. “On ’I’m Alright,’ I’m feeling happy that I survived,” she says. “’Life’s About To Get Good’ started out being about letdown and disappointment, but when I was writing it, I was at home looking out at the ocean and I said to myself, ‘Here I am stuck in this past of negativity, but it’s so beautiful out. I’m not in the mood to write a ‘feeling-sorry-for-myself’ song. Because with all the shit comes all the great things, too. And that’s what the song ended up being about. You can’t have the good without the bad.”

Then there’s the reggae-tinged “Swingin’ With My Eyes Closed,” which reflects how Twain feels most of the time as she walks through life. “Whenever the emotion is too high, I go into this ‘fight or flight’ mode,” she says. “And I’ve noticed that whether it’s joy or pain, the first thing we do when we experience a feeling is close our eyes. If you watch newborn babies, their eyes aren’t open yet, but they’re waving their fists in front of them. They’re swinging with their eyes closed. This is who we are intrinsically. And I’ve often gone through things with my fists forward. Like, ‘I don’t know if what’s coming is going to be good or bad, but dammit, I’m ready for it.’ Optimism is what you hear in that song.”

Twain wrote Now entirely on her own, an act she calls “a total leap of courage.” “It was a big step toward independence,” she says. “I pushed myself, knowing it was going to scare me and knowing that I, alone, was responsible for however it turned out. I love collaborating, but I didn’t want any emotional, psychological, or musical influence. The minute you invite somebody into that space, you’re influenced. And then it wouldn’t be me. It wouldn’t be pure. This may be the purest work I ever do.”

Now is also Twain’s most stylistically diverse album yet, continuing her history of defying genre-categorization. “I didn’t have any intention as far as genre went,” she says. “I didn’t allow that to rule where I went with the sound.” Twain co-produced the tracks with four producers, Ron Aniello, Matthew Koma, Jacquire King, and Jake Gosling, finding studio time in Switzerland, the U.S., England, and the Bahamas. “My role was to keep things as consistent as possible from one environment to the next, and to stylistically stay true to myself as a singer,” she explains. “I knew it was going to be a moodier album than I’d made in the past. I wanted there to be an organic thread running through it, so we used a lot of acoustic instruments, like mandolin, banjo, percussion, acoustic guitar, and native skins on the drums. We chose musicians, like the Punch Brothers, who were themselves stylistically rootsy and who could play with feel and soul. And I knew I wanted the backing vocals to have a bit of a retro sound. I spent my whole youth harmonizing, not singing the melody, so I wanted to bring that sound to it as well. I was very much involved on every level.”

In 2012, after years of therapy, Twain was able to sing confidently again and returned to the stage with Still The One — her critically acclaimed two-year residency in Las Vegas. In 2015, she launched the “Rock This Country” tour, her first in 11 years. Now that she is ready to put herself out there again with Now and her return is eagerly anticipated by the music world. Late last year, Billboard honored Twain with its “Icon Award,” recognizing her impact and achievements in music. She is also the first and only female to receive CMT’s Artist of a Lifetime Award. At the ceremony, Twain received a cross-genre tribute from Kelsea Ballerini, Meghan Trainor, and Jill Scott. Country’s latest crossover queen Taylor Swift acknowledged Twain’s trail-blazing influence when she told Billboard: “Shania showed the entire music industry that there were new options for where you could take your career in country music, how widely you could expand it.”

For her part, Twain is just looking forward to connecting with fans again. “I’ve been gifted with the ability to relate to people through music,” she says. “That’s my comfort zone. Some people only feel comfortable socializing at work, or in a bar. But when you have music to connect you, it’s really a cool experience. I want people to feel moved by the album. It’s really just an emotional exchange. I hope I can provoke that in a listener.”


[March 2017]