The return of Shania Twain

The country star was ubiquitous until she fell silent in 2004. Now recovered from dysphonia and divorce, she has much to sing about.

Financial Times - UK
By Michael Hann
September 22, 2017

Shania Twain has been away so long it’s easy to forget how inescapable she once was. Her third album, 1997’s Come On Over, is the ninth biggest-selling record ever, as well as the best-selling country album of all time, the best-selling studio album by a woman, and the best-selling album by a Canadian, which sounds like faint praise until you remember that Céline Dion is also from Canada. There were times in the late 1990s when it felt as if you encountered “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” or “That Don’t Impress Me Much” or “You’re Still the One” every time you turned on the TV, went into a shop, drank in a pub. Wherever you were, Shania Twain was playing.

“I enjoy it now,” Twain says, looking back on that period of stardom for which the prefixes super and mega seem inadequate. “I wasn’t enjoying it at the time because I was so busy. I was over-working and over-focused and I wasn’t enjoying it. It felt like I wasn’t even in it. I feel like I was numb for years. I didn’t realise the impact it was having on music and culture. But now I see it from a different dimension, I guess.”

If that sounds like hyperbole for a pop-country record, it’s really not. The three records Twain made with her then husband, Robert John “Mutt” Lange — The Woman in Me, Come On Over and Up! — crossed country with rock and pop, creating hybrids that have dominated country music since, sometimes to the dismay of country purists. They set a template for scores of knowing young female country pop stars, notably Taylor Swift. Shania Twain was one of pop’s revolutionaries.

And then she stopped. Just like that, silence fell.

Near the end of the tour to support Up!, in 2004, she was bitten by a tick and contracted Lyme disease. Her voice seemed to be getting weaker, but she assumed that was just the effects of playing long shows in big arenas night after night. “But then my voice never came back.” A neurologist finally made the link between the Lyme disease and her dysphonia. “The two nerves that operate each vocal fold were damaged, so my vocal cords misfire, basically. I have to do a lot of vocal physiotherapy — it’s a permanent injury, but I’ve learned how to manage it.”

That was followed by the collapse of her marriage, in a fashion that would cause soap opera scriptwriters to dismiss the plot twist as far-fetched. Lange was having an affair with Twain’s best friend, which Twain learned about from said friend’s husband. She then fell in love with and duly married the other spurned partner.

The combination of grief — her word — over the loss of her voice, and her complicated personal life at least gave her material for her new album, Now. “It launched me into reflecting on my whole life, and more profound sadnesses than I’d felt in my life than just getting a divorce. It put it in perspective, because I realised, ‘Wow, I’ve already been through worse. This is not going to be the end for me.’ And that’s when I started focusing on the songwriting for an album.”

Indeed, she had been through worse. Twain was born Eileen Edwards, in Ontario. It was not an easy childhood: her father left when she was two, and her mother moved to the blue-collar town of Timmins, where she met and married Jerry Twain. There was domestic violence and poverty; from the age of eight Twain was earning money for the family by singing in bars, and would later speak of her discomfort at being the focus of leering men when still a child. By the mid-1980s she was pursuing music in earnest, and then, in 1987, her mother and stepfather were killed in a car accident, and at 22 Twain had to become the sole breadwinner for her two sisters and half-brother.

Once her siblings were old enough to take responsibility for themselves, Twain began pursuing her career in earnest. A first album attracted little attention, but was noticed by Lange, who offered to write with her and produce her. And, six months after meeting her, married her. Her career — her whole life — was transformed.

In interviews with Twain from that first flush of success, she would come across as businesslike to the point of hardness, whereas now she seems perfectly happy to talk about anything. She nods. “I think I can be hard. I swing with my eyes closed: I’ve gone through my whole life like that, having to move forward to survive. And that does give you an edge to your personality. I can be abrupt, for sure, but I can be hard and I think that’s part of being a survivor.”

In the past, she says, “I just never discussed my life with anybody — or very, very, few people. Once I became famous, I would only talk about things I felt would come out anyway, and I wanted to beat them to the punch. The divorce really changed my whole outlook on a lot of things. I felt, ‘Gee, it’s just a lot easier to be forthright’. It was easier than I expected.”

Her new openness can be surprising: Chris Evans was audibly taken aback when Twain appeared in his Radio 2 breakfast show recently and, in response to a soft query about what she had been up to, got the full story of the tick and the Lyme disease and the dysphonia. All before breakfast.

It doesn’t deny Twain’s own agency to note that Lange was crucial to her success. The South African had become the most commercially successful rock producer of the 1980s with his work on AC/DC’s Back in Black and Def Leppard’s Pyromania and Hysteria. He brought the same rigorous attention to detail to working with his wife. “When we were writing ‘Man! I Feel Like a Woman!’ Mutt had this riff. He wanted me to write something to that riff, and he said: ‘The phrasing has got to be: Da da-da da da da-da.’ I was coming up with all kinds of things. ‘No, that’s not it.’ And then I said, ‘How about, “Man, I feel like a woman”?’ He said: ‘That’s it!’ He was so excited, and he doesn’t get excited very often. He knew that was it.”

Making Now was a challenge. First, the dysphonia meant her voice has changed since she last recorded; second, because she was without her sounding board. “What was scary was, ‘Where do I begin to make an album?’ Mutt was not just my co-writer, he was my producer, and I didn’t know where to begin. Do I write the songs first, or do I find the producer? When I did play my songs to new producers, I was petrified. But it was also very liberating, very liberating, to not have any feedback and not have any limitations. It was a very uninhibited process. I wasn’t thinking, ‘Is Mutt going to like it? Is Mutt going to think it’s good?’ I wasn’t thinking any of that: I was just doing it.”

A couple of days later, Twain performed a couple of those new songs in front of 35,000 people on a grim, rainy Sunday in Hyde Park in London. She treated her 40-minute slot at the Radio 2 concert as if she were headlining (Take That were actually top of the bill). She entered on a platform that raised her up from beneath the stage; there were flames and confetti cannons. The crowd responded, singing along to the new songs. She finished with “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” and it was pandemonium — or as close as you get to pandemonium when it’s bucketing down. Come the chorus, everyone joined in. I’ve never seen a wet afternoon crowd so enthused. Twain herself seemed both amused and surprised by the fervour.

But when you’ve been as inescapable as she was, you’re always welcome back.

‘Now’ is released on Virgin EMI on September 29.