Shania Twain: The Big Interview
Music Week - UK
By George Garner
July 31, 2017
It’s a load off!” laughs Shania Twain, reclining in her chair opposite Music Week in a plush suite of London’s Corinthia hotel.
“It’s a relief. I have been very impatient about it because I’ve had all this creativity and all these things I wanted to express and it’s finally just there. I feel like this huge accomplishment has just happened.”
She is, of course, talking about her comeback album, Now, which is set to be released on September 29 via Virgin EMI. To call it long-awaited would be to do it an injustice.
To put it into context, the last time Twain released an album, 2002’s Up!, Justin Bieber was eight. If you said the word Spotify then, someone would probably have passed you the Clearasil. Her name, however, has endured – those two words conjuring an endless string of epithets ranging from ‘the reigning Queen Of Country Pop’ to ‘global pop dominatrix’.
All of which is true. On the back of 1997’s 16-track, chart-conquering behemoth Come On Over alone, Twain served up not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven, not eight, not nine, not 10, not 11 but 12 singles.
According to Official Charts Company data, in the UK it has sold 3,412,833 copies to date. On a global level, it stands untouched as the biggest-selling album by a female artist of all time.
Add to this her other albums – the UK tallies being 775,689 for Up!, 367,396 for 1995’s The Woman In Me and 85,692 for her 1993 self-titled debut – and it is a period of chart hegemony to remember: just four records accounting for over 85 million albums sold worldwide.
What’s more, Twain transcends music. She stands as an avatar for the ‘90s itself, a style icon whose inversion of Robert Palmer’s Addicted To Love video on Man! I Feel Like A Woman! and leopard print outfit in the That Don’t Impress Me Much video every bit as defining an image of the decade as Geri Halliwell’s Union Jack dress at the BRITs or Kurt Cobain, bathed in yellow light, laughing hysterically into the camera lens at the end of the Smells Like Teen Spirit video.
“Shania is a global music icon,” Cindy Mabe, president, Universal Music Group Nashville tells Music Week.
“Her influence is felt heavily in the music artists of today. When Shania walked away from the industry 15 years ago, she left unfinished business. The fans have waited for her.”
Now that long, long wait is finally over. Indeed, the journey she has been on between wrapping touring for Up! and walking into the hotel room to greet Music Week has been a painful, gruelling, yet, ultimately triumphant one.
The world at large is well-informed about her high-profile divorce from her husband Robert ‘Mutt’ Lange, who was also Twain’s producer and co-writer on the albums and hit singles that catapulted her into the global pop star firmament. But there is much more to the story.
Sitting in the hotel room, wearing none of the high fashion clothes that define her image – instead cutting a relaxed countenance in a loose-fitting sweater and jeans – she explains it candidly.
Her voice still carries a strong Canadian twang, it’s there throughout the interview as she laughs and reflects – often with a lingering sadness – unpacking the narrative of how what started as a career ellipsis after Up! almost became a full stop.
Where to begin?
“I’ve really had to go through a lot to even start the record,” says Twain. “The hardest part was getting started. I was having serious voice issues – I’ve got damaged nerves.
It’s been a huge rehabilitation process, not really knowing what my abilities would be in the end. So it was like a blind faith in tackling the problem with no guarantees that I would be able to record any quality vocals.”
What actually transpired some 13 years ago, following a bout of Lyme disease, was that Twain began suffering from a condition called dysphonia.
“I was going through years of this dysphonia, not even knowing what dysphonia meant at the time. I wasn’t able to project any sound or control the quality of the sound. Even speaking, was very, very difficult.
I couldn’t yell out for my dog. I was afraid of finding out what was wrong beyond what the typical voice specialists were telling me, which was, Nothing’s wrong with your voice! The cords looked fine to anyone who was a voice specialist.
They were saying, Your cords look great! I started to think it was all in my head, so I just thought, I guess I’m never going to sing again. I’m just going to write songs, because I love to do that.”
That could well have been the end of Shania Twain: The Recording Artist. Fortunately, Shania Twain: The Author intervened.
“I’m trying to think of the genuine turning point of re-attacking or determining the problem, and it was the writing of the autobiography.
It wasn’t, like, a moment, but it was a period where I was revisiting everything and discovering what I was made of. I thought, Where did my determination go? There’s got to be a reason for this – I can’t just never sing again! I was just tired of grieving over the loss of my voice, grieving over my divorce. Grief was piling up, I guess that dam just broke.”
Released in 2011, From This Moment On laid bare a life of hardship the public at large knew very little about. It explained how she was raised in poverty – often going hungry and even wearing plastic sandwich bags over her cheap boots to try and alleviate the sting of the sub-zero Canadian winters on her feet.
It also revealed how Twain was both witness and victim to sexual and domestic abuse in her adolescence, all before her mother and stepfather would both die in a car crash in 1987, leaving her to raise her younger siblings.
From those tough beginnings, the autobiography went on to detail Twain’s incredible rise to fame, the exhaustion that followed, and the moment she found out her husband had been having an affair with her close friend.
“It flushed out so many things that I needed to flush out,” reflects Twain. “It wasn’t just about my divorce – and this isn’t my ‘divorce album’ – writing that book was about revisiting all the layers of grief and disappointment and struggle that I had experienced right from the beginning of my life.”
Finally, Twain decided to confront everything that had been building up. Including her voice.
“I can’t bring my parents back, my marriage is gone, I’ll never have my biological father in my childhood – that’s gone,” she says, recalling her mind-set.
“There were so many things that were out of my control. I thought, There’s got to be a reason why my voice is gone. Even if I never get it back, I need to know why it’s gone. Even that would have been enough.”
A long road to recovery began when a new team of specialists deduced the problem – one related not so much to vocal cords, but rather the nerves operating them.
“This is devastating for a singer,” she says. “It’s difficult enough even in speech. There is no way to fix it; it’s a permanent physiotherapy scenario for me for the rest of my life.
It’s been a huge physiotherapy process. It’s very hard to isolate those muscles. It’s not like you can go to the gym, and the trainer can say, Move your knee that way. It’s way more elusive than that. It was just a lot of work. And it’s very humiliating work.”
Just by being so vulnerable?
“Well, because you’re weak and you’re wobbly, so when you try to make an action with your voice to phonate a certain way, you can’t do it. So, when I first started doing it, I was like, I cannot even do the basic things – this is humiliating!
You have to go through all of that humiliation, and listening to yourself like that. That’s what I was facing. Would my cords actually function the way I needed them to again? Would they ever be strong enough again, or controllable enough, or manageable enough? That was the unknown that I was facing, and it took a lot of courage to tackle it, knowing that I may never sing well again.”
Presumably, it would have been easy to say, Oh well, I had an amazing career, but it’s time to quit…
“And I had those moments, I can tell you,” says Twain. “I’m sure a lot of people do when they’re facing that type of rehabilitation. It’s just like, Is this really worth it? It’s just so hard. But I had good coaching, and the support.”
And the hard work was worth it: eventually Twain’s voice returned. That was the first step on the road to Now.
The second occurred in Las Vegas. In December, 2012, Twain made her live return to the stage. Shania: Still The One, a 105-show residency at the Colosseum at Caesar’s Palace, lasted until December 2014. Today she credits it for restoring her confidence, not only in her voice but also in herself.
“Vegas was a leap,” she says. “Getting through that got me to a whole other level, learning an even more acute and focused therapy for my voice. Like, Okay, I’m ready to put a permanent stamp on where my voice is right now, and go in the studio and record it.”
That permanent stamp – aka her fifth studio album Now – is a testament to those years of hard work. Of the 24 songs Twain wanted to record, 21 were taken into the studio and a painful process thinned it down to the final tracklist of 16.
The vibrant lead single Life’s About To Get Good is a perfect indicator of an excellent album that, at times, freights 15 years of emotional cargo and somehow feels optimistic and life-affirming. It’s surprising considering what she has been through is the stuff heavy metal albums are made of…
“Yeah, it’s true!” she laughs. “It is a painful album, but it’s a celebratory album as well. The scars are there: but I bear them, and share them! And it makes them easier to bear that way. I am celebrating the fact that I survived those wounds.”
Make no mistake, some of Twain’s new songs like Who’s Gonna Be Your Girl carry a real autobiographical charge, with one of her favourite tracks in particular, I’m Alright, being a self-healing anthem.
Somewhat perplexing, however, and almost as if the prospect of assuming the position of sole songwriter for the first time, not to mention the pressure of writing new songs after 15 years away wasn’t enough, she elected to co-produce it too.
Working alongside Ron Aniello, Jake Gosling, Jacquire King and Matthew Koma, Twain’s production fingerprints are all over Now. There can only be one question: Why the hell put that pressure on yourself?
“I know,” she nods. “I’m a sucker for torture.”
So why do it?
“Independence is a gift,” explains Twain. “I had collaborated for 15 years with Mutt, I never imagined that I wouldn’t be married to him, and I never imagined that I wouldn’t be creating with him. I was so sure that that was forever, and I believed in it.
Within our collaboration, obviously I did a lot of writing on my own – we would write separately and then come together with our ideas – but I had never realised all of my ideas to completion alone, because we would always collaborate at some point along our creativity.
So I’m thinking, Well, I already know how to write alone, I don’t need a collaborator to do that; but can I come to the end on my own? That’s the part I need to do alone. I’ve never made a record without Mutt, I’ve never recorded my vocals, I’ve never arranged the backing vocals without Mutt. There were so many things.”
Twain has acquitted herself brilliantly to this end. Beyond all other considerations, Twain’s manager insists the biggest challenge of the project was the album itself, in making a body of work that would stand the test of time.
“It could have been one of those projects where we could just have kept going and then sooner or later we could have ended up with 60 songs or so – and then it would have been an album at the end of 2018!” laughs Twain’s manager Scott Rodger of Maverick Management – also home to Sir Paul McCartney.
“She could have kept going, so we said, Let’s pause here, look at what we have, reflect on it, and mix it, and then you’ll know if you have the album here. We very clearly had the album. She just got momentum.”
With that hurdle cleared, it now falls to Virgin EMI to facilitate and mobilise one of the biggest comeback campaigns of recent memory. President Ted Cockle is quick to point out that, so far, the job of re-introducing Shania to the world has been a relatively easy sell – and for one very good reason.
“The Shania Twain name has previously been untarnished,” says Cockle. “From 1995 through to Up! in 2002, there were albums across that seven-year period that just gave you such force of airplay.
When somebody has sold that many albums, she does fit as a trusted brand for people. I think the name Shania is one that people reassuringly look to. She never let you down on that for the duration of her career.
So, pleasingly, across all of the marketing platforms, we can be confident. When someone has sold that many records in the UK before you can, with confidence, try to find those people who haven’t been offered anything for the last 15 years.”
Across the pond, both Shania Twain and the country scene that birthed her may be even bigger, but the plan put in place by Twain’s US label Mercury Nashville is essentially the same. Twain’s face has already been seen blown up on the side of buildings in New York’s Times Square and downtown Toronto.
“My goal is to make sure that every fan who ever supported Shania Twain hears this new album and knows she’s back and then we will continue to convert a new generation of fans around the world,” says Mabe.
“She is doing promotion around the world, including in-market promotion from Toronto to London to Switzerland to Tokyo including TV, print media, account visits, radio and album listening events. Everyone’s excited to have Shania back.
Canada has been one of her strongest markets yet, including a recent performance at Canada 150 at the personal request of Prime Minister Trudeau.”
Clearly, the industry is ready for Twain. Every bit as important is the fact that she is ready for the industry. Twain is not returning to the music business as some bewildered ‘90s refugee befuddled by all that she encounters.
Social media? She loves being in direct contact with fans. Streaming? She is wide-eyed with enthusiasm about it – “I would have known about Twenty One Pilots way later if it wasn’t for the way everything works now!” she smiles.
It will certainly be interesting to see how Twain migrates to the streaming era. Yet if one thing has not been praised enough about her career to date it is that she’s always been ahead of the curve in terms of accessing global audiences.
Look no further than Up! – an album that was actually released in three different versions, a pop version, a country version and an international version that saw her incorporating Indian influences.
There will be none of that this time around, however. Now is not a country album – though it certainly has country moments – but rather one that lassos her various styles together, with Swingin’ With My Eyes Closed even easing into a reggae vibe.
In Twain’s own words, “It’s a bit of a joyride!” – one that seems perfectly suited to live across any number of playlists. What may surprise you is that her streaming figures are already strong. Her classic single Man! I Feel Like A Woman! has been streamed 57,799,053 times on Spotify.
Likewise, since release, and ahead of all the major promo and supporting video, Life’s About To Get Good is on a healthy 3,903,433 streams.
“What’s also interesting is where her key territories are,” says Rodger. “London, Los Angeles, New York, Mexico City – it’s not the traditional country, central base of the south, Nashville and Florida. Country, as a whole, hasn’t totally been embraced worldwide, it’s very US centric, and the rest is pretty much a fringe audience – but we don’t have that with Shania! She has a really established fanbase worldwide.”
The priority, however, will be physical.
“We will want to make serious inroads into the streaming market for her, but I still think that the focus in the first instance will be elsewhere on the physical and digital download market,” says Cockle.
“I just think that would be prudent – and as much as we will slowly be warming them up, it will not be the focus for us. I think we have to know where she can do her business, and I think it’s elsewhere at the moment.
As the reactions across Amazon, going straight to No.1 on iTunes, on the digital downloads and stuff, I think a lot of her audience are still comfortable within those areas. I think we will slowly migrate as we come out with more records.”
As to what will constitute success in this campaign? That’s a more interesting question. Arguably the past 15 years have already been clocking up success you can’t quantify in pie charts.
There is a beautiful moment on Twain’s 2015 CD/DVD/Bluray Still The One: Live From Vegas when a stunned fan walks towards Twain, arms outstretched, mouth agape, and clings to her idol. That person is Taylor Swift.
“What has been phenomenal, is seeing the response from other artists,” says Rodger. “There’s a whole younger generation of pop artists who really look up to her. There’s Shawn Mendes, Nick Jonas, Taylor as well.
And then you have established new country artists, like Carrie Underwood, Luke Bryan, and Chris Stapleton. It really is quite humbling to see that she has been such an influence, I think because at the peak of her success, she was seen as one of those country female stars opening the door into a new world of possibility.
There really is an artist community out there who look up to her, and that has been really special to see.”
Rodger explains how Twain’s comeback was precipitated last year with a series of retro Twain T-shirts appearing in Urban Outfitters.
One of which was an old image of her wearing a Nirvana shirt with their iconic smiley face logo. Rodger explains what happens when he emailed Nirvana’s estate and management to get clearance.
“The first thing that we got back from Dave Grohl was, Yes, as long as I can get a T-shirt!” laughs Rodgers.
“It’s given me so much perspective that I did not have,” says Twain of the outpouring that has greeted her return.
“When I was in it I didn’t realise at all, and even when I was away from it, I didn’t realise what it really was, and how powerful it could be, and was. How powerful it was to my own life and to other’s lives. Re-entering again was an awakening.
There were so many things I didn’t realise, and a lot of pleasant surprises from people who were little kids when I was [performing]. It’s a huge compliment – it’s the biggest compliment!”
As for the cold hard numbers of what success will look like to one of the biggest-selling artists of all time and the team supporting her?
“I think when you look at any superstar artist who has had incredible success in their career, we are in a pretty different time for music today,” observes Rodger.
“It’s pretty hard for anyone, even the biggest artists of today, the Taylor Swifts, the Adeles, the Beyoncés, to top the sales of artists in the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s. We won’t have those times again, just because we’re in a different time in culture and in music.”
“People say to me, You know we don’t count records the way we used to, How do you know when this is a success?” says Twain. “I’m like, It’s a success that I even made the record! I was so successful getting to this point right now that that’s all that matters to me.”
The warm welcome fans have given her so far has been the icing on the cake. You can expect it to get even warmer when she plays BBC Radio 2’s Live In Hyde Park event in September.
“Welcome is a good word, because that’s really how I’m feeling,” she says. “I really wasn’t sure what to expect, especially after being gone so long.
But it has been entirely welcoming, more than I ever expected. It feels very comfortable, almost like I’ve never been away.”