Shania Twain Walked Out on Top. Now She Wants Back In.
Ms. Twain is set to release “Now,” her first album in 15 years, on Sept. 29.
The New York Times
By Jon Caramanica
September 1, 2017
Photographs by Ryan Pfluger
Complete photo shoot (thumbnails)
WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — The last time Shania Twain released an album — the experimental country-but-not-quite opus “Up!” — it sold 874,000 copies in its first week, and went on to receive the Recording Industry Association of America’s diamond certification for 10 million copies sold, her third album in a row to reach that milestone.
That was in 2002, right around the peak of the CD age, and an era in which the pop mainstream hadn’t yet fully absorbed hip-hop. Napster had just come and gone. Barack Obama was still a state senator. Taylor Swift had just taken her first trip as a pre-teen to Nashville.
At that time, Ms. Twain was a cross-genre titan, a country singer who — with her then-husband Mutt Lange, the producer who boosted the sound of AC/DC and Def Leppard — made titanic, eclectic music that infuriated Nashville purists with its flashy embrace of pop theatrics, but still dominated the charts and made Ms. Twain a megastar with a Rolling Stone cover and rotation on MTV. On songs like “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” and “That Don’t Impress Me Much,” she was brassy and a little salacious, a feminist triumphalist.
Much has changed in the intervening decade and a half. Pop stars aren’t as grand scaled; country music now takes as givens many of the risks Ms. Twain innovated; and Ms. Twain divorced Mr. Lange following an outlandish tabloid scandal.
And yet Ms. Twain is not apprehensive about her return, 15 years later, with her fifth album, “Now,” on Sept. 29. “I really feel like I’m coming back into worlds that I already know,” the singer, 52, said one afternoon early last month in a room at the London West Hollywood hotel here. “Now” is, like most of her albums, not quite country music, though she has swapped the excess of her last albums for something smaller and warmer. It has little to do with country music’s traditional center, but to be fair, much of modern country music has little to do with what is thought of as country music’s center.
By standing apart, Ms. Twain may well fit in, though the path hasn’t been clear thus far. The new album’s first single, “Life’s About to Get Good,” fizzled on the chart. But radio might not be Ms. Twain’s path, said Cindy Mabe, the president of Universal Music Group Nashville. “It’s the magnifier,” she said, “but frankly, does she need it? No. She’s a global icon.” She pointed out the breadth of Ms. Twain’s release plan — award shows in France and Germany, a concert in London’s Hyde Park, TV in this country and Canada, and much more — as proof that “no one has the reach that Shania does.”
As Ms. Twain spoke, she was preparing for this global rollout, surrounded by racks of clothes to wear for photo shoots and television appearances, and musing on another way the culture has changed during her break from promoting albums.
“It is way more acceptable to be different, to be a more normal shape,” she said, discussing how at her pop peak, she wore custom-made clothes when runway styles didn’t fit properly. “It’s actually fashionable to have a bigger butt now. I remember feeling, like, ‘I cannot get my butt into these pants!’”
Ms. Twain’s own life has changed radically, too. After 14 years of marriage, she separated from Mr. Lange in 2008 after he had an affair with her close friend. (The divorce was finalized in 2010.) In turn, Ms. Twain married that friend’s husband, Frédéric Thiébaud, in 2011.
“This is not my divorce record,” she insisted, and yet many songs tackle the stings of romantic mistrust and betrayal. “Still can’t believe he’d leave me to love her,” she sings on the bleakly resentful “Poor Me.” On the haunting “I’m Alright,” she sings, “You let me go, you had to have her/You told me slow, I died faster.”
Ms. Twain has always written her own songs, and her gift is still acute. “I cried a lot when I wrote. I never cried when I wrote a song ever before in my life,” she said.
“My songwriting is my diary and it is my best friend,” she added. “It’s a place I can go to where it’s not expecting anything from me. There’s just no inhibitions there. It’s a complete free place to say whatever I want to say.”
And there is no awkwardness, she said, in working through sentiments about her old relationship while in a new one. “Surely I didn’t marry a guy that can’t handle that,” she said, then added, “I wouldn’t let him hear everything that I ever write, trust me. Some the things I say in my songwriting would never find their way to being a song.
“Now” marks the first time Ms. Twain has delved into that period of her life in song, but her return to public life began in 2011 with a scarred, vulnerable autobiography, “From This Moment On,” and an off-kilter, sometimes uncomfortable docu-series on the then-fledgling Oprah Winfrey Network, “Why Not? With Shania Twain.” When it came time to re-emerge musically, she chose the “controlled ideal environment” of a Las Vegas residency, at Caesars Palace, which began in 2012 and ran for two years.
During that time period, she was also suffering physically, having lost her voice; nerves connected to her vocal cords atrophied, a side effect of Lyme disease, which she’d had since a tick bite on the “Up!” tour. Now, she likens herself to an injured athlete — she exercises her voice carefully, to ensure it’s ready when she needs it: “I can’t just get up and sing right now. I couldn’t get up and just belt out a song.”
She was always writing songs, though she thought she might have to give them to other artists to sing. Her new husband disagreed. “He would say ‘No, no, no. You’re going to sing again some day. Don’t give that song away.’” Mainly she was focused on motherhood — “baking cake, packing lunches, running back and forth to soccer and all that stuff” for Eja, her 16-year-old son with Mr. Lange — so she would concentrate on songs in her downtime, especially at night, using a simple setup of guitar, keyboard, Pro-Tools and microphone.
This went on for a few years. “I can’t be rushed,” she said, then recalled the elaborate recording processes of her old albums and started laughing. “It’s not all Mutt’s fault that everything took so long!”
The result was a set of demos that weren’t executed in any particular genre style. “I hadn’t determined feel yet,” she said. After not listening to current music at all during the songwriting process, she began to seek out possible collaborators, eventually settling on four producers: Matthew Koma (Carly Rae Jepsen, Zedd), Ron Aniello (Bruce Springsteen), Jacquire King (Tom Waits, James Bay) and Jake Gosling (Ed Sheeran).
“Each time I had to send a song, I was so petrified,” she said. “My husband had to talk me through it and make me do it. He’d be like ‘I’m standing here until you press that button.’”
“They were very precious to her — I know it was a big deal to share,” said Mr. Koma, who was the first producer to work on the album, helping determine how to build a bridge from her “sarcastic and daring” older work to these vulnerable new songs, which were, he said, “part of her healing process.”
The albums that made Ms. Twain a global pop icon — “The Woman In Me” (1995), “Come On Over” (1997), “Up!” (2002) — were intimate collaborations between Ms. Twain and Mr. Lange, with practically no outside input and a clear delineation of duties. When it came to production, she recalled, “I was just a sounding board for Mutt when he was ready for me,” she said, “whereas here, I was more of a director.”
One of the choices she had to make was whether or not to make a kind of heritage album, one that eschews the contemporary music conversation in favor of something like an acoustic singer-songwriter album, or a duets project, or something more gimmicky, like one with classical arrangements — all reasonable options for a well-loved singer returning after a long hibernation. “That would have been safer,” she pointed out, but chose a different path. “I want it to be relatable, and that means sonically relatable.”
Mr. Gosling, who worked on some of the album’s darker moments, said that Ms. Twain was flexible about her songs from the start — “We never discussed where they would end” — and that there was minimal interference: “I didn’t speak to any A & R person. I didn’t even know if she was on a label, to be honest.”
Her other bridge to contemporary music is Eja, who makes music himself — dance music, mostly. When Ms. Twain was scrupulously avoiding listening to current music, she couldn’t avoid hearing the thumping beats coming from behind his bedroom door. There are a couple of club-music echoes on her album, on “Let’s Kiss and Make Up,” and the beginning of “Poor Me,” which resembles the intro of the Chainsmokers’ “Don’t Let Me Down.”
“He doesn’t want to be a performer, so he’s more in his dad’s realm of things,” Ms. Twain said.
When Eja was younger, he would ask his mother to write songs with him. “I’m like, ‘You know I’m writing for my own album right now!’” Lately, she’s been giving him some of her vocal stem files to fiddle around with, but nevertheless she’s careful to remind him of the pitfalls of devoting too much energy to someone else’s vision: “You have to have your own thing.”