Interview: Shania Twain
After serious illness and divorce, the singer reveals the struggles behind her first album in 15 years
The Sunday Times - UK
August 13, 2017
It wasn’t getting bitten by a tick and contracting Lyme disease that made Shania Twain question her future. Nor was it the ever-extending delay since her last album: the 20m-selling Up! of fully 15 years ago. It wasn’t even the high-profile divorce from her husband, producer and creative foil, “Mutt” Lange. It was the moment that doctors started sticking needles into her larynx.
The Canadian superstar hasn’t made a record since people still bought CDs by the bucket-load. But after a harrowing few years, her inescapably catchy adult pop — with its occasional nods to the country sound that introduced her — is back. The self-written Now album is her first since Up! became her third in a row to go “diamond”, for US sales alone of at least 10m.
Twain and Lange separated in 2008 and divorced two years later, after his affair with her best friend, Marie-Anne Thiébaud. The tabloid field day continued as Shania found comfort in the arms of Thiébaud’s estranged husband, Frédéric, whom she married in 2011. All the while, she was raising Eja, her son with Lange, now 16. She performed live, notably in Las Vegas, but album came there none. Twain cheerfully describes that period as a “nightmare”.
We are in a chic London hotel, where she sips water and exudes a conviviality not always to the fore when we met at the time of her British breakthrough. Launched here in 1998, with Come on Over already a North American sensation, she was always polite, but often perfunctory. Now she admits she thought the game might be up when, as a consequence of Lyme disease, she got dysphonia, the inability to use one’s vocal cords normally. Essentially, her voice was shot. A long, exhausting recovery began before she could even think about making an album.
“I wasn’t sure I would ever sing again, and I had to tackle that first,” she says. “Even by tackling it, where would that get me? Would I realise at the end of all this effort that I still wasn’t going to get a quality voice worth recording? There were a lot of unknowns, and that was very unsettling.
Twain had 24 weeks of treatment after she became ill, and suffered millisecond-long losses of consciousness. Not ideal at any time, but especially when you’re on tour. “I could feel them coming,” she says. “I remember keeping my eyes as wide open as I possibly could so that when it passed, I wouldn’t lose my balance. I would just make sure I wasn’t near the edge of the stage. I went through at least 10 shows like that.”
She eventually lost her voice, but never thought to link it to the disease until a new doctor made the connection. Then the fun really began. “We did this test where they put five long needles in your larynx,” she explains. “It’s not pleasant. There’s one nerve to each vocal cord, and both nerves in my case are atrophied. Who would ever have thought I needed to see a neurologist for a singing problem?”
She mentions Lange, not by name, but by his sudden departure from her creative process. “I’m always writing, but was I going to write quality songs? Was I going to be objective after all this time, and after my longtime partner all of a sudden …” she pauses. “Now I’m solo, as a songwriter and artist, without that producer. So I thought OK, the more independent I can be with this, the better, and I committed myself to writing the whole album by myself.”
Still only 51, Twain is dressed with quiet style in a cream top and jeans. The face is slightly fuller, but her ability to laugh at herself has made her beauty more real. “I’m a survivor, let’s put it that way,” she says with an exuberant laugh. You’ve found good in bad, I suggest. “I don’t always in the moment, I have to admit,” she says, using the album’s opening single as an example.
“The first line of Life’s About to Get Good is ‘I wasn’t just broken, I was shattered’. Like, it’s not just shitty, it’s totally shit! It doesn’t get any worse. But if I fight acknowledging that, it lingers on and I can’t turn the page. It’s better to focus on the pain sometimes, otherwise you’ve got to read that page five times before it sinks in.”
The new album is the sort of huge-sounding confection with which Twain made her name, stuffed with irresistible hooks and infuriatingly deft wordplay. On first play, its sugary production seems set for an overdose, but ultimately her vulnerability and positivity win the day. Occasionally, she catches herself in self-pity, as on Poor Me (“Poor me this, poor me that, why do I keep looking back?” she sings. “Still can’t believe he’d leave me to love her”). But more often, Now is the sound of someone pulling herself together. In other words, man, she still feels like a woman.
“More fun is what we need!” she announces at one point; “I’m alive, I think I’m gonna be OK,” at another. On Light of My Life she celebrates her new love, “my little piece of the pie”, and Mutt is consigned to the kennels of history.
Twain’s life in the Swiss chateau she shared with Lange had looked to many like an idyll of fairy-tale perfection. Even now, as she writes on Home Now, “I’m one of those lucky ones who dreams out loud, and it all comes.” But her new songs are all the better for some extra light and shade. “There are some really perfect and wonderful elements to my life,” she says, “but by recognising and highlighting some of the crappy things, it gives more meaning to why I do what I do.”
Yet when I ask how low the lows got, there is no mention of the end of her marriage. Instead, she starts by talking about the difficult upbringing in Ontario that made her deceptively resilient in the first place. Her parents split up when she was two, and she sang in nightclubs from the age of eight to help the family make ends meet, before her mother and stepfather were killed in a car accident.
“There haven’t been a ton of lowest lows,” she says. “But when I was 12 or 13, I said to myself, ‘This is the worst year of my life. I hate my life.’ No escape, no solution, trapped. We were struggling financially as usual, but it was affecting me more at that age, I guess. I was more embarrassed that we didn’t have enough to eat half the time and were washing our clothes by hand. It’s like, ‘Enough already, can’t we just have a washer and a dryer?’
“And my parents were at a very violent moment in their relationship again, so it was this inescapable place where I wasn’t old enough to get on with my life. I was still trapped in my dysfunctional family. The next really bad low is when my parents died. The last time I see them alive, I’m 21, and again that feeling is totally out of my control. It’s a mindset of grief and helplessness. And the next time that happens to me, my voice goes.”
Perhaps the key to her new contentment is that if you can overcome an infectious disease and the potential loss of your livelihood, divorce might not seem so bad. Either way, Twain only sees a bright side. She even has the respect of the once-wary Nashville establishment and is the subject of an exhibition about her life and times in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
“When I first went to Nashville, I was totally the outsider. It’s not like I can even fault them with that. I was Canadian, and culturally I had some adjustments to make. I had to have big enough shoulders to accept that not everybody was going to like who I was.
“But my childhood had prepared me for that. That didn’t rattle me. It was like, ‘I’m halfway across the river, and there’s only one way to go.’ I had no parents, there was no money there, no family to help me. Nothing but my siblings depending on me, hoping I would make it. If I didn’t, we were all going to live a shittier life.”
However new success is gauged, it won’t be in diamond certifications, and that’s fine. “People are coming to my concerts. Maybe that’s all that matters now, and I’ve accomplished so much just by doing it. When you get to the other side, it’s fantastic.”
Shania Twain plays at Radio 2’s Live in Hyde Park, September 10; Now is released on Virgin EMI on September 29