‘Making this record is the biggest accomplishment of my career,’ says Shania Twain. Which is quite some statement, when you consider the 52-year-old’s career accomplishments already include recording the bestselling album by a female artist in history (1999’s Come On Over), and being officially the world’s most successful country artist. But given the ‘crippling state’ she was in before she started it, it’s no idle boast either.
‘I procrastinated for a long time – out of fear,’ she admits. ‘I really struggled for a long time to pull that trigger. But once I found the courage to dive into it and actually make the record, I really enjoyed it. I did the race with the limp, and I finished the race. And I am really proud of myself.’
The reasons for this struggle, and the 15-year silence since 2002’s Up! album, are largely down to two major reversals in the queen of country pop’s fortunes.
One was physical: after contracting Lyme disease from a tick bite, she suffered serious lesions on her vocal chords, and has spent more than a decade training herself to sing again.
‘It’s been a huge mountain of all kinds of therapies and treatments,’ she explains. ‘Gruelling things – braces on my jaw, realigning my teeth, all the work and physiotherapy I have to do. It’s like an athlete rehabilitating an injury. It’s really exhausting, physically and mentally, but I’ve come a long, long way.’
Alongside that, she’s had to punch back from the emotional turmoil of her husband of 15 years, record producer Robert ‘Mutt’ Lange, leaving her for her best friend, Marie-Anne Thiébaud. It’s a subject she doesn’t shrink from on her unflinchingly raw new album Now, with lyrics like (on It’s Alright): ‘You let me go, you had to have her.’
‘Everybody already knows the story – I couldn’t avoid that,’ she says. ‘And I feel better, just taking the illusion out of it. That’s so much easier than trying to hide things. I’m totally okay with it at this point. And trust me I wasn’t totally okay with it in the moment, I don’t want to make light of that. But this about a journey of transition – from a dark time to a lighter time, from a sad time to a happier time. Acknowledging that things couldn’t have been worse, but there was a light at the end of the tunnel. And that’s where I’m at now.’
Fortunately, Twain – looking relaxed and happy in a simple black sweater and leggings – is no stranger to a fight, having lived a life to rival even the most turbulent country song.
The drama started early, with doctors believing she was stillborn. ‘I was a blue baby,’ she says. ‘The umbilical chord was wrapped around me, and I wasn’t getting oxygen. So they gave my mother a cigarette. I think they were preparing to tell her her child was not alive.’
Fortunately, the young Eileen Regina Edwards thrived – though life in the remote community of Timmins, Ontario, was tough: her mother’s relationship with her stepfather, a member of Canada’s indigenous Ojibwa people, was stormy, and money was tight.
‘It was always a trade off between paying for food and paying the bills', she recalls. ‘We could never keep up. Often we’d be living on bread, sugar and milk – that was our food for days. Or we’d borrow food. We had a teenage neighbour who would steal things from her kitchen for us, and hope her mother wouldn’t notice.’
To help make ends meet, Twain began singing in bars at the age of eight. ‘It was scary,’ she admits. ‘I didn’t enjoy the environment. It was very smoky, and at eight years old I wasn’t allowed to go in until the bar was closed at midnight, so everybody was already drunk. My mother would get me out of bed, bring me to the bar for midnight, and I’d get up and do a set.’
When did she sleep? ‘I was tired a lot,’ she smiles.
As a teenager, she worked for her father’s reforestation business, walking miles every day carrying heavy loads of wood. She was also an expert hunter. ‘If I had to survive in the woods, I could,’ she says. ‘My life has made me tough, in a lot of ways. It’s also made me resilient, and resourceful, and prepared for going out into the world without being intimated. It’s very hard to intimidate me.’
In the mid-80s, she moved to Nashville, and was just establishing herself as a musician when her mother and stepfather were killed in an accident, forcing her to return home to care for her four younger siblings. ‘It was just automatic,’ she shrugs. ‘We didn’t have an extended family that could step into that role. There was no other way.’
When success did come, a decade later, it came big. Now calling herself Shania (said – though it’s disputed – to be Ojibwa for ‘on my way’) she made her breakthrough with 1995’s country-pop crossover album The Woman in Me – co-written with Lange, who she’d married two years earlier – while the record-breaking Come On Over, featuring the mega-hits That Don’t Impress Me Much and Man! I Feel Like a Woman!, has so far shifted 40 million copies.
‘There was a lot of life already lived before I became successful, so I was way more ready,’ she says. ‘And while it was happening, I didn’t really sense the scale of it. I didn’t take it for granted – coming from where I’d come from, it’s very hard to take things for granted. But it was hard to absorb it.’
After the highs – including five Grammy Awards and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (not to mention the unusual accolade of being declared to have ‘the perfect female face’ by research scientists) – came the crash, and the slow return to match fitness. But while doctors worked on her voice, the man who would heal her heart turned out to be someone with a unique perspective on what she’d been through: Marie-Ann Thiébaud’s ex- husband, Frédéric.
‘I didn’t believe in love any more,’ she confides. ‘I was so over and done with love. That’s the natural way to react. How could you be normal after such a fall like that? Like you’re just going to dust yourself off. Who are you kidding? When you fall hard, the wind gets knocked out of you, it’s a futile exercise to try to get up too soon. It’s just better to lay there, however long it takes, until you get your breath back, and then you can start crawling out of the hole.
‘People need people – we need each other. When you’re stumbling around in the dark, you need someone to say, “the light switch is just over here”. And Fred was a light.’
The couple married six years ago in Switzerland, where Twain has lived since the late 90s, and where she has raised her and Lange’s 16-year-old son, Eja.
‘We got each other,’ she explains. ‘We allowed each other to be vulnerable. We were emotional strangers before this happened – he was just “the husband”. I didn’t really know him at all. But once we were standing on a different platform, we could see each other completely – there was no hiding. It was that relatability, and that vulnerability, that made it so beautiful.’
All of this feeds into the intensely personal Now, on which Twain, showcasing a deeper, huskier but apparently undiminished voice, has assumed solo songwriting duties for the first time. Lead single Life’s About to Get Good is a defiant, upbeat statement of intent, while the anthemic Swinging With My Eyes Closed casts her as a prizefighter, literally slugging her way back into the world, ‘fists up in the air’.
‘The spirit of the song is about: bring it on,’ she says. ‘It’s saying, I’ve got no fear in this moment, and I’m just going to take a swing, even if I can’t see what’s in front of me. That’s the essence of my life, really.’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, September 7, 2017
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