Q&A: Shania Twain on feminism and an album 15 years in the making

The songstress reflects on a long career ahead of her newest album, Now, coming out Sept. 29
Shania Twain (Universal Music)
Shania Twain (Universal Music)
Shania Twain (Universal Music)

It’s hard to believe that it has been more than 20 years since Shania Twain released Come On Over, a 16-track recording which remains the best-selling country album of all time. The country singer-songwriter, who hails from Timmins, Ontario, has songs from that 40 million-plus selling disc—particularly “From This Moment On,” “You’re Still The One,” “Man! I Feel Like A Woman!”—that get enough radio and Spotify play to give hits on the Billboard charts today a run for their money. Twain’s return to the studio with her new disc, Now (which is slated for release September 29), was no easy feat as the record has been 15 years in the making. Twain’s main delays stem from a diagnosis of lyme disease and a neurological voice disorder called dysphonia. Her health issues also follow a rather painful—and public—divorce with former producer/husband Mutt Lange in 2010 (chronicled in her revelatory autobiography of 2011). Days before Twain announced her recent world tour, she spoke to Maclean’s about her turbulent past, her trek to self-improvement and on finally gaining the respect she feels she deserves.

Q: It has taken you 15 years to record this new album. Are you more comfortable with singing about what you consider some of the most challenging moments in your life?

A: I’m getting there. I know it took a while and a whole lot of introspection but lately I’ve been more at ease with touching on things that can be difficult, dark, or painful. I believe doing this highlights the other end of the spectrum—the one that’s positive. There is a freedom to talking about survival. On this album, I’ve given that contrast on purpose.

Q: What would you say has been the biggest risk you’ve taken?

A: Putting out “Man! I Feel Like a Woman.” There was such a sassy, feminist spirit to the song. Feminism has evolved so much since then—it has been 20 years since that song was on the charts! You know the perception of feminism back then was really different. It is shocking that I had to keep repeating myself to people and say stuff like “just because you’re feminist or even if you don’t consider yourself a feminist or you’re just a strong woman, it doesn’t make you angry” or “You don’t have to be resentful to believe in equality.” Some people still didn’t get it.  They thought I was anti-men. It felt a little too ahead of the curve in some ways. I think it could be released today and easily fit in with the times.

Q: Loretta Lynn once said she felt it was her responsibility to sing for women in bad relationships. Do you feel that’s your duty as well?

A: I have done that before but I’m not an actress. When I’m writing music, I’m not acting it out—it’s all me. I feel that my responsibility is to be truthful about myself, first and foremost. I’m not going to sing things I don’t believe in no matter who is benefitting from it.

Q: The last time we spoke, you told me, “I didn’t get to enjoy the rewards of being a boundary pusher because I was in a conservative music industry.” Has this changed?

A: Oh yes. Now that I’m resurfacing again with an album after 15 years, all these artists are coming out of the woodwork and saying exactly what I wanted to hear back then. Things like “Shania influenced me. She was a trailblazer.” I’m enjoying the compliments and enjoying the fact that I don’t have to fight for that place. It’s just where I’m at. My place in music is not something I have to defend now.

Q: One of your new tracks called “Home Now” contains the lyric: “sold my soul to a new religion.” Are you talking about about the cult of fame or the church?

A: It’s not about fame at all. I’ve been a seeker for all my youth. I went through a phase of going to church a lot. Then I went through a phase of deliberately not going to church. I’ve been questioning religion. I took world religion in school and was searching for the purpose in my life through some of it. I feel that I’ve found some answers… but not enough. It’s neverending, though. I’ve learned that purpose is an ongoing search. It’s an evolution.

Q: Yet you’ve been in the business for a while and have seen artists who fall into a rut because they start worshipping the limelight. Did you ever see yourself becoming one of those people?

A: I could feel the tug. When I started touring with “Come on Over”… that was when I started to sense the true meaning of mass adulation. There was a big machine around me then. It’s such a huge operation. When I’d be in a town with a show, I couldn’t just go to the pharmacy by myself. I needed to tell people where I was, I needed security around me. My life started to get very isolated. I stopped doing things for myself. It’s a bubble that’s a dangerous one. I forget how to live in the real world outside that bubble. When that bubble stops or the tour stops with all that deliberate attention…it’s for a reason. I realized I was just doing a job. When that stops a lot of artists get very depressed. That’s why so many artists have become addicted to fame. For me, it was the other way around. I was very lonely on the road. I was very lonely as a workaholic. I said to myself, “There’s got to be more to life than this.” To me, that wasn’t living. I was drowning in this unreal life that I didn’t want. You don’t want to be someone where somebody isn’t doing everything for you. I could see it happening to other people and I didn’t want it happening to myself.

Q: There are so many famous workaholics in country music. Patsy Cline took to the stage, singing with a broken rib. For years, Loretta Lynn opened her home to visitors, almost all year round, seven days a week. Dolly Parton once told me she considers herself an industry. Are there days where you feel like you are running a corporation?

A: Well, I am an industry too. I think that all people that get to a certain level of their celebrity are brands. I accept that. I don’t value it in any personal way. I value it as an element of my work. I’m more pragmatic in that sense. She’s very pragmatic, Dolly. Although, I do get very rattled if I don’t get enough [normalcy] in my life. I like solitude. I can’t even write music if I’m not isolated.

Q: For this album, where did you hide away to keep away from social media feeds? Did you turn off the WiFi?

A: I tried. I did most of my songwriting in Nassau, Bahamas. It’s very quiet and there’s very little distraction there. It’s peaceful [and has] great views…nowhere that I’d be worried about what I was wearing. I needed that.

Q: You once said that you may regret being as candid as you were in your autobiography, From This Moment On since you included a letter to your former husband’s mistress in the book. It has been five years. Has that day ever come?

A: No. It’s helped me more than anything. I was concerned at the moment but I’m not anymore. I feel very good about it. I think it’s so important. You have to set your own boundaries. We all do. You have to self-check. At the same time, the transparency is liberating. It is so much easier than screening every little thing you do and say. There’s got to be some fluidity to self-expression without constantly editing things. The older I get, the more confident I feel in that. The filters are just flung away… lets face it, filters interrupt the flow of sincerity. If you’re embarrassed about something you’ve done, then just say it.

Q: Due to social media, so many artists are afraid of sharing an opinion. Audiences are realizing that many interviews feel scripted and not genuine. Should an artist feel the need to be so protected in this day and age?

A: You have to make up your mind. You also have to be prepared for fallout. You have to accept the industry you’re in. People are going to write and say things you don’t like. They’re going to take things out of context. What are you going to do? You can’t let it destroy your life. That’s their problem. They’re going to go on and not be respected for what they do. Just worry about what you do.

Q: What kind of role would you say your 16-year-old son has in your career right now?

A: He helped pick my producers for this album. He listens to songs. He helps me with tempos. He’ll give me feedback on sound. He’s a producer, writer, and arranger. He doesn’t want to perform.

Q: The Country Music Museum has planned an exhibit on your career and life. What items in the exhibit would you consider to be the most personal?

A: My mother, who was manager, wrote a biography for me when I was 12. She wrote this all out. It was very innocent and naïve and touching. Her coffee cup stain is on it. It’s cute and precious. It’s amazing. She prophesized this little career I had. That was really the one thing that symbolized the professional child’s career I was having and the beginning of everything.  There’s a line in there that says, “She’s very accomplished for only being 12 years old.”  Then there is that leopard outfit from “That Don’t Impress Me Much”—I’m glad I still kept it.

Q: A couple of the looks you are known for in the ’90s have been interpreted on fashion runways. Is this surreal to see?

A: Yes! I’m reliving my own period. I’m surprised the ’90s are back so quickly. It’s kind of cool. The ’90s was interesting because there were so many genres bursting through and so many different cultural influences that bubbling up into the mainstream at the same time. Fashion-wise, the urban influence, the dance music club clothes and the country music looks in the ’90s were all so strong. Everybody now has something to take from the ’90s because it introduced all the things and sometimes blended them together.

Q: Your first single, “What Made You Say That,” was released in 1993 and certain television stations banned the video because of your outfits revealed your midriff. Did you get sick of having to explain why you dressed the way you did for the video?

A: Sometimes. I’d often be confronted in interviews but it was very easy to defuse. In other genres the midriff thing was so not a new thing. It was just a new thing to country. I think the acceptance of it from me just came with the fact that I was not traditional in so many ways. It was just part of who I was. They eventually embraced who I was, creatively and artistically.

Q: Did you feel the confrontation was misogynist?

A: There was some pushback from traditionalists. I’d say it was a sexist thing. That sexist attitude? Even some women supported that! There weren’t many, but the odd one would be like, “Well, good thing she’s got such a great stomach.” Stuff like that.

Q: Artists such as Joni Mitchell have stated they could not start a career today because of the amount of social media’s ongoing gaze. If Now was your debut disc, do you think you’d be able to face the industry the same way?

A: I don’t find it different. The scrutiny is the same. It’s always going be there. It’s just more immediate, that’s all. Criticism is always going to be painful. You live through it. I lived through it then. I’ll live through it now. It’s even harder when you’re younger. You don’t have the maturity. You’re still developing. If you get damaged while you’re developing, it’s a psychological battle after that. Today, if I get the criticism, I’m not bothered…if I wear the wrong thing, I’m not going to lose sleep over it. Maybe when I was younger, I might have been more affected by that.

Q: For the album cover of The Woman In Me, you were photographed by John Derek and he berated you on set for not being the conventional model’s body or face. After that experience, how differently did you approach photo shoots? 

A: He was very critical! After that experience, to be honest, I learned so much. I learned more than any damage. It made me stronger. I took all of that with me into the future. It was a good education for me. I learned a lot about photography and lighting. I learned the psychology of the relationships between art directing and being a subject. I learned how to say no.

Q: Which of the songs on this album pushed you to the brink of emotion?  

A: “Soldier” made me cry a lot. I really had trouble finishing that one. I cried in moments of “I’m Alright.” Writing those verses for “Life’s About to Get Good,” there was a lot of frustration there. “Poor Me”—I was feeling sorry for myself! I really questioned who I was and went through the “do I really want to write this song?” debate. It really felt good to get it all out.

Q: In terms of new artists out there that you listen to, does one stand out as someone you really connect to?

Alessia Cara is wonderful—her voice is so soulful and she’s Canadian. I love Shawn Mendes too. I haven’t met Shawn yet but we text sometimes.

Q: You’ve never recorded an original song for a soundtrack yet. Does performing at the Oscars seem like something you’d be into?

A: I want to. That would be wonderful. I’d like to get more involved with film. These days I think it would probably be for a dramatic movie. I think I’d really enjoy that and get it off my list… but you know what? I’ve got a long list.

This interview has been edited for clarity.