Shania Twain: ‘I want to love where I’m going but it’s a challenge’

Shania Twain on overcoming dysphonia, how Huntsville, Ont. prepared her for Las Vegas, trying to forget Oprah, and her first tour in over a decade

Shania Twain in the Hall of Fame

Shania Twain in 2011, inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. (Photograph by Jessica Darmanin)

As the bestselling female artist in the history of country music, Shania Twain’s place in popular culture has had a domino effect. Acts like Taylor Swift, Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood are indebted to Twain’s mighty crossover into pop—a feat accomplished with producer and now ex-husband, Mutt Lange. It was her unprecedented reign over the Billboard charts during Twain’s 20s and 30s (with hits ranging from Up! to From This Moment On) that made many people conscious of the rising new country genre.

Much of her success—which includes five Grammy wins, 12 Junos and 26 Canadian Country Music Awards—is due to the Timmins, Ont., native’s knack for writing lyrics that reflect the psyche of the ’90s/early ’00s single, working woman. At 49, after a long sabbatical from the studio and the stage (save for her recent Vegas revue at Caesar’s Palace) Twain is shifting gears. She’s taking a stab at writing an album alone (due next year, to coincide with her 50th birthday) and gearing up for an upcoming 48-date tour this summer.

Q: I’d say the biggest standout moment on your new DVD, Shania Still the One: Live From Las Vegas, happened during your performance of Honey, I’m Home. This is where you [step down] into the audience and all these women surround you and you share a cathartic moment. Why do you think a song like that—which pokes fun at sexist country songs in its lyrics—still has legs today?

A: A lot of women relate to needing that support at home and being the working resource in the household. The need for the guy to kick in and take on the role of the caretaker is there as well. I think it’s a lot of people’s reality now.

Q: Do you think the song was ahead of its time?

A: It wasn’t ahead of its time but the song was released on the brink of the change. Honey I’m Home was in the collection of songs that I wrote that [had lyrics] that were considered by some to be a little too harsh on men and a bit too demanding. It is interesting how much we’ve evolved since then. The challenge was with Any Man of Mine, which was considered to be too strong from a female perspective by radio. Not so much by the public—they were with me.

Q: Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under is part of that trio of songs often called out as a feminist anthem. Do you agree?

A: They champion a typical woman’s plight. Especially in our day and age. They just do it with a sense of humour. People have taken those songs on like some sort of weekend support group. There is a camaraderie that develops around songs like that.

Q: Beyoncé once told me that when she writes songs, she feels like a therapist. Do you feel the same way?

A: I feel like the therapy is more mutual. It is very therapeautic for me to write the music. The pleasure is sharing what I’ve created through my own process. When I take the music to the people, it all comes full circle. The reward is if my music is empowering or encouraging, or whatever. That motivates me.

Q: Because of its title, Man, I Feel Like A Woman is one of the top songs performed by drag queens around the world. They’ve learned so much about performance from you. Have you learned anything from that world?

A: A lot of people in the artistic side of the industry are gay and do drag and they have this great vision. There’s not a huge gap between what we both do. I don’t see much of a separation there. Entertainment doesn’t have a gender. The fashions that ended up stringing together my career—especially the epic, iconic looks—[go] both ways. It can be drag queen-y as easily as it can be a sophisticated woman. We created a seamless, natural place for all of us.

Q: Do you still use some of the tricks of the trade you learned from your days headlining at the Deerhurst Resort in Huntsville, Ont.?

A: Yes. Deerhurst was the first time I was directed on stage and it was the first time I had dancers. It educated me. When it was time to put together my show in Vegas, all that dazzle wasn’t foreign to me. I was familiar with the whole feel of a big stage show because of my being there. It was like a mini-Vegas! Or like attending a Vegas performing arts school.

Q: Canadian country singer Mary Bailey was one of your earliest supporters. How did being around someone who wrote songs such as Too Much, Too Little, Too Late shape your own writing?

A: I heard her on the radio and she was one of the main female artists backstage at many of the events where I would perform. She’s such a wonderful, genuine person and then has all of this artistic talent as well. I was 10 or 11 when I met her and she is a bubbly, enthusiastic lady. Her passion for music made her a huge influence on me. She still is. We are very close friends—we are like family.

Q: Many critics say that today’s country music is missing its rebels. Not bad boys—of which there is a surplus—but women who speak their mind through lyrics. It’s all about “bro country” right now—so many high-profile male soloists are writing hits about about women that still refer to them as “girl” in their lyrics.

A: Balance is important. Whenever it goes too far in one direction, it just gets boring. It’s very dominated by men right now. A lot of people are saying this to me as encouragement. We don’t have enough women. Maybe it’s more romance that country is missing right now. Women have a lot to say but it takes a lot of courage to say it. Women are the greater risk-takers. When they step out of what’s expected in this genre, they are really stepping in the line of fire.

Q: Obviously you are speaking from experience…

A: When I was first coming out with songs, it could have gone either way. It was never going to be anywhere in the middle. There were definitely people criticizing what I was doing.

Q: When you see someone like Taylor Swift getting criticized, does that give you flashbacks?

A: Anybody who makes it to the top knows what it’s like. I sometimes relive it when I see it again. I feel for that person, I really do. I thinking, “I hope they are being strong right now and they have good support.” I hope they aren’t taking it too personally. I have compassion for them.

Q: What wisdom would you pass on to the women of country today who need that strength to take more chances?

A: It’s not about being tough or writing lyrics about being strong or sassy. It is deeper than that. I think it’s about true self-awareness and having a real vision of where you belong in society. It’s not about conveying a superficial, ultra-beautiful, boss-warrior. We can go deeper than that.

Shania Twain performs at the Calgary Stampede (Melissa Renwick/Getty Images)

Shania Twain performs at the Calgary Stampede (Melissa Renwick/Getty Images)

Q: You suffer from dysphonia [a disorder, sometimes stress-induced, in which the vocal cords seize up when one is trying to speak or sing]. How has that changed the way you put together tours like the one on which you are about to embark?

A: Well, I’m concerned with the order of the songs. I had to be very intelligent on how I pace myself—it was all about tonality. When I need to refocus the voice, I have to have just the right song. It’s very technical—with dysphonia, it about resetting the voice. It’s like dancing; there are certain starting positions to each piece of choreography.

Q: Having done a reality show with Oprah, did you dare to rewatch the series after it aired?

A: Yes. It was awful to watch. I did that when I was really suffering. It was a terrible time. All the things I had to go through to get here [have been] tough. I want to forget about it because it was a real rehabilitation. The prodding and the doctors and the insecurity were bad but the biggest hurdle was putting my voice to the test—which happened close to showtime in Vegas.  [The disorder] is something I have that doesn’t go away but I’ve overcome a lot of the physiological handicaps of it by wearing [an] orthotic in my mouth for over a year. I slept with it. It’s like wearing a back brace.

Q: With the rise of acts such as Avicii and Hozier—who both have taken country music into the EDM realm—is dance music going to be part of your upcoming comeback album?

A: I’ve had lots of remixes of my music and that’s really how my music has lived on—through the gay club scene. They have these dance mixes that go on forever. I love hearing what DJs do with my stuff. I would carry on doing that. I’d like to try it at some point.

Q: How different would you say the new songs for this album are from what you did with your musical partner/ex-husband, Mutt Lange?

A: I’m so different now. I’m still writing on my own and I haven’t co-written yet. The music will be more organic, it will have more rootsy elements, it’s more soulful than people are used to hearing from me—vocally and lyrically. I find the songs more vulnerable and transparent. I don’t want to put out a melancholy album, but the trueness and authenticity of my emotion is sincere. It’s moving.

Q: In an interview with Oprah, you said you felt “enslaved” in the partnership/marriage you had with Mutt Lange. Do you feel your music was not a true reflection of who you were?

A: No. Everything that I put into my music was always me. I never changed for a hit. I was less independent creatively then. It couldn’t have been a bad thing, because look at all the success. But it was frustrating. It wasn’t the wrong thing—it yielded good music—but it is liberating to now be independent. Mutt directed a lot of where I went. I have less direction. And that means I have less censorship. It’s more pure.

Q: Your autobiography, From This Moment On, was unguarded. One of the things you wrote about was struggling with money and family problems in your hometown of Timmins. You wrote: “It got so bad that they only way to survive, was run.” Do you ever think about what kind of person you’d be if you stayed in Timmins?

A: If I hadn’t ran, I would have done something more traditional with my life. I’d be a veterinarian or [have] gone into architecture. Maybe I would have not pursued music as a career but I’d always be an artist.

Q: You also wrote about your relationship to your body. Has gearing up for Vegas and getting into shape given you more confidence with your looks?

A: No. I’m not 25. I don’t have the body that I had anymore. I want to love where I’m going, but it’s a challenge. It’s an adjustment, so I understand women my age and what they are going through. Now I have to work five days a week. Now I have to watch what I eat. Thankfully, I have performing—it has become part of my workout. The Vegas show is 90 minutes of cardio so I get to work out while I’m working. If I was at an office job, I’d have to go the gym three hours a day to make up for that.

Q: Madonna is someone who keeps trying to outdo herself. This year at the Grammys, she was scrutinized for being sexual on stage. Should she be scrutinized?

A: It’s like saying once you reach 70, you should stop having sex. I don’t think anybody can decide what’s best for you. I think being aware of the consequences of what you are doing is smart. If you can’t live with the consequences of whatever [your performance] brings, then rethink it. Art is a platform where self-expression should not be limited. There will be consquences if you do something that is socially unacceptable or inappropriate by certain people but you just have to live with it. Should art be controlled? It would be painful if we started to overregulate self-expression—especially when it has to do with age. I’m here to inspire. There is no age limit to that.

Q: When you are on stage and doing these love songs like Forever and For Always, Don’t!, and You’re Still The One—that were written about and with your ex-husband—do you compartmentalize, or do you tap into old memories?

A: Any of those songs are triggers. Every time I hear the music and sing the lyrics, it brings me back. It’s all good. It evokes emotion but it’s one of the blessings. It keeps me connected. The fans make everything better. Even though the song might be a memory that is 20 years old, the audience is also reflecting and creating a new moment.

Q: What would you say are the main differences between the Vegas show and this upcoming Rock This Country Tour?

A: There is a drastic difference in the whole concept. This upcoming tour will be more freestyle. It will still be sexy but not necessarily a reflection of the Vegas shows, which [focused on] the key iconic looks throughout the history of my career. Although they were so hot in the Vegas shows, this tour will be edgier and unfortunately have no dancing cowboys. Now, it’s more about the band and the instruments.

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