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Shania Twain: She’s Still the One

Shania Twain has made it through a painful divorce, self-doubt and a vocal-cord ailment. At 52, she’s back—with her first new record in 15 years and a confident, sunny outlook.

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Shania TwainPhoto: Courtesy of Universal Music Canada

Shania Twain, Canada’s country music icon, is back!

Shania Twain didn’t start out with dreams of becoming a country-pop icon. Growing up in Timmins, Ont., in the 1960s and ’70s, she faced poverty and family dysfunction; as a kid, she sang in local bars to make ends meet. It wasn’t until the mid-’90s—with the help of Robert “Mutt” Lange, an influential pop and rock producer and her then-husband—that Twain ascended to stardom. Fans were drawn to her plucky attitude and lively brand of female empowerment that put unworthy men on notice in anthems like “That Don’t Impress Me Much” and “Man, I Feel Like a Woman.” To this day, Twain remains the best-selling female country artist in history, thanks in no small part to the success of her 1997 smash hit, Come On Over, the top-selling country album of all time.

But success had its downsides: in 2000, she and Lange moved to a remote town in Switzerland—an attempt, Twain said at the time, to “leave behind the whole ‘Shania’ thing.” Nearly a decade later, the singer’s professional and domestic lives were thrown into upheaval when she discovered Lange was having an affair with her closest friend. The devastation and stress from this betrayal, she says, factored into her 2010 diagnosis of dysphonia, a disorder of the vocal cords that causes hoarseness; it left Twain unable to sing and deeply uncertain of her future.

After so much turmoil, finding her voice again has been as much an emotional journey as a physical one. In 2015, Twain embarked on a farewell tour that was, she thought, a chance to say goodbye while still at the top of her game. It turned out she wasn’t quite finished. As she prepares for the late-September release of Now, her first album in a decade and a half, the Canadian icon opens up about weathering adversity, navigating social media and why, this time around, she’s stressing less, sleeping more and finally having fun.

Reader’s Digest Canada: The first single on your new album is called “Life’s About to Get Good.” Does that optimistic outlook encapsulate how you’re feeling these days?

Shania Twain: That song is about transition in my life—from sad to happy, lost to found, starting off feeling pretty devastated and then seeing the light. Now has to do with all that I’ve been through—what’s important and what I don’t need to take with me. It’s kind of like cleaning house. That’s the phase I’m in at the moment. I don’t need to rush into the future or run away from the past. I’m okay addressing it all now.

You’ve said making this album was about frightening yourself. How so?

It was scary for me to get back into the studio after 15 years—even just on a level of getting my voice back, because I had lost that. I also had to push myself through that threshold of fear in terms of writing alone. I was determined to see how productive I could be on my own after so many years spent collaborating. When that drops away it’s like, Where do I start? Where do I go from here?

Can you describe that experience?

I grew into my own skin, and I was very much involved and very much at home. I guess I’d gained enough experience with Mutt over the years. I couldn’t have worked with anybody better to prepare me for this moment.

It sounds like you’ve been able to consider even the most challenging experiences in a positive light.

I came to terms with a lot of things while making this album, not just the emotions surrounding my divorce. People get divorced every day, and it’s devastating in most cases, but for me that separation was really the straw that broke the camel’s back. I had so many years of pretty low lows and never really dealt with them. I address things best creatively and cathartically through songwriting. I’ve never been as transparent as I have been with Now. My intentions were to create an album that is relatable. I don’t want people to think, I don’t get this.

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Shania Twain in concertPhoto: Mediapunch/Rex Features/CP

Coming back to a changed music and media landscape

Reader’s Digest Canada: Your last record, Up!, came out a decade and a half ago. In the years since then, pop culture has gone through massive changes, including the rise of social media. As an artist who values her privacy, what has that adjustment been like? 

Shania Twain: I use social media to communicate with my fans, and I love it. You’re getting real, direct feedback and thoughts and ideas. Because I’ve got a teenage son, I kind of evolved with it. He had just been born when I released Up!, so we’ve both grown up with social media.

Along with that direct communication comes the expectation of greater transparency. How do you know where to draw the line? 

Somebody asked me recently what I thought of Katy Perry [who live-streamed her entire life round the clock for four days to promote her latest album]. I said, Well, I would never film myself sleeping and share that, because I’d probably fart and snore.

Why step back into the spotlight now? Two years ago, you embarked on a so-called farewell tour. What changed your mind?

At the time, I thought it was a farewell. I was procrastinating a lot with making the new album. I was always writing, but my voice wasn’t there yet. I was floundering. Then I got busy with my Las Vegas residency and with the tour. It takes an hour and a half of preparation work for me to sing [due to the dysphonia], and as I was getting through those rehearsals I thought, This is one hat I’d better hang up. I wanted to leave at the top. But the tour went so well, and I learned about myself and my limits. I realized I could physically do it, and I was also motivated by the fact that the album came together so well.

I suppose premature farewell tours are part of a grand tradition. Look at Cher!

I so understand that. I could never have known I was going to be ready to go on.

In country music, men can gracefully evolve into hairy outlaws, while women are expected to defy the aging process. How do you handle that?

That’s my determination again. I’m not going to be a victim of that kind of discrimination. What do you mean women are not allowed to age? I’m aging, I’ve got cellulite and I’m getting bags under my eyes. That’s just the way it is—take it or leave it. I’m still going to make an effort to look good; I always have. And I believe in self-care.

What does that look like?

Fitness is important to me. I don’t want to see myself in the mirror and feel like I’m turning into a lazy blob, but it’s about health. If I’m taking care of myself and eating well and exercising and I’m still a blob, then that’s what I’ve got to live with. We just have to do our best, whatever that looks like; that’s what we should love in ourselves. Otherwise it’s not worth it.

You recently attended the opening of Shania Twain: Rock This Country, a retrospective exhibit spanning your career, at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. What was that like?

It was great. It was truly an exhibit of my life since I started out so young, at the age of 10. Looking back at that early memorabilia gave me a complete sense of my journey in music, not just the successful years.

The exhibit features some of your most iconic looks. What Shania Twain artifact would you save in a fire?

Oh boy. I’d want to save the [leopard-print suit from the video for] “That Don’t Impress Me Much.” I’d also want to save the biography my mother wrote about me when I was 12. She’s not here anymore, so it really means a lot. It still has the coffee stains from her cup.

Speaking of iconic looks, I see you’ve got your double denim on today—a.k.a. the Canadian tuxedo.

Ha! The double denim is very in right now. I love it. Wool socks too.

You’ve said you didn’t take enough time to have fun while your career was exploding. Are you doing anything now to rectify that situation?  

I sleep in when I want to. Not on weekdays, because I still get my son to school, but if I want to go back for a nap afterwards, I do. These are things I never would have allowed myself before—I was just so disciplined. Now I realize some things can wait. And then there’s fun: I love going to the movies, and I see more concerts now.

Any recent highlights?

Drake was amazing—technologically awesome and very communicative.

One of Drake’s chief messages is a sense of pride in his hometown—and his home country. You now spend the majority of your time in Switzerland and the Bahamas. In light of that, what does being Canadian mean to you?

Canada means home—the smell, the feel, the seasons, the history, my childhood. It has stayed with me.

To read about another Canadian country music star, check out our interview with Dean Brody!

Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada