Shania Twain: ‘This is a historically challenging time for women’

Shania Twain: ‘I hope I can give other women the confidence not to fear feeling comfortable in their own skin' (Alexander E Harbaugh)
Shania Twain: ‘I hope I can give other women the confidence not to fear feeling comfortable in their own skin' (Alexander E Harbaugh)

When asked to explain how she became the best-selling female artist in the history of country music, Shania Twain keeps landing on the same two f-words: fear and fun. “I’ve had to face my fears so many times in my life,” she says. “Sometimes you can walk right through those fears. Other times you have to back off and wait it out. It’s not always a choice.” She shrugs. “Losing my voice was scary. Losing my husband and collaborator was very scary.” But, through it all, she has remained insistent on a woman’s “prerogative to have a little fun”.

Now 57, she tells me it’s the “fun, fearless” side of her that she’s channelling in her buoyant new single, “Waking Up Dreaming”, from a sixth album expected to drop in 2023. With a nod to a younger generation of boys and girls donning boas and sequins to TikTok along to her 1997 hit “Man! I Feel like a Woman!”, the new song encourages fans to “dress up crazy like superstars… no we won’t stop at the ceiling/ Tonight we’re making our way to Mars”.

In the video she’s larking it up – “wild and crazy, totally outlandish” in pink hair and huge curly false eyelashes made of feathers. “I’ve always had control over the way I look in videos,” she says, “and in this one, I had a whole lot of fun thinking back to how I was inspired by David Bowie, Prince and Blondie. I can’t wait to see people wearing these looks to shows… they’ll have to make those lashes themselves because we did!”

Twain moved from Mercury (the country label to which she’d signed right at the beginning of her career) to the pop label Republic to record her new material. That’s the same label Taylor Swift fled to in 2018. “A more common move for a young artist,” a woman from Twain’s entourage tells me while I’m waiting for the singer to get her hair done, “but pretty ballsy for a woman at Shania’s age. Older artists usually settle into heritage status. Not Shania, though.”

On that cue, Twain materialises behind me in the London hotel suite where she’s set to spend the day humouring the press. Neat and petite in a black faux fur coat and rubber-soled platform boots, she holds out a tanned hand to introduce herself. But having just watched Not Just a Girl – the new Netflix biopic about her – I feel as though I know her already.

Combining new interviews and archive footage, the film takes fans back to the white clapboard house in the mining town of Timmins, Ontario, above the Great Lakes in eastern Canada, where the woman born Eilleen Regina Edwards was raised by her violent, alcoholic stepfather and her violent, depressive mother. They were poor and often hungry. When Twain turned eight her mother began taking her to sing for money in local bars after her stepfather had passed out. She would make around $20 between midnight and 1am.

“I felt I had to have a repertoire of at least a hundred songs,” she tells me today. “I thought: if I have 100 I’ll never be in an awkward situation when I’m asked to play a request. Because the bar work was all about requests. They would call for anything from Anne Murray to Johnny Cash. Elvis, Tammy Wynette, George Jones. All the country music I grew up with. Later I’d sing more pop and folk: some Beatles, Bread, Bee Gees, The Eagles.”

Although Twain could feel free and – that word again – “fearless” when she was singing, she struggled more with her appearance. She was an energetic tomboy who loved sport. And she has said she was sexually abused as a child. So I’m unsurprised when she tells me that: “I didn’t transition easily into being a curvy female, y’know? I wore tracksuits and dressed in boys’ clothes. I never wore a bathing suit at the beach. And I became very withdrawn and uncomfortable in my own skin. As a teen I strapped my breasts down, I wore two bras. Anything to stop the boobs bouncing.”

Twain’s parents were killed in a car accident when she was just 22. Despite the violence in which they’d raised her, she was devastated. As the new head of the family, it was her responsibility to handle the paperwork and she says that going through every detail of the police and coroner’s long reports helped her learn to face more of her fears. She took charge of her younger siblings and supported them by singing at a local resort, processing her own emotions by writing songs. When her siblings were old enough to move out, she changed her name from Eilleen to Shania (from a word belonging to the language of the Native American Ojibwe people meaning “on my way”) and signed to Mercury Nashville. She was frustrated not to be allowed much creative control over her self-titled debut album (released in 1993) but tells me that she was able to seize early control of her image because the label “didn’t think there was much riding on that first video [for the single ‘What Made You Say That’]”.

“They just gave me a few bucks to go and get some clothes,” she says. “I got to do what I wanted because it was just me and the director.” She credits her “naivety” with the guts it took to insist on editing the footage herself. “I took a stance on controlling my image, because I didn’t know where the boundaries were, and my edit turned out so well that the label had more confidence in me. From then on, they didn’t feel they needed to babysit me through the visual side of things and respected my instincts. Although they were quite shocked by some of the results. The bralessness, the belly button, the free-spirited attitude… those things weren’t really happening on the country scene.”

Shania Twain in the ‘What Made You Say That’ music video ((C) 1999 Mercury Nashville Records)
Shania Twain in the ‘What Made You Say That’ music video ((C) 1999 Mercury Nashville Records)

They hadn’t been happening much in Twain’s private life, either. “But I learned that performance is a way of stepping out of yourself. When I started to make videos, I found a different me, an artist me. I could experiment with feeling liberated, with the idea of myself in a female body. I thought: Wow, I’m a woman. I have the right to MOVE like a woman. And for the first time I thought: Yeah, I’m gonna bounce!”

She took the exhilaration of this empowered new femininity into her next two albums – her 1995 breakthrough The Woman in Me (Needs the Man in You) and her 1997 smash Come on Over. Both records were co-written with rock producer Mutt Lange (better known for his work with bands such as AC/DC). Passing a notebook between them to trade lyrics, the pair hooked up romantically as well as professionally and married in 1993. Their son Eja (pronounced Asia) was born in 2001 and the couple collaborated on her third album, Up!, in 2002. It was her third album in a row to amass double diamond sales, making her the only artist to have achieved such vast consecutive album sales.

Shania Twain in the music video for ‘Any Man of Mine’ (Shania Twain)
Shania Twain in the music video for ‘Any Man of Mine’ (Shania Twain)

But then, at the height of her career, Twain was hit by enough misfortune to fuel a hundred country songs. She lost her voice as a consequence of contracting Lyme disease, which caused the nerves around her vocal cords to atrophy. Then she found out that Lange was cheating on her with her best friend and PA, Marie-Anne Thiébaud. A woman in whom she had confided all her deepest feelings and who, she says, never ever came clean and told her the truth about what had occurred behind her back.

In From This Moment On, the 2011 memoir she named after the love song (often played at weddings) she’d written with Lange, she described the emotional wipeout of this “double betrayal”. She fasted on orange juice and felt so cold she took up to five hot baths a day. “Divorce is a type of mourning,” she tells me today.

In a 2018 Guardian interview she admitted that she still often dreamed of doing “really nasty things” to her former friend. She said: “I’m always cutting her hair or shaving it off.” But the tabloid twist to the tale came when Twain got together with Marie-Anne’s husband, Frédéric – who is waiting in the next room as we talk.

Divorce is a type of mourning

Shania Twain

After a 15-year break from the studio, Twain worked it all out on her 2017 album, Now. Embracing a huskier, more weathered vocal she sang: “I trusted you so much, you’re all that mattered/ You no longer loved me and I sang like a sad bird/ I couldn’t move on and I think you were flattered.”

I wonder how Twain thinks Eja – now 21 – coped with the drama and she’s direct. “My son and I speak quite openly about the reality of things. He’s quite close to his dad, too, so he can ask his dad any questions. Transparency is always best with kids, I think. But you have to explain and re-explain and re-explain at different levels as they mature. Eja’s been a part of my career and Mutt’s career and is still part of our lives. Children work things out for themselves too. Eja’s really proud of me.”

Now Twain is having a renaissance. Her influence is evident not only in the work of country-pop stars like Taylor Swift and Kacey Musgraves, but it has been acknowledged by mainstream pop singers such as Harry Styles, who invited her onto the stage at Coachella with him for a crowd-thrilling duet of “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!”

Shania Twain performs with Harry Styles at Coachella 2022 (Screengrab)
Shania Twain performs with Harry Styles at Coachella 2022 (Screengrab)

She concedes that “it was hard” when she first started singing the old hits again. They were full of memories. “But then, very quickly, I learned to look at the audience,” she says. “I saw what the songs meant to them. They had taken ownership and I began to sing for their story, not mine. That helped me let go, it still does. Our emotions, our perspectives evolve, and we make growth through the process of the pain.”

Although Twain is still wary of being associated with that other f-word, feminism, she’s a passionate advocate for women’s rights. “This is a historically challenging time for women to find space in many, many realms,” she says. “I hope I can give other women the confidence not to fear feeling comfortable in their own skin. To refuse to be intimidated by anyone. It’s a right and you need to own that.

“It is always a fight. I believe I have to work much harder than a male counterpart to achieve the same thing. But I’m not afraid to work harder. I’ll just work harder.”

‘Waking Up Dreaming’ is out now