Shania Twain returning to world she knows well
It may be her first album in 15 years, but the star says she’s not apprehensive
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CALIF.— The last time Shania Twain released an album — the experimental countrybut-not-quite opus Up! — it sold 874,000 copies in its first week and went on to receive the Recording Industry Association of America’s diamond certification for 10 million copies sold, her third album in a row to reach that milestone.
That was in 2002, right around the peak of the CD age, and an era in which the pop mainstream hadn’t yet fully absorbed hip hop. Napster had just come and gone. Barack Obama was still a state senator. Taylor Swift had just taken her first trip as a preteen to Nashville, Tenn.
At that time, Twain was a crossgenre titan, a country singer who — with her then-husband Mutt Lange, the producer who boosted the sound of AC/DC and Def Leppard — made titanic, eclectic music that infuriated Nashville purists with its flashy embrace of pop theatrics, but still dominated the charts and made Twain a megastar with a Rolling Stone cover and rotation on MTV. On songs like “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” and “That Don’t Impress Me Much,” she was brassy and a little salacious, a feminist triumphalist.
Much has changed in the intervening decade-and-a-half. Pop stars aren’t as grand scaled, country music now takes as givens many of the risks Twain innovated and Twain divorced Lange following an outlandish tabloid scandal.
And yet Twain is not apprehensive about her return, 15 years later, with her fifth album Now on Sept. 29. “I really feel like I’m coming back into worlds that I already know,” the singer, 52, said early last month London West Hollywood hotel here.
Now is, like most of her albums, not quite country music, though she has swapped the excess of her last albums for something smaller and warmer. It has little to do with country music’s traditional centre but, to be fair, much of modern country music has little to do with what is thought of as country music’s traditional centre.
Twain’s own life has changed radically, too. After 14 years of marriage, she separated from Lange in 2008 after he had an affair with her close friend. (The divorce was finalized in 2010.) In turn, Twain married that friend’s husband, Frédéric Thiébaud, in 2011.
“This is not my divorce record,” she insisted, and yet many songs tackle the stings of romantic mistrust and betrayal. “Still can’t believe he’d leave me to love her,” she sings on the bleakly resentful “Poor Me.” On the haunting “I’m Alright,” she sings, “You let me go, you had to have her/ You told me slow, I died faster.”
Nowmarks the first time Twain has delved into that period of her life in song, but her return to public life began in 2011with a scarred, vulnerable autobiography, From This Moment On, and an off-kilter, sometimes uncomfortable docu-series on the then-fledgling Oprah Winfrey Network, Why Not? With Shania Twain. When it came time to re-emerge musically, she chose the “controlled ideal environment” of a two-year Las Vegas residency at Caesars Palace in 2012.
During that time period, she was also suffering physically, having lost her voice; nerves connected to her vocal cords atrophied, a side effect of Lyme disease, which she’d had since a tick bite on the Up! tour. Now, she likens herself to an injured athlete; she exercises her voice carefully, to ensure it’s ready when she needs it: “I can’t just get up and sing right now. I couldn’t get up and just belt out a song.”
She was always writing songs, though she thought she might have to give them to other artists to sing. Her new husband disagreed. “He would say ‘No, no, no. You’re going to sing again someday. Don’t give that song away.’ ” Mainly, she was focused on motherhood — “baking cake, packing lunches, running back and forth to soccer and all that stuff” for Eja, her 16-year-old son with Lange — so she would concentrate on songs in her downtime, especially at night, using a simple setup of guitar, keyboard, Pro Tools and microphone.
The result was a set of demos that weren’t executed in any particular genre. “I hadn’t determined feel yet,” she said. After not listening to current music at all during the songwriting process, she began to seek out possible collaborators, eventually settling on four producers: Matthew Koma (Carly Rae Jepsen, Zedd), Ron Aniello (Bruce Spring- steen), Jacquire King (Tom Waits, James Bay) and Jake Gosling (Ed Sheeran).
One of the choices she had to make was whether or not to make a kind of heritage album, one that eschews the contemporary music conversation in favour of something like an acoustic singer-songwriter album, or a duets project or something more gimmicky, like one with classical arrangements — all reasonable options for a well-loved singer returning after a long hibernation.
“That would have been safer,” she pointed out, but chose a different path. “I want it to be relatable and that means sonically relatable.”
Gosling, who worked on some of the album’s darker moments, said that Twain was flexible about her songs from the start and that there was minimal interference: “I didn’t speak to any A&R person. I didn’t even know if she was on a label, to be honest.”
Her other bridge to contemporary music is Eja, who makes music himself, dance music mostly. When Twain was scrupulously avoiding listening to current music, she couldn’t avoid hearing the thumping beats coming from behind his bedroom door. There are a couple of clubmusic echoes on her album, on “Let’s Kiss and Make Up,” and the beginning of “Poor Me,” which resembles the intro of the Chainsmokers’ “Don’t Let Me Down.”
“He doesn’t want to be a performer, so he’s more in his dad’s realm of things,” Twain said.
When Eja was younger, he would ask his mother to write songs with him. “I’m like, ‘You know I’m writing for my own album right now!’ ”
Lately, she’s been giving him some of her vocal stem files to fiddle around with, but nevertheless she’s careful to remind him of the pitfalls of devoting too much energy to someone else’s vision: “You have to have your own thing.”