Shania Twain's rise from growing up in poverty to becoming one of country music's biggest starsOctober 2, 2020
WHEN Shania Twain talks about her late parents, Sharon and Jerry, her voice breaks with understandable emotion.
“I wish they had lived to see my success and enjoy it,” she says. “I’d love to have given them a better life.”
Growing up in poverty, she dreamed of being a professional singer while they struggled to pay the bills.
The big family, which included her siblings Jill, Carrie Ann, Darryl and Mark, lived in the Canadian gold rush town of Timmins, Ontario.
They couldn’t be sure of food on the table so, from the age of eight, Shania (born Eilleen) sang in bars to bring in much-needed cash. Her stints often started at midnight in front of drunken stragglers.
“Before I even graduated from high school, I’d done years of singing Top 40 country, Top 40 rock, folk, every genre,” she recalls.
Then in 1987, before she made the big time, biological mum Sharon and Jerry, the stepfather she thought of as her real dad despite his bouts of violence, were killed in a road accident.
Just eight years later, Shania released the first of three consecutive albums to achieve diamond status in the States, each shifting more than ten million copies.
‘RAW AND BROKEN’
That unrivalled run of The Woman In Me, Come On Over and Up! made her the best-selling female country music artist of all time and one of the world’s biggest music stars regardless of genre.
The contrast between her overwhelming success and difficult upbringing could not be more pronounced. “I don’t think my parents ever owned a brand-new vehicle,” she says.
“If they had lived, they wouldn’t have had to struggle any more. They could have enjoyed life for the first time.”
As it’s a case of never the Twain shall meet during the pandemic, the Queen Of Country Pop, 55, is talking to me from her home in Switzerland to mark the various 25th anniversary diamond editions of breakthrough album The Woman In Me.
“It was a sh*tty way to grow up,” she admits. “I wouldn’t want to do it again but I was more prepared as a person because of the hardship I came from.”
Though The Woman In Me is filled with rousing hoedowns and soaring ballads, the final track, God Bless The Child, is sung a cappella by Shania. It’s beautiful and heart-wrenching.
“It wasn’t long after my parents died, so I was still feeling pretty raw and broken,” she says.
“Then I heard a bear way out in the distance, in the forest, just howling. It was obviously either wounded or caught in a trap somewhere. And I just felt that song was that howl for me.”
Through all the tough times, Shania never stopped clinging to the hope of fulfilling her dreams.
“I always wanted to be a singer and a songwriter,” she says. “I was never comfortable with being a performer, being the centre of attention, but the joy of creating music and using my voice was a passion. It was part of who I was.
“When I was a very small child, I didn’t even know what a career was or that I’d be getting into this giant machine. I just knew I loved music.”
She can trace her passion back to when she was just three. “I remember playing with notes and range, creating the resonant sound that makes your lips tingle,” she says.
“Years later, when I was speaking to a vocal instructor, he told me, ‘You’re getting the resonance.
"You can feel that buzz on your palate, your lips and your tongue’.
“I thought, ‘Wow’, because I’d been noticing that since I was three!”
Though the predecessor to The Woman In Me, her self-titled debut album, only sold modestly on release in 1993, Shania was more than ready for her tilt at stardom.
“By the time I got to Nashville with a recording contract, you could have thrown anything at me,” she affirms.
“I felt as if my hardships were over.
'MY OWN WAY'
"It was difficult getting started as a recording artist but those difficulties were nothing compared with the way I spent my youth.
“For my debut album, I accepted that I wasn’t going to get everything my own way. I was new in town and had to prove myself.”
Her breakthrough moment came in 1993 when she met the man she would marry by the end of that year (and subsequently divorce in 2010), South African producer Robert “Mutt” Lange.
He had worked with some of the biggest names in hard rock but became smitten with Shania and offered to write songs with her and produce her next album.
“Mutt and I connected immediately on a creative level,” she says. “When we first met and in our first conversations, I had no idea he had produced albums by artists that I was a huge fan of.
“I had worn those records out — Def Leppard, Foreigner, The Cars, Bryan Adams, AC/DC — the list goes on.
‘MUTT NURTURED ME’
“So I was already very much in tune with his sound and he was a fan of my voice. He loved its qualities.”
When they began working together, bingo! Songs started flowing like Any Man Of Mine, Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under? and the title track of their first album together, The Woman In Me (Needs The Man You).
“I felt Mutt recognised my potential. He nurtured and encouraged me,” says Shania.
“As he got to know me, he was moved by my sense of humour and my directness. He enjoyed the one-line lyrics I would throw at him. We complemented each other as writers, for sure.”
Looking back at events of 25 years ago, Shania pinpoints Any Man Of Mine, which turns into a riotous barn dance by its close, as the song that lit the blue touchpaper.
“It so well represented everything I was as an artist and the sound that would keep coming for years,” she says of the smash hit which remains a favourite of hers to perform live.
“The lyrics have the sassiness and sense of humour that were unique to my self-expression. And I intentionally tried to capture a female point of view and say it like it is.”
Back then, it was vital that artists like Shania picked up the baton from strong female voices in country such as Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton.
She says: “Those two were living in more of a man’s world than I am now. Men were much less accepting of the bold, outspoken woman.
“It was inspiring for me as a young girl to listen to them having such confidence in what they were doing.
“Dolly Parton sculpted herself like a Barbie doll and wore it with a smile. She was loud on the outside yet authentic and sincere on the inside. You couldn’t help but love her and you still can’t.”
Shania knew that Dolly-style kickass determination was a crucial factor in her trajectory.
‘NOSE TO THE GROUND’
“Once my career took off, it took off really fast,” she says. “But because I’d started so young and had been striving for that moment my whole life, I was prepared psychologically.
“Fame was new but I adapted super-fast to the workload and the demands.”
Because it was such a whirlwind, Shania is only just learning to appreciate those heady days. “I’m enjoying it more now because I was working so frigging hard just to get things going,” she says.
“Of course, I never expected one diamond album so three went way beyond what I could ever imagine. For a decade, I was nose to the ground — work, work, work, travel, travel, travel. I was tired half the time, getting on a plane, heading to my next schedule.
“Those years were tough but nothing great comes easy.”
I ask Shania why she pursued a career in country rather than rock, which her voice is equally suited to. Just listen to her belt out I’m Outta Here!.
“Well, there’s something really cool and sexy about old country,” she replies.
“It’s gritty and real and you’ve either got it or you haven’t.
“Waylon Jennings had it, Johnny Cash had it, Kris Kristofferson had it (and still has). The way they looked at life and the way they lived life, there was nothing repetitive or boring about it.
“Then I think of the difference between George Jones’s voice and Glen Campbell’s. No artist sounded alike. It was incredible.”
But with The Woman In Me doing so well, Shania pointed towards the pop charts on the next record, Come On Over, and the result was jaw-dropping global success.
To date, the album, with hits such as You’re Still The One, From This Moment On and That Don’t Impress Me Much has sold more than 40million copies and brings this response from Shania.
“I wasn’t expecting the next album to be even bigger,” she says. “But I put everything I had into Come On Over to ensure it would be a respectable follow-up.
“Also, I was prepared to travel and introduce my music to an international audience. It was very exciting to go beyond North America. I was very motivated and inspired by that. I was like, ‘I’m in and I can’t wait’.”
In 2002, the bandwagon kept rolling with the ambitious Up!, released in three different versions — pop/rock, country/acoustic and world music/dance — but things haven’t always been easy for Shania in the years since.
She went through a messy divorce after Mutt allegedly had an affair with her friend Marie-Anne Thiebaud. In a tale straight from a country song, she then married Marie-Anne’s ex Frederic.
Shania also contracted debilitating Lyme disease from being bitten by a tick while out riding.
The condition badly affected her vocal cords and she needed open throat surgery. “There was a long time when I thought I would never sing again,” she says.
But she persevered and returned with a new album, Now, in 2017 followed by a world tour and Las Vegas residencies.
In 2020, like the rest of us, her life in her adopted home of Switzerland has been hugely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It’s been difficult to know what to expect, so for the whole of lockdown, I’ve focused on songwriting,” she reports.
“It’s naturally a very isolating thing for me anyway, so I’ve taken advantage of the quiet time and written a lot of music.” Shania has taken other positives from this turbulent year.
“I’ve been reconnecting with family in a way that I’ve never had time to before,” she says. “I’ve appreciated spending time with them, eating longer meals, cooking more together, playing with the dogs.
“For me, life has slowed down a lot and I’m making the best of it. I’m literally smelling my roses more.”
After 25 years based in the central European country renowned for cuckoo clocks, army knives and melted cheese, she feels at home.
“I had my son Eja here and he’s 19 now,” she explains. “His life has been here, so I feel very much part of this end of the world.”
As for the future, Shania’s plans include a new studio album, a TV series and getting back on stage.
We know from The Woman In Me lyrics that she’ll be back on top: “But I win when I choose/And I can’t stand to lose.”
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