“My Education Was in a Bar”: Shania Twain on Childhood, Fame, Divorce and Survival | country
“What’s your favorite track?” Shania Twain asks about her new album and talks to me on a video call from her home in Switzerland. She has a strange accessibility, like you already know, and not just because she’s been famous for a long time. Even in her somewhat vaudevillian years, she had those kind, straight eyes that now, at 57, she’s not trying to hide.
My favorite track on Queen of Me since you ask is the first one, Giddy Up!, although I’m not sure that’s the right answer as it’s light, playful and not the crunchiest. She seems to agree: “It was my advice song, you know? It’s a silly way of saying, “Put a little pep in your step, shake up your life, you know, shake up your wits.” He really has a country swagger and attitude, for sure.”
That was always the problem with Twain. Usually when music tells you to cheer yourself up, love yourself, or feel empowered, it’s superficial or simplistic. But Twain takes the adversity of living with deadly seriousness. Even in the 90s, after her showgirl, pop-crossover persona, all midriffs and hats, it was a somber resilience.
“Giddy Up”… Giddy Up! is the second single from Queen of Me.
Queen of Me is only her sixth studio album, which is surprising given the length of her career (spanning from when she started singing in bars as a child, spanning five decades) and profile (she is the best selling female artist). in the history of country music). There’s a sweet line in last year’s Netflix documentary Not Just a Girl about her manager Jon Landau saying he “left a lot of money on the table.” He spoke about her decision not to tour after her second album and international breakthrough, The Woman in Me. “The tour was only postponed for creative reasons,” she says. “I had to create something, and I was never going to go back on stage to do covers, which I had done all my life unless I did it voluntarily.”
This feels typical of how she approaches her career and probably her life: She only speaks when she has something to say. “I don’t do many albums. I’m definitely not one of those artists or thinkers who makes a lot of it and I hope some of it resonates,” she says. “Especially with this album I felt more comfortable in my own skin and experimented a bit more. I’m just in a less forgiving place in my life. And I think that allows me to worry less, you know?”
She went on a long hiatus in 2003 after her voice inexplicably deteriorated. It wasn’t until nine years later, when she began her first residency in Las Vegas, that problems with her voice were linked to a diagnosis of Lyme disease. “The funny thing is – and I have to laugh at myself as a singer – it hits the nerves in my vocal cords. It’s ironic, but I still feel lucky because it was able to hit my organs.” The surgery fixed the problem, but her voice was different: “It’s definitely deeper and more rasper now, but there don’t seem to be any new features.”
At the 2019 American Music Awards. Photo credit: Emma McIntyre/AMA/Getty Images for DCP
To understand the importance of these vocal chords, one has to travel to Ontario in the seventies. Twain lived with her mother, her father—whom she always refers to as her father, as she had not been in contact with her biological father since she was two years old—two brothers and two sisters. Her mother was “a huge, big supporter,” she says, but it’s a little more complicated: “I was her hope, the one who was going to do it. I think she recognized the dysfunction in our lives and figured that side would eventually reveal itself. She also loved me as a mother, but she was very, very passionate about my talent. In terms of economic status, I couldn’t afford to go to a performing arts school – my education was in a bar.”
In fact, they couldn’t even afford to go to the bar with her – her father worked in reforestation and her mother earned very little, struggling with depression and with five children. “Filling up the car to go to a bar so I could sing” was a constant source of conflict between her parents, Twain recalls. “It created a lot of tension and a lot of arguments between them. I didn’t enjoy it like that when I was young, being caught in the middle.” She stops. “I hate it. They wanted success for me, but they just couldn’t afford it. Often money is the root of domestic violence, and this was the case with us.”
Her father also sexually abused her since she was 10 years old; she recently spoke publicly about it. She never had a chance to confront him because he and her mother died in a car accident in 1987 when she was 22 years old.
It is a complicated picture, but we are sorry that none of them could see its success. She was named Entertainer of the Year by the Country Music Association in 1999, becoming the first non-American to receive the award. But she had consistently won album and song awards since 1996, from the CMA and the American Music Awards.
Performed at the Super Bowl halftime show in 2003. Photo: Kevin Mazur/WireImage
“When I first started winning awards, what bothered me the most was that my parents weren’t there to see the fame. Because I felt they sacrificed a lot. And they deserve to be part of those moments,” she says. “It was a traditional relationship for all of us anyway. The sacrifice on her part was only suffering through all these arguments. And finally I do it and they won’t be there to say, ‘Well, at least it was for something.’ It is very painful. It’s very sad that they never got a moment of it.”
As a child, she was so dedicated to her performances that she talks about the stress of bar singing like it was yesterday. “You can’t afford a monitor system good enough to support your hearing, so you sing too much — that’s bar singer syndrome. It’s exhausting your voice.”
She also battled stage fright for years, although she always looked like she was having the time of her life. “Actually, I’ve kind of gone around a curve lately. There are many scars. Stage fright is a very devastating experience, a terrible and panicky feeling. But now that I’ve gone from “I may never sing again” to where I am, I’m like, “If I hit a bad note this moment, I’m going to carry this scar as a flag of survival.” So I feel triumphant. It’s like the lion that can roar again.”
After her parents died, Twain returned to Ontario to care for her siblings and supported them by singing at a resort. It wasn’t until six years later that she made Nashville. “I wasn’t prepared for it to be such a man’s world,” she says.
One way Twain felt original in the ’90s was that she broke the country’s gender rules. Male stars could sing about anything — drinking meth and accidentally running over his wife, then shooting a dog and then crying over the dog — while women were expected to be innocent, chaste and sexy but divine. It was less a double standard and more a wild disproportion – and Twain dismissed it. “My craft was good because I was only focused on proving myself as an artist, not as a woman, and that’s a very big difference. But I was very surprised by it. When I heard songs like Man! I Feel Like a Woman!, which grew out of that early phase in Nashville and even out of my bar phase.”
This album makes me feel more comfortable in my own skin. I’m just in a less forgiving place in my life
Breaking into the mainstream exposed common sexism. In 1993 she met, fell in love, worked with and married acclaimed rock producer Mutt Lange. In 1995 she released The Woman in Me, the first of her three consecutive albums to sell at least 10 million copies in the United States. She was the first artist to do this.
In early interviews she was treated like a pretty face with a Svengali behind her. In fact, she has been writing her own songs since she was 10 years old, while collaborating with Lange was just that. She laughs about it now, but she didn’t laugh then. “In many of these cases, I must have faced my surprise. It was my job to share my involvement in those interviews, but I felt uncomfortable doing it because I thought, ‘Am I just going to be defensive? Why should I be showing up for myself?’ So I finally came to the conclusion, ‘Think what you want,’ because the alternative was exhausting: trying to validate myself when all I wanted to do was write more songs.”
She and Lange moved to Switzerland in the late 1990s. “I was starting to be famous and I loved my alone time. I wanted to live somewhere where I could forget who I was. Pretty much nowhere else would I be recognized or approached. And it’s hard to forget that you’re not actually on stage, and that puts you in a strange mood. I just wanted to live like a normal person.” The couple had a son, Eja, in 2001 and divorced in 2010, allegedly because of his relationship with her best friend. In 2011, she married her friend’s husband, Frédéric Thiébaud.
She speaks generously of Lange, careful not to belittle or belittle the time they had or the work they did together. “We really recognize him as one of the greats. With or without a personal life, there is nothing bad to say about the incredible music that has been created. He was an important part of history – not as an ex-husband, as an ex-musician.”
Man! I feel like a woman! it was a Top 10 hit in six countries and won a Grammy in 2000.
She goes back on that sentence a number of times. “You can’t have one without the other. That was the sad part. Even though I can obviously separate them in my mind, the songs are as much from him as from me. Knowing that we’ll never make music together again… that’s a shame, I think, musically, creatively.”
She is paralyzed by her own justice: determined to give Lange his due without misrepresenting her feelings towards him.
She remains crazy about her friend, but to find out, you have to listen to her fifth album, Now, which was released in 2017. “One of my favorite albums, I think. I was just a freelance writer again. I learned to have fun again and write songs from a deeper place in my heart. It was very cathartic and very necessary.”
The anger ballad will never be her scene, however, and Queen of Me is more faithful to Twain’s form. “It’s very deceptive, and that’s by design. He is more playful than ever. I can write really sad songs, but do my fans really want to hear sad songs from me?”
On the one hand, her fans take everything she gives them. On the other hand, since Man! I feel like a woman! she knew what would make something universally delightful – and that is her inclination. “It just became everyone’s song. It’s kind of a bridge song, a unifier. I talked about myself and it was real. Then it resonated with everyone: men, women, children. I think the LGBTQ+ community sees this song as one of their celebratory songs. It is very touching for me. It hits because it is so inclusive.”
Queen of Me will be released on February 3rd. Twain tours the UK and Ireland in September