The radical self-empowerment of Shania Twain | The Coast Halifax

The radical self-empowerment of Shania Twain

On new music, self-love and how the country-pop icon found her voice again.

Twain's had resistance from country music traditionalists in her career, but she says "I was being true to myself, and I think the fans understood that."

The skin was important. A diagonal line from collarbone to thigh. And to be braless underneath an open, semi-sheer black shirt. Then, the posture: confident, at ease. It’s symbolic, all of it. She wanted a visual that was self-empowering, something that depicted the vulnerability, the responsibility, the very statement of being comfortable in your own skin. After all: that’s what this was about.

Shania Twain Queen of Me tour
Monday, June 12 in Halifax
Scotiabank Centre, 1800 Argyle Street
Tickets available from $200.95

Queen of Me. Shania Twain’s expression is serene as she contemplates the cover artwork of her new album—the portrait of her, with all its layers, its immensity and intention. “It represents challenge, and overcoming the challenges and doing it with confidence—or finding confidence on the other side of it,” she says, thoughtfully, after a few seconds, speaking from her home in Geneva, Switzerland. “I’m in a really good place, in that sense. And I think that capturing it in the photo was very important.”

This is the first record Twain has released since having open-throat surgery in 2018 to reinforce her vocal cords, nerve-damaged from contracting Lyme disease over a decade earlier. She had been slowly losing her voice, the signature soprano-contralto, that, with consecutive Diamond-certified records The Woman in Me, Come On Over, and Up!, had made her one of the best-selling artists of all time. On Queen of Me, a celebratory collection of songs full of verve and self-love, she found it again.

click to enlarge The radical self-empowerment of Shania Twain (3)
Album art
On the cover of Queen of Me, Twain wanted to make a statement about being comfortable in your own skin.

A longtime resident of Geneva, Twain moved there in the late ‘90s, reportedly as a respite from fame. She is looking relaxed on our Zoom call, wearing a white T-shirt and jean jacket, and there is recording equipment in the background. Twain was still in Las Vegas for her Let’s Go! residency at Planet Hollywood’s Zappos Theater when the world shut down. The songs that would make up Queen of Me poured out right away, and all the way through the lockdowns, as she retreated to Canada for a while. Writing, and her approach to it, worked as an exercise of well-being in the face of the pandemic and everything happening with her voice, which collided with a terrifying bout of COVID-related pneumonia.

“I ended up, really, writing this album to save my own frame of mind, and to write things that were taking charge of my mood,” Twain says. “That meant lifting my spirits, putting some up ‘in my giddy.’ Just finding that optimism and really holding myself responsible for my frame of mind. So, I started writing lyrics that made me smile and laugh, and melodies and rhythms that made me want to dance. And it worked. It was this fabulous therapy that ended up becoming my happy album.”

A glimpse into Twain’s mindset can be seen in her 2022 Netflix documentary, Not Just a Girl. There’s a particular scene towards the end where she’s in a boat on the water, eyes closed, acoustic guitar in her lap, softly singing a few lines of the title track’s chorus: “I’m not a girl/I’m not a boy/I’m not a baby/I’m not a toy/I’m a queen.” It’s a quietly profound moment that shows just how much the release of these words relieve the weight they carry.

“I really mean all the lyrics on this album, and they're very personal in a self-searching kind of way,” Twain says. “And then, in that search, you've got to come to the conclusion that you have conviction in being your own boss. No one can put you in that position. I don't think you can even talk yourself into that. You just really have to live it and feel it. But because there's a lot of responsibility that comes with it, that means the good, the bad, and just taking the ownership of how you're going to live your life, what you represent, and your own self-value.”

There has always been a resilience to Twain’s songwriting. It comes from the nature of her spirit. She had a difficult upbringing in Timmins, Ont., which included singing in bars as a child to help support her family, and taking care of her siblings after her parents died in a car accident in 1987.

“I turn to music to sometimes escape challenging things in my life, or to just find peace,” Twain says. “I let my imagination go. It's an uninhibited environment.”

Queen of Me’s electro-pop banger “Waking Up Dreaming” perfectly explains it, she offers. Music pulls her out of wherever she is and returns her feeling better, rejuvenated.

“I've always turned to songwriting for that,” Twain continues. “It's a great escape. It's another world. And it allows me to express things that maybe I wouldn’t, because I'm just talking to myself in that moment. I’m just literally talking out loud half the time. I'm singing out loud. I'm laughing out loud. I'm entertaining myself and having fun. Whether I even make songs out of some of this stuff is not even important some of the time. Sometimes it's just the therapy of it that is so freeing and so, I guess, cathartic.”

When she was growing up, Twain listened to all kinds of music, gravitating to country and rock. She was particularly attracted to strong female artists who made room for themselves. She loved Heart and Pat Benatar. And Dolly Parton—“Amazing songwriter. Beautiful singer. Incredible musician. A very profound person.”—was a big inspiration.

“She was a great mentor for me, even without me ever knowing her in my own development as a kid,” Twain says. “And I admired her confidence of getting out there and not compromising her aesthetics for the sake of her art. She didn't allow herself to be intimidated by not being taken as seriously for her actual art because of her taste in style and fashion and beauty. I admire her for that: for standing up, for being bold, and everything that she was, all at one time.”

Like Parton, a feminist thread has run through Twain’s career, driven not only by her determination and artistic vision, but by the fearless way she blazed trails in a sexist music industry. Before breaking through in 1995 with The Woman in Me, Twain released her self-titled studio debut in 1993—and while she has expressed frustration at how little creative control she had on it, what she did have control over was her look.

The music video for her first single, “What Made You Say That,” shows her flirting with a cute guy on Miami Beach. She’s wearing a cropped top, no bra, with her midriff showing. Modest as it sounds now, it was a watershed moment. As Twain puts it in her documentary, she was a disruption to the image of country music—and it turned Nashville on its head.

“Nobody really knew how I was going to materialize the song, visually. And I'm not sure I really did either, until I got there,” Twain admits, adding that Mercury Records gave her a small budget and sent her to the department store to pick out a few things to wear. “I just gravitated to what I felt good performing in. It was the first time I realized that, by stepping into a visual creative space, I could leave my shyness behind and…”

Twain pauses. “I guess it's more than shy. I was just insecure about being a woman,” she continues. “I was wearing two bras, not no bra. And so, when I got in front of the camera and I was getting into this creative, liberated space, I just said, ‘Forget the bra altogether!’” She laughs. “So, when that image came back to the label, they were like, ‘This is not what we were expecting.’ But I’d found myself at that moment. And I realized that, like songwriting, it was a creative space, and I could start to see where my visual extension was the first song that I wrote.”

Twain got resistance from the industry, of course. CMT even banned the video. Country music had become increasingly conservative and the media was, as recent cultural reckonings have highlighted, generally awful to women in the ‘90s. But the fans loved her.

“I was being true to myself, and I think the fans understood that. I was just being me, like Dolly was being her. She wasn't anything of the country music mold that I grew up listening to and watching. She broke that mold wide open. And I felt that I had the right to do the same thing. She gave me the courage to do that. And then I found that expression and freedom the minute I had control of it, and I just ran with it.”

Twain grins. “Oh, yeah. I felt like a naughty child when they saw the footage. And I enjoyed it. It was good. It was good for me. I was very lucky to have that freedom. I just don't think they took it that seriously.”

Twain continued to be the artistic director and editor for all her music videos. It went hand-in-hand with the boundaries she was pushing with her music, as she combined the genres she always loved, blending country sensibilities with unforgettable pop hooks and rock and roll guitar, underscoring it all with sensuality and confidence. Nobody had done it like Twain before. She found a like-minded collaborator in producer and her now ex-husband Robert John “Mutt” Lange (AC/DC, Def Leppard), and forever redefined both pop and country music with The Woman in Me and 1997’s Come On Over—the latter of which cemented her as a crossover artist and remains the biggest-selling studio album by a solo female artist to this day.

Come On Over dominated the charts and airwaves for three whole years, yielding back-to-back hits like “Don’t Be Stupid (You Know I Love You),” “You’re Still the One,” “From This Moment On,” and “That Don’t Impress Me Much.” The enormous success paved the way for future female crossover stars, like The Chicks and Taylor Swift. Twain was smashing the patriarchy with style and having fun doing it. And perhaps nothing exemplified it best than “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!”

With its clever title, opening blows of brass, and Twain’s call to the masses—“Let’s go girls!”—the song itself stands as a rally for liberation: a woman taking charge, leaving inhibitions behind, not asking for permission from anyone.

“It was very much just my own independent thinking,” Twain notes. And then, the music video: Twain in a top hat, bustier, tie, trench coat—a look designed by frequent collaborator Marc Bouwer—and backed by her mannequin-like man-band, playfully subverting gender and riffing on Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love.” It immediately became a touchstone of the zeitgeist, and has since transcended as one of the most iconic moments in modern pop culture history—and an anthem for all.

“I’m only now feeling the respect from a lot of people for what I really actually did and what I really meant to my own career.”

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“It was less about fashion than it was about this hybrid thing to wear and to represent,” Twain says, adding, “It was all so fun. It was really quite a statement. I didn't realize how impactful it would be.”

Despite all her achievements, Twain never felt a movement of the boundaries that she was pushing so hard against. Not until much later.

“I’m only now feeling the respect from a lot of people for what I really actually did and what I really meant to my own career, and the roles that I played,” she says. “At the time, I kind of accepted that I knew I wouldn't get that respect. I never knew that I would eventually get it. I'm glad I did, but, at the time, I just didn't let it bother me. I carried on just being the best that I could be. And I had an advantage to my determination because I really had nothing to lose.

“I had nothing to go back home to, you know?” she continues. “Nothing. My parents were gone. I had no financial support system. I had no back-up. And I'd also learned to be fearless. I was going to make it work, no matter what. I think when you've got nothing to lose, you just go for it.”

click to enlarge The radical self-empowerment of Shania Twain
Louie Banks
Twain giving more being-comfortable-in-your-own-skin for the single "Waking Up Dreaming," an electro-pop banger.

Twain’s voice is more dramatic now. It’s still undeniably Shania. It soars in new directions, with the inflections and phrasing that always characterized her vocal identity very much intact. It took her a while to get there, years before doctors figured out that Lyme was the cause of her dysphonia. Twain thought it was over, she admits, that she’d never have a singing career again. It was devastating. She could only dabble in her instrument, not sustain it. In 2002, after touring in support of Up!, she went on indefinite hiatus.

“What I did to get through that—that grief, while I didn't know how to get it back or even what was really wrong with it—was I was a new mother, and I was so enjoying that,” she recalls, referring to her son, Eja, now 21. “And it was, in a way, now the silver lining, because I just indulged in parenting. And it was such a blessing. I got to enjoy being a mom. I was able to raise my son in normalcy, so his most impressionable years were, you know, mom taking him to school, picking him up. Lots of time together.”

Once Eja was older, the reality of losing her voice hit Twain harder. She began rehabilitation and seeing specialists, strengthening her voice enough to release Now in 2017. She eventually saw a neurosurgeon who, while acknowledging that her condition is incurable, suggested an uncommon procedure that would at least help stabilize her vocal chords.

“I took the chance,” Twain says. “I jumped in, I faced the fear, and did it. And it worked. I don't know how long it will last. I know that it may not last forever. It's been explained that way—because the anatomy is what it is, and it could give again. But I'm going to make the most of it and make records that I love and sing on stage. And all the more reason to make a happy record.”

Queen of Me showcases Twain’s remarkable capacity for processing pain into power, tragedy into triumph. It beams through the ebullient soundscape in playful couplets that feel like affirmations—hard-won and feel-good wisdom that Twain wants to share with the rest of the world.

On the spirited “Inhale/Exhale AIR,” for example: “What you gonna do with that air?/Get up, you can stand, put your hands in it.” Written in response to Twain’s experience with pneumonia, while also feeling symbolic of what she’s endured with her health, the lines reference air’s life-giving force and offer encouragement to embrace it all while you can.

Then there’s “Waking Up Dreaming,” with, "Every moment holding you is a moment stolen/Gotta be now or never, time ain't waitin' forever.” And “Giddy Up!”—a punchy stomp that winks at Twain’s affinity for punctuation—where she sings, “Smiles for miles, all upon my face/Wear it, share it, ‘cause we ain't got time to waste.”

“I feel like I've accomplished this new frame of mind that is really, really empowering and very liberating as a human being, as a person that is, of course, imperfect,” she says. “But I don't hate myself for being imperfect. And that was a really big sentiment going into this whole album experience.”

A lot of realizations came with age, Twain adds. Now, she feels more unapologetic than ever. “Why did I wait so long to look in the mirror and go, 'Wow, okay: I’m not perfect, but this is me and I better start loving it now?’ What am I waiting for? What am I wasting time for, not liking myself or wanting things to be different all the time?”

The key, she notes, is understanding that the strength, the resolve, comes from within. And, even when it’s hard, we must remind ourselves that it’s always there.

“You are in charge of how powerful you are. Only you. It's not given to you. Your self power is not given to you from society, from parents, from legislation. You give it to yourself. And you have to believe that it's there, that you have it, first of all. And that's why I wrote the song ‘Queen of Me.’ I'm not the queen of anyone else.”

Twain smiles. “Just myself.”

This story first appeared in The Georgia Straight, The Coast's Vancouver-based sibling publication, in April before Twain played on the west coast.