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Shania Twain's Personal Best

02 February 2023, 11:00
Words by Alan Pedder
Original Photography by Louie Banks

Shania Twain continues her winning streak with the celebratory Queen of Me. She talks to Alan Pedder about making a joyful noise and the evergreen anthems that made her a star.

There’s no keeping Shania Twain down. It’s hard to think of any other contemporary superstar who has had to endure so much hardship and betrayal and come out the other side with a smile and a kick in her high heels.

Pitch-perfect in its perkiness, her new album Queen of Me is not just an antidote to the anxiety of the pandemic years, it’s Twain’s carpe diem response to the voice injury that once threatened to end her singing career. “There’s so much to celebrate,” she tells me over the phone from LA, where she’s in the middle of a hectic promo schedule. “I was just trying to write songs that made me want to dance.”

Having bounced back from a 15-year near-silence with 2017’s Now, which returned her to the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, Twain swiftly re-established herself as a blue-ribbon popstar. A massively successful Las Vegas residency and a Netflix documentary followed, paving the way for a new era of sequined self-affirmation.


Out tomorrow, Queen of Me has none of Now’s darker emotional shading, which touched on Twain’s vulnerability in the wake of her voice troubles and painful divorce from creative partner ‘Mutt’ Lange. Written during the early days of the pandemic, it’s an album designed to distract from rather than confront the real world. Even when she does allude to the world beyond her bubble, as on the pandemic-inspired “Inhale / Exhale Air”, it’s delivered sunny side up and with an easy clarity that these past few years have lacked.

And, honestly, isn’t that what the world needs from Shania Twain at this moment? She certainly seems to think so. And with a huge international tour planned for the rest of the year, she’s committed to bringing her medicinal joie de vivre to as many people as possible.

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“I haven’t gone on tour with this new voice yet,” she says, referring to the laryngeal reconstruction surgeries that has given her singing an appealing sense of gravity and spice. “I’m really looking forward to getting out there and expressing myself because it was just so scary thinking it may never happen again.”

For her Personal Best, Twain understandably wants to talk about the person and the singer she’s become against some pretty hefty odds. But she still has a lot of love for the songs of her past – the ones that transformed her from a forestry worker in northern Ontario into one of the world’s most enduring and undeniable popstars. Here are five of her favourites.

"Any Man of Mine" (1995)

SHANIA TWAIN: This was really the country song that launched me into what would become a very pop career. It’s such a rocky track but with a country stomp, a true hybrid song, and it had all the attitude that I would continue to put into the music I was writing.

I was putting my foot down, putting all that sass into the lyrics. I guess you could say that I sort of stamped a quintessential Shania mark on it.

BEST FIT: Right. And I don't think country radio had really heard anything like it before. It created quite a stir.

I wanted “Any Man of Mine” to be the first single from The Woman in Me, because to me that was really coming in, kicking the door down and saying, ‘This is a new sound for the genre,’ and I was excited about it.

But on my radio visits, when I would go in person, people’s responses to the song were quite interesting. They were taken aback by it. They didn’t really know what to think of it. Even if they were tapping their foot to it, the lyrics made them anxious about playing it.

That’s why we ended up going with “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under” as the first single, because it’s a more typically country song. We wanted to sort of ease people in to “Any Man of Mine”.

But, you know, it was inevitably going to be heard, and I think “Any Man of Mine” made country radio listeners excited. They were excited about hearing something fresh, something driving and confident.

You'd had a disappointing experience with your first, self-titled record, which you had little creative control over. When this song blew up, it must have felt like some kind of justification for all your hard work and your sacrifices. Do you remember any particular moment when it felt like your time had finally come?

Well, I probably spent more time worrying about whether it would be accepted at all. Even though I felt like I’d found my writing groove once I got into the studio with Mutt, because he was so appreciative of what I was doing, there was a lot of uncertainty whether it would be accepted or whether I would just be closed down right off the bat.

Mutt was very pumped about the way I wrote, about my thinking and my phrasing, so as co-writers we were really thriving. He was putting in this rock edge to my country songs, and I was confident that going in this direction was really where I belonged. But it was difficult. There was a lot of insecurity that went with it too.

Even playing the songs to my label head was hard. I didn’t know what he was going to think because it was so very, very different. It was a unique stance that was nowhere in country at that moment. I thought maybe I might even get dropped from the label. I mean, what if they didn’t know what to do with these songs, or where they might fit?

So I was very lucky to have the label that I did, and we were at least able to get it to radio meekly. Very meekly. Because it was a struggle, I’m telling you! Those faces I got when I was visiting those radio stations! It was tough.

I mean, some of them were very polite. They would say, ‘Wow, it really sounds great but we could never play it. There’s no way our fans are gonna want to listen to this.’ Then a little bit later they’d say, ‘Okay, we’ll play it one time and if we get callbacks we’ll go from there, otherwise you’re on your own.’

Thankfully, the fans did call back. They loved the song, and it was almost like it became this instant success once that little trickle of airplay began.

It was an ugly time in the ‘90s. Whenever there was a successful woman, there was always a cabal of people, mostly men, trying to shut her down. You were accused of being manufactured, and there was some ridiculous controversy about you showing your stomach in your videos. How did you deal with those swipes at you?

It's so true. It was nonstop, definitely. To some people in the industry, I was manufactured for sure. And I think it was only recently, after the documentary, that a lot of people actually realised that wasn’t true and that the record was way overdue to be set straight.

At the time, while all that was happening, I didn’t waste my time to try and change people’s minds. It just felt like a waste of energy and effort. I wanted to be focused on the music. I had so much work to do. I didn’t want to spend my interview time defending myself. I wanted to talk about the music, about creativity, and about what was next.

I tried to just avoid those questions and move on from them, to be honest. To just let them roll of my back. It felt like it would bog me down otherwise, because it was pretty relentless. I’m not really sure why I didn’t take it personally. I guess just because I knew it wasn’t the truth.

Cover of the 1995 Shania Twain album The Woman in Me

"Man! I Feel Like A Woman!" (1997)

BEST FIT: I think it says a lot about how incredible the songwriting was on Come On Over that this song was not a lead single, but the 7th single to be released from the album. Did you know it was a hit when you wrote it?

SHANIA TWAIN: I didn't, but I believe that Mutt did. I was just throwing out a bunch of lines, because the song was kind of already structured before the lyrics were there – there was already a groove and some chord progressions – and the line “Man, I feel like a woman” just came out. Exactly the way it is on the record.

That was it for Mutt. We didn’t need to look any further than that. That was the statement we needed, and I remember he was very excited about it. From there, the song was very easy to build, because that statement said it all.

You've said that the song was partly inspired by the drag queens who performed at the resort where you were working. Can you talk a bit more about what that inspiration looked like?

Well, when I was younger, I very much pushed back on growing into my woman-body. I didn't embrace it until much later because I was just really shy about it. I preferred playing sports and not having to worry about my body, so to me it just really felt cringy growing into being a woman.

There are many layers to it. But at Deerhurst, where I was working, I did start to wear high heels and makeup and fitted clothing, and that was totally new to me. It was the beginning of appreciating – not that I had a choice – that okay, I’m a woman and I have curves.

I would go to gay clubs with my gay friends and they were so expressive about how they wore clothing. They were just so unapologetic and I kind of envied that. I envied the joy they had in just being so free.

It was a very liberating thing to see because I still hadn’t really come into loving being in my own body at the time. That didn’t come until I started making music videos, and then it really kicked in. The joy of being able to use clothing to enhance your assets and to maybe hide the things that you don’t love so much about yourself. That was when my love of fashion really started to grow.

It's such a contrast to go from working in forestry to vamping around in leopard print.

It’s a crazy contrast. I mean, obviously I’m still the same person and I don’t relate only to the extremes. I enjoy the extremes for what they are. They’re still a part of who I am. I think there’s a place for all of it in my life.

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"You're Still the One" (1997)

SHANIA TWAIN: This one came out of me writing songs in my living room, just sitting around doing my typical kind of folky singer/songwriter stuff.

We were actually working on a different album at the time, but Mutt was always interested in hearing what I was doing while writing. I was just singing the song around and around and then he pitched in with the pre-vocal part. And it was written in a very short period of time. I think I probably finished it that same day.

I think the biggest value of “You’re Still the One” is that it’s become the people’s song. Because it no longer applies to Mutt and I. With songwriting, I think a lot of the time you have to sort of let your original meanings go, because the meaning of a song can evolve so much once it’s out there. Once you give it to the public, they make it their own. They have their own reasons for loving it.

BEST FIT: In your memoir, I remember you talked a bit about the song in relation to your mother and your stepfather and their relationship. So even for you yourself, it’s been reframed in a different way.

Absolutely. It’s just about everlasting love, isn’t it? It doesn’t even really matter what the relationship is. It's actually a very simple song, but it's turned out to be a very powerful one.

It’s lore that this song could have been #1 in the US but was held back because there were not enough copies of the single pressed in time. Is that true? What are your memories of chasing that success?

I do actually believe that happened. The charts can be a little deceiving because it's happened to quite a few of my songs, in fact. There was a lot of confusion at the time because it was a fairly new thing, for a country artist especially, to be releasing across multiple genres and multiple continents.

I did feel that a lot of the time we were chasing the success of the album, and we had to try and keep up with that. It was quite exciting, but I think it's true that we did have a hard time. It was not something that the label was probably expecting would happen so quickly.

Cover of the international version of the 1997 Shania Twain album Come On Over

"Inhale / Exhale Air" (2023)

BEST FIT: This is a song from your new album that people haven’t heard yet. Can you talk a bit about why you’ve chosen this one?

SHANIA TWAIN: Well, “Inhale / Exhale Air” is really the most inspired song on the album, for me personally. I’m asthmatic and I already need help getting the right amount of air, so I was really concerned about getting Covid. And eventually it happened, and I did end up with a really bad bout of Covid pneumonia, and I was at risk of losing my life to it.

When I got out of the hospital, it was such a strange feeling, fully realising how crucial air is. It sounds ridiculous but I was like, well, I’ll take any air I can get, regardless of the quality. You know, I started to really look at things in a different way.

I’d seen this very short video of a religious man talking about breathing, taking deep breaths in and long exhales out, sort of yoga style. He would do it over and over again and I was weirdly compelled by it. I was thinking about it in relation to myself and how I just had to breathe in and out and really enjoy being alive in the moment. And then there’s a bit in the video where he says, “What are you going to do with it? What are you going to do with that air?" And I thought, ‘Yeah, exactly!’

I think the timing of seeing that video was just so intense for me, and it really got me inspired and motivated to write. I said, ‘Okay, I want to write a list of everything that people take for granted about air.’ Some of the simple but beautiful things. Things like flying a balloon or the bubbles in champagne. And obviously, being able to live life itself. All these things we couldn’t do without air.

I just love the way the song turned out. It’s so celebratory, so happy, so joyous. And it's absolutely one of my favourites.

Cover of the 2023 Shania Twain album Queen of Me

"Last Day of Summer" (2023)

SHANIA TWAIN: This is just the type of song that I could write every day of my life. It belongs in the same category as “Forever and For Always” and “You're Still the One” ­– it's just one of those folky ballads that I love to write all day long.

I just love the way the words came out. It's a very sweet story, very reflective of my own feelings of that ironic and desperate moment at the end of summer when you're just falling in love with someone and then all of a sudden everybody has to go because summer's over.

BEST FIT: Is it based on a real experience of yours?

I mean, I've had that feeling so many times. Even with friendships. Like, you meet someone and you think they’re the most wonderful person, your new best friend, and then suddenly you may never see each other again.

It’s also about that feeling of looking back and thinking about people you’ve known in the past and wondering where they went and what they did with their life. It gave me a very easy, peaceful feeling to write this song. Listening back to it, I think the recording did it a lot of justice. [Producer] Mark Ralph did a fabulous job with it.

I love the deeper tone and richness you have to your voice in this song, and on Queen of Me in general. I know you've had a lot of struggles with your voice over the years, but listening back to the record now how are you feeling about it?

Well, I'm still discovering it every day right now. And I'm really loving it. When I listen back to the album, I'm hearing things that I really want to explore more in my voice. You know, the operation I had was not that long ago, so I'm still adjusting to this voice. In the studio and on stage.

I do use my voice differently now. That's a key thing to say. I guess it’s like when you have any physical setback. Like if you injure your finger and you have to play the piano differently. The anatomy is impaired.

The fabulous news, the best news, is that it’s my laryngeal anatomy that’s impaired and not the vocal cords. But the bad news is that the structures that I have now in my larynx may not last forever. So I’m taking advantage of it and enjoying it while I have it. So this tour is going to be especially celebratory.

And I hear you already have another three albums worth of songs ready to dive into when the tour is over. So maybe it won’t be another 6 years before the next record.

Yes, exactly! I have to get to those albums. I’m quite anxious about it!

Cover of the 2023 Shania Twain album Queen of Me

Queen of Me is released 3 February via Republic Records.

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