Sitting in front of a fireplace for a video interview, Shania Twain holds an agitated Pomeranian in her arms. “She’s growling at my husband, who is standing too close,” the singer explains. Which sounds about right.
It is her second husband, Frédéric Thiébaud, who is just off camera in their Las Vegas home. They first coupled in 2009 after Twain discovered that Mutt Lange, her long-time first husband and hit-making musical collaborator, had been carrying on an affair – with Thiébaud’s wife. It’s complicated.
All to say, if you want a songwriting uber producer, get yourself a Mutt. But if you want someone to look out for you, buy a dog.
Twenty-eight years after scoring her first country radio hit with Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under? (ironically a cheeky co-write with Lange on fictional infidelities), the pride of Timmins, Ont., has reached a place of security.
Her just-out new LP is Queen of Me, complete with a title track that declares independence despite her marriage (”I don’t need a king”). The 57-year-old country music icon is newly signed to a new record label, Republic Nashville, and has said that she is “honoured and excited” to be the label’s first artist.
A 76-date world tour beginning in April includes concerts at London’s O2 Arena, the Hollywood Bowl, New York’s Madison Square Garden and more than two dozen shows in 12 Canadian cities. It is Twain’s first outing on the road since her supposed “farewell” tour of 2015.
Released last fall, the video for the new album’s lead single Waking Up Dreaming finds a bewigged Twain in glam-rock garb suggesting we “dress up crazy like superstars.” She herself admits to being a daydream believer with rock-star aspirations. Of course, that doesn’t make any sense – Twain is a rockstar.
I suggest to her that pie-in-sky wishing is best left to hopeless people like me, and that she could perhaps instead fantasize about being something else – say, a music journalist.
“Well, the song is really about me inspiring others to wake up feeling like a rock star,” she says with a laugh. “It’s a great, liberating thing to imagine, but maybe not so much in real life.”
Point taken. Not all that glitters is a gold record, and Twain’s career has had downs as well as ups. Some things are better in fantasy than in reality. To paraphrase Bob Dylan’s Talkin’ World War III Blues: “I‘ll let you be in my daydreams if I can be in yours.”
A singer you will recognize, but a sound and voice you might not
The first track of Queen of Me is Giddy Up!, an extroverted song with the kind of wordplay that Twain fans will recognize. It is “giddy up” in the horsey, let’s-go sense, and “giddy” in the joyfully elated sense – let’s have fun. What might not be as familiar to listeners – especially those who lost track of Twain in the hiatus years between albums released in 2002 and 2017 – is the singer’s vocals. The timbre has changed from a once bright, velvety soprano to something a little hoarse.
“I’m good with it now,” Twain says. “I’ve come to terms with the elements of my voice that may always be different.”
Her singing has not been the same since a bout with Lyme disease in the early 2000s. She had throat surgery, but that her voice hasn’t fully come back is evident even when she speaks. Still, diminished vocals or not, Twain has made much progress, mentally as much as physically.
“I actually like listening to myself on the microphone,” she says. “There was a time I didn’t want to hear myself. I didn’t sing anything out loud, even if I was alone. I just couldn’t bear it.”
While her singing is cloaked in vocal filters on the new record, the vocals are upfront in the mix – hiding in plain sight. The album has a hypermodern production aesthetic, with cutting-edge beats and sonics. Hank Williams wouldn’t recognize it as country (outside of the genre’s typical relatable, conversational lyrics), and maybe Miranda Lambert wouldn’t either.
“I enjoyed experimenting and going into areas where I haven’t been before,” Twain says. “Every producer has his own way of doing things.”
It is worth noting that even a female-empowering artist such as Twain attaches a male pronoun to the role of producer. Men overwhelmingly outnumber women in that profession. It is even more interesting that the three guys she shares production credits with on the London-recorded Queen of Me do not typically work in the country genre. Mark Ralph is a Brit-pop producer, David Stewart is a British songwriter and the American Tyler Joseph is one half of the Grammy-winning pop duo Twenty One Pilots.
But then, Twain has never particularly obeyed Nashville norms. Her biggest-selling albums (1995′s The Woman in Me, 1997′s Come on Over and 2002′s Up!) were produced and co-written by Lange, the South African-born svengali who first made his name working with the likes of AC/DC, Bryan Adams, Foreigner, Def Leppard and the Boomtown Rats. The 1997 single You’re Still the One sounds more like Janet Jackson than Alan Jackson, and the crossover blockbuster Man! I Feel Like a Woman! works for line dancers and burlesque dancers both.
“If it were up to me, there would be no genre divide,” says Twain, who began singing Top 40 hits in bars as a kid and who last year performed with Harry Styles at Coachella. “To keep any music locked out of a genre is such a detriment for the creators, and for the listeners.”
A Nashville-endorsed songwriter, finally
According to the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, the Queen of Country Pop has sold more than 85 million albums worldwide, making her the top-selling female artist in country music history. But while her fan base is legion, Twain has never been fully accepted by the Nashville establishment.
“I’ve been criticized and insulted a lot in the country music industry press over the years,” she says. “I probably still am, but I stopped reading it a long time ago.”
Maybe she stopped reading reviews in 1995, when she was dubbed “America’s best paid lap dancer in Nashville” by a critic. She certainly doesn’t seem to be attempting to curry favour with Music City types in 2023 with her decidedly poppish new album.
Still, there seems to be a détente happening. Twain was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame last year, which is a highly surprising honour despite her five Grammys and six American Music Awards, since, in the past, the men of Music Row have paid more attention to her midriff than to her melodies.
“There’s been a love-hate relationship from the Nashville industry people toward me,” she says, diplomatically enough. “So, when there’s love, I take it – I embrace it.”
She still has issues with the industry. Asked to comment on the refreshing recent wave of young Black women making in impact on the American country music scene, Twain wonders why it took so long. “Saying how great it is that the country music genre is now starting to include Black women, I don’t know how to take that,” she says. “We should be so far past this discussion right now.”
Queen of me
Even if Twain’s new album doesn’t fall neatly into the country genre, and her voice is not the same as it was 20 years ago, the messages of self-empowerment are very much on brand. On the lush title track, Twain sings that she is “busy being the queen of me,” apparently a full-time job.
“Well, bees are busy, and queen bees are super busy,” she says. “They have no time to worry who’s going to stand in their way.”