Looks Like She Made It
How Shania Twain found love, her voice, and her rightful place in the pop music pantheon.
By Lindsay Zoladz
September 28, 2022
"Sorry, I have to keep moving,” the country-pop legend Shania Twain says in the middle of our conversation, uncrossing her legs and stretching them out on the ivory sofa in front of her. Twain, who is the best-selling female country artist of all time, has just wrapped a photo shoot on the top floor of The Standard hotel, and she kicks off the Amina Muaddi platform stilettos she’s still wearing and drops an aside worthy of one of her sassy, universally beloved anthems: “It’s been a long day in these shoes.”
Of course, she says it in that famous, arched-eyebrow deadpan, the same one that launched a million bachelorette parties, karaoke nights, and drag shows with the rallying cry “Let’s go, girls.” At the height of her powers, on her 1997 global blockbuster album, Come On Over, Twain’s voice was at once withering enough to turn once-and-future Sexiest Man Alive Brad Pitt into a punchline (on her strutting send-up of the male ego, “That Don’t Impress Me Much”) and affecting enough to reduce an entire wedding guest list to tears (on timeless soft-rock ballads like “You’re Still the One” and “From This Moment On”). After a series of personal and professional setbacks, though — including illness that left her wondering whether she’d ever sing again — she nearly lost her voice for good.
That Twain is a fighter, though, is abundantly clear to anyone who has watched her recent Netflix documentary, Not Just a Girl. Or listened to her new song of the same name, which finds her triumphantly reclaiming that low, twangy croon of hers. Since she recovered from open-throat surgery in 2019, her voice has been feeling “way stronger,” she says, even if she’s accepted that it has undergone some changes. As she prepares to release her first new album in five years, she’s enjoyed getting reacquainted with her instrument. “I’ve had to relearn my voice in a lot of ways, because there are a lot of different elements to it that I didn’t even have before, that I play on and that I enjoy.”
Twain showcased her rich, resonant new sound in April, when Coachella headliner Harry Styles brought her out for an electric guest appearance at the festival. “In the car, with my mother as a child, this lady taught me to sing,” Styles gushed to a crowd of more than 100,000 people.
He added, to raucous cheers, “She also told me that men are trash.”
Styles honoring Twain in such public, headline-generating fashion crystallized something too often left unspoken: Twain’s massive influence on the current generation of pop stars. Twain paved the way for Taylor Swift’s country-to-pop crossover, of course, but artists as disparate as Rihanna, Post Malone, Rina Sawayama, Orville Peck, and Halsey have all claimed Twain as an inspiration.
“I admire her confidence in her path, because she really just loved bringing people together,” Maren Morris — a country star who knows a thing or two about pop crossovers herself — says in an email. “She owned her femininity, but she didn’t hide behind it either. She had the songs to back it up.”
The author Marissa R. Moss says Twain’s influence came up constantly in her interviews for her recently released book, Her Country: How the Women of Country Music Became the Success They Were Never Supposed to Be.
“When [artists like Morris, Miranda Lambert, and Mickey Guyton] were younger, Twain was a very empowering force,” Moss says. Not only for her straight-talking songwriting, but also for her embrace of fashion and her demand that her “visual expression be taken seriously as a part of the art form.” (Hello, iconic leopard-print catsuit.)
“I didn’t realize it until these kids became young adults and were actually in the public eye, talking about it,” Twain says back at The Standard. She sips from one of the glasses of chilled champagne that an assistant has put in front of us so unobtrusively it seems to have manifested out of the ether. “When I crossed over [from country to pop], they were part of an age group that, on the way to school, had the music on repeat. Or maybe it was the music that, as a kid, they wanted on repeat, that sort of annoying, ‘Oh no, play that again!’”
Masked country singer Orville Peck, who collaborated with Shania on their 2020 duet “Legends Never Die,” says in the Netflix documentary, “She reached through the stereo and made me feel safe when I was a young kid.”He’s alluding to her ubiquity during that era, and to the fact that queer listeners have long been drawn to Twain’s music, with its infectious confidence and playful, campy take on gender. (In her lively 2011 autobiography, From This Moment On, Twain notes that the first seeds of inspiration for “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” were planted in the mid-1980s, when she and her friends frequented Toronto’s gay bars and marveled at the local drag queens’ style.) As Katie Gavin, the lead singer and primary songwriter of the pop band Muna, told me in an email, Shania “has a really strong sense of self, and was probably so underestimated because of her genre and her gender, which queer people can definitely relate to.”
These days her influence is reciprocal, and Twain finds herself listening just as obsessively to the music of some of her disciples — Styles in particular.“I like the floating feeling the music gives off, this happy, peaceful, almost levitating feeling. And I love his voice, he’s a great vocalist.” Coachella was hardly the beginning of their friendship, though; Twain and Styles have been texting sporadically for years. After they met backstage at one of his early solo shows in New York City, Styles called Twain and asked if she would wish his mom a happy birthday. Naturally, she obliged. (Did Harry’s mum freak out? “No, she was very cool,” Twain says. “Very sweet and very cool.”)
Now 57, Twain is a petite but forceful presence: “I was never a pushover, ever in my life,” she says at one point in our conversation. She is exacting with her words, editing as she goes. Speaking of her early career, she tells me, “I took control wherever I could,” but then quickly revises. “Maybe control’s not the right word. I took charge. That’s way better. I took charge.”
That's something she had to learn how to do long before she arrived in Nashville. Born Eileen Regina Edwards and raised mostly around Timmins, Ontario — a small city seven hours northwest of Toronto — Twain had the sort of hardscrabble childhood that made her relate deeply to the songs that Dolly Parton wrote about her own impoverished youth in the mountains of East Tennessee. When Twain was around four years old, her mother married Jerry Twain, a man of Ojibwa descent; young Eileen took his last name and recognized him as her father for the rest of her life. (“Stepfather, stepbrothers, we never used that vocabulary in our home,” Twain once said.) Their marriage was abusive, though, and from a young age, Eileen witnessed her father’s physical and emotional violence toward her mother. Her parents split up briefly when Eileen was a teenager — the so-called “Twain Gang” of four of her five siblings temporarily relocated to a women’s shelter in Toronto — but they eventually reconciled. Tragically, in 1987, Twain’s parents both died in a car accident while driving to bring food supplies to a camp at their reforestation company. At 22, Twain was suddenly the head of the household, left to support her three younger siblings.
She had been singing songs in local bars long before she could have been served there, and, after her parents’ passings, she found a steady gig performing at Deerhurst Resort in Ontario’s version of Vegas. There, she met a wardrobe mistress with a mellifluous name she’d never heard before, and which she’d later borrow as a stage name, Shania. Someone told her it meant “on my way,” and sure enough, she was: An influential music attorney saw her perform at Deerhurst and got her demo tape into the right hands. She was offered a deal if she’d move to Nashville. So she packed up her pickup and drove south, her first time leaving Canada.
The music industry loves a naive ingenue — the better to exploit you, my dear — but by the time she arrived in Music City, Twain had already survived more tribulations than most people do in a lifetime. “I think the maturity did help a lot,” she tells me now. “They didn’t mold me. I just showed up and I was already who I wanted to be. I was a bit older so I was not impressionable at that point. It was too late. I was already fully formed. I was open, but I was convinced of what I was made of and what were my greatest inspirations.”
Those inspirations included Parton and Willie Nelson, but also the glamorous and sensual Madonna, the hard-rocking, ass-kicking sisters of Heart. The Nashville of the early 1990s was not exactly a playground for cross-genre experimentation, though — especially if you were a woman. Recalls Twain, “I thought I was walking into a much more all-encompassing space, artistically.” Her first music video, for “What Made You Say That,” featured a gloriously early-’90s look that revealed, as she puts it in her autobiography, “maybe four inches” of midriff. Apparently this was enough to set off an epidemic of pearl clutching in Nashville: CMT briefly refused to play the video at all. (Adds Maren Morris, recalling this incident, “People were such prudes.”)
“There’s this belief that to be here in Nashville, you have to be constantly paying your dues in a very specific way,” says Moss. “You’re supposed to be humble, especially if you’re a woman — or God forbid a Black artist or a queer artist. You have to follow every mark on the path to ‘authenticity’ to even have a chance to be considered country enough for Music Row.”
Suffice it to say that didn’t impress Shania Twain much. Her clear-eyed confidence, unapologetic sexuality, and ownership of her artistic vision had a way of rankling the suits. “To me, [writing] was everything,” she says, recalling her dismay when she realized that she wasn’t expected to write her own material, especially as a female artist. “I’m like, ‘Are you kidding?’”
So she started working on some of her own songs, not with the usual squad of country songwriters but with a rock producer who’d gotten in contact with her out of the blue, Mutt Lange. Nobody at her label knew she was writing songs (let alone with Lange) until it was too late to turn back. “I’m like, ‘If I lose my deal, I lose my deal,’” Twain says. “That’s how convinced I was that it was time to make something more original.”
Her first single to reach No. 1 on country radio was “Any Man of Mine,” co-written with Lange, from her 1995 album, The Woman in Me. “Any Man” is flirtatious but assertive — a grown-ass woman’s come-hither song. “Any man of mine better disagree when I say another woman’s lookin’ better than me,” she sings amid a boot-stomping beat and a flurry of fiddles. “And when I cook him dinner and I burn it black, he better say, ‘Mmm, I like it like that.’” It was her first true hit, and she was about to turn 30, which gave her songs a lived-in, no-more-bull**** realism. Twain hadn’t needed to look far for a man who fit her description, though; after a whirlwind romance, in December 1993, she and Lange married.
Like CD-ROMs, the Spice Girls, and VH1’s Behind the Music, it is impossible to explain to someone born after the 1990s what an unavoidable cultural phenomenon Twain’s next album, Come on Over, was in the latter part of that decade. It was basically the Rumours of the CD era. Its seemingly endless run of 12 singles — on a 16-track album! — helped it sell more than 40 million copies worldwide. It is still one of the best-selling records of all time, which means it probably made some of the people who’d initially been skeptical of Twain’s vision a hell of a lot of money.
At least it made Twain and Lange buy-a-mansion-in-Switzerland money, which is exactly what they did. (“I think there were a lot of people who resented her for doing that and thought she was saying she was too good for Nashville or country music or something,” Moss says. She adds, “A lot of people take things personally here, strangely.”) Twain’s next album, 2002’s Up!, was also a huge success — it made her the first and only female artist in history to have three consecutive diamond-selling records in the United States — but after the 2001 birth of her son Eja, Twain felt she’d earned a small retreat from the spotlight, making a quieter domestic life in a country where her every move wasn’t tabloid fodder.
Unfortunately, melodrama found her anyway. In 2008, she discovered that Lange was having an affair… with her best friend. They divorced shortly afterward, sending Twain into a tailspin of depression. “When I lost Mutt,” she says in the Netflix documentary, “the grief of that was similarly intense to losing my parents. It was like a death — a permanent end to so many facets of my life.”
As shattering as the breakup was, she had an even greater trial to endure around that time: the loss of her voice. “I don’t think I’ll ever meet a challenge like that again,” Twain tells me. When she first started experiencing dysphonia — a condition in which the vocal cords seize up and the voice becomes hoarse — she wasn’t sure what was going on. She later learned it was likely a somewhat rare long-term side effect of Lyme disease, which she contracted in 2003.
These were some of the darkest days of Twain’s life, and in the documentary she admits she didn’t “see any point in going on with a music career.” But in 2012, an unexpected opportunity arose: Lionel Richie, who didn’t realize Twain was struggling with dysphonia, asked her to appear on an upcoming duets album. He wanted to sing “Endless Love” with her, but Twain initially turned him down, doubting that her voice would be strong enough. Richie was persistent enough that she finally gave it a shot. “I had to be very vulnerable. I didn’t want to do it — I was like, ‘Would somebody just push me over the edge?’ But only I could jump off it.”
Working with Richie gave her the confidence to launch her spectacular Vegas residency, Shania: Still the One, and release her first studio album in 15 years, 2017’s Now. By the end of the Now tour, though, her voice was beyond fatigued. “I realized I couldn’t physically sustain the vocal workout I had to do every day,” she says. A doctor had been telling her for years about a drastic option that might help: open-throat surgery. Once again, she leapt.
“Not knowing what I was going to sound like when I was able to speak again was really scary,” Twain says. After the operation, she was instructed not to make a sound for three weeks. “The anticipation was crazy,” she recalls. “It wasn’t the three weeks of silence, it was the three weeks of waiting to see if it worked.” Happily, she was pleased with the results. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I can yell! I can be loud!’ It was so glorious.”
The story of her divorce has a happy — if wild — ending, too. Twain and Frédéric Thiébaud, the former husband of the woman Lange cheated with, comforted each other through their respective heartbreaks, fell in love, and got married. Thiébaud is there at The Standard for the photo shoot, flitting around in sneakers and a hoodie, making sure everyone on set is taken care of and, adorably, sneaking photos on his phone of each one of Twain’s looks like a doting Instagram husband.
Twain, Thiébaud, and his daughter still live in Switzerland, but Vegas has been Twain’s home away from home for the past few years, during her second residency. She appreciates the glitz as much as the next person, as well as the access to nature. “Vegas has a big personality, but it’s a very small city, so you can be out of the city very quickly,” she says. “All of a sudden you’re in the desert, and you’re hiking in the canyons. So I can spend my time there outside of the Strip, as if all of the party doesn’t even exist, and I really love that.”
Twain tells me she’s still in contact with Lange: “We raise our son together,” she says, though that’s less of a full-time job since 21-year-old Eja moved to Los Angeles. Again, she seems to choose her words carefully. “We don’t work together anymore,” she says of her ex-husband. “But we’re very… in proximity.”
Now was the first album she made without Lange since her debut, and though she felt “intact creatively,” she was haunted by old, sexist rumors that Lange had written all the songs himself. Making her forthcoming album, her second without Lange, was a more carefree experience. “I wanted there to be joy in it, I wanted it to be very uplifting sonically,” she says. “There’s a lot of cheekiness, a lot of bold, tongue-in-cheek humor, which I’m never afraid of anyway.”
Shania Twain exercises that signature prerogative to have a little fun on her new single, the upbeat pop tune “Waking Up Dreaming.” The music video answers the song’s call to “dress up crazy like superstars,” as Twain embodies a glam-rock goddess, a hair metal star, and a diva in the style of Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy. She promises that a new album and tour are soon to follow.
Twain also just made a guest appearance on Fox’s new country music drama series Monarch, which stars Susan Sarandon and Trace Adkins. As she did (hilariously) on a 2017 episode of Broad City, Twain played a cartoonish version of herself. Both roles have made her “realize it’s fun to laugh at myself and not take Shania so seriously,” she says. Of her delightfully catty turn as Sarandon’s character’s longtime rival, Twain adds, “Take the persona out of context, if you will — I would never act like that for real! But that’s what makes it fun.”
A sense of possibility is once again opening up for Twain. “I’m having more fun with fashion than I did when I was younger,” she says. “Maybe with age I’m just less apologetic for how I look and I let fashion do its job.” She hints that there might someday be a sequel to that Coachella performance. She says of Styles, “He wanted to do a couple of my songs, and that was good and fun. But I just love his music too, so maybe I’ll do the reverse and get him up on my stage to do his songs.”
As ever, Twain is looking ahead. “From a very young age, I had to let a lot roll off my back,” she says, once again stretching her legs to get the blood flowing. “Fear, my insecurities. These are things that are not allowed to get in the way of my dreams and my forward motion.”