From Timmins, Ont., to Tennessee: Shania Twain reflects on her climb to fame

The artist opened up about her childhood struggles and her battle with Lyme disease

CBC Radio
By Griffin Jaeger
September 26, 2022

Looking back at life's ups and downs, Shania Twain sees herself as a mountain climber.

From growing up below the poverty line, to losing her parents in a car crash, the Canadian singer-songwriter describes a past full of hardship.

But that never stopped her.

"If you ask me personally, I believe that it's my determination to not be stopped by fear, by the climb, by the pain … that really keeps me going," Twain said in an interview on CBC's Q with Tom Power.

The pop-country crossover superstar from Timmins, Ont., takes fans on the journey of her artistic emergence in a new documentary Not Just a Girl on Netflix, which was directed by Joss Crowley.

Looking back at her life through the film, Twain said she realized her confidence came from her conviction to succeed.

"It wasn't .... 'I can do this because I'm so great," she said. "It's [that] I've been through worse, I've been through bigger challenges and I was ready for it."

Twain describes music as 'a sixth sense'

Music always felt like a sixth sense to Twain.

She began strumming the guitar at eight and started writing songs by the time she was 10.

She credits American singer-songwriter Dolly Parton's track My Coat of Colors as her assurance that a life of working in music was possible.

"Dolly is … every little girl's perfect example of what is possible when you come from nothing," Twain said.

Twain's mother saw her potential and would sneak her into bars to perform gigs after the girl's father had gone to sleep.

"My dad really only ever had enough gas in the car to get to work and back every day, it was always limit, limit, limit," she said.

Hoping for a miracle

While her dad questioned the likelihood of being discovered at a bar in small-town Ontario after midnight, her mother felt it was a way of getting Twain noticed — and so she took the risk.

"Everyone else had sacrificed so much. And that was really the case … we didn't have anything," she said. "Whatever we had was often sacrificed and was all about me ... the little singer.

"I think both of my parents were hoping some miracle would happen."

Her parents died in a car crash in November 1987, before Twain's career took off.

But she said the loss compelled her to keep going.

Nashville and pop stardom

And by the time she headed to Nashville, Twain had climbed such high mountains that the prerogative to have a little fun as a country-pop superstar didn't seem out of reach.

Twain began writing songs in her tiny cabin in Ontario, which would later become worldwide hits such as Any Man of Mine, Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under and No One Needs to Know.

She would go on to work with producer Mutt Lange, known for collaborating with artists like AC/DC and English rock band Def Leppard.

He had yet to produce any country music, but Twain's sound intrigued him.

"Early Nashville just didn't hear the potential in the songs and Mutte did," she said.

Together they released Twain's record Come On Over in 1997, which, at the time, became the best-selling album ever released by a female artist.

The album included Twain's hit song, That Don't Impress Me Much, teasing the likes of A-list movie star Brad Pitt.

(The fact that Pitt never called her left her decidedly unimpressed, she joked to Power.)

Losing her voice to Lyme Disease

The star also opened up about her battle with Lyme disease and losing her voice.

"There are just things that are out of your control that you have to learn to come to terms with somehow if you're going to carry on," she said. "And this was one of those things."

After seeing numerous specialists, a neurologist discovered damage in the nerves to Twain's vocal cords.

The singer-songwriter had open throat surgery, which gave her back her voice.

"It's a miracle … I can't even believe that the technology exists. I am so grateful."

Greatest hits album released alongside doc

In line with her life-spanning film, Twain has released a greatest hits album titled Not Just a Girl (The Highlights) featuring her new song Not Just a Girl.

Twain also released a new song on Friday titled Waking Up Dreaming.

After moving so many "mountains," she says it's hard to throw her off balance.

"I have this fierce determination to keep moving forward and through or around or over whatever it takes," she said.

"If you're standing in my way and my intentions are good, I will move you … and that could mean a mountain."