Shania Twain: The Cover Story

Shania Twain opens up about her battle with Lyme disease, her son, Eja, and the road to 'Now.'

Sounds Like Nashville
By Deborah Evans Price
October 10, 2017

Everyone has heard the old adage “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Well that certainly seems true with Shania Twain fans as her new album, Now, tops the all genre Billboard 200 chart this week, making it the first female country release in three years to achieve that feat. The 16-song collection, Twain’s first album in nearly 15 years, debuted at No. 1 in the U.S., U.K., Zimbabwe, Australia and her native Canada as well as in the top five in Ireland and New Zealand.

Obviously Twain is thrilled the album is getting such an enthusiastic reception, but the journey to the summit has been the most challenging yet gratifying part. “The pressure of releasing it was overshadowed by the pressure of making it,” she candidly tells Sounds Like Nashville during a Saturday afternoon conversation. “I was just petrified about diving into the project in the first place and taking on the challenge. I had gone through so many scary times with my voice, and getting my voice back, and wondering if I would ever be able to record an album again and put a permanent stamp on a body of work. That was a scary time for me just diving into that. Once I dove in, the confidence started to build from that point on. By the time this moment came around of releasing it, it was like I already felt like I’d accomplished so much on that journey that I was just grateful.”

Twain has much to be thankful for these days—a healthy teenage son, happy marriage and a revival in her career. Her chart-topping new album is just the latest feat in her impressive list of milestones. With 75 million albums sold worldwide, she’s the top-selling female country artist of all time. Her previous four studio albums have sold staggering amounts with her 1997 album Come On Over holding the title of best-selling studio album in SoundScan history by a female artist in any genre. Twain is the first and only female artist to receive CMT’s Artist of a Lifetime Award and the Country Music Hall of Fame recently opened the Shania Twain: Rock This Country exhibit.

Twain admits there was a time she wondered if she’d ever be able to add to that list of accomplishments. She contracted Lyme disease in 2004 and it began stealing her voice. “Luckily I did find it the same day and was treated as soon as I could start getting treated,” she says of the disease, which is caused by a tick bite. “I was on the Up Tour at that time and it started affecting my voice right away. I didn’t know what was wrong with my voice and I didn’t even imagine that it was from the Lyme. I just thought it was from getting tired because I was getting super tired. I was at the end of the tour, my son was still a toddler and I was just exhausted.”

Even doctors were stymied by the vocal problems that began plaguing the singer. “The doctors didn’t make any correlation at all, they just said, ‘Oh you need rest. You’ve got to recover.’ I’d gone to all the vocal specialists, not as part of the Lyme disease testing, but [to find] what was going on with my voice. There wasn’t a doctor at that time that said, ‘Well maybe this is a part of your Lyme disease,’ so I just looked at it and thought it was a separate issue.”

Eventually a neurologist was able to get to the root of the problem. “There’s a nerve to each vocal cord. The way I imagined it in my mind, when they explained it, is like your cords are married and attached to these nerves, and it’s the nerves that are damaged,” she explains. “With Lyme disease it’s very typical to have neurological affect. It’s very degenerative for major organs and the neurological side of things. You should get a brain scan. It should be a part of your testing. Mine was clear, but these two nerves, they don’t check that, so it wasn’t until really quite recently that a neurologist did a test on me that I never had along the way. And what do you know? These two nerves were damaged and that creates atrophy in the chords because they are inactive by a certain percentage. So it takes a lot of vocal therapy to get the larynx to function the way you want it to, to compensate for those weaknesses. It’s a little complex, but I’ve come really a long, long way with the challenge of redeveloping my vocal ability through this problem.”

Even though it’s bee a trying time, Twain sees silver linings. “The positive side of it is I have discovered new areas of my voice because I had to,” she says. “I had to find different ways of making certain sounds and I’ve got more air to my voice now, which I like that quality. And I’ve got a lower range. I still have my high notes. I never lost any of my high range, but I gained lower range, so I use that more. I’m doing the harmonies on the album and some of the harmonies are super low and sound like a man almost, but they are still me. I didn’t need a man to sing those parts on the album, which is really cool.”

Twain single-handedly wrote every song on the new album and hand-picked Matthew Koma, Ron Aniello (Bruce Springsteen, Gavin DeGraw), Jake Gosling (Ed Sheeran, Shawn Mendes) and Jacquire King (Kings of Leon) to co-produce the songs with her. “I started by interviewing producers that I love and secondly, I did a lot of listening,” she says. “Then the next step was to talk to them and I was very honest and upfront about the fact I was writing the album myself. I didn’t want to be collaborating on the writing of the album at all. It was a very independent journey for me and I didn’t want any influence in the writing because it had to be as pure as possible, so that cuts out some producers because some just insist on being a part of that process. And then the next step was also being very frank about being involved with the production and the direction of the music, the musical treatment, so they had to be very flexible and collaborative on the recording of the album. It took a real team player attitude to make this record with me.”

The songs were written over a long period of time and chronicle the emotional rollercoaster Twain has been on since the release of her last studio album, Up!, in November 2002. In addition to her battle with Lyme disease and her vocal problems, Twain’s 14-year marriage to her former producer, Robert John “Mutt” Lange, dissolved in 2008. She was devastated when she discovered he’d been having an affair with her best friend Marie-Anne Thiébaud. While reeling from the betrayal, she developed a friendship with Frédéric Thiébaud, who had been married to Marie-Anne. That friendship blossomed into love and the two were married in January 2011.

Writing songs has always been cathartic for Twain and her new album includes some of her most honest, vulnerable lyrics ever. “The first step for me was just writing music and not worrying about even if I was ever going to release some of the things I was writing,” she says. “The reason I write music is for myself. I write music because I love to write and I love to express myself through writing, that’s my ‘me’ time if you will, my ‘me’ time for pouring my thoughts and emotions. They are just for me, but when I make a decision to then include a song on an album that I’m now going to share with everybody, making an album is for the purpose of sharing it, for my communication with the fans, they kind of take on a whole other meaning at that point. That’s when it gets a little bit scary and I’ve got to be thoughtful about how much personal information is too much. So the way I make that decision is if there are people out there that can relate to what I’m saying, it’s worth sharing. That’s part of the therapy for me. Sharing is helpful to me. It helps me to share my experiences and write them in a way that other people can say, ‘Yeah I get that! I’ve been there. I can relate to that’ because it’s not just mine. It’s not like I own that experience. So many people out there have experienced these feelings and I feel that that’s kind of been my relationship with the audience, sharing things that they can relate to.”

There’s a fine line between being open with your audience and revealing too much and Twain is cognizant of that balance. “For men and women, they definitely are appreciating the personal messages. They are appreciating the candid nature of the lyrics,” she says. “People deserve to have that honesty. It’s just about the artist finding their comfort zone there. To me, it was the most meaningful to say the things that were truth to me in that moment. When I first started writing some of the songs they were kind of angry and so I thought, ‘Well, is this really what I want to communicate to the listener? Anger?’ And that’s when it really started evolving and I started asking myself these questions and in the end I said, ‘I want honesty and I don’t want to fluff things up, but I want them to be inspired.’ I think pure intentions as a songwriter are very, very important.”

One of the most romantic songs on the new album, “Because of You,” celebrates her love for Thiébaud. “That one was written very last minute,” she says. “I was near the end of actually recording the album. My husband was with me and he had to leave and go home to be with my son for a few days. When he left me, that night I wrote the song and realized, I just felt really lonely when he left. I was feeling grateful that I have him and that one just poured out really quick. I still had a few days and hard work ahead of me and I just wrote that song that night. Then I went in and recorded it the next day.”

Which song was the most difficult for her to write? “‘Soldier,’” Twain responds. “Films are so good at capturing the realism in those moments and it just rips me apart,” she says of watching war movies such as Hacksaw Ridge. “I’ve got a son, a teenager, and I think I’m relating on a different level right now. I’m facing a child that’s becoming a man and as a parent, it’s just resonated so much more deeply to me recently watching movies like that. So when I was writing that song and thinking that my son—even if he’s never in a combat situation or battle—he’s still going out into the world, soldiering his way through life and the challenges that all of our kids face these days, being their own person and being bullied online. My heart was bleeding in that whole realm of emotions and so as I wrote that song I cried so much. I would write a couple lines and then I’d take a break and get myself together and then I’d go try again and write a couple more lines and then I’d have to take another break and it took me a while to get through that song lyric. I literally would tear up all the way through. It’s my true bleeding heart as a parent and a citizen of this world.”

Twain is proud that the song will be featured in the trailer for the film Thank You for Your Service. Based on the book by David Finkel, the Dreamworks film stars Miles Teller, Haley Bennett, Beulah Koale, Amy Schumer, and Scott Haze. It releases on October 27. “Jon Kilik, the producer, came to me with this idea of putting ‘Soldier’ in their trailer for this movie,” she says. “I jumped at that because Thank You for Your Service is a really moving, genuine, true story.”

Though “Soldier” was inspired by the tragedy of war, for Twain the message of loss is broader than just the battlefield. “It is even more about saying goodbye to someone you’re not sure you’ll ever see again,” she says. “We never know if we’re ever going to see somebody again when we say goodbye regardless of the scenario whether its war or just saying goodbye to a loved one at the beginning of a work day, that sort of thing. And I live with that fear genuinely because of my parents dying so suddenly and even my voice just going overnight, stuff like that, unexpected losses.”

Twain’s parents died in a car accident when she was 21 and she raised her younger siblings. Despite enduring such tragedy, she’s emerged as a strong, warm, confident woman. To what does she attribute her survival skills and positive outlook? “It’s so hard for me to say because these losses started so, so young in my life,” she sighs. “I had a very, very turbulent upbringing and a lot of disappointment, a lot of personal struggle, so by the time my parents died, I was already pretty used to shielding myself and protecting myself somehow from the realities. It was a difficult life and nothing would have prepared me for losing my parents. It was beyond devastating. I can’t explain that, but for lack of a better word, I’ve always just soldiered on. I really have picked myself up and carried on. I just don’t feel we have a choice in life. We are here to live and we just have to soldier on, so I can’t explain where that comes from.”

These days Twain is focusing on the positives and trying to enjoy the journey more. It’s advice she wishes she could have told her 21-year-old self. “I would tell myself to have more fun,” she notes. “I would try to slow things down a little more and enjoy what was happening to me a little bit more. It’s a really tough and delicate balance because you have to work hard. I’m not even sure that some new artists that haven’t made it yet realize how much they’ve got to give in order to get there. The work ethic and dedication you need to have can be very destructive actually. The lucky ones have the right support around them so that they don’t self-destruct, but it’s a challenge. It’s a real challenge defining all of this emotionally and mentally once you start actually making it and then you have to hold onto it. I would say that the way to make it through mentally and emotionally is to enjoy what you’re doing. Enjoy it, not in an ego way, not let your ego run away with you, but enjoy it like it’s a pleasure because I think I missed out on a lot of that. I’m enjoying it now. There’s so much about now that is meaningful to me that I didn’t have then.”

In addition to promoting Now, Twain recently filmed Trading Paint, with John Travolta. It is her first foray into acting and she enjoyed it so much she plans to pursue other opportunities. But for now, her focus is on getting ready for her tour in 2018. “I’m feeling really good. I’m feeling like I’ve achieved an enormous amount in the last couple of years in preparing for this album,” she says. “Writing it myself and then pushing myself to not lean on anyone’s feedback and just take the risk alone. Everybody is telling me that nobody does that anymore. I just did it because I felt personally I needed to do it and rediscover a lot of things about myself. It’s a huge, huge accomplishment and I’m just feeling the glory of that of being on the other side of that achievement. I’m feeling like I’m just starting to spread my wings.”