Shania Twain on abuse, betrayal and finding her voice: ‘I wanted a break – but not for 15 years’
She recorded the bestselling album ever made by a woman, but later disappeared from the limelight. As she begins her first album tour since 2002, she talks about the violent childhood and devastating divorce that make her pop’s great survivor.
By Simon Hattenstone
April 22, 2018
Shania Twain was at the peak of her powers when she lost her voice. We are not talking a couple of cancelled concerts or a few weeks on the throat lozenges. Twain did not make a record for 15 years.
“I never thought I’d sing again,” she says quietly. It is only six weeks since she had laryngoplasty, an operation to reconstruct the vocal box. A two-inch horizontal scar is stripped across her neck.
Actually, she says, she was lucky. Her vocal cord paralysis was a result of being bitten by a tick and contracting Lyme disease. “Lyme disease can be so much more devastating. It can go to your brain.”
It is hard to conceive just how huge the country-pop star was when disaster struck. She was one of the first “crossover” stars, combining country music with pop and rock. Without Shania Twain, there might well have been no Taylor Swift. She made three monster-selling albums with the help of her husband and music partner, producer and writer Robert “Mutt” Lange. Come on Over, which has sold 40m copies, is the bestselling album by a female artist and the ninth-top seller of all time in the US.
Lange, who had made his name workingwith bands including AC/DC and Def Leppard, helped reinvent Twain. She lay down her acoustic guitar, put on heels, lippy and thigh-length boots and morphed from conventional country singer to rock goddess. Twain was sexy, empowering and funny. This was a woman who knew what she wanted – men, action, dancing, control. As she sang on Man! I Feel Like a Woman!, the best thing about being a woman was the prerogative to have a little fun. Her finger-wagging, top-hat-wearing vamp would not take any nonsense from the cloned pretty boys playing guitar on the song’s video.
In the video for That Don’t Impress Me Much, she is stranded in the Mojave desert, dressed from head to toe in leopard-print, rejecting rides from any number of narcissistic hotties (“Oh-oo-oh, you think you’re special/ Oh-oo-oh, you think you’re something else/ OK, so you’re Brad Pitt/ That don’t impress me much”).
Twain was all things to all people – country star, pop star, rocker, sentimentalist (You’re Still the One is possibly her best-known song). She was fancied by the straight boys, admired by the straight girls, adored by gay men as a camp icon and loved by lesbians who read what they wanted into Man! I Feel Like a Woman!.
Then came what Twain calls “the madness”, which was by no means restricted to the Lyme disease and voice loss. Twain and Lange had a son, Eja (pronounced Asia), in 2001, and she planned herself some family time. “I did want a break. But, of course, I would have never stayed away 15 years.” She smiles. “I was too embarrassed to tell anybody that I couldn’t sing. For a long time, I didn’t even know why I couldn’t sing.”
For years, we heard nothing. Then, in 2008, Twain announced that she and Lange were separating. Their eventual divorce was not only the end of a marriage, it was also the end of one of the most successful and lucrative relationships in music. She is worth an estimated $350m (£250m).
It emerged that Lange was having an affair with their PA, Twain’s close friend Marie-Anne Thiébaud, who lived half a mile away in the same Swiss town, Corseaux, overlooking Lake Geneva. But even that was not the headline news. Twain announced that she had got together with Thiébaud’s husband, Frédéric. Suddenly, one of pop’s biggest stars was better known for her marriage-go-round than her music. For a while, Twain retreated back into silence. She still could not sing. There looked to be no chance of her resurrecting her career.
Then, in June 2011, Twain announced a two-year residency at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. She had not performed live since July 2004. After this lucrative run – which began in December 2012 and brought in $43m – she went into the studio and recorded Now, an album of self-penned songs, which was released last year. They might not have the hooks of her best work with Lange, but they provide a fascinating insight into her life. The lyrics are as personal as they get – from the shock of being deserted to the anger she feels towards her former friend.
You do not hold back, I say. She laughs and suggests I do not know the half of it. In fact, there were songs she wrote that were so vitriolic they could not go on the album. “If I’m really angry, I’ll say ‘fuck’ a lot. And, if I’m writing, that word will be in every line. There was one song I wrote about my cheating friend and there was a lot of fucks in there. I hated her, so that’s the best word to use when you hate somebody.”
In the flesh, there is something so wholesome and mumsy about Twain that it comes as a shock when she swears. She is small and strikingly pretty (in 2009, scientists at the University of Toronto declared that she had the perfect face). Today, she is an unlikely mix of dress-down casual and showbiz glam – black tracksuit bottoms, a black-and-white striped sweatshirt, trainers, false eyelashes with which you could sweep the floor and a huge diamond knuckle-duster on her wedding finger.
We meet in a Los Angeles hotel. The room is empty, but for three Brobdignagian bouquets of white roses. She tells me how much she loves roses, then returns to the subject uppermost in her mind. “‘Cunt’ is good, too. My friend said: ‘Say: “She’s a fucking cunt”’. That felt good to say. Those words were cathartic.” She says it almost beatifically, as if reciting the rosary.
Did she want to be a star? 'No, I wanted to escape.' From what? 'Everything'
Twain went through a terrible low after the breakup. She had always been a private person, but in 2011 she wrote a memoir, From This Moment On, in which she admitted that there had been times when she wanted to die. It was part confessional, part warning, part self-help manual for people going through similar crises. “That’s right,” she says enthusiastically. “Beware! Or, if it has happened to you, you’re not alone. Why do you have AA meetings? So people can get to the point where they can even get up there and say: ‘This is what happened to me and this is where it’s brought me in my life.’ And they start feeling lighter and better.”
She says two things saved her. First, there was Eja. She could not afford to go under, because he needed her. Second, she revisited her past; it helped to put everything in context.
To say Twain had a traumatic childhood is an understatement. She grew up in Ontario, Canada, and never knew her biological father. Her mother, Sharon, had depression; her stepfather, Jerry, was an Ojibwa Native American, much discriminated against, alcoholic, violent and mentally ill. “A third of my relatives were suicide deaths at young ages – that’s not an exaggeration. A number of them died prematurely just from neglect and alcohol abuse.”
She was christened Eilleen Regina Edwards, which became Twain when her mother married Jerry. Sharon brought up three daughters from her first marriage and a son she had with Jerry, as well as Jerry’s nephew, after his sister died. There was little work around, no money and a lot of violence. “I was worried about my father killing my mother.” She starts again. “I thought they’d kill each other. My mom was quite violent, too. Many nights I went to bed thinking: ‘Don’t go to sleep, don’t go to sleep, wait till they are sleeping.’ And I would wake up and make sure everybody was breathing.”
In her memoir, she describes an occasion when Jerry beat Sharon unconscious, then repeatedly plunged her head in the toilet. Twain grabbed a chair and smashed it across his back. He punched her in the jaw; she punched him back. Twain was 11 at the time.
Her father often abused her. “Physically and psychologically,” she says. She stutters to a stop. Did he sexually abuse her? “Oh yes, sexually,” she mutters. “Uh huh, uh huh. I’m not going to go into details about it. I don’t mind saying it, because I do think it’s important that people understand you can survive these things.” She did not mention the sexual abuse in her book.
How old were you when he started abusing you? “Around the age of 10. I feel the sexual abuse goes hand in hand with the physical and psychological abuse when it’s somebody you know. I learned to block it out. Abusers need to manipulate you, whether it’s before or after, and what I said to myself is: ‘OK, there’s something wrong with this person and that person is not well.’” She pauses. “I did feel sorry for myself a lot as a kid. It was either go to Children’s Aid and get saved now or ... I weighed it up and thought: ‘If I go to Children’s Aid, we’ll all get separated,’ and I just couldn’t bear that, so we all stayed together for better or for worse.” Staying together is a recurring theme for Twain.
She started writing songs as a young girl. Did she want to be a star? “No, I wanted to escape.” From what? “Everything. Violent home. Tensions. Nothing to eat. When you’re hungy you can’t do anything about it but distract yourself from the hunger. And it really works. It’s therapeutic. A lot of kids play with dolls and I played with words and sounds.”
By the age of eight, she was singing in bars to pay the family bills. After graduating from school in 1983, she went to Nashville to sing country. She was on the verge of a breakthrough in 1987 when she received terrible news. Jerry and her mother had been killed in a car crash.
Despite everything, she loved them and she was devastated. She shelved her dreams and moved back home to become a surrogate mother to her four siblings. Twain never fully processed the tragedy, because she was too busy looking after the family. She supported them by singing at a local resort.
After the split from Lange, she began to think more about her parents’ death. “I started peeling back the layers of pain I was in and all the other griefs and disappointments and challenges came to the surface. And I thought: ‘I’ve been through worse and it’s time to put it all into perspective.’ When my parents died, I experienced a much deeper grief than even the betrayal. I was just out of myself. When you add shock to grief, it does crazy things to your mind. And that really helped me through – this was not nearly as bad as my parents dying. I survived that and I don’t want to give this so much credit.”
Looking after the family took six years out of her life. In 1993, she was finally signed to a record label and changed her name to Shania, which she says is an Ojibwa word for “on my way”. After one album, she hooked up with Lange and found global fame.
I ask whether she thinks of herself today as Eilleen or Shania. “Both. But when I speak to myself I say Eilleen: ‘Come on, Eilleen!’” Eilleen seems very different from Shania, I say. No, she insists, they are one and the same person – Shania is just the professional front. Actually, Twain concedes, there is a difference. Eilleen was a tomboy; possibly still is. She did not wear heels until she was in her 20s and she used to strap down her boobs so nobody would notice them. “I never got to the point where I would wear a bathing suit on the beach. I was always very, very shy of my body.” Is Eilleen as confident with men as Shania? “I was always very agreeable, always out to please my partner.” See, I say, Shania would be the one demanding to be pleased – she would wag her finger and say: “That don’t impress me much!” She laughs and agrees. “I’m a quiet person. I do like solitude. When I was a teenager, I was energetic, but annoyingly energetic. People called me ‘spaz’. It wasn’t a compliment. It was a little bit hurtful.”
How influential was Lange on her career? “Extremely infuential on the music. As a producer, he is very much a director as well; very hands-on and very talented. So, he was driving the direction of the sound. He didn’t drive the direction of my voice and never tried to change me.” Who drove the persona of Shania? “That was me, not Mutt. He was never part of the creative development in that sense. He drove the instrument choices, the sound, the groove. He was a bass player as a musician and he was very driven by the rhythm.”
Was she worried that she would lose her creative edge without him? “I was. I was petrified of giving in this album. I wasn’t afraid of writing, but I was scared of sharing the songs with anybody.”
Can she and Lange talk to each other these days? “Sure. I mean, we don’t hang out with each other.”
Marie-Anne was pregnant at the same time as Twain. These days, the two children move between homes. Incredibly, despite the fact they live only half a mile apart, Twain says she has never run into her former friend. “She’s the last person on the planet I want to run into. Ever.”
Why did she not think of moving away? “I just wasn’t going to be pushed out. This is my home, this is my child’s birthplace and I’m not going anywhere.”
Her antipathy towards her former friend is intensified by the fact that she confided in her when she thought Lange was having an affair and was told she was being delusional, that nobody would cheat on her. Twain says she often dreams of her. “I do really nasty things in my dreams to her,” she says with relish. “I’m always cutting her hair or shaving it off.”
She and Frédéric – Freddy – got together gradually, initially just as friends comforting each other; it was he who told her about the affair. She says it was more obvious to the children than to her that they were falling in love. Is this a different kind of love from the one she had with Lange? “Yes, it’s a passionate love on every level. I used to be very monotone in my relationships.” This time round, she has lost all her passivity, she says. “Poor Freddy pays the price, because I’m like: If I’m ever getting married again, this is me. I don’t think Mutt ever knew me. That’s the difference.”
Does she think she and Frédéric have come out better from this than Lange and Marie-Anne? “Absolutely. We are happier individuals, even without each other. We are way more confident in our own selves.” Would she say that to Lange? “No. I would never have anything personal to do with him again. That is an intimate thing.”
When my parents died, I experienced a much deeper grief than even the betrayal. I was just out of myself
I tell Twain that I feel bad naming her former friend in front of her. “Don’t say the name; you can say ‘cunt’.” She roars with laughter, then tells herself off. “That is so disrespectful! I’m having a laugh.”
Twain, now 52, is surprising in so many ways – the quietness, the intensity, the mumsiness, the openness, the profanity. But she is not done with surprising just yet. If she could have her time over again, I ask, would she choose what she has now? “I would never choose for my son’s family to be broken,” she says instantly. “I would be one of those people who would keep my marriage together for my child ... I tried to keep Mutt.” She says it goes back to her own childhood. “Look at my situation. My parents could have killed each other. Maybe we would have been better off in foster homes, but I decided not to turn my family in, many times. There is something in me that says a family should stay together.”
It is not the only way in which she expresses her conservatism. If she had been able to vote in the US election, she would have plumped for Donald Trump, she says. “I would have voted for him because, even though he was offensive, he seemed honest. Do you want straight or polite? Not that you shouldn’t be able to have both. If I were voting, I just don’t want bullshit. I would have voted for a feeling that it was transparent. And politics has a reputation of not being that, right?”
She sips on her hot water and honey. That is more than enough talking for one day. She has to rest her throat for the upcoming Now tour. The funny thing is, she says she did not enjoy it when the world went Shania crazy all those years ago – it was all work and no life. Now, she may not be in such demand, but she is at ease with herself. She points to the scar on her neck. “It’s supposed to go away. But if it stays I don’t care. This is the difference. Whatever scars I have, I’ve earned.” She slides her finger across it. “I’m comfortable in my own skin.
The Now tour runs from 3 May to 22 December