The Swiss Alps are a long way from Timmins,
but Shania Twain manages to take it even higher
"I'm getting a bit of an echo. Are you?" asks Shania Twain from her home in Switzerland, a country that brings to mind heavenly chocolate, exquisitely crafted timepieces and a very different style of yodeling than the kind heard in Nashville's Grand Ole Opry.
In November, the legendary music hall won out over the Alps as the place for Twain to deliver her first live TV performance in three years. Arriving on the back of a Harley (or was it a stunt double?) and clad in a black biker-inspired outfit, Twain opened the annual Country Music Awards with I'm Gonna Getcha Good!, the first single from Up! (Universal), the followup to Come on Over, which has, to date, racked up mountainous worldwide sales of 34 million copies.
Twain's new single echoed across the airwaves all fall and its accompanying video found the singer slithering into yet another skintight cat suit, tossing her curly brunette tresses and revving the engine for another wild ride.
Decidedly dressed down in a red-and-white
outfit—including a Canada baseball cap—the diminutive Twain popped into the Roof Lounge of Toronto's Park Hyatt hotel in mid-November for a brief "pep rally," meet-and-greet and photo op with key staff of Universal Music Canada. The label's CEO informed the exclusive gathering (which included a handful of music scribes and radio honchos) that Up! had a retail order of 500,000 copies, not bad considering the album's release was still a week away.
With the marketing wheels at full speed, Twain nevertheless has her work cut out for her. She was rarely out of sight or earshot from 1993, when her self-titled debut came out amid the new-country craze, to 1999, when Come on Over had run its record-breaking course. By the end of Twain's rise to superstardom, the industry was in the midst of grappling with the new ways consumers were getting their hands on music.
The increasing traffic in downloaded music is not the only thing that has changed on the pop-music landscape in the five years since Come on Over hit the shelves. In late '97 and '98, Twain shared the charts with fellow Canadian pop stars Celine Dion, Alanis Morissette and Sarah McLachlan, as well as the Spice Girls and Mariah Carey. Of those who have released new albums since then, none have yet matched their previous success, a few went on career hiatus and Carey had a highly publicized meltdown. How Twain's comeback will fare against pop newcomers remains the question.
When Up! hit the shelves in November, the U.S. and Canadian charts included such artists as the luminous crossover country star Faith Hill, whose career has filled in the gap Twain left during her hiatus, and the pop sexpot Christina Aguilera, not to mention the edgier image and music of the street-smart Pink and the Canadian teenaged rock chick Avril Lavigne. In today's mix, which also includes the dominant hip-hop sounds of such stars as Missy Elliot and Eminem, is there still a place for Twain's soft country pop? Or is her appeal so distinct that she transcends the latest trends?
In prep for this battle is Twain's latest incarnation on video as a Matrix-esque diva. While she has always been something of a rock goddess, sexy yet untouchable, that image is pushed to the limit in the sci-fi setting of her latest video.
While her music is immediately accessible, her black-leather armour is startling for the world of country music. The potential distancing effect of this representation is counterbalanced by more dressed-down photos on her Website and by her serious, soft-spoken demeanour in the numerous print and TV interviews she did for the lead-up.
So just how does the gal raised in Timmins, Ont., who became an international pop superstar reconnect with millions of fans and rope in the batch of music consumers recently come of age, not to mention one-up Come on Over, the most successful female solo album ever? Move to Switzerland, have a baby, then globe-trot for creative inspiration and musical fusion.
For the past three years, Twain and her husband, producer and co-writer Robert John "Mutt" Lange, have been living on Lake Geneva, where their first child, Eja (pronounced "Asia"), is now practising a kind of "yodeling" that is possibly one of the few sounds on earth more familiar than his mother's own warm, sweet warble.
For Lange, a notoriously reclusive producer with a multiplatinum touch (AC/DC, Foreigner, Def Leppard, Huey Lewis and the News, Bryan Adams), the exclusive privacy offered by residency in Switzerland seems fitting. But what about the small-town Canadian siren?
"I love to come back to my personal life and forget about who I am and what I do. I'm happy to step into my private domestic life and leave the rest of it behind. This is a good place for that," Twain says from her European abode. "This is the first time I was home for a really long stretch. The pregnancy stretched that out. [But] I find it difficult to focus creatively when I'm at home for too long because I start thinking, 'What am I going to make for dinner and what do I have to get at the grocery store?' So I find it easier if we go away and draw inspiration from seeing new things, having new experiences."
Up! is, quite literally, all over the map. Soon after their son was born, Twain and Lange began traveling, close to home at first, then further afield, with songwriting spilling over into the recording process.
"We did some sessions with American musicians in the Caribbean, a big one with live musicians in Mumbai (Bombay) and there was a whole session with a 40-piece orchestra in Ireland," she recalls. "My musical influences are diverse and that has really come out on this album, [but] I didn't want to sound like I was jumping around all over the place. I wanted to have some consistency throughout the album, which meant you'd have more than your average 10 songs in order to cover all those bases."
The wide-ranging appeal of Twain's music is firmly rooted in her childhood. Born in Windsor, Ont., in 1965, she grew up in the northern Ontario town of Timmins, listening to Stevie Wonder, Led Zeppelin, Bee Gees and ABBA, as well as such legendary country stars as Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson. These days,
Twain enjoys listening to Pink but, for the most part, doesn't tune in to the latest chart-toppers—especially when she's writing songs.
"I'm always trying to do my own thing. What ends up happening is that my influences from childhood creep up, because [I am] a product of that," she explains. "I was taking music so seriously from a very, very young age, so my writing style lyrically came from early country songs. I like to approach [lyrics] in a very matter-of-fact way of saying them, very frank, and often with a bit of a sense of humour. Country music at one time was written like that, more so than now."
The list of tracks on Up! reveals that Twain has not lost her cheeky way with words, with such catchy titles as It Only Hurts When I'm Breathing, Ka-Ching!, Waiter! Bring Me Water! and What a Way to Wanna Be.
Twain's hurtin' songs are typically upbeat, with an "I'm picking myself up and dusting myself off—so there!" sensibility, possibly a reflection of the fact that Twain did just that, caring for her younger siblings after her mother and stepfather were killed in a highway accident in 1987.
This story of her resilience and courage to continue pursuing her dream of a musical career has been related countless times. She worked and sang at local clubs and resorts and, once her younger siblings had moved out, she moved to Nashville. Twain's talent, professionalism and stage presence immediately turned heads and she was signed to Mercury Records in 1992. Her self-titled debut came out in 1993, but then her partnership with Lange kicked in on The Woman in Me (1995) and Come on Over (1997), knocking down all the fences in the increasingly fractured, genre-specific pop world.
Twain's sexy, provocative music videos and crossover pop-musical arrangements caused some country-music purists to mutter "tsk-tsk," but she's got a truckload of Country Music Awards, Grammys, Junos and countless other awards to bury her critics many times over.
"Every song has such a different character," Twain continues. "The song Juanita [on Up!] talks about freedom of choice, having your voice. It's about any woman or girl who needs to be inspired and encouraged to look within herself to find her strength and her courageous side. I just named that Juanita, that side of us that we sometimes have to dig deep to find."
Twain respects the fact that both her image and her music are admired by legions of girls and young women from all walks of life. "Because I know I'm going to be out there singing my songs, I write them in a way that I can relate to the general public," she explains. "I want them to be able to apply this music to their everyday lives. I guess that's because that's what music has always done for me. And if I'm going to give musically at all, then I want [my songs] to do the same thing as what I look to music for. I want to sit there and say, 'Yeah, I've been there.' "
Although home and family are now the dominant forces in Twain's life, motherhood hasn't found its way into her songwriting yet. "The whole experience affects you emotionally, she reflects. "Because you're always thinking of your child, your fears, your love, everything is heightened. I suppose that indirectly that ends up in the music somehow, because songwriting is so personal."
Flare Cover Story January, 2003