Not Just Another Pretty Face
While Shania Twain's sophisticated, sexy videos for tunes such as "Any Man Of Mine" drew fire from purists,
there is more to the 31-year-old Canadian singer than meets the eye.
There is something to be said for second chances.
While Shania Twain's eponymous debut album made few
waves in 1993, her second - The Woman In Me - teed
off to become the biggest selling album recorded by a female country music artist. A brash, catchy mix of roc k and country sounds and pop attitudes, boasting more hooks than a Mississippi River trotline, by the end of 1996 it had sold more than eight million copies for Mercury Records.
What made the difference? One change was the influence of internationally renowned producer Mutt Lange, whom Twain married half-way through his collaboration with her on the second CD. The critical difference, though, was contained in the Billboard magazine headline "Twain Writes Her Way To Stardom On Mercury Set." Twain had cut none of her own tunes on the first album, and almost no one else's on the second.
"It wasn't really me," she says now. "I don't hate the album, but I'm better singing songs I write. . . I write my own music and I prefer it that way."
Songs make a difference.
While Twain's sophisticated, sexy videos for tunes such as "Any Man Of Mine" drew fire from purists objecting
to John and Bo Derek's "10"-style visual imaging of Twain, there is more to the 31-year-old Canadian singer than meets the eye. Besides the key ingredient of an instantly identifiable voice, Twain brings stellar songwriting instincts to her collaboration with Lange, who penned 10 songs on the album with Twain and one by himself. Reading song credits on her first album, you'd think she wasn't a writer at all, but she had been performing everything from Dolly Parton country to George Gershwin, plus writing original tunes from a very tender age. "Because I started writing music so young - I was only 10 - as a songwriter I wanted to draw from everything," Twain explains.
Despite being personally more interested in the Carpenters, Twain was heavily influenced by the country music played constantly around her parents' Timmons, Ontario house. As a result her first tunes, as she puts it, "were country-ish."
"But I was listening to Stevie Wonder; I listened to the Bee Gees; to classical; to everything," she continues. "So I really wanted to draw from everything, but country was all my parents ever knew . . . so I was a little country girl with this huge guitar that was bigger than I was. My whole repertoire was country. . . [And] it was a serious career for me. My parents were managing me as if I was a child professional. My mother explained it by saying I had to get some stage presence. They'd create dialogue for me. That's my dues paying."
Her repertoire of hits is what 15 years ago was known as "crossover." That's too small a word for the Shania
Twain phenomenon, though. She doesn't just leak over from one format to the other - she demolishes the fences separating them. She stands tall in both, as indicated by her twin pop and country BMI citations for "Any Man Of Mine" for 1995. She earned her third citation for one of BMI's most performed country songs of 1995 for "(If You're Not In It For Love) I'm Outta Here."
The most important fan of Twain's modestly successful first album was Mutt Lange, who loved the voice long
before he even met the singer. Their collaboration was crucial to bringing out Twain's delightful pop-country
sensibility. Coming from a rock records background with production clients including Def Leppard, AC/DC and the Cars, Lange was unencumbered by fear of country radio's oft-voiced preference for sound-alike artists to fit
specific demographics. Still, it wasn't Lange only who put the pop in Twain's music.
"People think the pop stuff is coming from Mutt," she says. "But what they don't understand is that almost the opposite is true. His real love as a listener is country. He'd like the whole thing to be steel and fiddle. I grew up singing country, and I need to draw from other musics just for inspiration. So when I get a chance to branch out in another direction, I take it."
The story of their connection is the stuff of show business mythology: older star takes younger talent under his wing and both take off to new heights of personal and professional collaboration.
"We basically got together because of my first album," she explains. "He was intrigued by my voice and wanted
to know if I was a songwriter. We got together over the phone and started exchanging song ideas. We were compatible right off the bat, [so] we started literally writing 'The Woman In Me' over the phone. . . It wasn't love at first sight with me [when I finally met him face to face]. I had already fallen in love with his mind before I ever had any romantic inclinations towards him."
Regardless of the contributions of Lange as husband/producer/co-writer/mentor, there is no denying that the beautiful, diminutive brunette is a tough little survivor. Reared in a poor family, her mother pushed her in the direction of the musical talent that was obvious by the time she was ready for the first grade. "She knew I was talented and she lived with the hope that my abilities were my chance to do something special," Twain recalls.
In 1987, when Twain was only 21, her mother and father were killed in an auto accident that also nearly killed
one of Shania's younger brothers. She turned to performing full-time in Canada to support her 13- and
14-year-old brothers to adulthood. She couldn't go to Nashville to seek a recording career until they were able to leave the home she made for them as sister/mom. During those years, she put all her feelings into her music."I've always expressed myself through my music, my emotions and my thoughts," she confesses. "I never really kept a diary. My diary was always my writing book. I would a lot of times translate out my emotions and you wouldn't literally be able to read them out as my own experience."
She may have appeared slight and helpless when she got to Nashville, but she wasn't. Like her one country music idol - Dolly Parton - Twain had gumption, was business-oriented yet creative. And she hasn't been afraid to use all her assets in building her success, pushing the envelope in country for using sexiness to sell records while not quite breaking any traditional taboos of the culture. She also understood the personal value of her music.
"I liked to escape my personal life through my music," she says. "Music was all I ever had. I would play 'til my fingers were bruised, and I loved it!"
One thing she didn't particularly enjoy was the pressure of performing. Her mother had to push her to get on stages, and used to wake her at 1 in the morning to go sing in bars after alcohol sales had cut off because that was when minors were allowed to enter. The industry was surprised when Twain didn't mount a concert tour to take advantage of her second CD's success. Despite the fact of an earlier album, Twain didn't feel she had enough hits to build a show around until "Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under," "Any Man Of Mine," "(If You're Not In It For Love) I'm Outta Here," "The Woman In Me," "You Win My Love" and "No One Needs To Know" became smashes. She did a lengthy meet-&-greet tour of shopping malls, but only performed on a handful of awards shows. She plans to tour in 1997, in support of a third album that she and Lange left their Lake Placid, New York home for Christmas holidays in the Caribbean to finish writing. "We're a two-guitar family," she says, laughing. "This is a chance for us to get away from the phones, from any interruptions, and just write songs. For the last two years we've been writing a lot individually and now we're coming together with the ideas we've got banked up."
The forthcoming album promises to be more hooky, iconoclastic, rock-beat country music like The Woman In
Me, but with a twist.
"We've got some exciting titles, some exciting concepts for the next album," she says. "I'm very big on titles and concepts when I go about writing a song. I often have a whole list of just titles. We're basically gonna come up with stuff that's really gonna make you think. Stuff you can laugh with; stuff you can cry to; just a lot more of the same stuff, but we're gonna reach deeper inside ourselves [and allow] fewer inhibitions."
by Bob Millard, BMI Music World, winter 1997
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