Twain's World

Live Cover This is what she's wearing: skin-tight black pants, a pair of platform pumps,also black, and a soft, loose-fitting lavender V-neck bouclé sweater.Her chestnut hair scatters around her shoulders and frames her face, which--unlike the cover-girl public visage that has women marveling and men melting from Maui to Manhattan--at the moment is unadorned and pleasant looking, in the manner of the nicest school nurse you ever had. Her smile is reticent, her demeanor almost shy, and the anticipation of encountering a haughty prima donna quickly fades away as she retreats into the corner of a green-velvet booth in a posh but empty hotel dining room just steps from Times Square. Shania Twain, 32, one of the biggest-selling female artists in Nashville history, with the best-known belly button in country music and a deep desire to cross over to international divadom, has arrived for a drink (just water, please) and a chat. And she's left her image at home.

Despite her apparent nonchalance, Shania Twain has lots of opinions about image, as she does about music and men and plenty of other things. She'll talk about these opinions and does so with remarkable aplomb over the course of our conversation. But she prefers to do her talking musically, which she has done with admirable bluntness on her last two albums, each of which she wrote entirely with her husband, Robert John "Mutt" Lange, the South African-born producer behind some of the most successful rock acts in the last two decades: the Cars, AC/DC, Def Leppard and Bryan Adams.

After a tepid self-titled debut album in 1993, Twain teamed with Lange (the two first met in June 1993 and married in December of that year) to produce the most significant breakthrough in country music in the last decade, 1995's The Woman in Me, a 12-song mix of caressing love songs and dance-tinged "chick" anthems, such as "(If You're Not in It for Love) I'm Outta Here!" and "Any Man of Mine." Over the past several decades, the anthem emanating from the distaff side of Nashville has gone from Tammy Wynette's homily "Stand by Your Man" to Twain's bold new edict that says, in effect, "Stand by Me." And it's striking a chord: The Woman in Me has sold more than 10 million copies, a feat Twain shares with only five other female artists: Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Carole King and Alanis Morissette.

Twain's third album, Come On Over (Mercury), released in November and certified triple platinum just eight weeks later, pushes further her role as captain of the local ladies bowling team. Unlike her previous effort, which featured only one exclamation point in its 12 song titles, the new album features six exclamation points in its 16 titles, including the double-exclamatory "Man! I Feel Like a Woman!" and "Whatever You Do! Don't!" It's clear Twain is warming to her role: "Honey, I'm home, and I had a hard day/Pour me a cold one, and, oh, by the way/Rub my feet, gimme something to eat." This summer, Twain steps out from behind the studio microphone to meet her fans--and confront her critics--on her first-ever solo tour. Twain has taken flak for not touring earlier, thereby perpetuating the view that she is the studio creation of her husband, with only limited chops as a performer. The tour, which she says will last at least two summers and cover North America, Europe and Australia, is her chance to respond in the most vocal and high-stakes way. It's also a chance for her to put a live face to the hybrid of country, dance and pop she has forged on her records.

Which brings us to the topic she most enjoys discussing: music. This is what she's listening to at the moment: Elton John, Joan Osborne, Paula Cole, Wynonna. In recent years, while she was writing her last album, Twain didn't listen to many records. But now that she's preparing for her show, she's listening again. "Mariah Carey's Christmas album is one of my favorites," she says. "And Tammy Wynette's. I put them on when I'm cooking. It doesn't matter what time of year."

Perhaps this eclecticism has worked in her favor. One significant improvement on Come On Over is the quality of Twain's lyrics. "They are better," she agrees. "I think I just put more work into it. I was less concerned and less cautious."

Also, more experienced. The much-speculated-upon collaboration between Twain and Lange works, she says, like this: She comes up with the ideas, writes the lyrics and throws in what she calls "a few crazy touches." Then she takes them to her husband. "I'll ask him, 'What about this?' I'm always apologizing for what I think. It's really stupid. I guess my confidence isn't quite there. He'll say, 'No, no, no. That's great. What else do you have? What else aren't you telling me?' "

Her insecurity, she says, does not stem from Lange's being a man, but from his being the producer: "I think if we were just cowriters, it would be different, but because he's the producer, he sees the whole picture.I mean, this guy has a brain that's unbelievable. So when you say something, he computes it into a million things. And then you're sitting there waiting for the response."

Which brings us to the topic most associated with Twain: sex. "It's a part of country music, whether Nashville likes it or not," she says. "Music is a very sensual experience, and country music can be very erotic. There are a lot of sexy artists who don't even realize they're sexy." George Strait, she mentions, and Dwight Yoakam. "Sex appeal and things that are sensuous do not have be threatening."

Which brings us to the topic that has most plagued her: the idea that she has surrounded herself with domineering men who are the real forces behind her success. On that point, Twain says she's always had strong men in her life. Her parents divorced when she was young, and Twain and her sister were raised by their mother and stepfather, who had one child together and adopted another. Twain credits her stepfather, Jerry, with imparting his Native American heritage to her. Although her paternal grandmother later complained in the press that Shania, who was born Eilleen, had fabricated her Native American roots, Twain insists otherwise. "My whole life, I never mentioned my biological father or the fact that I was adopted by my stepfather. I never even thought about it. Around our house, the word step-anything was forbidden."

After her mother and stepfather were killed in an automobile accident when she was 21, Twain raised her younger siblings. When she moved to Nashville, she adopted the moniker Shania, an Ojibwa Indian word meaning "I'm on my way."

In addition to the controversy surrounding her heritage, Twain is dogged by the even greater controversy surrounding her husband, who never appears with her in public, is almost never photographed and gives no interviews. Since their meeting in Nashville, the gossip mill has portrayed him as a Svengali. "The mystery that surrounds him has contributed to his reputation," she concedes. "But if he were sitting here, he'd be telling you exactly the way it is. He'd be saying, 'No, she does all of her own writing.' If anything, he'd say, 'I'm Mr. Twain.' It's very different from what a lot of people suspect."

Finally, on top of the controversies involving her stepfather and her husband, Twain added yet another strong-willed man to her team of advisers: Jon Landau. Last year, she hired the former-rock-critic-turned-mega-manager and his partner, Barbara Carr (they have just two other clients, Bruce Springsteen and Natalie Merchant), to mastermind her journey to superstardom. This news struck Nashville as yet another sign that Twain was eager to leave Music City behind, a charge she responds to by saying simply, "It's something that I needed. I needed that element in my career to take me to the next step."

Which brings us to the topic that most concerns her these days: her career. This is where Twain thinks hers is going: crossover. Mercury Records has been making an extraordinary pitch with her single, "You're Still The One," urging pop as well as country stations to play it. In addition, VH1 has joined Country Music Television in playing the video. In recent years, few Nashville artists have risked raising the ire of country radio stations by distributing their songs to other formats. Twain, though, isn't worried about a backlash. "I've been a good friend to country radio, and it's been a good friend to me. I don't see why that has to change."

Meanwhile, she says she also hopes her long-delayed tour will help her regain some confidence lost by sitting at home for the past two years, waiting until she felt comfortable launching a large-scale tour. It's a problem she knows she brought upon herself. "Everybody else is out there doing a show every second night. They've got the fans responding; they feel great. Here's me, once a month, or once every two months, going on TV, not having my chops, not being in shape, not having the confidence I would have if I was on the road. That's really hard, and I'm glad it's coming to an end."

As for the show itself, she promises it will be spirited, suited to her athletic image and apparel. "It'll be a little rock 'n' roll. Really high energy. A lot of people mention Tina Turner to me. I've never seen her show, but I guess it will be along the lines of her vibe and excitement." (As for which show was her favorite: Van Halen, whom she saw as a teenager.)

All of which points Twain in a certain direction. She has touched down for the past few years in Nashville, but she seems aimed toward anywhere but there. With her Canadian roots, Hollywood looks and global ambitions, Twain is like one of those spinning tops that appears ready to lift off at any moment and fly through the air. If anything, that's her goal.

"When fans leave my show, I want them to be exhilarated," she says. "When I walk off the stage and I think I've done good, I have a feeling of satisfaction. That's what I want them to feel as an audience. I want them to walk away thinking, 'Yeah, that was great.' "

With exclamation points?

"With exclamation points," she agrees. "Yeah! That was great!"

Live Magazine, May/98, Bruce Feiler


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