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Big Twain

Q mag cover - Nov/99 She was a lumberjack and she wasn't OK. Now she's 30 million-selling, not-country sex diva with granite eyes and Shania Twain is quite lovely thank you very much. So much so that, with the gnomic spouse locked safely inside a Swiss chateau, Q went on a date with her. "I like good clean fun," she warns John Aizlewood.

It is seven minutes to eight on the evening of Wednesday, August 18 and a pair of R-reg Mercedes are speeding in tandem through North London's humid drizzle-coated avenues and alleyways. The two cars have but one aim; to ensure that Shania Twain, who has sold more records than any other woman on the planet this year, reaches the Roundhouse Theatre before the clock cries eight.

Shania Twain does not visit the theatre like mere mortals visit the theatre. The Roundhouse have been informed that if the superstar is to favour their show with her presence, she will only arrive exactly at eight, as the lights dim, so that like Louis XIV-similarly successful it must be remembered-her countenance may not be gazed upon directly. Truly, she is the Twain ordinary folk shall never see, let alone meet.

The arrangement calls for the Roundhouse to be telephoned at 7:55, so that the Twain gang can be met and escorted to its pre-designated area. Darren, however, has a better idea.

Darren is a tall, thin, bespectacled, likable black man, proud possessor of a laugh Sid James might think earthy. He is Shania Twain's security for the evening, fresh from doing Ricky Martin ("very humble") on Oxford Street and Pele throughout the last World Cup ("mobbed everywhere, lovely bloke"). Vastly experienced, Darren's strategy is two-fold: Plan A, being pleasant to all and, should that fail, Plan B which involves "getting nasty, but I don't usually have to do that". Darren suggests telephoning at six minutes to eight. If Roundhouse people have to wait at the door for Shania Twain so be it. Better than the other way around.

Miraculously, the in-car radio station, something called Magic (magic only in the way that losing a limb is "magic"), is playing a Shania Twain song and she is squeaking with delight. More miraculously yet, around Camden Town the traffic clears and the Twainmobiles arrive at 19.58.

There will be none of that old-fashioned stopping-outside-and-walking-in nonsense. The cars screech into a petrol station forecourt opposite the Roundhouse. Only the contact of Car 2's passenger door with a small wall and subsequent chauffeurly exclamation of "shit!" attracts attention.

19:59: A Twain representative stops traffic to cross the road and find the Roundhouse people. There is much waving and gesticulating. A smattering of furrowed-browed late theatre-goers tarry. Darren paces around, confidence undimmed by the honking of petrol-purchasers' horns, angry at their blocked exit.

20:00: Oblivious to hullabaloo, Shania Twain sits alone in a Mercedes, concealed by tinted windows. The greeting party is a pretty woman and a man with a baseball cap and headphones. More gesticulation all round.

20:01: "Not too far off now," says a Twainperson. More waving from the other side of the road.

20:07: Shania Twain emerges from her Mercedes and grins at non-existent public. North London's traffic has already been halted, resulting in queues back to the North Circular. She ambles across Chalk Farm Road and shakes hands with Roundhouse woman in a manner less regal that Queen Elizabeth II, but only just. We are bundled inside. Q wisely takes a zig-zag course to bamboozle would-be snipers.

20:08: Showtime! The dimming lights! The greasepaint! Hurrah!

20:09: Wrong again. Shania Twain wishes to visit the toilet. Lights brighten. Woman from Roundhouse's lower jaw begins to quiver.

20:11: Shania Twain safely (and it must be noted, remarkably speedily) emerges from what has turned out to be a Portaloo.

20:12: Showtime! Hurrah! Etc!

The show in question is De La Guarda, a percussive extravaganza performed to a standing audience by a fearsomely lissom, tightly choreographed Argentinean troupe, who bungee jump, shout, band and dance their way through 90 sense-battering minutes. It's quite wonderful.

Shania Twain, thankfully unmolested, wholly unrecognized, has a rare old time, barely seeming to notice that her acolytes have formed a circle around her. She giggles, she points up at the figures flying above her. Her eyes almost pop when members of the audience are swung 40 feet above her head. Her mouth is agape when a man walks upside down suspended from a platform upon which another man is jumping.

As the lights go on, the Twain mob sprint out, pausing only to re-shake the hand of the Roundhouse woman. The traffic has already stopped, probably of its own accord. On the other side of the road, a Mercedes awaits. Shania Twain, rear seatbelt fastened, is understandably overcome with inarticulacy.

"It was just totally fantastic! I've never seen anything like that before. Totally unique, original and fantastic. It stimulated so many of your senses. Very, very exciting. Fun and passion. Wow! So energetic."

Slowly, she gathers herself.

"You know what," she confides, face tightening. "I don't really like people treating me as a star. I'm so uncomfortable with that. In a normal social environment I don't want to be treated special or different. It's something that really bothers me.

I can't stand it. If I go to a club I go very plain and simple. You'd be surprised at how long it takes before people realise it's me. The more you act like that and don't take a big entourage, the more normal you can be. I get away with a lot that way, so I have experiences without people hanging on."

She stares into the late-night Baker Street traffic, bites her bottom lip and compulsively rubs the tips of her thumb and forefinger together. Her eyes glint like granite.

In central Canada, Windsor, Ontario lies 500 miles of south west of state capital Toronto. There, on August 28, 1965, Eilleen Regina Edwards was born to Sharon, who was prone to depression, and Clarence Edwards, who had other things on his mind.

Clarence fled when Eilleen was two. Sharon re-located herself and her two daughters north, to Timmins ("The City with A Heart Of Gold!") a rough-as-a-buzzard-gold-mining settlement of 50,000 with an unemployment problem: think Barnsley. Winter lasts from the end of October to the middle of April and wind-chill means temperatures of minus-80. When Eilleen was six, part-Irish Sharon married full-blooded Ojibway Indian Jerry Twain. Sharon spent days on end in bed, upset. Jerry, much loved by his stepdaughters, struggled for forestry work and there wasn't enough food to go round. Most of all though, was the cold. God, it was cold.

"There's a lot of neat little stories," explains the former Eilleen Twain, over Darjeeling at London's quintessentially posh hotel, Claridges's. "Actually they're not neat at all. There were many days when we had to huddle round the stove because we couldn't pay the heating bill. We went to bed wearing our coats, literally freezing. It's not the way you want to live, you can die in those conditions. I don't think our parents would have allowed us to die, they would have taken us to a shelter, but we definitely endured what we could, we pushed it to the limits. We managed and I'm glad we did. A little bit of hardship's OK, it's not the end of the world, it's better than being abused. As a child, you feel punished if you're separated from your family just because you're poor, see we did everything we could to hide it from other people so we children wouldn't get taken away."

Luckily, Eilleen could sing and play the trumpet "very poorly". Her desperate parents would wake her at midnight and drive her into Timmins. Clubs which provided musical entertainment had stopped serving alcohol at midnight and so it was legal, albeit unusual, for an eight-year-old to sing the closing 12:30-1 am set, covering Me & Bobby McGee, anything by Dolly Parton and originals for which she'd written out chord charts for the band. Did the authorities know about this?

"Um, I didn't advertise it. I didn't go to school saying I was in a bar until two this morning. The clubs gave me $20 and it was my parents' way of getting me experience."

The crowds of course were senseless with drink.

"I was scared shitless. I had terrible stage fright. It was a good thing my parents encouraged me. If I'd had it my way, I'd have taken the easy option and remained a songwriter, not a performer. I loved music but I was never passionate about being a performer."

In the early-80's, the Canadian government had one of its periodic guilt trips over annihilating centuries of Indian culture and a decent proportion of the Indians themselves, so grants were made available for Indian businesses. Jerry Twain was one of the lucky ones and soon had a forestry plantation. Eilleen had been working at McDonald's ("I learned a work ethic, etiquette and discipline"), but now split her time between giggling throughout Ontario and being a foreman.

"I miss it so, but it was hard work. There were a lot of four in the mornings when I did not feel like getting up to plant a tree. I was one of the guys, I really was. I worked as hard as any of them, if anything even harder. I was determined never to be outwalked or outworked and I gained tremendous respect from my workers."

Although not a shouter or a swearer, she was strict enough.

"I would tell people how to do things a few times. If they didn't get it right then they would be let go. If they cheated, they would get fired and have to walk to the nearest road. It could take you a day to do that. Cheating lets other people down. What an insult!"

Those skills have not been lost.

"I'm a doer, a thinker, not a follower, but I wouldn't say I'm a slave-driving miserable person to work for. I have very mature, responsible, reliable people. I expect from others what I expect from myself which is my best. It seems to be working great.

Aged 22, Eilleen Twain had moved to Toronto to sing. On November 1, 1987, a timber truck veered across a Timmins road and drove straight into an oncoming car whose driver and passenger, Jerry and Sharon Twain, were killed instantly.

"Now, sometimes to a fault, I live in the future and depend upon time to heal, which it does if you let it," their daughter explains, quietly. "But if you live in the future too much it can be empty, life can keep passing you by. At some point you have to be satisfied, you have to get over this grief."

Has it made you a colder person?

"No, it's made me a warmer person, much much. I've become more emotionally vulnerable and sensitive, aware how fragile life is. It affected everyone differently, but I exhaled a great deal when I finally came to grips with all of it.

"When something as drastic as that happens to you, you realise you cannot control everything. Things are going to happen and there's nothing you can do about it. It's almost a relief to accept that fact, it can relax you. You realise that you have to put your efforts into trying to be happy. I let go of a lot of things and let shields down. I'm not much of a fighter any more. I'm actually weaker, but it's OK, I don't mind. I'm living life more than I ever was."

The oldest Twain sister had married, so Eilleen returned to care for her remaining sister and two brothers. The following June they all moved 300 miles south, to Huntsville, Ontario where Eilleen was appearing in a Vegas-style revue. Four years later, free of family responsibilities and every conceivable due well and truly paid, music attorney Dick Frank saw her perform and paid for her to come to Nashville.

"It wasn't compromising. I didn't say, Well maybe I'll be a country artist for a little while and see if I can make it. I was so down-to-the-core familiar with country that it was natural for me."

As a name, Eilleen Twain was deemed too uncountry. Losing Twain would degrade her dead parents, so she took an Ojibwa word, Shania ("I'm on my way") as a Christian name.

1993's self-titled hack-country debut, despite a Sean Penn-directed video for Dance With The One That Brought You, didn't rock anyone's world. Twain, the songwriter, dressed in a parka on the sleeve, contributed only the lyrics to God Ain't Gonna Getcha For That. "I didn't expect to become a major superstar right after that."

Meanwhile in London, another video, for the album's only quality song, What Made You Say That, caught the eye of reclusive South African multi-millionaire Robert John "Mutt" Lange, producer of Def Leppards's best-selling work, Bryan Adams, Backstreet Boys, Boomtown Rats, AC/DC and, most grueling of all, The Cars' Heartbeat City. More guru than producer, "Mutt" Lange contributed more to his charges records than some of them liked to admit and more than some of the others ever knew. In Shania Twain, "Mutt" Lange liked what he saw and saw something in what he heard.

Soon the pair were gossiping like harpies on the telephone and songwriting together. They met in Nashville in June 1993 and by December were married. "Mutt" Lange, aged approximately 50, is a fascinatingly elusive figure, rarely photographed and never interviewed.

What do you call him? Robert?

(Guardedly) "Nope."

Robert John?

(Tersely) "Nope."

Robert John "Mutt"?

(Crossly) "Actually, I refer to him as "Mutt", but his name is Love to me."

And what about his mother? What does she call him?

"John, if anything. His mother called him John."

Do you accept your marriage looks pretty strange from the outside?

"It probably does, but if I could be like him I would. Him and I are so much the same. I respect, appreciate and envy him. He doesn't want to be famous and just because he's married a famous person, all of a sudden it's an issue. He's always been this way and that's a very admirable quality."

Do you get lonely, with him never being there?

"Oh yes, when I'm away from him, I don't like it. I hate it. I hate being away from him."

Do you ever go back from, say, awards ceremonies and say, Where were you? I needed you?

"No. I don't take those seriously. A family member always comes with me. It's not like I'm sitting there holding my husband's hand going Am I gonna win, am I gonna win? That's so dramatic and I'm not like that. It's certainly nothing I would need my husband there for, my goodness."

Why isn't he in the wedding photographs?

"He's in there! He's in lots of them. I gave the press one without him, so that he wouldn't have to be anywhere."

Isn't that odd?

"Nooo. Being a celebrity couple is so tacky, common, corny and embarrassing to him and I totally understand it. What the hell does it have to do with my music? Nothing."

What's he like?

(Takes a deep breath so deep it almost sucks up the Claridge's string quartet) "You'd love him. Everybody who knows him loves him. He loves good conversation; he's a very intelligent person; he reads a lot; he's a real history buff; he loves fashion and likes to keep up with the latest of everything; he's very into the aesthetic of things, which is real fun for a girl when we're shopping. At the same time he's a major sports buff and he loves European football, and absolute fanatic. He's a wonderful guy. He's very gentle. People get a good vibe from him and they love him, he's very sweet and kind. There is no-one that he could not get along with. He's an avid gardener too."

So why keep saying you have a low sex drive then?

"Pah! Never said that. I may have said that I'm not a very sexual person, not the type who needs to flirt. My videos are sexy and I have quite a lot of fun with that, but I'm not a very sexual person, I'm just not like that. I like good clean fun myself. Mind you, behind closed doors, my husband finds me pretty sexy. It would be really awful if he didn't, very sad for me and 'Mutt'."

Husband became wife's songwriting partner and producer, tossing in $500,000 of his own money as The Woman In Me became country's most expensive album, after the record company blanched at the year-long production schedule. Only it wasn't country as the country establishment understood it. She was still a Nashville-friendly frump on the front cover (John Derek took the photographs; wife Bo was assistant), but on the back Twain was navel-bearing. Weirdly, this, more than anything she's done including not sounding country at all, irked Nashville, although now it seems to be illegal for female country starlets to cover their belly buttons.

What if you'd been ugly?

"I have been ugly! I'm ugly a lot!"

Oh stop it.

"No, no! I was genuinely ugly! I looked like a boy and had two pretty blonde sisters. Not everybody that is successful is beautiful."

You never show your legs. Dumpy are they?

"They're not very good. I would call them athletic legs."

The songs hinted at country and then veered off to all sorts of places. Twelve million copies later, without a sales-boosting tour, she'd crossed over, and - a jail sentence back in Huntsville for car stealing half-brother Mark aside - that should very much have been that.

During Twain's formative years, the family spent their weekends on the Matagami Indian reserve, absorbing the culture. Instead of cookies they'd have wild meats as treats and Jerry would fry little chunks of moosemeat or deep-fry bannock dumplings and top them with jam. Eilleen loved it: "It was one big family, you could sleep on anyone's couch."

After being adopted by Jerry, she was legally registered as Indian, but the more famous she became, the more she blurred the distinctions between the blood of adoptive and natural fathers. Inevitably, in April 1996, she was outed by, most hurtfully of all, the Timmins Daily Press, who claimed she'd "woven a tapestry of half-truths and outright lies" to give her character and heritage which, paradoxically, she actually had.

Why lie? You were immersed in Indian culture.

"I can see that. The honest truth is that I never introduced Jerry Twain as my adoptive father. He always said there were no favourites in this family. He never reminded us we were adopted daughters: we were all one family. We took it quite seriously and felt really good about it. Now, if somebody had said that I was adopted I wouldn't have been offended, surprised or defensive. I wasn't hiding it, I just couldn't imagine making a statement like that for no reason at all. It's bizarre."

But why claim Indian blood?

"I actually resent that. Why should it matter? Is it because Jerry Twain was of another culture that made me claim that I'm something I'm not? No, that's not true. I am status Indian. I have been adopted into the tribe. I'm legally his daughter! Yes! I never thought there would have to be an explanation. I didn't think it was such a big deal, but obviously I'm wrong."

Ever meet your father?

"We were, I guess, introduced a couple of times. My sister's met him once. My mother would tell us about his family, where they lived, what they did for a living and little bits and pieces. She said they were part Indian, so I always believed we had Indian blood in us. And so now I'm baffled."

Was you mother telling the truth?

"I believe she was (she lowers her tone to garden fence conspirator and elbows firmly in the stomach). She told me they were ashamed of it and would never admit it. I've spoken to my uncle about it since and he said they have Indian in their family and they're denying it. Apparently, my great grandmother was Indian and married a white man. In those times it was not unusual for such women to have to denounce their Indian status and leave the reservation, so it's very, very believable that she had to leave her family and never associate again. There are a lot of predjudiced people. That is my truth, but whether it is true I don't know. I can understand how people are seeing it that I'm lying, but I'm not. What can I do? I'm sorry. Actually I'm not sorry at all."

And her paternal grandmother is called Regina Nutbrown. Claridge's carrot cake, Shania?

"Mmm, please."

What do you think?

"Too dry. And I didn't think the biscuits were that great either. I prefer the Ritz. I had a tea there with my husband and the scones were great. These don't seem home-made, more like something out of a packet, but I hope I'm wrong. Oh boy, we're not giving it a great review, ha ha! Am I going to get in trouble for this? The tea's a little bitter too. If you really know tea you should try Earl Grey and tell me what you think. It's my British blood."

When it was time for Shania Twain's third album, "Mutt" Lange didn't have to put his hand in his pocket. The European version of 1998's Come On Over discussed PMS and VPLs, but eschewed country almost completely, although North America's edition enjoyed more fiddles and pedal steels. She became the first woman to sell over 10 million copies of successive albums. The closing Rock This Country! , much loved by Tipper Gore incidentally, flicked a V-sign to Nashville. She'd left them behind.

"Have I shown Nashville? Yes, but it wasn't my intention. Nashville is a very small town, controlled by a small group of people. It's not like they tried to ruin me, they just weren't sure. You need the opportunity to get the fans and you're home free. Then the industry turns around, which is what happened to me. I don't hold it against them is what I'm saying. That's life."

Now, as "one of the key-selling artists in pop music", she's crossed over pre-Nashville days, she was rarely country, so she had little to betray-and she's worked like a dog for it. Inevitably the drive is beginning to wane and her ambition is to write a song someone else records before she does. Do you like your music?

"Oh yeah I do, but I enjoy it more at it raw stage than the finished state. Once you've recorded it, it's that way forever. As a fan I hate it when songs are changed so much live you can't even recognize them, but that's restricting creativity. The novelty wears off after a while."

Would you be less successful without "Mutt"?

"I wouldn't say I would have made it to this level. 'Mutt' has the fairy-dust and the magic. What we have is magical so it would be ridiculous to assume otherwise. It doesn't necessarily have to be 'Mutt', but it would need somebody that understands how to work with the type of artist I am."

Frankly she'd rather be at their main residence, a chateau in La Tour-Du-Peilz outside Geneva beneath some alps, with Lange, their horses and a dishwasher that doubles as a cooker.

"'Mutt' is completely bilingual, although he never knew a word of French before he moved. He's doing so well. He is the perfect guy."

The "Mutt" Langes, it seems reasonable to suppose, are not in the Geneva telephone directory, under "M" or "L". Such is Twain's clout she can order her record company not to promote her in Switzerland.

She pauses for what seems like an eternity. Despite her grace, she loathes interviews, almost as much as she loathes performing on television, her absolute nemesis. Sometimes she looks beautiful - her transformation to vixen in front of a camera beggars belief - sometimes she looks dog-tired.

"Let's say I've worked more than I've wanted to in the last five years, but I've no regrets, a girl has to work. If you want to be successful, you have to be willing to sacrifice for a certain amount of time. I was willing, but it's not something I could do forever."

She doesn't smoke, she doesn't drink and turned vegetarian after marriage. What does she do?

"I swing."


"I'm not kidding!" Her face lurches into life, her eyes widen and for the first time in her 10 hours in Q's company she's lost in reverie. "I swing dance. On the tourbus after the show, while the bus is moving, I would just dance the night away, especially if it's a good, straight dancing road. Even it it's winding, we still dance and get thrown all over the bus. It's hard, it's challenging, it's fun, it's exciting. Backstage we would swing too. It's a great workout, good clean fun and I do a ton of it. I miss it. I gotta teach my husband how to swing."

Surely this would be but a trifle to such a man.

"Hey!" she points her finger and giggles. "It's not that easy, you have to learn. Once you get the basics, then you can really get creative. 'Mutt' is a natural mover obviously, he's very musical so he'll learn. Then me and him will be swinging around the chateau."

by John Aizlewood, Q Magazine, November, 1999 cover


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