Back in May, Shania Twain previewed her long-awaited new album for media in Nashville, nervously addressing the group as if she wasn't sure how the music would be received. Twain openly presented the record as an honest reflection of her life right now, acknowledging that it might not be what everyone was expecting. "It was really just all about me speaking everything that was in my heart and mind," she said at the time.
The album, titled Now, arrives on September 29th, 15 years after her previous full-length Up! – and in the wake of some personal upheavals that assailed her in the interim. Most notably, her divorce from husband and longtime collaborator Mutt Lange, with whom she has a 15-year-old son, Eja. Lange had an affair with and eventually married Twain's former best friend, Marie-Anne Thibeaud. In a twist worthy of a Danielle Steel novel, the heartbroken superstar and Marie-Anne's ex-husband Frederic leaned on one another, fell in love and got married as well. But the ensuing stress from the situation led to Twain being diagnosed with dysphonia – a condition that affects vocal cord control – which she later learned was also due to complications from Lyme disease. With therapy, Twain was able to return to performing – first through her two-year Caesars Palace residency Still the One, and later with the Rock This Country tour – and recording some of the songs she had written. She learned to adapt to her new limitations. "My voice will never be the same again, I doubt very much," she tells Rolling Stone Country, in Nashville again several weeks later. "I've already gone through a lot of work, and as you get older it actually gets harder."
One of the things that helped make Twain become the biggest country star of the second half of the Nineties – that is, beyond the fact that her songs were ridiculously clever, forward-thinking and had hooks for days – was the way she projected a survivor's strength, both through her hit recordings and the circumstances over which she triumphed to achieve greatness. From her hardscrabble childhood in Ontario, Canada, to the tragic deaths of her mother and stepfather in a car accident and having to sing to support her sisters, Twain has been beset with abandonment and struggle from the very beginning. She is the epitome of rising above one's circumstances, but her vocal cord problems and her long absence from the public eye were entirely new obstacles to overcome.
"Swingin' With My Eyes Closed," the opening track on Now, addresses some of that trepidation in classic Shania fashion. Beginning with a foot-stomping intro that slyly recalls "Any Man of Mine," it quickly settles into an easygoing reggae groove. She sings of facing uncertainty and having to ball up one's fists to throw punches even when one isn't necessarily ready. Twain wrote every song on Now by herself (a first in her career), along with arranging the vocals and harmonies. She brought on a murderer's row of producers – none of them Nashville usual suspects – in Ron Aniello, Jacquire King, Jake Gosling and Matthew Koma, whose credits include Bruce Springsteen, Ed Sheeran, Kings of Leon and Zedd.
As Twain hinted, the album doesn't sound like her blockbuster recordings from the Lange era. She stretches out stylistically, flitting between down-tempo pop in the vein of Dido ("Light of My Life"), arena-ready Mumford & Sons-style folk-rock ("Home Now"), vulnerable country balladry ("Who's Gonna Be Your Girl") and even sprightly, tropically flavored dance music ("Let's Kiss and Make Up"), singing about finding her way through adversity or getting over heartbreak. She makes multiple references to betrayal ("It killed me that you'd give your life to be with her," she sings in the bouncy lead single "Life's About to Get Good") that could easily be read as a reference to her divorce, but Twain is adamant that Now, as she says, "is not a divorce album."
Instead, it's the sound of a global entertainer finding her footing on mostly unfamiliar ground, recalibrating her style for an audience that's even more fragmented than when she flipped country and pop on their heads in the late Nineties. More than that, it's the sound of a woman who refuses to be held down.
At the album preview in May, you touched on the working relationship you had with Mutt, crediting him with your artistic development. But you said you felt "stripped of your own identity" when people gave him the credit for what you'd accomplished together. Why do you think that was?
Because Mutt was the producer. I was more the sounding board for him and he wanted it to be very true to me stylistically as well. He was an excellent collaborator and I think he really brought out the best in me in so many ways. But not being independent – meaning we were collaborating, we were relying on each other for our strengths – it's just I wasn’t spreading my wings the way I would have if I was doing it by myself. The identity thing, it wasn't really an identity crisis, but it's sort of that feeling of, when you're somebody's mother they don't call you by your name. You're addressed as "Eja's mom."
You also said something at the event about how you consider yourself part of the service industry, which seems like a very populist gesture. If you're serving the consumer, is there room for creating art?
I'm not serving the consumer. That's not the way I look at it. Comedians, for example, they're such intense writers and performers. They're very similar to songwriters and any type of artist. The comedian that writes their own material, they pain over writing things to get a laugh. They have a purpose behind their writing. So my purpose is to do the same thing. I'm looking for an emotional response. I'm looking for a connection.
You took a long break from recording and performing in the mid-2000s and have slowly worked your way back to releasing a new album. What was the spark that got things moving on Now?
I was encouraged enough to try the Vegas Caesar's Palace residency for two years. That was a very controlled environment so I felt I was brave enough to take that on. That was a success and you go, 'Whoa, I can do that. Now let me add traveling on to that and see if I can do that in a traveling scenario.' So I went on tour and that worked out really well. There were confidence bridges along the way that I built and the [song] writing was ongoing and then I just thought, 'Well, the only other thing to do now is tackle a studio album [laughs] and be the singer of all these songs I've been writing.' And they were so personal, these songs, that I felt even more compelled to sing them myself. And by that time I'd really come to a good place in understanding my voice and accepting the obstacles and how to get around them.
You made a slight return in 2011 with "Today Is Your Day," starring in the OWN miniseries Why Not? With Shania Twain. How much were your vocal issues affecting you at the time?
There were three recordings I did during this phase of really not having my voice back yet. That was the Michael Bublé duet for "White Christmas" and then "Endless Love" with Lionel Richie [from Richie's duets album Tuskegee] and "Today Is Your Day." I called it my mascot song for the series. But the effort it took me to get those vocals – my voice – in the place where I could do that, there was no way I could have had a recording career with all that effort. It just wasn't worth it. It was just like this crazy amount of psychological and physical work. I had to get that down to being less of a job and less of a painful exercise to just get some joy out of singing and getting the effort and the reward balanced more. That is what happened really just in the very last two years, and that is when the songs really got focused as the album songs.
You mean you started to see what songs belonged on the new album?
Exactly. Like, There were a lot of bits that weren't finished. In the last two years I've been puzzling together the songs for this particular purpose of this album.
What did you notice as the pieces really came together?
To me it was all about balance. I didn't want the whole album to be misery. I didn't want the whole album to be boppy. I wanted the album to be diverse and to give a good expanse of all of the things I've been experiencing over my life, really. I've never written an album alone before. I've never written an album that has not been collaborative or uninfluenced by another thinker, by another heart. So this is my chance to do something very, very pure.
"I have a deep need for self-satisfaction."
It's interesting to hear you trying out so many new styles, from reggae to tropical house, on Now. You seem to be quite aware of stylistic shifts in pop.
I'm experimenting more with grooves. It's probably influenced more by my son. Because he's 15, I'm always hearing the stuff he's doing and working on and listening to. And I love dance as well. I love happy music. That definitely crept in more. Then there's more of that now than the rock that was heavier in my earlier albums, that Mutt and I both loved. But on this one, there's some lighter things for sure than I've done in the past.
Why was it important to you to write the entire album alone?
Even when I was realizing maybe I could record another album, then the fear was, "Where do I begin?" For the last 15 years I've been collaborating with the same person. Now all of a sudden I'm alone. I'm starting over. And I don't know where to begin. I don't even know anybody that I've been working with over 15 years. I just don't know what to do. I was lost. "Home Now" is a reflection of that feeling of being lost and just I don't know what to do and where to go. So it took a while to build up the courage to even share the songs. Once I did start sharing them, the demos [with] just the songwriting, the responses were really powerful and I thought, "You know what, I'm gonna try to do this alone. I'm gonna write the most honest experiences and emotions that I can in these songs."
It fits in with the things we already know about your story: survival and perseverance, no matter how hard it gets.
And that's where the strength is. It's interesting to touch on a song like "Poor Me" and "Who's Gonna Be Your Girl," there's a few like that. But the strength is in sharing, finding the strength to share. This is a different type of strength. It's more personal courage to share knowing that the stronger importance is to share it – that it's more valuable to others than it is to just keep it to myself.
Do you think of the album as a country release, or is it something more broad?
I think there's absolutely country influence in the album, no doubt about that. Even "Life's About to Get Good," it's got a real hoedown groove to it. I guess I just am what I am, and I'm not really sure what it is. I'm sure anybody ever did figure it out even over all the albums. I'm not sure it matters. The fans are just so diverse as well. I think they expect that. They just expect me and a lot of personality in the music. Quality music.
Do you feel like you have anything else to prove at this point?
I have a deep need for self-satisfaction. That was a big part of writing by myself. I needed to satisfy that independence. I think I'm just gonna be doing that from now on, doing things that are really satisfying. That makes it all worthwhile. That makes the work that it takes to keep this voice manageable worth it. The work that it takes to be the singer for me is a lot. There's gotta be satisfaction in there. There's gotta be a payoff.