"Do you recognize my voice?" Shania Twain asks, leaning forward on a hotel-room couch on a frigid New York afternoon. "It still sounds like me?" Twain – who sold more than 85 million records in the Nineties and early 2000s with country-pop hits like "You're Still the One" and "That Don't Impress Me Much" – is discussing her first album in 15 years. Out in the spring, it also marks her first recordings since she was diagnosed with dysphonia, a vocal-cord disorder that causes hoarseness and trouble speaking. The issue kept Twain out of the studio for years as she received voice therapy. She eventually found a timbre that's recognizable, but deeper than before. "I'm a different singer now," she says. "There was a lot of coming to terms with that. It's been one of the obstacles in my life I've just had to learn to live with."
Twain believes the illness stemmed from stress – one source of which was her divorce from Robert "Mutt" Lange, which was finalized in 2010. Lange, a music-business veteran who crafted major albums by Def Leppard and Céline Dion, produced and co-wrote Twain's post-1993 catalog, including 1997's Come On Over, which remains the bestselling country album of all time. Their partnership ended in 2008 when Twain discovered Lange had fallen in love with her longtime friend Marie-Anne Thiébaud. The story became a tabloid saga in 2010 after Twain revealed she was engaged to Thiébaud’s ex-husband, Frederic, effectively swapping spouses with her closest friend. "I've learned a lot about myself," she says. "It's scary to learn how vulnerable you can be."
She tells the story on new songs like "Who's Gonna Be Your Girl?" – a mournful ballad that reflects on the breakdown of her marriage. "It's about feeling unappreciated and knowing that you are secondary," she says. "Having to live with someone that has different priorities and accepting that you're not the most important thing in a person's life." Another song, "Swinging With My Eyes Closed," is about fighting back against pain. "The fighter in me wrote that song," she says. "I was thinking of a boxer taking a swing, or a baby first coming out with his eyes and fists closed. They can't even see yet and they're swinging with their eyes closed."
"We Got Something They Don't" initially sounds like the celebration of her newfound happiness with Frederic, but she says it was actually inspired by a baseball game. "I was sick in a hotel room and there was Major League Baseball going on just below the hotel in the dome," she says. "I was bummed out that I couldn't go there and enjoy the game, so I wrote this song about the winning team and what I would feel like and I just got into the spirit of the game. It's about feeling like a champion."
The tone of many of the songs changed dramatically during the album's long journey to completion. "Most of them started off quite melancholy and a lot darker," she says. "'Swinging With My Eyes Closed' was totally dark at the beginning. It's just all of a sudden the light went on and there was light as well as darkness. There's a lot of songs that have that contrast on it that maybe are too subtle for the listener to even realize."
"[Writing songs] helped me come to terms with a lot of things emotionally"
As the years ticked by without a new Twain album, the pressure slowly built up to make it something truly special. That pressure increased when Twain decided to write all the music herself. "It needed to be really pure and my own story and my own emotional journey," she says. "I was now alone all of a sudden, and I didn't want to shy away from it. And that's not a collaborative thing; it's a very personal thing."
For Twain, songwriting was a struggle in the years following 2002's Up!, an ambitious double LP that failed to meet the expectations set by Come On Over. She focused more on raising her son Eja, 15, at home in Switzerland. "I wish like crazy that I had new music by now," she wrote to fans in 2009. "It's been hard to put [my writing] all together into song format." She decided to ramp up her songwriting after launching her Las Vegas comeback show, Shania: Still the One, in 2012, which was followed by a successful 2015 arena tour. Twain built tracks on GarageBand before taking them to producers including Jake Gosling (Ed Sheeran, Lady Gaga) and Ron Aniello, who produced Bruce Springsteen's last two albums. "I told anyone getting involved musically to forget about my other records," she says. "I didn't want it to be related to Mutt's productions at all. I wanted a more organic approach." The resulting material is less poppy than her Nineties hits. "I was reflecting on the darkness," she says. The album has no title as of yet, but she plans on getting a single out in March and then releasing the album in May.
Twain is aware that she's returning to a different country-music landscape – one that has caught up with her forward-thinking pop instincts – and an industry that doesn't bank on CD sales anymore. "It's been so long," she says. "It almost feels like another lifetime." Discussing music streaming, she adds, "I’ve already adapted as a listener. The fun thing is more people actually hear your music."
Twain is not looking to return to the road anytime soon after her marathon arena tour, aside from a one-off appearance booked at the Stagecoach Festival on April 29th. Instead, she wants to get started on another album; she calls writing "therapy." "It helped me come to terms with a lot of things emotionally," she adds. "It's sort of like when you finish crying. When you're done, you're done and you move on."