Leopard print. Shania Twain. You already have an image in your mind’s eye. But it’s probably not the one I’m thinking of – the classy black and white cover to Shania’s new album ‘Now’, where the highest-selling female artist in country music history gazes towards the sky, hands clad in gloves that surely must be reference to that music video.
“Yes,” Shania chuckles, confirming the wink at her indelible ‘That Don’t Impress Me Much’ video. “You know it’s funny because the album is called ‘Now’, and there are just some things in my life that I just move on from. Time to let go of this. Then there are things that just stay with you forever.
I think that the leopard print will just always stay with me forever. It’s part of my career and my life and part of who Shania is visually and always will be. I’m happy to take with me into now and the future.”
The ‘Now’ album is recognizably the Shania we all remember, but it’s an album showcasing her growth and maturity in the fifteen years since her last album ‘Up!’. A bout with vocal chord dysphonia left her retraining her voice, which now has a more complex timbre.
Some will be tempted to scan the lyrics for references to Shania’s personal challenges, which have been well documented by the tabloids. But is this an album about the struggles of her last decade and a half or is this like any other album – a complete portrait of the Shania of today. As Shania explains, the title tells the story.
“It really is more about where I am now, and a reflection on my whole life and not just recent years. There’s been a lot of life lived to now and I would say that it’s a very it’s the most personal album that I’ve ever written.”
As one of the all-time great songwriters in pop or country music, and one of the most successful, Shania has always walked the line between drawing a portrait of her heart and world and finding language that all kinds of men and (especially) women around the world can relate to.
Lead single ‘Life’s About to Get Good’ is deeply personal, but I’d wager many listeners have no problem finding themselves in lines like ‘You no longer love me and I sang like a sad bird /
I couldn’t move on and I think you were flattered’.
A song like the volatile, emotionally stark ‘Poor Me’ is without parallel in Twain’s back catalogue. Part of the reason may be that this is her first album written totally solo, without a single co-writer.
“That just does naturally make it more personal. It’s coming from me directly, without any outside influence in the songwriting. I isolated myself to write most of the album, and it’s me in the purest sense, unique to anything else I’ve ever recorded.”
‘Now’ may be the first record with no credited writers other than ‘S. Twain’, but Shania has always defied Nashville conventions. Instead of cutting tunes from the Music Row songwriting elite, she’s had a hand in the penning of all but one song on all her records since 1995’s ‘The Woman In Me’, largely in collaboration with her then-husband and producer Robert ‘Mutt’ Lange.
“I was a writer from the age of ten, so I’ve been writing alone all of my life. I met Mutt and then he became my collaborator and co-writer for the next two decades. But there was one period, when I first got signed to my record label, that for the first time it wasn’t going to be doing my own music. There was pressure to only record outside songs and that’s what I did on my first album.”
The self-titled ‘Shania Twain’ album features only one song co-written by Twain, and perhaps no coincidentally, it failed to yield any significant hits. As soon as Shania took the creative reins, this trend was sharply reversed. ‘Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under’, ‘Any Many of Mine’, ‘The Woman in Me’, ‘You’re Still the One’, ‘From This Moment On’, ‘That Don’t Impress Me Much’, ‘Man! I Feel Like A Woman’ and on and on. This is Michael Jackson territory.
Countless column inches have been spent remarking on Shania’s pop crossover success and her high-octane stage shows. Her status as one of the most important and consistently successful songwriters of the last 25 years has been underappreciated.
Growing up poor in Ontario, Canada, Twain took to the greats of classic pop and country (“The Beatles were a huge influence, the Carpenters, Dolly Parton”), and the legendary Canadian singer-songwriters.
“There was a whole host of the storytelling singer-songwriters. There were many great Canadian songwriters that were always on our radio like Joni Mitchell of course and Gordon Lightfoot, who was a big influence on my writing.”
Shania’s love of folk singer-songwriters established a songwriting process that is still largely unchanged today.
“For me it’s still what it always was, it’s sitting with my guitar. I do work with my guitar in front of a computer now, but that’s the only part that’s changed. Sometimes it starts with a melody, sometimes with poems, sometimes with a title or just a concept. So there’s no real formula.
I’m always writing from a different element in music and there is no one way that I write to be honest.”
Songwriting is a constant in Shania’s life, whether the goal of a new album is in the front of her mind or not.
“I’m always an ongoing writer and I usually just collect ideas over time. When I decided to jump into the project and make an actual record, it was a good year of on collecting all of those ideas and putting them all together. A year of really concentrated writing and then I carried on writing during the recording process as well so. That was all about a two-year period.”
The deliberate, unhurried pace of Shania’s current artistic process is hard not to contrast to the relentlessness of twenty years ago, when she was riding the bazillion-selling ‘Come on Over’ album to world domination. I asked if her if she was able to enjoy all her success in that period, or if she got too caught up in the crazy pace of it all, like so many superstars.
“It’s true and that is what happened to me. I didn’t really realize how wonderful it all was at the time. That’s partly why symbolically I used the leopard print glove [on the new record cover]. I look back on that period of my life very fondly, especially creatively. So it’s a throwback of a moment that I now am enjoying really for the first time.”
It’s hard not to remark on a coincidence of timing that Shania is returning with new music, less than a month after another pop culture icon of assertive brunette womanhood has been relaunched into the forefront of our consciousness. Wonder Woman may be fictional, but the awe and inspiration she’s generating in young girls who see that movie has a lot in common with how girls look at Shania.
With her recent return to touring, I wondered what it was like for Twain to play to 20-something girls who grew up worshipping her music.
“Well it’s very special to see the audience today compared to the audience 20 years ago.
You know 20 years ago the audience was so full of parents with their small children who were three, four, five, six. Now those kids are in their late teens or early 20s, college age. It’s amazing to see the transition.
They all have a very similar story and it is touching. To hear them say repeatedly ‘You were my first concert, I came with my mom’ and now they’re college kids coming with friends.
It’s still in the joy of a child almost, that’s what music does to us. It brings us back to such an excitable euphoric place. A song takes you back to a time and it’s just so refreshing and wonderful and energizing for me.
It’s unexpected as well because… I don’t know what I was expecting, but I just forgot that all these little kids grew up. You come back fifteen years later and all of a sudden, they’re adults and that really did blow my mind.
So it was wonderful to watch that evolution. And there’s always a heartwarming story as well that people have to share and I love to hear their stories.”
In a couple of short months, these young women will be waiting with bated breath to pick up their first ‘new’ Shania record. Their real-life superhero has returned, armed with a new collection of lyrics and melodies to touch their hearts.
Shania thinks on this for a moment.
“Well,” she says. “I hope they like it.”