Shania Twain on finding therapy in songwriting and making her big comeback

After a painful divorce and a devastating illness, queen of country Shania Twain has finally got her voice back

shania twain

The story of Shania Twain’s life reads like the lyrics to the most quintessential country ballad. After a difficult upbringing in a remote part of Ontario, her mother and stepfather died in a car crash when she was 22. She took in her younger siblings and sang to support them, before she hit the big time in the early 90s and became, well, Shania Twain: the bestselling female artist in country music history.

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But it’s been 15 years since her last album, Up!, during which time she found out her husband Robert “Mutt” Lange was having an affair with her best friend. Twain is now married to the ex-husband of that best friend (keep up), and is back making music after years of near-silence, having literally lost her voice. Her fifth studio album, Now, is released later this month.

“I just want to be recognisable after all these years,” she says, ahead of her first London show in 13 years at Radio 2 Live in Hyde Park. For someone held in such reverence – she’s still very much considered the queen of country-pop – in person Twain is gentle and thoughtful as she describes how it feels to be back. “This record is much more personal and uninhibited. I feel like I’m very transparent and direct.” It’s true – overt references to the breakdown of her relationship in 2008 are dusted throughout the record: in Poor Me, for instance, she sings, “Still can’t believe he’d leave me to love her”. “Songwriting has been therapeutic,” she says. “It’s my way of venting.”

shania twain

She has had much to vent about. Divorce is difficult even without such a betrayal, but Twain also lost her musical collaborator; Lange was her co-writer and producer, and their partnership was behind her biggest hits.

The emotional heartache – in her memoir she wrote that she “wanted to die” – was accompanied by physical trauma. Twain contracted Lyme disease, which damaged her vocal cords, leaving her unable even to shout after her dog.

“It was devastating,” she says. “I would have grieved every day for the rest of my life if I hadn’t got it back. I knew I’d always have a life in music, because other people could record my songs, but I was sad to lose the joy of singing.

“I was able to do performances but couldn’t commit to recording an album, which is different; it’s a permanent imprint of your instrument. But it was a blessing in disguise. I have appreciation for the break – I love domestic life, and would have regretted missing it. My son Eja [16] has had a normal upbringing – it’s been the best of all worlds, in the end.”

shania twain

Fifteen years is a long time to be gone from music, especially now that streaming and digital downloads have transformed the industry. “Communication is more immediate now, but the relationship between artist and fan is no different. Although the internet makes it more difficult for new young artists trying to make a living. Not everyone can be as huge as Justin Bieber, and we can’t expect young artists to be motivated purely by the love of music if they can’t afford to feed themselves. We discriminate by not rewarding them enough.”

But, she insists, country music hasn’t changed a bit. “It’s soul music, storytellers’ music with a rootsy-folk soul, and it’s still that way.” Asked if she’s nervous about re-entering the country world – her main home has been Switzerland for several years – Twain says, “I feel more part of the Nashville scene than I ever did. When I first went there I wasn’t accepted. I was an outsider. I wasn’t American, I wasn’t traditional, and they didn’t know what to think of me, so I wasn’t embraced quickly or easily. Now I have a large display in the Hall of Fame museum in Nashville and I’m openly respected, it’s an accomplishment!” She cackles. “I’ve finally got their attention – it’s a wonderful feeling!”

She credits songwriting, and having total artistic control, for that. “If you have a vision of where you’re going to end up, and your songs are rooted in who you really are, then no matter how glossy it gets, there’s depth.”

shania twain

In 1995

Take any of country’s biggest vocalists and you can guarantee they’ll cite Twain as an influence. But there’s only one who has come close to Twain’s record – and she has left country music far behind her. “Taylor Swift has experienced a lot of what I have. No one else has done it like her, since me. You have to be really bold and brave about who you are and where you’re going. She’s a very good songwriter and has been in control of her career, like I was. We took full responsibility for every decision we made, and I guess the reward is bigger at the end.”

Those rewards include five Grammy Awards, 39 BMI Songwriter Awards, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – and Twain’s third album Come On Over remains the sixth-bestselling album in the USA. Her songs are still treasured, which means that for Twain, too, they never get stale – or too painful to perform. “They’ve taken on lives of their own. The meaning the songs have for other people refreshes them. And I’ve never been swift about throwing music together – I’ve been a perfectionist, so there’s nothing that I would have changed. I still love my songs the same as I always did.”

Interview by Sarah Carson

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Radio 2 Live in Hyde Park is on Sunday 10th September from 1.15pm on Radio 2