When Eilleen Twain was in 12th grade — not yet Shania, not yet a global star — her music teacher asked her to sing an original song at a high school concert in Ottawa, Ontario. Though she had been singing professionally since she was 8, often to help her parents pay the bills, performing made her so nervous, she could feel it in her bladder. When the MC called her name, she was sitting in the trumpet section of her school orchestra and felt a warm trickle down her leg. Thinking fast, she kicked over the glass of water next to her chair and said, “Damn! I spilled my water!” Then she took center stage with her acoustic guitar and knocked ’em dead.
Every enduringly successful artist has a survival instinct, but Shania Twain’s is in Joan of Arc territory. Her impoverished childhood in Ontario, detailed in her best-selling memoir From This Moment On, reads like Dickens: parents who didn’t always have money for groceries and moved the family from place to place, sometimes to dodge the rent; five kids who would sleep in dirt-floored basements; a father who would get into violent fights with her mother, who sank into chronic depression. One of Twain’s first attempts at songwriting was titled “Won’t You Come Out to Play” — a plea for her mother to get out of bed.
All that happened before her 22nd year, when Twain was living in Toronto, trying to make it as a singer-songwriter, and got a call that her parents had been killed in a car accident. To support herself and her younger brothers (Twain has one older sister), she took a job in a Las Vegas-style revue in Huntsville, Ontario, where she lived in a cabin with no running water and washed her clothes in a stream. “Music has been my greatest therapy,” reflects Twain, 51, today. “It always has been. It’s a very great friend.”
Her life, and luck, changed dramatically in the early ’90s, when she moved to Nashville and her clear, companionable voice got noticed. The rest is history: 35 million albums sold in the United States, according to Nielsen Music, the most of any female country artist in the last 25 years. Four No. 1s on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart, and seven on Hot Country Songs. Five Grammys, six Billboard Music Awards, five American Music Awards. Plus, a smash album, Come On Over, that holds the record for the most weeks at No. 1 on Top Country Albums, with 15.7 million copies sold in the United States, making it the best-selling album by a woman (or any solo artist) since Nielsen began tracking sales in 1991.
Equal parts grit and pluck, Twain was the ’90s crossover queen, straddling country and pop with infectious hits that were upbeat and empowering. In songs like “You’re Still the One,” “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” and “Honey, I’m Home,” Twain injected country twang with rock’n’roll muscle and feminist bravado, casting herself as a self-reliant modern gal: fun-loving but ambitious, sensual but tough and unafraid to rhyme “stress” with “PMS.”
“Shania showed the entire music industry that there were new options for where you could take your career in country music, how widely you could expand it,” says Taylor Swift. “She incorporated so many elements into what she represented — she created fashion moments, she was sexy, you got the impression she would tell you exactly what was on her mind, she was a writer, storyteller and dynamic performer on the grandest scale. She was tough and she was sensitive. She had been through extreme struggle and pain in her life and persevered. She was elegant, edgy and bold. Shania became everyone’s favorite woman because she represented how versatile a woman can be.”
“The country I grew up with was daring,” says Twain today, curled up in a camouflage hoodie and jeans in a suite at The London West Hollywood, light-years away from her early struggles. The idiosyncratic country stars she gravitated toward — Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson — “were not cookie-cutter people,” she says. “Some of them were really rugged. Some of them had criminal records! They were worlds apart stylistically, unique and original.”
But when she first got to Nashville, she was “a bit disappointed” to find “that sort of spirit wasn’t really acceptable,” recalls Twain. “It was too radical, and it made me feel insecure and like I didn’t belong.” The songs she was assigned for her self-titled debut album were formulaic; the industry’s attitude toward sex at the time prudish. CMT initially banned the video for her first single, “What Made You Say That,” because one of her outfits exposed her midriff.
It was that initial dissatisfaction that pushed Twain to rethink what a female country star could be. “She was about as hard a worker as I’ve ever come across,” says Luke Lewis, who was the president of Mercury Nashville when Twain started out. “I asked her what her dreams were, and she said, ‘I want to be bigger than Garth Brooks.’”
“She was so undeniably herself,” says singer Kelsea Ballerini, who cites Twain as an influence and was born in 1993, the year her first album came out. “She wasn’t scared of anything.”
Twain’s ambition paid off: Come On Over spawned eight singles that reached the top 10 of Hot Country Songs; for a time, you couldn’t pass through a mall or a gas station without hearing them. In 1998, she set out on an 18-month stadium tour, traveling in a $1 million personalized bus, with her beloved Andalusian horse, Dancer, accompanying her. By the early 2000s, Twain’s videos made her bare-midriff days feel like a distant memory — just think of her cyberpunk catsuit in “I’m Gonna Getcha Good!”
A new generation of female vocalists now see her as a trailblazer. “I learned to think outside genre boxes and the status quo by watching her reinvent herself, and I’ll always be grateful for the chances and risks she took,” says Swift. At CMT’s Artists of the Year event in October, Twain received a cross-genre tribute from Ballerini (country), Meghan Trainor (pop) and Jill Scott (R&B). At his Nashville concert in August, rapper and fellow Canadian Drake told the crowd that he “grew up a fan” and dedicated his set to Twain, who was in the audience.
Yet it wasn’t until her late 40s that, says Twain, “I felt, ‘Oh, I really own where I am. I guess I earned this.’ ” Now, on the heels of a two-year Vegas residency, she’s finally getting back to her first love: songwriting. “I’m very satisfied being a creative person,” she says. “I need that more than I need to be a performer. Songwriting, for me, is kind of like cooking; everyone has to cook sometimes. Why not write songs?”
Over in the next room in her hotel suite, Twain’s husband, Swiss businessman Frédéric Thiébaud, quietly works on his laptop, his presence a reminder of one of Twain’s more recent trials. In 2008, she was living in Switzerland with her then-husband, producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange, when she discovered that he was having an affair with her best friend (and his secretary), Marie-Anne Thiébaud. “I was ready to die — to go to bed forever and never wake up,” Twain wrote in From This Moment On. “Or to hurt someone.” Shocked and bereft, she commiserated with Marie-Anne’s husband, Fred and, incredibly, wound up marrying him, on New Year’s Day 2011.
“It has been a real tug-of-war, trying to come to terms with very extreme emotions and explain it to people in the format of a song,” says Twain. In Lange, she had lost not just a life partner but also a crucial collaborator. Having worked with the likes of AC/DC, Def Leppard and Bryan Adams, Lange reached out to Twain after her first album, whisked her away to Majorca and helped forge her groundbreaking hybrid sound. It was a risky proposition that succeeded wildly, as the pair turned out hit albums like The Woman in Me (1995), Come On Over (1997) and Up! (2002).
For Twain, the years after the breakup were a time of recovery. Through training and rehabilitation, she made her way back to performing after suffering a crippling vocal injury (a process chronicled in an Oprah Winfrey Network miniseries), toured North America (a “farewell tour” she says remains unfinished) and played Vegas. Embarking on her forthcoming record, which she expects to complete before year’s end, without Lange was both liberating and scary. “It was a big leap of courage for me,” she says. “I didn’t know where to begin. I’d write every type of song, every type of lyric, every type of melody. Who is going to say, ‘All right, let’s hone in on this style?’ I didn’t have that direction, whereas with Mutt I did.”
Nevertheless, she had a sounding board in Thiébaud (“He’s a huge music lover”), and in producers like the 29-year-old DJ/dance artist Matthew Koma, whom Twain discovered through her and Lange’s 15-year-old son, Eja. “This is one of the first times I got to work with somebody who was re-addressing what their message was after having had such a huge, impactful career,” says Koma. “She wasn’t following rules that she previously has followed.”
“I do most of my writing in the bathroom,” Twain says with a laugh. “Or in the basement. Or on the beach.” She wrote much of the new album at her house in the Bahamas, though one song was written in a hotel closet. “It’s a strange thing, but I do need that isolation. I need to feel alone and intimate with my thoughts.”
She describes the finished product as “kind of schizophrenic musically,” but maintains she’s “the glue.” Don’t expect a wronged-woman credo like Beyoncé’s Lemonade. “I talk a lot more about pain,” she says, “but I didn’t feel the need to be that literal about anger or hate. It’s very triumphant in the end. I felt like, ‘Whew! I made it through the album! I made it through writing all the songs!’ It was an emotional roller coaster, and the lyrics reflect that.”
Her own eclectic interests may show through: She enjoys listening to everyone from Twenty One Pilots to Rufus Wainwright and DJs like Cashmere Cat and Hardwell, whom she discovered through Eja. “Having that stuff on in the background, it has made me feel a little more courageous and confident and happy about where music is going,” she says. And looking forward, she fantasizes about new collaborations: a duets album (Sia is high on her wish list), perhaps with one of her idols. “I went to a Kanye West concert the other night,” she says, “and backstage, someone passes me a phone and says, ‘Here, talk to Stevie.’ It was Stevie Wonder. And I’m chatting with him and thinking, ‘Gosh, I never did get around to collaborating with him.’”
Backlit by a Hollywood view, Twain reflects on how far she has come since her hardscrabble childhood. “How do you all of a sudden feel like you belong, if you grew up your whole life not belonging? It’s really tough to just flick that switch. Success doesn’t give that to you. I’m not comfortable feeling famous or important. It just doesn’t sit right with me at all. If I could be successful and not famous, that would suit me better.”
Her voice softening, she adds, “I spent most of my childhood embarrassed or feeling insecure or inadequate. That stays with you. That’s what that kind of life does to you. So, yeah, I try to enjoy my success in different ways. I think I’m finally starting to do that now.”
Shania Twain talks about balancing work and play and the greatest lesson she’s learned so far:
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 10 issue of Billboard. Billboard’s Women In Music event takes place on Dec. 9 in New York City and airs on Lifetime Dec. 12.