It is the August holiday weekend, but there is no rest for Shania Twain. New country music's hottest new sensation is busy paying her dues to the industry that has helped to make her one of its fastest-rising stars. Under the glare of spotlights, Twain finishes a day-long photo shoot in a Toronto studio, posing for a series of portraits to be used on billboards, bus shelters and posters. She had spent most of the day before at Canada's Wonderland, a theme park north of Toronto, co-hosting a music festival sponsored by a country radio station. There, fans hooted and hollered for her to perform her current hit, Any Man of Mine--without the benefit of a backing band. She complied, and it turned out to be the highlight of the day, with the audience of 5,000 singing along to every word. Long after the festival was over, Twain was still signing autographs. "It was a long day and a lot of work," recalls the singer, stifling a yawn as she rushes in a sports car from the downtown photo shoot to the Toronto airport. "But," she adds with no trace of self-pity, "I've had worse."
Too true. The life of Shania (pronounced Shuh-NYE-uh) Twain is a rags-to-riches story that reads like a Hollywood script. Half Ojibwa, the singer, who turns 30 on Aug. 28, has had to fight hard to overcome the poverty and tragedy of her early life in Timmins, Ont., and become Nashville's Cinderella, complete with a storybook romance. Twain's prince is Robert John (Mutt) Lange, a top record producer for acts such as Michael Bolton, Bryan Adams and Def Leppard. They married two years ago and have since created one of country music's hottest-selling albums. Released in February, The Woman in Me--featuring her two saucy hits, Any Man of Mine and Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?--has gone double platinum in Canada and the United States, meaning sales have passed 200,000 and two million copies respectively.
But Twain's breakthrough is as much the result of canny marketing as it is a product of her creative chemistry with Lange, who produced and co-wrote the album. Her management attracted Hollywood's husband-and-wife photography team of John and Bo Derek, who were quick to exploit Twain's undeniable beauty in her recent videos and album artwork. Says Greg Haraldson, program director at Calgary country music station CKRY: "Part of the success of country music today is sex appeal. And Shania's incredibly sexy."
Over a plate of french fries and a ginger ale in a Toronto airport restaurant, Twain, on her way home to the 3,000-acre estate she shares with Lange near New York's Lake Placid, admits that she finds her skyrocketing career astonishing. But the self-assured singer says that neither her sound nor her image is contrived. "My whole thing is I want to be myself," said the diminutive Twain, looking casually stunning in a white T-shirt and blue jeans. "I don't want to be a product of anything--whether it's a photographer, a makeup artist, a record label or even a producer. I just think Mutt's been able to bring out the best in me." Lange's production style has given The Woman in Me a strong, radio-friendly sound. But he also took Twain seriously as a songwriter--something Nashville had never done.
With a talented, sympathetic producer at the helm and a chance to strut her own songwriting stuff, Twain has blossomed into the perfect female star for the mainly urban fans of new country music. Like Garth Brooks, she has a sound that is country-flavored but not too western, blending fiddles and pedal-steel with rock guitars and pop harmonies. Meanwhile, her image is a fusion of wholesome country girl and sultry city sophisticate. Says Shaun Purdue, president of NCN, Canada's new country television network: "Shania's a woman of the '90s. She's no pushover and she knows what she wants. Her attitude makes her very appealing to both men and women." That attitude comes across loud and clear in her current hits and other songs on her album. (If You're Not in It for Love) I'm Outta Here! is a sly put-down of pickup artists sung with a mischievous growl. But on the slow sensuous ballad The Woman in Me, her latest single, Twain strikes a more vulnerable note: "I'm not always strong," she sings, "and sometimes I'm even wrong."
Yet Twain has taken few wrong steps in her career. The second of five children born to Gerald Twain, an Ojibwa forester, and his Irish-Canadian wife, Sharon, Shania showed an early love of singing that her parents, both country-music fans, quickly seized on. They would wake her up at night to go to sing their favorite country tunes at the Mattagami Hotel in Timmins. "It's awkward to be in a bar when everyone's drunk and smoking," recalls Twain, "but I had to do it anyway." She began writing her own songs at 12 and, throughout her teens, her mother entered her in talent contests and managed to have her appear on Opry North, The Tommy Hunter Show and other TV programs. It was an often-stressful childhood, she recalls, because she felt pressure to succeed. Coming from a poor family," says Twain, "the only thing that's going to get your children anywhere is to just push like hell. And that's what my mother did." Still, she credits her parents with providing a loving family environment. And she has fond memories of spending time in the bush with her father, who taught her how to hunt, trap and wield a chain saw. At 16, Twain was working for him, leading reforestation crews of mostly native workers.
Ironically, it was the tragic death of her parents that forced her to take her singing more seriously. They were driving to a job in the bush, she recalls, when they collided head-on with a loaded logging truck. "All they heard was a horn and that was it," she says quietly. At 21, Twain suddenly became surrogate mother to her younger siblings. With the help of Mary Bailey, a family friend and a former country singer herself, she landed a job in Huntsville, Ont., and moved there with her family. For three years, she performed six nights a week at the posh Deerhurst Resort, singing everything from Broadway show tunes to pop standards. There she dropped her given name, Eilleen, and adopted the stage name Shania--Ojibwa for "I'm on my way."
By the time her siblings went their own ways, Twain was ready to set her sights on a recording career. Bailey, who became her manager in 1990, arranged for Nashville attorney Richard Frank to hear her sing at Deerhurst. Impressed, Frank in turn introduced Twain to Harold Shedd, then president of Mercury Records, who quickly signed her. But Shedd did not exploit Twain's potential as a songwriter, and her 1993 self-titled debut album, a generic collection of country tunes by other writers, created little excitement.
One of the videos for that album, however, did attract the attention of Lange, then in England working on albums by Adams and Bolton. What Made You Say That? featured a vivacious Twain frolicking on a tropical beach with a bare-chested hunk. Like a smitten schoolboy, Lange immediately contacted Bailey to express his interest. Although a big name in the rock world, Lange was unknown to Bailey and Twain, who simply sent back an autographed photo of the singer. But Lange persisted and eventually convinced Twain that he was serious about her career. The two began a series of long-distance phone conversations about her songs and something clicked. Recalls Twain: "Mutt was so in tune with me creatively. He's actually a huge country fan and, before we knew it, we started writing songs right there on the phone."
Lange finally met the singer in Nashville in June, 1993. They were married in December of that year at Deerhurst and began work on The Woman in Me a few months later. According to Twain, Lange improved many of the songs she had already written for the album simply by pushing her to take them further. "He sends me away and says 'No, that lyric's not quite there yet,' " she explains. "He's made me a much better writer." Indeed, Lange transformed many of Twain's songs from passive tunes into more assertive declarations of a woman's needs. Any Man of Mine was originally called This Man of Mine. Says Twain: "It was all about how great and wonderful this guy was. But Mutt came up with a new guitar riff that changed the whole tone. We rewrote it and the lyrics became spunkier and, really, more like me." In the version that became so popular, she brushes off any guy who can't appreciate her for herself--"Any man of mine'll say it fits just right/when last year's dress is just a little too tight." In the equally feisty Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?, she confronts a man who has been unfaithful.
Now, having conquered radio and television, country's new princess must prove herself on stage. Although she recently performed on The Tonight Show and sang that a cappella number at Canada's Wonderland, Twain has never toured. That will happen, says Bailey, when the singer finds time to assemble and rehearse her own band. And Twain is clearly up to the challenge. After the death of her parents and the huge responsibilities that came on top of the grief, she says, "I know that I can never be that overwhelmed again." Her career may suggest a charmed existence, but there is as much Timmins grit as fairy dust in Shania Twain's phenomenal success.
Maclean's August 28th, 1995