Shania Twain’s first new album in five years, due Nov. 19, is called ”UP!” Previous titles didn’t really lend themselves to analysis (”The Woman in Me” and ”Come On Over”), but the word ”UP!” works pretty well if you’re looking for a summation of Shania’s personal philosophy. Whether the subject is pregnancy or creative gestation or youthful adventures in the service sector, her remembrances are peppy, rosy, free of pain or victimization. ”My worst day at McDonald’s? I never really had a bad day,” she says. ”I enjoyed working at McDonald’s.”
This is how everyone, including Shania Twain, describes Shania Twain. Responsible. Laser-focused. A perfectionist. ”A consummate professional,” says Paul Boyd, a Scotsman who’s directed five of her videos. Maybe also a tad impenetrable? ”Oh yeah, definitely, I agree with that,” Boyd says. ”She’s very private, and that definitely has seeped over into her work. She’s a serious person. There’s nothing flippant about her. It’s easy to work with her; she’s just not that easy to read. She’s an enigma.”
Maybe it’s natural to think of Shania’s remoteness as a coping mechanism — a wise move for a private person in a business that’s all about devouring privacy, an understandable psychological strategy when your early years handed you a steady stream of blackflies and bad news. Her life story has been repeated so many times that it’s become almost a kind of folklore, but that doesn’t make it any less moving. She grew up in Timmins, Ontario, Canada, so poor that she had to pack mustard sandwiches for lunch. She was 22 when she lost her mother, Sharon, and her stepfather, Jerry Twain, in a gruesome collision with a logging truck. The accident made her ”hard,” she has said over the years, and ”strong,” and ”numb.” She spent her early 20s caring for her three younger siblings. Her first shot at breaking into show business involved wearing fishnets and singing oldies as part of a cheesed-out, big-haired revue in a gray, permafrosted patch of northern Ontario. It’s this saga, this up-from-the-ashes triumph, that gives Shania an almost saintly glow in the eyes of her fans.
She’ll tell you, though, that she was always a bit of a machine, even before the accident, even in her childhood. ”I couldn’t be thinking about playing. I couldn’t be thinking about silly things like that,” she remembers. ”If I wasn’t focusing on my family I was focusing on music. I took music very seriously. It was my outlet, it was my drug. Through my teens I really didn’t need drugs or anything like that. I had music.” However you might feel about Hank Williams and Gram Parsons and the whole honky-tonk tradition of romantic self-sabotage, Shania Twain seems to have let that flaming cup of moonshine pass her by. ”I’ve never had a drinking problem and never drank when I worked,” she says. ”I mean, all my teenage years in bars, I never took a drink. I certainly could’ve gone off track many, many times in my youth. Just wasn’t interested.”
Even the 37-year-old Twain’s courtship with her husband of eight years, 53-year-old Robert John ”Mutt” Lange, started out as business. In 1993, having mastered the science of the fist-pumping, lighter-flicking anthem with the likes of AC/DC, Bryan Adams, and Def Leppard, the South Africa-born and London-bred songwriter-producer was on the prowl for a rising star in Nashville. He caught ”What Made You Say That” — the first video from her dead-in-the-water debut album, 1993’s ”Shania Twain” — and called her out of the blue. Shania didn’t know who he was. She wasn’t sure what the Concorde was, either, but…hell, the whole thing was like a lyric from some Def Leppard riff fantasia: ”He bought her a one-way ticket, and baby rode a supersonic jet…”
Sort of. This was Shania’s first trip to Europe, but she didn’t waste any time watching soldiers march around Buckingham Palace. ”I didn’t get a chance to see Europe,” she says. ”I wanted to write. At the time I didn’t even know Mutt. I wasn’t taken by him in any way. It was just, This is a guy who’s interested in my songwriting, and he’s really into my voice. We wrote till three or four in the morning. We were just writing the whole time. Really productive.” Six months later they got married.
The first fruit of their partnership, 1995’s ”The Woman in Me,” sold 12 million copies. Two years later came ”Come On Over” — it sold 34 million globally and became the fifth-biggest album in history — and in turn did what stupendous success does to pretty much everyone who tastes it. It intensified everything; it highlighted every quirk with klieg lights. She and Mutt moved from Nashville to an isolated estate in the Adirondacks of upstate New York. Even that wasn’t far enough away. ”I was getting burned out,” she says now. ”I was just getting tired of being a star. I just didn’t want to be famous for a while.”
It’s an amazing arc, going from mustard sandwiches to a belle epoque mansion in Switzerland, the land of secret bank accounts and fine chocolate, but you’re not likely to catch Shania ruminating on that upward trajectory. ”Yeah, it’s a big change, but it’s been gradual enough that I’m not weirded out by it,” she says. ”I’m just comfortable with it. I wouldn’t say there’s anything strange about it at all.” She goes on. ”It’s a typical French château. There’s many of them all over Switzerland. They’re quite common here.”
Here, she took French lessons; nobody in town bothered her. To register for the classes she used her married name, her real name: Eilleen Lange. She rode horses. She’s got five of them: Tango, Queenie, Chief, Slick, and Shadow. She meditated; Shania and Mutt are devotees of a strain of Eastern mysticism called Sant Mat. She got pregnant late in 2000 (she and Mutt have a 1-year-old son, Eja), but there were no Demi Moore-style forays into public belly-baring. ”I do not see my family life in any way, shape, or form as an opportunity for a photo.” She shopped.
”It’s the contrast of Switzerland that I love so much,” she says, ”because it’s quiet for me, yet I have access to every European designer I could ever want…. I just go down to the boutique in my little village and I can get haute couture. And the beauty of it is that I could pet a cow on the way.”