The queen of country pop gives us a taste of UP!, her first album in five years, and the hard times you won't hear her sing about
It’s getting dark and it’s starting to rain. I’m not sure where I’m going. Representatives of the Shania Twain organization are taking me to a photo shoot in Switzerland, but the process of getting there seems needlessly, twistingly…elaborate.
A taxi picks me up at a hotel across the border in France. We curve along a road between the Alps and Lake Geneva, we pass by the dungeon castle that inspired Lord Byron to write ”The Prisoner of Chillon.” (”My very chains and I grew friends….”) A cell phone rings and the taxi stops at a gas station. We get out. We jump into a Mercedes. The new driver is Charles. Charles takes us through a few Swiss shopping districts — miniature Euro-chic versions of Fifth Avenue. The cell phone again. We pull over to the side of the road. We hop out. We get into another Mercedes, this one carrying Richard Beck, the 30-year-old Brit who is mapping out Shania’s promotional launch in Europe. ”We’re going to swap cars again,” he laughs. ”It’s like a spy movie.” Actually, I’m thinking of Al Pacino at the beginning of The Insider, with the sack over his head.
Okay, it’s not uncommon for a journalist to fly into a subtle web of misdirection when pursuing one of the biggest pop stars on the planet, but this is wiggy. Maybe wigginess comes with the territory when the star’s last album sold 34 million copies. After more than an hour of driving and swapping, we kill another couple of hours in a sleepy, too-bright Italian restaurant. Then the signal finally comes and George, the new driver, takes us into the hills and up to an electronic gate.
So where are we after that game of logistical hopscotch? Through the rain and the mist and the darkness I can make out a modern building with what seem to be skylights. I’m ushered through a door, down steps, into a white, cool, cylindrical wine cellar lit by globed Asian lanterns.
There she is, Shania Twain, postnatally toned and slim at 37, posing in stiletto-heeled boots and tight Army-Navy-style pants for a photographer. She’s singing along to a Pink song — ”All you have to change/Is everything you are.” Her face is a mask of efficiency.
Okay. Where are we, again?
”A school,” someone tells me.
”A vineyard,” says another.
But where’s the wine? And what’s with all the instruments stacked against the wall? Drum kits, guitars, enough banks of keyboards to equip a Kraftwerk reunion…
”Props,” says Beck.
You’re dealing with serious insects,” Shania tells me the next day. ”You’re dealing with mosquito swarms and blackflies, which are just treacherous. When they bite you, you bleed. And a lot bite you. You get swarms of them. It’s really, really hard to work with that. You’re just bleeding. You’re just wet. You don’t want to be outside during blackfly season.”
She is framed by a pink and green trompe l’oeil wall, taking tiny sips from a cup of mint tea. We’re in a hushed, elegant restaurant not far from the Chateau de Sully, the 19th-century mansion in Switzerland’s La Tour-de-Peilz that she shares with her producer and husband of eight years, Robert John ”Mutt” Lange, and their 1-year-old son, Eja. Lake Geneva, also known as Lac Leman, laps softly outside. Amid all this Jamesian gentility Shania is talking about a job she had a long time ago, working with a reforestation crew back home in the woods near Timmins, Ontario, Canada. Plugging thousands of saplings into the ground. Swatting bugs. Watching out for bears and bull moose — yeah, a moose can charge and trample you if it’s rutting season. She sighs longingly, as if to say, Those were the days…. ”Yeah, I miss that,” she says. ”I miss the simplicity of that job. It was a great page in my life, actually.” She dabs her eyes with a tissue. Allergies. Barbara Walters, be forewarned: You’re not going to make Shania cry.