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Shania Twain walked out on top; now she wants back in

Earlier, Twain was a country-singer cross-genre titan

Jon Caramanica | NYT 

Shania Twain
Shania Twain performing at the opening ceremony of the US Open in New York earlier this week. (Photo: Reuters)

The last time released an album — the experimental country-but-not-quite opus “Up!” — it sold 874,000 copies in its first week, and went on to receive the Recording Industry Association of America’s diamond certification for 10 million copies sold, her third album in a row to reach that milestone.

That was in 2002, right around the peak of the CD age, and an era in which the pop mainstream hadn’t yet fully absorbed hip-hop. Napster had just come and gone. Barack Obama was still a state senator. Taylor Swift had just taken her first trip as a pre-teen to Nashville.

At that time, Twain was a cross-genre titan, a country who — with her then-husband Mutt Lange, the producer who boosted the sound of AC/DC and Def Leppard — made titanic, eclectic music that infuriated Nashville purists with its flashy embrace of pop theatrics, but still dominated the charts and made Twain a megastar with a Rolling Stone cover and rotation on MTV. On songs like “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” and “That Don’t Impress Me Much,” she was brassy and a little salacious, a feminist triumphalist.

Much has changed in the intervening decade and a half. Pop stars aren’t as grand scaled; country music now takes as givens many of the risks Twain innovated; and Twain divorced Lange following an outlandish tabloid scandal.

And yet Twain is not apprehensive about her return, 15 years later, with her fifth album, “Now,” on September 29. “I really feel like I’m coming back into worlds that I already know,” the singer, 52, said one afternoon early last month in a room at the London West Hollywood hotel here. “Now” is, like most of her albums, not quite country music, though she has swapped the excess of her last albums for something smaller and warmer. It has little to do with country music’s traditional centre, but to be fair, much of modern country music has little to do with what is thought of as country music’s traditional centre.

By standing apart, Twain may well fit in, though the path hasn’t been clear thus far. The new album’s first single, “Life’s About to Get Good,” fizzled on the chart. But radio might not be Twain’s path, said Cindy Mabe, the president of Universal Music Group Nashville. “It’s the magnifier,” she said, “but frankly, does she need it? No. She’s a global icon.” She pointed out the breadth of Twain’s release plan — award shows in France and Germany, a concert in London’s Hyde Park, TV in this country and Canada, and much more — as proof that “no one has the reach that Shania does.”

As Twain spoke, she was preparing for this global rollout, surrounded by racks of clothes to wear for photo shoots and television appearances, and musing on another way the culture has changed during her break from promoting albums.

“It is way more acceptable to be different, to be a more normal shape,” she said, discussing how at her pop peak, she wore custom-made clothes when runway styles didn’t fit properly. “It’s actually fashionable to have a bigger butt now. I remember feeling, like, ‘I cannot get my butt into these pants!’”

Twain’s own life has changed radically, too. After 14 years of marriage, she separated from Lange in 2008 after he had an affair with her close friend. (The divorce was finalised in 2010.) In turn, Twain married that friend’s husband, Frédéric Thiébaud, in 2011.

“This is not my divorce record,” she insisted, and yet many songs tackle the stings of romantic mistrust and betrayal. “Still can’t believe he’d leave me to love her,” she sings on the bleakly resentful “Poor Me.” On the haunting “I’m Alright,” she sings, “You let me go, you had to have her/You told me slow, I died faster.”

Twain has always written her own songs, and her gift is still acute. “I cried a lot when I wrote. I never cried when I wrote a song ever before in my life,” she said. “My songwriting is my diary and it is my best friend.”

And there is no awkwardness, she said, in working through sentiments about her old relationship while in a new one. “Surely I didn’t marry a guy that can’t handle that,” she said, then added, “I wouldn’t let him hear everything that I ever write, trust me. Some of the things I say in my songwriting would never find their way to being a song.”

“Now” marks the first time Twain has delved into that period of her life in song, but her return to public life began in 2011 with a scarred, vulnerable autobiography, “From This Moment On,” and an off-kilter, sometimes uncomfortable docu-series on the then-fledgling Oprah Winfrey Network, “Why Not? With ” 

© 2017 The New York Times News Service

First Published: Sun, September 03 2017. 00:57 IST
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