By Allison Kugel | Image by Denise Truscello
Shania Twain: The Humor and Strength of a Global Superstar
How did a child growing up in poverty in the small mining town in Timmins, Ontario, Canada emerge to become the best-selling female recording artist in history? It's a question that often rolls through Shania Twain's mind. Throughout the course of my in-depth conversation with Shania in which we cover everything from her Las Vegas residency and burgeoning film career to her upbringing, her family relationships and her spiritual guideposts, we collaboratively put those pieces together and the answer is clear. The talent, perseverance and laser-like determination of this woman are unparalleled, yet so are serendipitous encounters along her journey that were put in place as if by divine order.
With multiple diamond-certified albums to her credit including 1995's The Woman in Me (2020 marks the 25th anniversary of its release),1997's Come on Over (the best-selling album by a female artist in any genre) and 2002's Up!; she's soothed and inspired countless fans around the globe with her soulful country twang, pop star appeal and the rich storytelling in her lyrics.
In 2017, Shania Twain emerged from one of the darkest hours of her life, losing her first husband and longtime creative collaborator, famed music producer Robert John "Mutt" Lange, and her voice to nerve damage she suffered as a result of Lyme Disease. Though she was down, her story was far from over. Twain re-emerged to find love with second husband, Frédéric Thiébaud, and the prodigious singer re-trained and strengthened her voice for a musical comeback. Her 2017 album, Now, is a mostly up-tempo celebration of healing, independence (Twain made this album sans the musical direction of ex-husband, Lange), love and pure joy. It's a personal and professional triumph.
Shania Twain remains steadfast and plain-spoken in emphasizing her humble roots, though she is now unapologetic in celebrating her storied career, and excited about all she has yet to accomplish. Twain extended her second Las Vegas Residency, Shania Twain Let's Go! through the end of 2020, and she takes on her second major film role in next month's, I Still Believe, playing, Terry Camp, the mother of Christian singer-songwriter Jeremy Camp, in a moving story inspired by Camp's personal life and career.
Allison Kugel: Looking back over your five decades of life, what events and experiences have been most formative for you?
Shania Twain: My youth, growing up in a small northern mining town in Canada was very formative. That upbringing has stayed with me in many ways, I would say permanently. My parents dying was a personal earthquake in my life, and life shattering. My first marriage was formative. Everything changed in my life as a result of my first marriage, both personally and creatively. That partnership (with ex-husband, music producer Robert John "Mutt" Lange) created a change in my life forever. And having a child was an incredibly life changing experience, and a very beautiful one. My son has brought a lot of consistency and stability to me, emotionally. Then, of course, there was the loss and weakening of my voice.
Allison Kugel: How do you turn challenges into blessings?
Shania Twain: If I start with losing my voice and my divorce, the silver lining during all of that was falling into love with somebody (Twain's current husband, Frédéric Thiébaud). He has been an incredible support through those difficult times. My second marriage has been an incredible re-strengthening of my confidence, of my will to even want to sing again. It is just amazing, the power of love, and I am very grateful to have found that again. I had been going along and enduring so much of what I had lost for a very long time. Finding the courage to regain my voice and getting back on stage again, taking all those risks. How about even taking the risk to fall in love again (laugh)?!
Allison Kugel: In my early 20s, I was living in Los Angeles, trying to find work as a writer and broke (laughs), and I would drive around listening to your music for inspiration. I would listen to From This Moment On, The Woman in Me, God Bless the Child. Your music would keep me company, comfort me and make me feel hopeful. I can only imagine how many other millions of people your music has done that for. You'll never know who they are, and you'll never know their stories. Do you ever stop to think about the enormity of that?
Shania Twain: I relate to it very, very well, because that’s exactly what music does for me. I understand completely what you're talking about and what role music plays in the lives of people, and sometimes for the artist as well. If you can relate to the artist as well as to their music, it's such an essential and it is such a huge part of my daily life. I’m very affected by it. My moods are affected by what song I’m listening to. I’m very easily influenced by music. I’ve never, in all my years, even when I was very young and getting into this business, I've never fallen into substance abuse. I was never into drugs or taking anything to enhance my creativity, and I was never a partier. I was always extremely serious, and the music, itself, was where I would get lost. I would literally get high on music or go into the state of mind of wherever a piece of music took me. If I can make people feel that way, if I can have that effect on people through my music, I've achieved everything I could ever ask for.
Allison Kugel: The one thing that so many people I’ve interviewed have in common, people who have reached the top of their field or craft, is that they are masters at manipulating energy and matter, and manifesting things into physical existence; into the material world. Would you put yourself in that category?
Shania Twain: Definitely! I think I've had a one-track mind, even now I still have this. Certainly, when I was developing [my career] and I was on my path, I was unreasonable. There was no distraction, there was nothing else. My focus was absolute, and all my energy went into whatever goals I was setting for myself. I think that is the only way you can even use the word "master." Certainly, if you can master your own development in your craft and get that good at something, that it's completely… you're inseparable from it. You’re inseparable from that ability and that skill. I’ve spent so much of my life in that mode, if you will. I still see so much of that in myself now, when I'm pushing myself as a songwriter or with whatever it is I’m doing. I'm always 100 percent in it.
Allison Kugel: I would think that frame of mind leaves little to no room for doubt, or for looking to the left or to the right, and all of that.
Shania Twain: And it is a frame of mind. It's almost a type of meditation and a very focused process, for sure.
Allison Kugel: You're now in your second Las Vegas Residency. The show is titled, Shania Twain Let's Go!. What's different from the first Las Vegas Residency you did?
Shania Twain: This Las Vegas Residency at Zappos [Theater] (at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino) is very much geared to the spirit of the room. The atmosphere of the room is very informal. I designed the show so that when I bring people up onto the stage, they're part of the story, in that vignette, and in that moment of the show. For example, I'll have a couple come up and sit in the most romantic seat in the house, which is on the stage, and I wrote a white glove [experience] for them into the show, while they're up on stage. So, they've got the best seat in the house, the white glove treatment, they're given champagne, and their serenaded with From This Moment On (from Twain's 1997 record breaking album, "Come on Over"). I did that, obviously, because so many people have been married to my song, From This Moment On.
Allison Kugel: I've also heard your show described as a "musical party."
Shania Twain: And that's the more country influenced part of the show, where I've organized a saloon set for people to come up and dance. I created a specific choreography of a line dance can-can. It's quite funny and light spirited, and very much built for the audience to be in the show. It's a stand-up room, it's a party room, so I thought Let's Go! would be the perfect trigger title to capture that mood.
Allison Kugel: I love that! I know that your mother was your greatest champion and your greatest cheerleader for your career when you were a child. She died, along with your father, in a car accident when you were only 21. If you could magically cross dimensions for just a moment to have a conversation with your mother, to either tell her something or to ask her something, what would you say?
Shania Twain: I would probably ask her how she recognized my talent at such a young age. I always wondered what made her feel that I was so capable, and how she recognized that in me, because she was not musical, herself, at all. And to sacrifice and push so hard for me, she must have believed in it intensely. I mean, it must have been really obvious to her, but I still can't imagine. I guess if you have a three or four-year-old downhill skier who's, right before your eyes, skiing better than everybody else, you can bet that with training they're going to be a champion. But with music, I'm not sure it's as obvious. So, I applaud her for that, and I'd want to talk to her about that. She sacrificed so much to develop my music. So yes, it was her conviction. I'd want to ask her, "Where did that conviction come from?"
Allison Kugel: Let's talk about your second movie, I Still Believe, coming out March 13th. The trailer made me cry. It's inspired by the true story of Christian singer/songwriter Jeremy Camp, and depicts the love story between he and his first wife, Melissa, who died of ovarian cancer a year after they married. Speaking of conviction, Jeremy knew he likely had limited time with Melissa, but he was so devoted to her. You play Jeremy's mother, Terry Camp, in the film. Do you think you could ever be 100% all in a relationship knowing you would likely lose the person like that? Would you, Shania, take that risk?
Shania Twain: Yes! I would do that. It's a heartbreaking story, but I think it's just best to jump in sometimes and live in the moment, not knowing where it will end, and even if there is a probability that it will end badly. I think love is never a waste of time. It’s never a loss, but always a gain. This movie proves that in the most magnificent way, and in the most selfless way possible. And true love is selfless. It was very moving, very inspiring and the ultimate act of selflessness, which love should be.
Allison Kugel: You’ve had two great experiences on film, so far. Your first movie, 2019's Trading Paint, you worked opposite John Travolta, and in I Still Believe you worked with Gary Sinise; two incredibly gifted actors. What have you learned so far?
Shania Twain: They are both so experienced as actors, and they influenced me a lot. I learned a lot from them. They were kind and very helpful and made me feel very much at ease; and I just loved being on the set. John Travolta made me feel very comfortable, and a film set is somewhere I feel I belong. It comes to me very naturally. I have no nerves about it or anything like that, and I really would love to do more on film, so it sparked an interest I didn't realize I had. It's a newfound joy in my life where I can be creative and step out of myself like no other element in my career.
Allison Kugel: Have you started thinking about what your legacy is going to be? Do you think about that at all?
Shania Twain: Well, I don't think too much about the end (laugh).
Allison Kugel: (Laugh) Sorry! I don’t want to be dark and grim. It came to my mind because when I was watching this year's Oscars coverage somebody made a comment about Brad Pitt, stating he is at a point in his career where he is starting to think about his legacy. And I'm thinking, "When do you get to that point? When does that happen?"
Shania Twain: I'm not sure what my legacy would be. I think I would be better off asking people what they thought, and what they think Shania Twain represents. What is she to them or what is her music to them? Is it the music that's the legacy to them?
Allison Kugel: Do you even still have a bucket list at this point? And if so, what's on it?
Shania Twain: Ah yeah! I have a few things (this was Shania's favorite question. She absolutely lit up!). One thing on my bucket list is, I want to ride horses in The Bahamas out in nature in The Exumas. That’s on my bucket list. I want to live somewhere in nature, really remote and cut off from the rest of the world for like a month (laugh). And it would be fun to get an Oscar…
Allison Kugel: Ha! I was going to ask you about that, but I didn't want to put you on the spot…
Shania Twain: That would be a bucket list thing, of course! Why not? I would definitely add an Oscar to my bucket list (laugh).
Allison Kugel: Well, I have no doubt that whatever you set your mind to, you can do. Do you pray, Shania? And, if so, who or what do you pray to?
Shania Twain: Yes, I do. I pray in the form of meditation. I believe very much in a greater force and a creator. I pray about life, the world, and all existence; and it's very much a part of my daily reflection. I make a point of never asking for anything. I believe that the creator is doing everything at will, and that my role is to fulfill that will. That's what I really believe.
Allison Kugel: What do you think you came into this life as Shania Twain, well as Eilleen (Twain's birth name) and then Shania Twain; what do you think you came into this life to learn? And what do you think you came here to teach?
Shania Twain: Well, I always see my one purpose as fulfilling the will of the creator. That is, again, a genuine deep feeling, and I don't always know what that is. It’s not always clear and I have no idea where I’m going in that sense. But whatever I do, I do it as best as I can and completely commit myself. I think I've probably come into this life to understand how powerful music is, and how much more powerful communication through music is, beyond my own personal plan. I'm always reminded that my music, and anything I put out there as a human being, and as an artist, is just so much greater than I am. I enjoy the feeling of letting it go and it belonging to whoever else it affects. In my case it's on a mass scale. It doesn't belong to me and I don't feel ownership of it, if that makes sense.
Allison Kugel: It makes perfect sense. What do you think you've taught your son, Eja, about woman through him observing your life?
Shania Twain: That women are completely capable of their own independence; independent decision making, independent financial support and independent dreaming. I’ve always been this strong independent female figure in Eja's life, but I’ve reminded him often that I’m not perfect, that I have my flaws and my weaknesses, and that it’s important to have empathy for the people who are there in your life. I hope he's learned that and takes that away with him, because I want him to also realize that he has to be a support to the woman in his life. I want him to understand that we women are not always the pillars of strength. We're not always the rock. A lot of strong women give that impression, that we are and that we can always do everything. It's good for sons to know that we are all human, and we all need each other.
Allison Kugel: One day, far off in the future, because I don't want to say it's anytime soon, but at some point when a movie is made about your life, what is the one thing you pray to God they get right?
Shania Twain: I would really want the conflicts in my life to be depicted respectfully. There’s been so much up and down in my life, that the way those moments are handled, in my opinion, would be the foundation of a good movie about my life. It would be difficult to cope with all these things that have been so important to me in my life becoming sensationalized. I wouldn't want the integrity of what I've been through to be compromised for the sake of sensationalism, or for my actual story to get abused or exploited.
Allison Kugel: Before we say goodbye, I'd like to say thank you. Thank you for the incredible music.
Shania Twain: Thank you, I appreciate that.
Shania Twain Let's Go! The Las Vegas Residency at Zappos Theater at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino is running through December 2020. Tickets are on sale through Ticketmaster and Planet Hollywood. Follow @shaniatwain and ShaniaTwain.com.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment columnist, author of memoir, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record, and owner of Full Scale Media. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel and at AllisonKugel.com.