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‘Now’ and Then: Shania Twain on Chasing Love and Fun, 20 Years After ‘Come on Over’

Shania Twain’s new album “Now,” released Sept. 29, arrived 15 years after she sang “Can only go up from here!” Those words — from her 2002 chart-topper “Up!” — proved not to be so prophetic, as Twain had some downturns to weather before she would return to recording, including a few nearly career-ending vocal problems and the end of a long relationship with her producer and co-writer, who had also happened to be her husband.

By coincidence, 2017 also marks the 20th anniversary of “Come on Over,” not only her biggest album — with 20 million in U.S. sales, and possibly double that globally — but close to being anyone’s biggest album. It ranks No. 8 on the Recording Industry Assn. of America’s list of all-time American bestsellers, but if you leave out double albums where each individual disc doubles the total, Twain’s album would be at No. 4. With a track record that includes that and two other diamond-certified albums — 1995’s “The Woman in Me” and “Up!” — Twain, 52, would clearly never have to release another lick of music to go on as an arena act, but the real fans want to hear the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey would have said.

“On a business level, touring is key to most major artists,” says her manager, Maverick’s Scott Rodger, “but it’s by no means their first priority. Artists are driven by creating and releasing new music and that’s the most important thing in their careers. For Shania, we know that sales-wise we won’t be able to compete [with the catalog], as no artist will ever do in the current musical landscape, so you have to remove any concept of selling 40 million albums. It won’t happen ever again. Also, for a female in her early 50s, it presents challenges at radio, especially country radio, which is so heavily dominated by male artists. Our options are extremely limited for exposure there — thus the reason we have focused a lot on TV performances and appearances in order to create awareness around the album release. Releasing new music also stimulates the back catalog and increases awareness for licensing opportunities as well as streaming.”

Rodger notes Twain is “completely driving the ship here” by writing the entire new album herself and taking the guiding hand with co-producers, unlike the three big albums on which Robert “Mutt” Lange shepherded her. Critics have been surprised by how much “Now” seems a continuation of that classic run, albeit with some verses that make pit-stops at some darker places than “I’m Gonna Getcha Good!”

Variety spoke with Twain about putting her bittersweet past decade and a half into song, her upcoming return to the road, and how she felt 20 years ago when “Come on Over” really did make tens of millions of fans want to stop by.

A few years ago, you announced a farewell tour. Now you’re getting ready for another outing. What changed your mind about retiring from the road?
It all really came down to voice problems and the vocal issues. I had been pushing my limits coming out of the Las Vegas residency after two years. But I had done better than I expected there, and that gave me the boost I needed to get in a touring environment one more time. I was willing to take a chance and end that part of my career on a touring stage and not in the comfortable environment [of Vegas]. It was a bit of a challenge, and a personal decision as an artist, to end that part of my career in fans’ towns, so they weren’t coming to me but I was going to them. But that (farewell tour) went better than expected. So now my thinking is, well, I’ll just take it one day at a time, and if it’s working, then I just keep doing it till it doesn’t work any more.

Some years back Taylor Swift wrote an entire album by herself, partly to prove wrong the detractors who thought others did the heavy lifting. In writing “Now” by yourself, was there any similar aspect of feeling like you had something to prove?
It was definitely a matter of proving things, but proving it to myself. I was stepping out for the first time in a long, long time without Mutt as my producer and my co-writer. In that relationship I was also writing all the time by myself, but then I was taking that material to Mutt and we were bouncing it off each other and collaborating from that. But before I met Mutt, I had been writing entirely alone. Once that relationship was over, I needed to get reacquainted with that songwriter that I had been before I met Mutt, and get back to that isolation that I actually love. I enjoy the independence. I enjoy not necessarily having any feedback, to be honest. I like having no inhibitions and having no one to interfere with what I was thinking or feeling before I had a chance to assess it later. I just needed to know that that (solo) writer was still there, intact. Mutt always did respect me as a songwriter and was always drawing (certain things) out of me anyway. But then there were other things that I hadn’t been in touch with for years. On my own, I love going to the minor chords. I love my two-bar chiming thing — just a lot of signature things that I’d gravitated to more as a younger writer. Without anyone else involved, this is really the purest music I’ve ever recorded.

The only new music that people had heard from you in recent years had been a single called “Today is Your Day.” I wondered whether all of the new album would be in that inspirational a vein, or whether you would let yourself go dark, a little bit. And you did.

I did write even darker songs than the ones that are on the album, or darker versions of some of these songs. Songwriting’s my therapy. In some cases I just ended up abandoning certain lyrics or even certain grooves. I would go into a happier groove, just to take it somewhat lighter. I was raking through all kinds of crap in my mind and in my heart, and then in the end, I just felt better, so the songs ended up being more optimistic than where I started, generally. It’s a record of a personal journey more than an album-making exercise. I don’t know if I’ll ever write an album quite like this again, because this is very unique to what I was going through.

Did you ever feel like you needed to work up some courage to share some of the more vulnerable material on this album?
I don’t find it painful. I find it helpful to talk about it. It’s healing to share.

You said recently, “This is not my divorce album.” But most of us listening to it will think that a lot of the songs have to do with divorce and remarriage and finding yourself again. You’ve said a lot of it is autobiographical. So where does it fit on the confessional scale?
I will say it’s definitely not the divorce album. The divorce album would have been a very different album. [She laughs loudly.] There are a few that are absolutely about my divorce experience. This album is really about a period of transition and evolution for me, and the divorce is absolutely one of the cornerstone experiences of that journey. But there are so many other things in there, and a lot of references where listeners wouldn’t really know what part of my life I’m referring to, so maybe they would just assume that it was divorce.

Can you name one that people might assume is about the divorce that isn’t?
“Where Do You Think You’re Going” is more about my own parents leaving me, dying. Or loss in general, about when you lose something or someone and there’s just nothing you can do about it — that helplessness that you feel… There are so many things about my day-to-day life and my really personal, journalistic-type views on things. “Kiss and Make Up” just came from my current husband and I having a little argument, and I went and wrote that song, and that song got it out of my system.

“Soldier” has been licensed for a new movie that is actually about soldiers, “Thank You for Your Service.” But it doesn’t seem like you were necessarily thinking about that in the literal sense when you wrote it.
When I wrote “Soldier,” I was thinking of my son, and the anxiety of separation, and thinking of him soldiering his way through life. I have my son here with me, but even just saying goodbye to go to school, I feel that. And I think a lot of that just comes from losing my own parents so suddenly, without being able to say goodbye. And I thought of other families that have a military member going off to serve, and when they say goodbye, they really may never see that person again. In the times right now where we’re always having discussions on TV about military and wars here and there, I’m affected, like everybody else. I’m concerned… That song starts with “Don’t close the door when you leave.” Normally you would tell someone, when it’s cold, to close the door. But this is: Don’t close the door behind you, because I don’t care if it’s cold, I may never see you again, and I just want you to promise me that you’ll be back … I’m crying, I get so emotionally wrapped up in that. And when I saw the movie, it such a perfect fit. I cried a lot when I wrote that song, so I’m happy that the song has found such an appropriate home.

“More Fun” is on the opposite end of the scale, tone-wise. I imagine the song must be about your younger self, because I don’t see you hanging out in parking lots much these days. Or maybe you do—what do I know? [She laughs.] But it seems to be reminiscing.
Well, I was reminiscing. I was actually sitting in a hotel room on an upper floor watching thousands of fans going to a baseball game, while I had the flu, and I was so jealous—I really wanted to go. I was really feeling sorry for myself and thought, “Oh, man. I have to get out more.” I was working very hard during the promo tour, and that looked like more fun. It’s reflecting back on the years when fun was just an everyday thing that you considered a necessity.

Speaking of less fun, your memoir makes it sound like the period surrounding “Come On Over” was not such a fun time for you. The mania over that album really did not die down for years. You had eight singles off it, and it broke in Europe two years after it broke in America, and it broke in pop after it broke in country. In the book, you say, “I was exhausted, and although I was thrilled by the success, I feared it would never end: the work, the travel, the loneliness.” It’s hard to be grateful when you’re exhausted by the juggernaut. Did it take a number of years to grasp what had happened?
There was no real one-moment impact for any one of those songs, almost. Everybody was picking up on things at different times in different ways. So it was just a really long, big, incredible moment, I guess, for 12 years straight. I didn’t have perspective; I wasn’t very objective in it, because I became isolated. I do like to be isolated when I’m creative and writing or in the studio, but otherwise, it’s very hard to cope with. Loneliness is a terrible thing. And the workload was outrageous. And not a lot of people were that gracious all the time with me. I think I didn’t always feel welcome. It was just tough. It was an exciting period in my life, but it wasn’t the most fun period in my life. Looking back on it now, I’m enjoying it more from where I stand more than I ever did while it was happening. But it was hard to escape, then. Normally, if you’re in a high-stress career, you can take a vacation and cut yourself off and get a break. When you’re a celebrity at a high level, there almost isn’t anywhere you can go, anywhere, in the world that will give you that real break, where there’s not a trigger somewhere that will take you back to your professional frame of mind. There is security and logistics and you can never truly check out. That affects you, especially if you’re a younger person. But I was already in my 30s by the time this even started.

So you feel that helped a little, that you were better equipped to handle becoming a superstar in your 30s than someone who was fresh off the boat?
Yeah. I didn’t totally go mad. [Laughs.]

In your book you wrote, “Breaking records is not why I got into music. This is an artform, not a sport like hockey.” But for those of us who do keep score, there are so many staggering stats about “Come On Over.” It’s the biggest selling album ever by a female artist. The fourth biggest album of all time. The second biggest of the Soundscan era. It set a record for the longest stay in the top 20 of the top 200 on Billboard. And then an additional, weird factoid: For all that elongated success, it was never actually No. 1 on the Billboard chart. That suggests that, when it came out, you weren’t quite at superstar level yet.
The biggest artists at that time, the ones that were leading the pack, were selling 3 million albums. That was a dream in itself, if I would even have imagined being up in that category. So I had to stop counting after that. I was like, “I’ll leave the counting to you guys; I’ll just go out there and do what I do.” I never followed those things. And a lot of my biggest hits didn’t go No. 1 on certain charts. So it just seemed to me that it’s kind of not really relevant in the end. I don’t know about everybody else, but in my case, anyway, it’s the public that have made me as big as I am, and not necessarily an internal thing from me. It wasn’t a contrived thing. It was just the fans, at their own pace and in their own time, grabbing onto particular songs or particular albums of mine. It was almost a little bit random, the way things ended up tallying up. But it’s fun now for me to look back on it all and see how impactful it was.

Do you have a favorite song from “Come On Over” 20 years later, or one you think was underrated?
Mmm, that’s a good question, because sometimes I don’t even remember which songs were on which albums. I know they came out far apart, but they ran together in so many ways. Sometimes I had ideas that made it onto “Come On Over” that I started writing during “Woman in Me.” So to me, what album what songs went on is not that clear. So I’ll probably say something that was on “Up!” [Laughs.] I know we’re talking about the 20-year anniversary of “Come On Over.” But I think of “The Woman in Me” — which, obviously, was on “The Woman in Me.” I always thought was a song that should be re-recorded (as a cover by someone else). And “From This Moment On” is a song I’d definitely love to hear redone, with a voice that’s much more of a power-style voice, and there’s so many of those right now. Maybe I didn’t do those songs the justice the justice that they deserved, or at least the way I heard them when I wrote them. I remember when I wrote “From This Moment On,” I said to Mutt, “You know, I don’t think I should sing this song. Let’s call up some great power singer and get her to record it.” He was pretty insistent on me doing it.

Especially in country, people look back fondly on the late ‘90s as an idyllic period, in which women seemed the strongest artists of all. We think of that being an era when the window was open for powerful women to catch an equal break, and for the barriers between country and pop to dissipate, too. But maybe you don’t remember it as an open window. Maybe you shattered it.
No, the window was definitely not open, at all. It was a real struggle at the time. And the only thing that worked was the fan demand. That was it. If I hadn’t had that, it would never have worked. So it was really just more a question of, how do I reach them? That was the real difficulty at the time, way more than it is now, because now there are all these other immediate accesses to music and to artists that nobody has control over, which is really amazing. You did not have that 20, 25 years ago. (Gatekeepers) can’t filter to the degree that they were able to filter years ago. The fans in the end decided that they wanted to hear me, and how often, and that determined everything. There was no other way I ever would have gotten to this point.

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