It's striking to think of someone in the position of Shania Twain, one of the biggest and most buoyant pop divas of her generation, feeling like her voice has been marginalized, much less silenced altogether. Even so, claiming and reclaiming her agency has been a theme throughout her career. Media coverage of the country-pop crossover superstar — one of the most commercially successful artists of the 1990s — sometimes presented a gendered and rockist read of her dynamic with her then-husband, famed rock producer Mutt Lange, despite the fact that both he and Twain constantly made it clear that they were equal partners in the studio.
Nearly a decade ago, when Twain's partnership with Lange was dissolving amid allegations of his infidelity, she found herself stripped of the ability to sing altogether, due to what would eventually be diagnosed as nerve damage to her vocal cords brought on by Lyme disease. With musical expression unavailable to her, she resisted retreating into private anguish, and found outlets in a soul-searching reality television show and a memoir. Her journey to recover her voice, as she describes it, reaches its culmination in her new album, Now.
Singing never used to seem effortful for Twain. Any attention devoted to her physicality was more or less confined to her choice of attire, particularly the belly-button-baring tops that famously loosened Nashville's rules of feminine modesty. She's returned to recording, after a decade-and-a-half break, with a much altered relationship to her vocal instrument — one that requires physical labor in the form of athletic warm-ups. The result is singing that feels more enfleshed, more grounded in her body. And hers happens to be the body of a woman of a certain age; she's reached a stage in life during which women can become targets for harsh, dismissive and ageist scrutiny. But the changes have done the opposite of diminishing her as a vocalist, yielding a notable expansion of her textural range.
Another priority of Twain's, when it came to tackling an album without Lange, was to prove her self-sufficiency. She wrote all of the songs on her own, delving into the sort of emotional inventory and self-examination that had little place in her earlier material. She also oversaw the production, steering her producers toward contemporary country undertones, global sensibilities and a glossy, supple, beat-driven pop frame for her singer-songwriter confessionalism.
On the occasion of the release of her new album, Twain talked with NPR about making the most of her new voice.
Jewly Hight: The songs on Now are very open and clearly represent your voice, your intimate experiences and point of view. How did you come to that place with this project?
Shania Twain: I think this happened quite naturally, because I isolated myself to write the album. I'm the only writer on the album. That automatically takes it to a place that is uninfluenced thinking and feeling, without the filter, without the sounding board, without guidance or suggestions. So in that sense, it was gonna be more revealing anyway. And then, where I am in my life, I feel less inhibited. I'm more free and open about sharing. And it's the sharing in itself that is so much part of growing and expression. It's necessary and healing. So it's been a bit of a selfish exercise, I guess, because it just feels better to share.
You've talked about your songwriting process all along, beginning with your second album, The Woman in Me. Back then, how did you deal with the fact that many people assumed you didn't have much of a role in that process?
I had to do just that: I just had to deal with it. There were people out there that were just saying that very openly. ... I never questioned my own value to the work that Mutt and I did together. A lot of that is also because he was so supportive and very open himself about the role that I played and what I contributed. He always celebrated my ideas and my talent, and that was enough for me. And what else could I do anyway? People just thought what they wanted to think.
Mutt's approach, anyway, has always been to allow the artist to spearhead the direction of the music that he produces. The music will really only be as strong as the talent. I think that that has just become more clear now. I just had to be patient.
At a recent album release event in Nashville, you spoke about how nerve-racking it is to put out your first big studio project without Mutt Lange. I wondered if there's also anything empowering about it for you.
What makes me feel empowered was taking my independence, you know, taking on the challenge of diving into a new record alone. It's a big risk. When you co-write with somebody, you are sharing the risk, and sharing the success. ... So this new album, Now, is really just me putting myself out there, taking the risk alone. Finding the courage to do it is what felt so empowering.
When you first began discussing the loss of your singing voice years back, you spoke of dysphonia but didn't initially connect it to Lyme disease. When did doctors really figure out what was going on?
Well, that was part of my frustration. Dysphonia is the problem of being able to phonate properly, [being unable to sound] the way you want to sound. We knew there was a lot of unusual muscle tension around the larynx, but nobody understood why. Finally, after several years of accepting that there was no explanation for it, I was sent to a neurologist. No voice specialist, till then, even thought of me seeing a neurologist. No voice specialist even considered that Lyme disease would affect the voice. Sure enough, that's when the dots were connected. I have nerve damage to my vocal cords; it's as straightforward as that. At least now I know what it is and what I can do to manage it. I won't be able to cure it, but I'm able to do what I'm doing, so I'm very grateful for that.
You've expressed the fear that people would no longer think you sounded like yourself.
It was scary. I had my immediate family saying, "No, this still sounds like you." But I also know that I do have different qualities to my voice that weren't there before. I just wasn't sure what people would think that are used to listening to my records for all these years.
Did it make you consider what gives you your vocal identity?
My husband [executive Frédéric Thiébaud] pointed out something very interesting. He said, "That's such a Shania melody," or, "That's such a Shania phrase." I think even beyond the sound of my voice, it's the inflections in my style of singing and the way I phrase things as a songwriter. So it was also in the writing, the intervals and notes that I put together, the way the melodies come out and the phrasing of them, that he thought was just very Shania-esque. And I think that is true.
In your Vegas show and the tour you did following that, you performed songs that people had listened to you sing on recordings hundreds of times. Were you concerned that those performances in particular would sound a lot different than what people were used to hearing?
Years ago when I was touring, I was really a perfectionist about singing my songs exactly like the records. I would ad-lib very, very little. I was always very much a stickler for keeping things like the record. ... But now I enjoy the liberty of being able to phrase things differently, to time things differently. I guess I'm more creative about how I deliver the songs, and that helps me manage my new voice and the way my new voice works.
It's interesting to hear you refer to it as your new voice. What aspects of singing are you attuned to that you didn't pay as much attention to early on?
I've learned a lot of new things about my voice and I've developed a lot of nuance to my voice that I hadn't explored before. That was just out of necessity, and it's been a really positive effect. I still have the same high range. I never lost any of my high range at all. And I gained lower range. I've got a lower voice than I did before. There were some [older] songs that I was singing lower notes on the record, but then when I got [in a] live [situation] and I got too warmed up, I couldn't hit those low notes. So I'd have to hit, like, an alternate note live, whereas now I can hit all the low notes, and all the high notes. I've got a broader range now, but there's different voicings that I need to use now than I did before. So I might be in my head voice where before I would've been in a chest voice. I'm not sure that's even really noticeable over a microphone. These are technical things, you know.
I watched an old CMT special where you talked about how you liked to linger on notes and lag slightly behind the beat, so it's clear you were thinking about those things back then. But there's stuff I hear you doing in your new songs that feels like an expansion of your vocal expression. Those airy sighs and sensual groans and the way that you caress and release notes make it feel more intimate. What are you bringing to those performances?
It really is more about vocal expression and my appreciation for being able to sing again, enjoying being on the microphone. There was a long time when I didn't want to get on the microphone at all. The mic's become a very good friend of mine. I took it for granted all those years. Now I sit on the mic for hours. Now I write my music on mic. I never wrote on the microphone before. So I think I've gotten to know my voice more intimately than ever before. This whole album's been written on the microphone, just on my little Pro-Tools setup, not in an official studio. I would just take my mic and my laptop everywhere I went. So the songs were written with the voice as part of the writing, not just, "The song's written and then I go into the studio and hear what it sounds like over the microphone."
You're hearing it in the moment.
In the moment, and it makes a huge difference. I'm sure it's affected the way I deliver the song vocally — more intimately than I've ever done before. Don't forget, when you don't write on the microphone, like if you're just writing acoustically, you get into the studio and you're not going to be in there for hours just doing one song. You're going to do so many passes and then you move on. So how well can you get to know the song on microphone?
I can feel physicality and sensuality in your singing more now. As a side effect of what you've dealt with vocally, you have to do very strenuous vocal warm-ups to be able to sing. Has that made you more aware of the role that your body plays in singing?
My warm-ups include jumping on a mini-trampoline while I vocalize, stretching backwards over one of those Pilates balls while I vocalize. So I'm doing all kinds of Pilates full-body work while I vocalize in order to warm up. It's such a whole-body experience, getting warmed up for me, for sure, getting the larynx in the right position. There's a whole science to it.
A lot of the new things in my voice are the new nuances that people will probably notice in my vocals. At first I was trying to clean them up — even going to a vocal coach, for example. They were always trying to get me to get rid of this fry in the voice and too much air or too much gravel. And I'd be like, "You know what? I can't learn these things out of my voice. It's just my new voice now." I just embraced and I said, "I've got to find vocal coaches and therapists that just roll with that and focus on the right things."