AS PUBLISHED IN KNIX MAGAZINE, PHOENIX, ARIZONA, MARCH 1998
By Nick Krewen
The lights dim.
The crowd erupts in screams and whistles.
And from somewhere within the bowels of a small, sweltering hockey arena in Northern Ontario, concealed by the twilight of promise, hope and anticipation, a sweetly familiar voice asks a big sultry question:
“Are you ready for me, Sudbury?”
The crowd is confused at first, as beams of colorful light begin to cris-cross the stage and bounce off the steel platform’s metallic hue. A muffled response provokes a second question, an ear-piercing shriek that is more characteristic of gonzo rocker Ted Nugent than Patsy Cline.
“ARE YOU READY FOR ME SUDBURY?!”
There’s no mistake this time. Five thousand tonsils wiggle in unison as a single turbo-powered roar steamrolls the nine-piece band breaking into the first few notes of “Man! I Feel Like A Woman!” The song is briefly submerged into a sonic mush of pounding drums and wailing guitars, as eyes race ahead of the ears scouting for the first tangible stage evidence that the star, indeed, is in the house.
Slowly she steps forward, her eyes cast downward so she doesn’t trip and embarrass her grand entrance. Her wardrobe is simple: black sneakers, black slacks with a double stripe of gold down each leg, a sparkling gold tank top, a black leather vest and that oh-so-famous navel centered squarely on a firm, flat stomach unfettered by fat. Her long, auburn hair hangs loosely over her shoulders, and that smile — a flawless, gleaming mouthful of blinding dentistry that nine out of ten professionals would risk their lives to safeguard — says it all: after five-and-a-half-years, three albums, and a truckload of patience, her moment is here.
Shania Twain has finally arrived.
“When you hear me in the studio or see me on television, that’s not really what I do best,” Twain reassures from her home in upstate New York a few weeks before her May 29 concert debut.
“I am really in my element when I’m on stage. This is something I’ve done my whole life, obviously with smaller audiences, but I feel comfort and relief that the day is finally here.”
Jaded country music veterans would guffaw and snicker at that statement, thinking they know better. They don’t. The industry vultures that snipe with damaging whispers base their judgment on a single, technically troubled Fan Fair performance that sabotaged Shania Twain’s singing.
“She can’t sing,” they cried, pointing accusatory fingers at the elected puppetmaster they felt was chiefly responsible for the multi-million-selling success of The Woman In Me — her husband, producing mogul Robert John “Mutt” Lange.
But they weren’t there when Shania Twain flew down from the Deerhurst resort in Muskoka, Ontario and auditioned for Mercury Nashville, before Mutt Lange even entered Twain’s domain. They weren’t there at the perilous instant when all her dreams seemed dashed, the minute her parents Jerry and Sharon Twain were pronounced in a car accident and Eilleen Twain was suddenly saddled with the responsibility of raising three of her four siblings. They weren’t there during the formative years when the driven singer spent her summers traveling around Ontario paying her dues and fronting rock and country bands. They weren’t there when an 8-year-old child with more moxy than ability sang “Take Me Home Country Roads” for talent shows.
And the majority of them aren’t here tonight in Sudbury, as Shania Twain declares victory again, delivering 23 songs with a finesse and flair that this Canadian nickle capital — a three-hour drive from her own hometown of Timmins — is not accustomed.
But the thundering applause and the standing ovation seal the dream.
And what a dream it’s been for Shania Twain. Seventeen million copies sold of her first three albums, 1993’s Shania Twain, 1995’s The Woman In Me, 1997’s Come On Over.; an enviable list of awards that includes a Grammy for Best Country Album for The Woman In Me, two Academy Of Country Music trophies for Top New Female Vocalist and Best Country Album; a couple of American Music Awards for Favorite New Country Artist and Favorite Female Country Artists; a World Music Award for The World’s Best Selling Female Country Artist; and a whole slew of Canadian Country Music Association Awards and Junos — that’s the Great White North’s equivalent to the Grammies — for a number of categories that include such hit singles as “Any Man Of Mine” and “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?” through her sexy videos; and let’s face it, a world domination that will continue through much of 1999 as she storms Europe and Australia with her dazzling live spectacle.
She’s even had a street and park named after her. Anyone traveling in Timmins must pass through Shania Twain Way to get through the town.
Along the way, she’s virtually broken every golden rule the Nashville establishment has made over the years. One, she came from Canada, and although she’s recorded portions of all three albums in Music City, the amount of time she’s spent there in proportion to her enormous success has been minimal. Two, she created her own demand. Although she toured with Toby Keith and John Brannon as part of a Mercury promotional guitar pull to introduce her self-titled debut album, Twain did not launch a full-fledged live assault to support The Woman In Me. Keeping her appearances restricted to awards show, live television events and mall autograph sessions, she has not subjected herself to the usual rigmarole Music Row has dictated in the past: record, tour, record, tour, year in, year out.
As a result, The Woman In Me has sold over 12 million copies, more than any other well-established country female artist — Patsy, Reba, Tammy, Loretta and Dolly included. Three, she created a unique sound by marrying stomping rock drums with country music, although Mutt Lange gets a lot more credit for that one by pulling a Def Leppard recording trick he invented out of the bag. Four, she brought a glamorous and somewhat naive sexy image to country, enhanced by that spectacular belly-button. Whenever you see a bare midriff onstage at your local country bar, you know who started it. Five, and perhaps most importantly, Shania has taken control of her career and placed the reigns of power outside Nashville. The management team of Jon Landau and Barbara Carr — whose exclusive clientele include only Bruce Springsteen and pop singer Natalie Merchant — are sending the signal that crossover and global success are going to be about the only things that are going to keep their new client happy. The fact that Lange totally remixed Come On Over, squeezing out some of the overt fiddle and pedal steel overtones, resequenced it and ordered Mercury in Europe to release it with a different cover than the U.S. version underscores the commitment everyone has to breaking Shania Twain worldwide.
No wonder some long-established label executives are shaking in their boots. Country stars are taking notice, and you’d be hard pressed to argue that Shania Twain’s success and marketing strategies can be heard within the notes of Faith Hill‘s latest album Faith , LeAnn Rimes‘ Commitment and Trisha Yearwood‘s Where Your Road Leads.
As for Shania, the Twain keeps rolling as most of the concerts she’s announced around North America have sold out, and Come On Over has clocked over 5 million in sales and counting.
EILLEEN REGINA EDWARDS was born in Windsor, Ontario, Canada on August 25, 1965, and seemed confident that music would be in her future when she was a toddler.
“I remember being put up on top of a countertop by my mother when I was 3,” Twain recalls. ” I would always sing out loud to the jukebox. So I got up a couple of times on the countertop, and I’d sing to people in the restaurant. So those are the earliest versions of a performance that I’d ever done.
“When I was 6 years old, I got up in front of my class and I sang (Take Me Home) “Country Roads.” That was my first real performance. Then when I was 8 years old, I was actually a professional. I was actually doing telethons, little fairs and country shows locally, but I was getting paid and I was working. I had quite the little country music career on the go.”
As she grew older, her $25 and $50 paycheques grew bigger. She ran into another obstacle when she hit 11, due to Ontario’s stringent liquor laws.
“By the time I was 11, I actually had a permit that allowed me to perform in a liquor premises underage,” Twain explains. “I don’t know how my parents worked that out, but because I was always in the clubs on the weekends singing, the club owners started saying, `We can’t allow this anymore. We’re gonna get in trouble.’
“So my parents somehow managed to get me a liquor licence. It was a little piece of paper allowed me to perform in clubs, and I had to leave as soon as my set was over. Then I started traveling quite a bit — back and forth from Toronto to Sudbury and areas all over Northern Ontario.”
She credits her parents with helping to cure her innate shyness.
“I hated performing!” she reveals. “I just didn’t like it. I just wanted to sing in my room. I didn’t care if anyone ever heard me. But my parents made me do it publicly. And there were times where I hated them for that. I didn’t want to go public. For me, it was like playing with my dolls. You want to go and play with your dolls in front of everybody? NO!
“But I wouldn’t have been able to make a profession out of this if my parents hadn’t forced me. I still be singing in my bedroom. I’m glad that I’m this, because now I get to work at something I love. It paid off in the end.”
The Twains themselves went through some rough economic times, and often Eileen and the rest of the family subsisted on one meal a day.
“My whole childhood, my whole school life, I basically went to school without a lunch every day,” she admits. “We didn’t necessarily have food, but we got by somehow.
“As a kid, I definitely hid it. When I was a kid, my Dad had such a great sense of humor. He said, `You want lunch? Sure you can have a lunch.’ And he’d put two pieces of bread with some mayonnaise or some mustard in the middle, and he’d send me out to school, and that was enough. Sometimes a superficial thing was enough, because I was embarrassed. I would tell people, I’m not hungry, or I forgot my lunch. Food, for me, is a luxury.”
Life worked out a little better economically as a teen, as Shania worked briefly as a food flipper at McDonald’s in Timmins, Ontario.
“I always appreciated my job at McDonald’s,” said Shania of the place where sister Carrie also worked. “It seems that today a lot of young people are too proud to sweep floors. We didn’t have a lot of money, and that job bought me my school clothes.”
By the time she was 21, the Canadian singer had explored the country, rock, pop and jazz worlds as a performer, happily spending summers as a foreman at her father’s reforestation business in the North Ontario bush, and the rest of the year singing in nightclubs.
Then the tragedy struck: Sharon and Jerry Twain died in a tragic auto accident, and the grieving singer was suddenly entrusted with the responsibility of caring for her younger sister Carrie-Ann and brothers Daryl and Mark.
“I was just going to give up music,” she admits.
“I thought, my family comes first. I have to take care of them. I had to do whatever it took to keep my family together. That was a pretty definite decision. I didn’t even think of my future.”
Fortunately, Twain landed a job singing at the Northern Ontario resort of Deerhurst, which allowed her to remain in music.
“It was very difficult,”she acknowledges, refusing to take credit for her incredible inner strength.
“You’re just strong. You don’t take credit for anything like that, because when you have to, you have to. That’s what I did. My older sister had children at the time, so she had her own problems, and my younger sister and my two younger brothers came to me.
“I’m lucky I got the job at Deerhurst, because it was music. I didn’t know where I was going to go from there.”
Twain candidly assesses her misfortune.
“It’s not difficult to talk about.” Twain says. “I believe you go somewhere after you die, so I don’t have any fear that way for myself or anybody else. I think it’s a better place to go. The sad part is that it’s not with me. That’s the only sad part about death — the finality of the relationship. Moving on to other things is just the life cycle.
“In that way, I feel healthy with it emotionally. But I think about them all the time.”
The Deerhurst stint lasted three years, and proved to be an invaluable training ground.
“Deerhurst really, really made a difference,” states Shania. “I worked with dancers, choreographers, lighting, staging and production, and I learned how to perform for real. I learned to get over so many inhibitions that you really have to get over if you want to be a professional. It was school for me.”
Eventually, Shania’s siblings grew up and moved away from the nest, and the singer decided to come full circle to her first love — country music — when it came to pursuing a recording contract.
“I took to what was most comfortable to me, and the most comfortable thing for me was country. I think it was the gist of my entire childhood career, as I sang on every country music television and radio show my mother could get me involved with.”
She called her friend Mary Bailey — who became her first manager — and Bailey arranged for a high-powered Nashville lawyer, Dick Frank, to come up to Deerhurst. Knocked out by Shania’s performance, Frank arranged for Norro Wilson to produce a demo, which was passed onto Mercury Nashville head Harold Shedd by Sammy Kershaw co-producer Buddy Cannon.
Upon its release in 1993, Shania Twain didn’t turn a lot of heads. Two songs, “What Made You Say That” and “Dance With The One That Brought You,” both peaked at #55 on the Billboard country charts.
But her first Fan Fair appearance that summer snagged something other than attention — a new husband.
“When I met Mutt, it just hit me like a ton of bricks!” Twain remembers. “And him too! Our whole lives — both of our lives — screamed to a halt. For us to come together, we had to change our whole lives. But there wasn’t any hesitation. People were shocked on both sides. I think it took our engagement — even our wedding, before people really started to take it seriously. But when you know it, you just know it. Every song that’s written about love — that’ s us. We’re the same old cliche.”
The romance blossomed shortly after Lange, a noted pop and rock producer who had already sold close to 100 million albums with clients AC/DC (Back In Black), Def Leppard (Hysteria), The Cars (Heartbeat City) and Billy Ocean (“Get Out Of My Dreams And Into My Car”), arrived in Nashville with pop superstar Bryan Adams specifically to meet Twain.
“He had my album, and was listening for weeks and weeks, working out to it every morning,” Twain reveals. “He was turned on to me through a friend of his in England, who was watching CMT (Europe) and saw me on a video.”
The friend — David Rose — recommended that Lange view the video for “What Made You Say That?” When the producer confessed he was too busy, Rose persisted and sent him a copy.
Intrigued by what he saw, Lange contacted Mercury Nashville for a copy of her album along with a promo and publicity kit.
“He became a fan of the album, read my bio and thought it was interesting, and quite similar to his own life story in a lot of ways. He was so intrigued by me, he wanted to meet me at Fan Fair,” said Twain, who by this time had struck up a long-distance phone friendship with Lange.
Twain admits she had no idea who Lange was before she met him, other than the fact he was a record producer. Her Fan Fair schedule kept her so busy than she almost missed him.
“Mutt and I had set up a meeting, but I was running out of time,” recalls Shania. “I didn’t know who he was, so I didn’t space out a couple of hours. I listened to all his albums, but I didn’t know his name because I don’t read album covers.
“We just ended up bumping into each other backstage before my show and — Oh boy! I have to say it was love at first sight. There was definitely love there. Before I met him, I had spent a lot of hours on the phone talking with him, giving song ideas back and forth. But he had never told me what he had done. So I got to know him as a person, and we became phone friends. When we met, we gave each other a big hug.”
After they met, Shania confessed that she canceled a few hours worth of interviews to be with him.
“I should never have done that,” she confides. “But my mind just wasn’t there. I was so desperate to spend time with him. I thought the guy was really special, so I spent some time and we ate together, but not too long — maybe an hour. When he left Nashville, we were on the phone constantly.”
The friendship quickly blossomed into a professional relationship, when singer Michael Bolton — whom Lange was writing and producing for at the time — had vocal problems and had to cancel a session.
“Mutt said, `Listen, I’ve got some time. We’re going to start writing your next album.’,” recalls Shania. “So I was on a plane to London to work and write with Mutt.”
It was during her third trip to London that the pair decided to escape to Spain, where Shania says “We fell in love.
“It was wonderful. It was such a beautiful place, but we got a lot of writing done. We just spent so much time together. We’re very compatible.”
Shania and Mutt were engaged in Paris in September, and married in December at the Deerhurst Inn in Muskoka, Ontario.
There is an assumption that if you choose a career in the field of entertainment, that fame and glamor are the intoxicants that drive your creativity. That the personal fortune you accumulate through your success is a nice incentive, but it’s the intoxicating narcotic of celebrity that coarses through your veins that’s the real draw.
Shania Twain and Mutt Lange have never assumed anything. The South African-born Lange in particular goes to great lengths to avoid the media spotlight, preferring to mill about in anonymity as he continually tests his creative waters.
“He’s a very humble guy and basically doesn’t want to be a star,” Twain explains. “He just wants to be a person who makes the music.
“And I respect that and envy him sometimes, because this really is all about the music, but as an entertainer you have to do the other side as well. He’s not into being an entertainer. He just wants to sit in the studio and create the music we all get entertained by, and I can appreciate that.”
Twain is also intensely private, and while she is happy to sing and appear before appreciative crowds and build a career as a country music icon, she joins her husband in the need for the quality of life to be more important than material gain.
The fact that the Langes have announced their intention to relocate to Switzerland only surprises those consumed with the notion of celebrity and the blinders it sometimes invokes for its glamorous connotations.
There are other realities. Both are strong-willed, focused individuals who complement each other. Both are meticulous perfectionists when it comes to their craft. Both have an inherent desire for quality, and are willing to take whatever measures — and absorb whatever costs — necessary to achieve their goals.
Michael Bolton described their relationship best.
“They are down to earth,” he says. “Mutt sees things on a different wavelength than everyone else — he’s very attuned to the vibrations and nuances of life that other people often ignore or miss. And Woody, she has a heart of gold.”
And despite what the detractors say, Shania Twain’s music is very much a collaboration between the two, although the singer herself is quick to admit that Lange the producer often has the final say.
For The Woman In Me:
“All the songs on the new album were written when we met, when we fell in love, when we were married, and even a couple after we were married: the whole process. We were writing from the week after we met, from when we were phone friends, to the week before we went into the studio.”
Although Lange has kept his production talents largely to rock and pop audiences, Twain says country fans are in for a treat.
“I think it’s going to be a new standard for country music, ” boasts Twain. “I’m not afraid to say that, because it’s not me who is setting that standard, it’s Mutt.”
For Come On Over:
“My husband and I have come a long way as co-writers and as partners in life, so we’re much more mature and much less inhibited as well. A lot of people thought The Woman In Me wasn’t very inhibited, but there were a lot of bridges we didn’t cross because we were just being careful about things.”
How does the romantic chemistry translate creatively?
“He knows my voice exceptionally well, and he insists that we write melodies that really show my voice off,” she says. “He also has great quality control – he knows when it’s finished. And he brings a lot of musical ideas to our writing.
“I think I bring a more technical side. I make sure the story is complete, and I bring most of the titles in. I contribute a lot of the melodies, because he insists that the melody is written around my voice. So we really work well together.”