By Laura Silverman
At the height of her fame, country singer Shania Twain disappeared from the limelight, having lost both her husband and her voice. She tells Laura Silverman how she overcame it all to write her first album in 15 years
In 2001 Shania Twain seemed to be on top of the world. With smash hits including ‘Man! I Feel Like A Woman’ and ‘That Don’t Impress Me Much’, as well as one of the biggest-selling albums of all time (Come On Over), a loving husband and a newborn baby son, the singer truly had it all.
But a few years later her life began to fall apart. The Canadian singer battled exhaustion as her gruelling schedule took its toll. The aches, pains and dizziness that she couldn’t shift were diagnosed as Lyme disease, and then she discovered the worst side-effect of all: she developed dysphonia, the inability to use her vocal cords normally. Struggling to speak, let alone sing, Shania retreated to the home in Switzerland that she shared with her husband and songwriting partner, legendary producer Robert ‘Mutt’ Lange, and their son Eja, only for him to leave her for their assistant and her friend Marie-Anne Thiébaud in 2008 after 15 years of marriage.
Later, in a strange twist, Shania developed a connection with Marie-Anne’s ex-husband Frédéric. The pair fell in love and married in 2011. In the same year, Shania published her memoir, From This Moment On, in which she revealed a childhood of poverty and abuse at the hands of her step-and adoptive father Jerry and the impact of his death along with her mother in a car crash in 1987 when Shania was just 21.
Today, aged 52, she is back with a new album, Now, in which she has written with searing honesty about the past 15 years.
I’m so grateful that my mother pushed me. She made me sing in clubs for money as a child because we were so poor. I hated being the centre of attention, but I loved music. My relationship with my parents was difficult but I still felt loved. They tried their best.
At the height of my success in the late 1990s, I worked 15 hours a day, seven days a week. My weight plummeted, I was tired from malnutrition and I started slurring my words. I was so determined to carry on that I pushed through. I was grateful to be doing well and going on tour, and I didn’t want to appear weak.
I felt uncomfortable with being a celebrity. In 1999 my then husband Mutt and I bought a chalet in Switzerland where we could have some seclusion. My closest friend was my horse.
Then I was diagnosed with Lyme disease. It took me almost six months to recover. I had begun blacking out every three minutes on the Up! tour in 2004. I struggled to hold the microphone because my arms were cramping like crazy, I hardly slept because I ached so much and I was very dizzy. I was terrified about what was happening. I should have stopped performing, but I kept going like an idiot. Sometimes I can be too determined. I assumed it was just fatigue.
I thought I would never sing again. I lost control of my voice and by 2008 I couldn’t project – I couldn’t even call out to the dog. I saw dozens of voice specialists but no one could help me. I initially put it down to exhaustion, thinking, ‘I’m a mother, I’m on the road, I’ve been doing this nonstop for all these years – who wouldn’t be tired?’ But I wasn’t physically tired of the lifestyle, I just couldn’t sing. It was like a part of me had died. I was grieving for the loss of the one thing I really enjoyed. The way I expressed myself was gone. It was devastating.
When my marriage broke down, I lost trust in people. I sank into depression and started questioning everything. I tortured myself over what happened and why. I assumed my voice problem must be down to the fears and anxieties I’d had throughout my life: my childhood, my failed relationship. I thought, ‘What else can it be?’ I met [alternative medicine guru] Deepak Chopra and read self-help books by Dr Gordon Livingston, a psychiatrist who wrote about loss. I went through a lot of self-evaluation. I had put my guard up to protect myself, but Deepak showed me that to disengage emotionally was no way to live.
It was therapeutic to write my autobiography, but it wasn’t the same as writing songs. I love the way you can say something in three minutes of music. I write songs because I want to be relatable and I want to be understood.
I wrote my 2011 single ‘Today is Your Day’ to cheer myself up. I wasn’t ready to give up on my voice. I knew it had gone for a reason and I was going to find out what it was. I had become so low. Finally, I saw a light at the end of it all. I was climbing my way out of the hole.
A head and neck cancer surgeon saved my voice. He stuck five long needles into my larynx and found that I had nerve damage caused by Lyme disease. The nerves attached to my vocal cords no longer work properly. The condition is permanent. I’ve had hours of physiotherapy and speech therapy. I’m back on track, but it’s a long road. It’s a miracle I can sing at all. I booked a Las Vegas residency in 2012 to force my recovery, but it was terrifying. I went into it blindly; there was no guarantee that I’d be able to pull it off.
I’ve had to accept that my voice will never be the same again. I will never sing my old hits like I used to. I’ve had to relearn how to use my voice. When I sing a powerful note, it’s in a different place. It wasn’t until Vegas that I thought about a real comeback. It would have been comfortable to stick with old material, but I had something to say.
It was strange to write my new album entirely alone. Mutt had been my sounding board for 15 years. Now I didn’t have his feedback or a direction, or even any objectivity. I didn’t know how to begin, I didn’t know the end and I had no map. I was out somewhere in no-man’s-land – but it was somewhere I love. Writing an album has been empowering.
My new songs are the most personal I have ever shared. I’ve written about feeling unappreciated in my marriage and about fighting back against pain. I’ve done my fair share of self-pitying and that’s in there, too. Writing has helped me come to terms with things emotionally. The album is about going from feeling lost to found, from feeling sad to happy. I have learnt how vulnerable I can be.
My biggest fear wasn’t being exposed, it was my voice. I can get away with more when I perform because I can improvise. An album is a bigger commitment because people can analyse it. I had to be sure I was ready – physically, psychologically and emotionally. Having my husband Frédéric beside me is a great support. He is a very romantic man.
My son Eja has never known me as Shania; to him I’m just Mum. I gave up touring when he was two, so Shania is not the person who raised him. We’re very close. He’s 16 and is into music.
I forced myself to become bilingual when Eja was born because I wanted French to be his first language [they live in the French-speaking part of Switzerland]. He went to a French school and didn’t speak English until he was four and a half.
I’m an old-fashioned mum. I like sit-down dinners with no phones on the table. I’m a good listener. My son must mind his manners and look people in the eye. I love domestic life. Eja has had a very normal childhood: he wasn’t tutored or raised by nannies. I like cooking his weekend breakfast and making his lunch. I love taking him to his sports games and driving to his school and meeting his friends.
In my 40s I felt very insecure. At first I resisted the changes in my body and blamed the cellulite on my stomach and the new layer of fat on emotional stress. I ate healthily – I’ve been vegetarian for more than 20 years – and exercised more, but the fat was hard to shift. I’ve just turned 52, but the number isn’t what bothers me. Wasting time bothers me.
What works for me now isn’t what worked for me when I was younger. I realise that being stubborn and not adapting is a mistake. My body is changing. When your boobs are falling in a different place, you just have to find a new brand of bra. I’m not fine with dying tomorrow, but I am going to die, and I’m ageing every day. It would be a mistake to fight it by trying to fit into the skin I was in and the clothes I used to wear. There’s no turning back. This is who I am right now and I’m OK with that.
Shania will perform at Radio 2’s Live in Hyde Park festival on 10 September. Her new album Now will be released on Virgin EMI on 29 September