WRITING: RANDI BERGMAN
When I think back to 1995, my highlight would have to be the night that I tap danced my little heart away to Shania Twain’s “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?” at my dance recital while clad in a shiny Pepto pink ball skirt (and questionable matching Peter Pan hat). The fact that Twain’s breakout hit was not the type of bop a 10-year-old should know every lyric of was neither here nor there, I was ready to ask anyone if it felt “like thunder, baby” while doing a kick ball change.
25 years later, nothing – not even that blissfully questionable memory – could prepare me for the surreal pleasure of getting a call from Twain herself in the midst of a global pandemic. “Are you ok?” she asks me (right, pandemic!), snapping me back to reality. The queen of country pop is calling from her ranch in British Columbia where she is spending lockdown with her husband, son, horses and dogs. “There are more of my animals here than my actual family!” she tells me. It’s safe to say that this wasn’t her original plan for 2020 – Twain was supposed to be settling into her second Las Vegas residency, “Let’s Go.” But she’s embracing our current reality by posting frequent serenades and messages of support on Instagram for her fans. “We’re all in this together,” she says.
Twain’s trailblazing career is the kind that needs no introduction. In the 25 years since her breakthrough album, The Woman in Me, she has won five Grammy Awards, sold over 100 million albums worldwide and remains the top selling female country artist of all time. She’s also appeared on The Voice, made a cameo on Broad City, and most recently starred in the film, I Still Believe. (Personally, I’ve spent the last 25 years trying to emulate her looks any chance I get, but enough about me.)
Beyond this professional success, Twain’s personal story has been one of survival, having overcome family tragedy, heartbreak, debilitating disease and the loss of her voice. Through it all, she’s not only endured, but thrived. Which is to say that we will too.
Here, she joins for the inaugural Shania Twain Interview (here’s hoping for round two), and tells me all about her love for leopard print, feminism and Diva’s Live.
Hey Shania! How are you?
I’m good! Are you ok?
Yes, I’m safe and sound. Where are you spending lockdown?
I’m on a ranch in the middle of the bush out in B.C. I’m in a very beautiful but isolated place. There’s just a small handful of us here and lots of space, so it’s good.
I’ve been loving your serenades on Instagram…
It’s nice to slow down and get really personal. I’m just trying to help people de-stress and share some community while we’re physically so far apart.
I’m sorry that your Vegas residency is on hold. Can you tell me a bit about the show?
“Let’s Go” was designed a lot for the type of room that we’re in, it’s a very informal room. It’s very interactive, and the show is very much for people to be able to sing and dance and have a party. It’s colourful, it’s bright, it’s one of my favourite shows I’ve ever done actually.
I saw you in Toronto in 2018 and I had so much fun!
I’m so glad. This relationship started 25 years ago, so it’s a long time, and it’s fun to reminisce with the audience. I think it’s about reunion as well as music.
You worked on the costumes for the show with Marc Bouwer whom you’ve been working with for how long? 20 years?
Yes, over 20 years. It was a collaboration on some of the designs for the show and some of them I just designed on my own. In the beginning, Marc was more influential in the designs and it was really more me giving direction of what I wanted to wear, but now, we work more in a collaborative spirit. It’s just great. I’ve learned a lot from Marc, he’s a brilliant designer.
You have such a keen sense of style and performance wear. Do you have early memories of responding to fashion as a child?
I just love the aesthetics of fashion and I think I’ve always felt that if you could combine aesthetics with comfort, then that is the ideal. I’m one of those believers that you have to be able to wear it with confidence. I am a very tactile person, so I love texture. If I’m in a fabric store, I’m in heaven! I’ve always loved the whole process – the way things move and flow, the way fabrics hang and fit – so this is what I get to have fun doing in my actual career. It’s one of my favourite things to do.
"I could wear things that were sexy as long as they were comfortable. If I was comfortable then I was uninhibited."
Over the course of your career, you have had such a style evolution. You went from the jeans and T-shirt girl to impossibly glamorous and sassy…
Even at the very beginning before I had access to high end fashion designers, I was always contrasting the glamour and the down-home girl. If you watch the video for “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under,” you’ll see I pulled out jeans from my own closet (they look like it, too!).
The whole idea was to be natural and comfortable, and at the same time, the red velvet dress really set the tone for me in my mind: I could wear things that were sexy as long as they were comfortable. If I was comfortable then I was uninhibited. I didn’t wear a bra in that video and I was already gravitating to stretch velvets from the very beginning.
It’s funny that you use the word “comfort,” because so many of your looks are so fabulously tight and extra.
They are, but they breathe. I have to be able to move and perform in them and that’s why Marc is a great partner to work with because he listens. It’s all about the engineering and the way things are made. I remember the boots that he had made for the “Man, I Feel Like a Woman” video were very uncomfortable, and I was like, “Ok, I can do this for the video,” but for stage we made a second pair that I could run around in without compromising the look.
It’s impossible to choose a favourite outfit but one of your best has to be the pink on pink look from the 1999 Country Music Awards. Can you tell me about the inspiration?
The fabric is a faux suede and it’s very light. Up to that point, I’d never worn a cowboy hat on stage and I wanted to do it in a very different way – I wanted it to be Shania’s way of wearing a cowboy hat. Marc chose the colour and I loved it. Shorts were a new thing for me.
And speaking of iconic looks, the leopard get-up from the “That Don’t Impress Me Much” video appears every single Halloween…
It’s such an awesome outfit, it really is. Marc is just brilliant. I’d already gravitated to the leopard because it’s my favourite print and I loved stretch velvet – so it was a no brainer and a perfect combination. He made it look outstanding and really, it felt like wearing pyjamas. That was the ideal outfit and representation of being comfortable and still very glamourous and fashion forward.
Why do you love leopard print so much?
I love the idea of wearing an animal print that is not off the animal’s back and I think it translates beautifully without it needing to be the real thing.
It’s a timeless neutral, too.
Isn’t it? I love that about it. I don’t know why I love it so much, but it’s evolved into a really beautiful relationship and trademark for me.
Do you still have any of your costumes?
Yeah, I have the leopard print look from the “That Don’t Impress Me Much” video. I’ll put them on display once in a while. I had them displayed in Caesar’s Palace for my “Still the One” residency. They are all stored when they’re not being displayed.
What do you think of the country revival in the last year? It feels like artists like Lil Nas X and Orville Peck have brought the genre into a more subversive territory.
I love it! I love it because they are referencing the old-time country that I love the most. I love the country music of my grandparents, and that is really when the artists were the coolest. They were edgier, and they were crossing genres – people like Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison – so many artists were rock for a minute, they were folk for a minute, they were country for a minute. They were gypsies in a sense when it comes to genre. They did their thing and didn’t worry too much about the label.
Would you do a collaboration with one of them?
Oh, definitely. I’m working on a new album right now and lining those things up. There will definitely be some collabs on the album. I’m very excited.
"It wouldn’t have been what I chose as a career, but it was my mother’s dream for me to be a singer. So, I did it for her."
I read that you didn’t originally want a career in music. Is that true?
I always wanted to be a songwriter. Music is like a drug to me! I was just shy about being on the stage. I didn’t want to be the centre of attention, so it was a definitely challenge and an anxiety that I had. It wouldn’t have been what I chose as a career, but it was my mother’s dream for me to be a singer. So, I did it for her.
What changed things? How did you end up being the performer?
I did the performance part mostly for my mother, and when she died, I actually decided that I would quit. I thought, “Who am I doing it for?” But it was a friend of mine in Canada who begged me not to quit – she convinced me. So, I got a job at Deerhurst Resort and that led to my record deal. I thought, “There’s no turning back now.” What was I going to go back to? I had no parents, I had no money. And I realized that this was what I was meant to do. This, with or without my mother, was what I was good at.
I remember going to Deerhurst as a kid and knowing that you performed there was such a big deal to me.
[laughs] The reason I ended up there was because the money was good. I thought, “I don’t want to do this as a career, but I’ve got my [siblings] at home now. I already know how to perform and so I’ll do it for the paycheque until I figure out what I want to do.” And it just became such a good showcase for me. People could see me do ballads, do a little rock. And I had musicians available if I wanted to work on anything. Sometimes I think it was quite a miracle.
You said that the people you were inspired by growing up were the ones who crossed genres and that became a signature for you. Was it an intentional choice when starting out?
No, absolutely not. It was just genuinely who I was. I could never decide what my favourite genre was. Growing up in a small town, there would have only been one clear radio station. And that was just a station that played every kind of music. When you’re little, you’re not listening to a country music or pop radio station, you’re listening to the hits. And that could be anything from Led Zeppelin to Dolly Parton. I just thought it was great music. Once I got to the city, I realized it was much more compartmentalized and that I would have to decide what kind of artist I would be. I was frustrated by that, and I think my music ended up being a hybrid of my formative years or listening to every style.
There’s a feminist current that runs through your work that has stayed very relevant. How do you feel about your words becoming part of today’s movement?
I’m really happy to see women being more assertive about their opinions, their rightful place in society and what equality should look like. I always believed that asserting your rights without anger is the best way to go. This is why I always wrote songs that were opinionated. They’ve always been saying something in that vein, but with a sense of humour.
I remember when I first got signed, the record label said, “Men are going hate you because these songs are too male bashing,” and I was like, “No they’re not! They are [done] with a sense of humour.” I love men, I think that comes through in my music.
I think some of the strongest feminist anthems have been country songs, historically. Some of Loretta Lynn songs are extremely feisty.
Totally! “Honky Tonk Angels” is just awesome. I was always attracted to the strong woman. When I was putting my lyrics together for my first album, I was a little naïve. I didn’t realize I’d be walking into such a conservative space and that I would essentially be rejected until the audience could catch wind and grab onto it.
I wonder if those same arguments are raised today.
Me too. Even Dolly Parton – she was very sexy and always accentuating those curves – I mean, it wasn’t subtle, and that wasn’t a problem at the time. Then when I came out, it was almost like it was a problem. I think maybe we went through a period culturally where women were reigned in and we regressed in that sense. And I wasn’t going to have any of it. These are women who influenced me – of course we have to carry on in this way.
I think in a way that’s why your look and your lyrics are so timeless – history favours the bold.
I think if you’re true to yourself, and you’re presenting your message with confidence, it translates. I was just picking up the torch from these women of my childhood and carrying that on.
Speaking of icons – would you ever do a Diva’s Live again?
Oh, wasn’t that great? It wouldn’t be the same without Aretha of course, but yeah, I would. That was such a moment in time.
Thank you, Shania! This was such an honour.
Thank you. Stay safe!