Shania Twain used to wonder if Mariah Carey had ever heard of her

Interview March 1996

Having busted onto the pop charts with her lovely, frisky, completely addictive album The Woman in Me (Mercury Nashville), Shania Twain is as true a phenomenon as any rock wonder. The spark behind her explosively popular second record it the intersection of he voice, which has the clarity an warmth of Karen Carpenter’s, with a dynamic sound crafted by famed Def Lepard producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange, who is Twain’s husband and songwriting partner.

In country circles, Twain is also remarkable for being a Canadian (from northern Ontario), half Ojibway Indian (her name, pronounced “Shu-nye-uh,” is Ojibway for “I’m on my way”), and for her bush-country upbringing on a diet of moose meat and the Supremes, plus a lot of Waylon, Willie and Dolly. When her parents were killed in a car accident, Twain, then twenty-one, finished raising her three younger siblings before starting the career which led her, at thirty, to this year’s Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. I called her at dawn from New York City on a still winter’s day. She was in Miami, filming a new video. Though no other stereotypes of country living apply to her, she is a morning person, and unfailingly kind.

ALISON POWELL: Is there anything you like that no one would expect a country singer to like?

SHANIA TWAIN: Well, my favorite city in the world is Rome. And people are surprised when they meet me because they expect me to have a southern accent. For some reason, as different as my music is—for country—people still expect a country girl. I’m a chameleon, but when I center myself, I’m always just plain.

POWELL: What do you love most about country music?

TWAIN: So many things. As a performer, it’s what I’m most comfortable with. It’s also the lifestyle I’m most comfortable with. It’s just now an eccentric world. Plus, these days, because country music is becoming broader, you can experiment with it.

POWELL: Is that experimentation a change that you’ve seen in the last few years, since country music really took off?

TWAIN: Yeah, it’s taken off, but there were other wild times. Johnny Paycheck did this song “Take This Job and Shove It” in the `70s. It’s just that every type of music is going for a different spin in the `90s. People say, “Country music’s getting a little more daring now.” And I think, Well yeah, but what about rebels like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson?

POWELL: You were raised on classic country music. Did you listen to Top Forty radio too?

TWAIN: Yes, I did. I’ve always listened to Elton John, Stevie Wonder, and the Mamas and the Papas. A big influence of mine, you know, were the carpenters.

POWELL: How did you discover you could sing?

TWAIN: I think my parents discovered I could sing. [laughs] I was just always singing with the radio and with the eight-track player in my parents’ truck and I guess when you hear a six-year-old child harmonizing, you start to pay attention. Sometimes I would just sit for a long time by myself and do nothing else but sing. That’s what I did to play.

POWELL: By the time you were eight, you were already performing in—I won’t say bars—but clubs of various kinds. The songs you were singing must have been very adult.

TWAIN: I always did adult music. It was an adult world.

POWELL: There must have been a lot of lyrics about unhappy relations between men and women. What did you make of this as a young girl?

TWAIN: I never even thought about it. I used to write songs—very adult songs—about love, and people used to say, “You’re ten, how can you write about that?” I didn’t necessarily relate to the story too well, but I would get into the emotion of the singing, so it was quite convincing, and people would just shake their heads.

POWELL: When you were growing up, did you feel any kinship with other Canadian artists, like Joni Mitchell or Neil Young?

TWAIN: Because I started so young, I really didn’t know who was American and who was Canadian. I didn’t necessarily know that Anne Murray or Joni Mitchell were Canadian, I just knew they were on the radio with every other superstar. I didn’t spend anytime thinking—wow, they’re great for Canadians.

POWELL: Once you started focusing on your career, was it pretty easy to get noticed?

TWAIN: It was very smooth. I didn’t have to spend five years banging on doors in Nashville to be heard. There must have just been a space for me.

POWELL: The songs on The Woman in Me have so much going on, like shifting tempos, and in the case of the current hit, “(If You’re Not in It for Love) I’m Outta Here!,” you’re essentially singing two parts. Is this the result of the chemistry you have with your husband and producer [“Mutt” Lange]?

TWAIN: A lot of those ideas were things I was working on before I met him, but when you get together with the right person, all the right things seem to start happening. He comes from the rock world, so he’s got so much spunk to his music. But obviously, we have a much closer relationship than your average co-writers. We sit around and write songs during commercial breaks while we’re watching TV, or while we’re going for groceries. It’s almost like extended conversation for us. If there’s nothing to talk about, we make something up, and that’s what songwriting’s all about.

POWELL: George Jones is a big fan of yours. Have you met him?

TWAIN: Very briefly. He was definitely someone who was in my parents’ eight-track collection. I haven’t had a chance to sit down and, in a sense, interview him—that’s what it would end up being, because I’m so curious about these people’s minds.

POWELL: Who else would you like to meet?

TWAIN: There are a lot of people I wonder about. Like Mariah Carey. She has got such an amazing voice and I think to myself, She’s in my age group. I wonder if someone like her is aware of me? Pop encompasses so much: R&B, dance, adult contemporary, pop pop, rap. And [these artists] all know each other. But country just doesn’t seem to be one of those things yet. We’ve had this common ground on the charts, yet I’m not in their world at all.

POWELL: And country music has a reputation for being corny, rural, anti-pop.

TWAIN: [laughs] Right, “anti-pop.” I entertain the thought that maybe a Mariah fan has a Shania Twain album, and maybe an Elton John fan has a Shania Twain album. I wonder who those fans are, who else is in their record collections.

POWELL: Would you like to sneak into their houses and look at their shelves?

TWAIN: Oh I’d love that. I love those little thoughts.

POWELL: You’ve been nominated for a Grammy in the general category, Best New Artist, rather than being kept within the confines of country. Do you think your career might go into more of a pop context?

TWAIN: This may be something of an obvious turning point, but not necessarily one I’m initiating. I think that once you go past selling so many millions of records, you’re getting to different audiences outside of country radio. And I keep thinking, You don’t always know who’s buying your records. Are the same people who are buying Alanis Morissette buying Shania Twain, too? You think, Where are these people coming from? Because when you start getting into five, six million records, you’ve got to be overlapping. And, of course, when you get a nomination in a category like this, it takes you away from a stereotype. I mean, I’m a country-music artist. But what is country music? I think it’s a frame of mind, though I think that, to a lot of people, country music is about living the life of a cowboy. I don’t want to say that it’s not about cowboys, but it’s so much more than that.

POWELL: And at this point, you’ve got something in common with Alanis Morissette.

TWAIN: Not a lot of country artists can say that!