The woman who made country & western sexy

Nashville's big noises made her change her name and sing borrowed tunes, but Shania Twain found her own route to the top.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
SHANIA TWAIN has several claims to fame and, for someone who has been famous for about 15 minutes, that's not bad. For starters, there is that name. Shania (pronounced shaw-nye-ah) means "I'm on my way" in Ojibwa Indian. Then there is that body. "They said it was impossible," gushed FHM magazine. "They said it could never happen. But Shania Twain has made country and western music sexy!" Then there is the fact that she is Canadian and not boring (and not Celine either). And fourth? Oh yes, well, her second album, The Woman in Me, sold 13 million and her third, Come On Over, is among America's top five at the moment. Clearly, she'll be around for longer than 15 minutes.

But something is not right. The name, for starters. It is just too convenient. Then I find out her real name is Eileen. Yes! Eileen is a perfect name for a girl who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in an extremely cold place called Timmins in northern Canada. I can see an Eileen performing in bars since she was eight, but I can't see a Shania doing this. Eileen Twain seems a great name to me.

Nashville disagreed. "When I got my first record deal they told me that Eileen Twain didn't flow," she said. They wanted her to change her surname, but both her parents had died when she was 21 and she wanted to keep their name. She thought the name Shania was beautiful and claims not to have known its meaning. I'm not sure we should believe her.

Except you have to believe her because, in person, she is utterly believable. The pouting babe who appears in FHM in black bra and a pinstrip suit arrives for our meeting looking pretty normal in jeans and a leather jacket. She has a great laugh and is so down to earth that I'm afraid she may start composting at any moment. So what's with the sexy image? Shania shrugs. "It's kind of like dress-up for me. I don't take it seriously but I have fun with it. You know, I wasn't a girlie kid. I was a tomboy. It's not in my nature to be girlie even now."

But they don't just think you are a girlie, I say, they think you are a babe. "A baby?" she asks. No, babe, I say. I quote from FHM: "Shania is unlike your average crooner in two obvious ways: she is not American and she is not ugly." Shania shrugs again. "Well, I am a girl so, I mean, I guess I look like a girl. But my mind is not girlie. I'm not a sugar and spice kind of girl at all. Really, I'm all about the nuts and bolts. My music isn't girlie either. It's pretty straight ahead and punchy and matter of fact."

Shania Twain is obsessed with her music and talks about it in a Holy Grail type of way. But her songs are an easy listening mix of new country, pop and rock. I wouldn't go so far as to call it "country schlock" as one reviewer did - country gets a lot schlockier than this! - but this is not Holy Grail stuff. It is immensely radio and listener-friendly, though, and Shania has the awards (Grammy, CMA etc) to prove it.

She talks as if her life depends on music and in many ways her childhood did. She is one of five children. Her own father left early on - only to resurface when she became famous, of course - and the man who adopted her from the age of two was Ojibwa Indian.

Such a thing may sound colourful or even romantic in 1990s England but, in northern Canada in the Seventies, it means that Eileen Twain grew up poor. "I don't have regrets. I wouldn't want to do it again though. My parents never owned a new car in their lives, they never owned a home. When I was a kid, I thought being rich was eating roast beef and living in a brick house."

Music was a passion and an obsession. "I was a recluse. I locked myself away with my guitar. It was all I wanted to do," she says. Her parents took that obsession and turned it into a career. So, at the ridiculously young age of eight, she found herself singing for smoking and drinking adults.

Was this the musical equivalent of those parents who enter their children in beauty contests? "I'd rather compare it to an athletic child. This was not a superficial thing. I didn't like the performance side at age 10 or whatever. I couldn't have cared less if I shared my music. It was my own thing. But it was good that my parents developed it into a career. But I hated getting up at midnight to go do those clubs. I missed a lot of school too."

For a few years, she had to leave the club between sets. "When I was 11 the government actually gave me a permit that allowed me to do a full night from 9pm to 1am. So from the age of 11, I was official." At 13, she got another job - at McDonald's. "I worked there after school and then at night in a club. I think McDonald's was a great job. I think all kids should do something that regimented. I thought it was a great job to learn responsibility."

The word "responsible" comes up a lot. She couldn't have cared less about high school but decided she had to graduate. "It was the responsible thing to do." For five years she sang with bands in bars and toured in the winter and worked for her dad in the summer, leading a reforestation crew. That all ended when her parents both died in a car crash and she returned to raise her brothers (then aged 14 and 13). She was 21.

A few years later, when her brothers had left home, she sold everything and sent a demo tape to a friend of a friend in Nashville. Within a month she had a deal. But, when she got there, she found that they didn't want Eileen's name or her music. They wanted someone named something else to record music by other people.

This Eileen/Shania did. "I'm a practical person. It's like, okay, I can do this. You know, it's a job. I'm not a purist. I'm a survivor. So I did it their way. I recorded that album with none of my own music. It didn't work and it wasn't a success. Then the man who would become my husband heard the album. He heard my story. So he called me and asked me to play some of the things I'd written."

The man was a producer named Robert John "Mutt" Lange. Six months later they were married and he produced the best-selling The Woman in Me. "I mean that really is it. I mean that was the end. I recorded my own music and life changed. That's it. That's my story." Now she is 32, rich and famous. That may be her story, but it's definitely not the end for a girl by any other name.

Shania Twain's new single, When, is released on 1 June.

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