If Naomi Judd’s story could inspire a TV miniseries, Shania Twain’s might merit a big-screen epic: growing up poor with four brothers and sisters in Timmins, Ontario, singing in local clubs at age 8, raising her siblings after her parents were killed in an auto accident when she was 21.
Twain got a record deal with Mercury Nashville and released “Shania Twain” to little notice in 1993. But everyone noticed the follow-up, “The Woman in Me.” Twain collaborated with British pop-rock producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange (Bryan Adams, AC/DC, et al), and the team not only came up with one of the past year’s biggest-selling albums, they also got married.
Sparked by “Any Man of Mine,” a Cajun-spiked romp in which Twain lists her demands with the authority of a drill instructor, the album has sold nearly 4 million copies, and she has four nominations in tonight’s Academy of Country Music Awards at the Universal Amphitheatre.
But Twain, 30, has taken flak for her flirtatious, glamorous image. And even though she wrote or co-wrote all the songs on “Woman,” some suspect that she’s a puppet for a powerful producer. In a recent interview, Twain addressed those reservations and reflected on her bond with country music.
Question: Why did you respond to country music as a child?
Answer: I related a lot to it. . . . I could relate to hardship, the tensions that can be in a household when there’s not enough money to go grocery shopping. . . . I would listen with a mature ear. You grow up fast in an environment that’s a little underprivileged.
Q: In what way?
A: Just little things, like if you don’t have a lunch for school, then you’ve got to make up excuses why. At that time if you were to tell the teacher that you don’t bring a lunch because we can’t afford it, maybe they would have had the children’s aid come to our house and we’re gonna get separated. . . . Things like that that don’t allow you to just be a kid all the time. You have to be responsible.
I often just escaped with my music. Instead of going out to play during recess I went to the music room and kind of vented my energy there and kept things positive. My music was a very positive escape for me.
Q: You wrote or co-wrote all the songs on the album. Why is that important to you?
A: Because it’s the way I can express myself the most directly. . . . It’s been the goal right from the beginning. I’ve always been a songwriter. From the age of 10 years old I’ve been performing my own material. . . . I want people to be getting to know me for what I am, and the best way to do that is through my songs. When they’re coming from your head and it’s your creativity, it’s as real as it gets and it’s as true to you as an artist as it gets.
Q: “Any Man of Mine” got the kind of response that happens occasionally when a record really hits a nerve with people--there was even an “answer” song, “Any Gal of Mine.” Were you trying to stir things up?
A: I was totally flattered that it created enough of a commotion for someone to even think of doing an answer song. . . . I think it was a really good, healthy tongue-in-cheek . . . battle of the sexes. I like that. Let’s face it, the battle of the sexes is never gonna go away. It’s a healthy battle. We don’t want to be the same, we don’t want to be generic, we want to be different.
Q: What were your expectations when you were ready to release the album?
A: Well, we knew that it was gonna turn heads, because we knew that it was different. But which way would it turn heads? They could have turned away as easily as they turned for it. We didn’t try in any way to be like anyone else or fit in. We were just trying to be ourselves and we just decided to take the risk. We knew it was gonna be heading in the direction of definitely having an edge to it.
Q: Were you concerned that Mutt’s production would make it too pop-rock for the country audience?
A: His favorite music to listen to as a pastime is country, so he was the one that would lean more toward the steel and the fiddle and the harmonies, and I would be the one that was always anxious to take it a little bit further. On my down time I’m listening to everything else but country so that I don’t become generic. You need to get fresh ideas. If you limit what you listen to, then I think you limit your creativity.
Q: With you coming from Canada, and with Mutt from a pop-rock background, has it been hard to get acceptance in the Nashville community?
A: So many people that we know there come from somewhere else and they come from a different musical background. It just doesn’t seem to matter anymore. It’s like everybody’s there to make great music. . . . And I think it’s more demanding now--if it’s not great, then it’s not gonna have a chance. I think that’s good. I think that weeds out a lot of mediocrity. I think it’s starting to do that. If you didn’t have fresh blood and new ideas and people who are willing to go to the edge, I think that you do run the risk of having cookie-cutter music.
Q: You’ve had trouble getting credibility for a couple of reasons. One is that people suspect that you’re just a vehicle for this powerful songwriter and record producer.
A: That’s fine. I always have believed in proving myself. I’m not afraid to do that. One thing people forget is that we weren’t in love when we met. He wouldn’t have even begun working with me had he not felt that I could pull my weight. People think we fell in love and then Mutt decided to work with me, but we met as songwriters. And Mutt is always saying to to me, “Why don’t you tell people you wrote most of this music? We should have credited you with more than half of this writing, because you wrote more than I did on this album.”
Q: People also attribute your success to the fact that you look good in videos. How do you deal with that?
A: It’s not hard to deal with. I’d rather look great than look bad. There again, I think that credibility is just something that has to be earned. I think people will realize over time that you can be everything. I think this is something that is gonna start to change in society. Because it’s like, listen, you can be a great, brilliant lawyer and be great-looking at the same time. Hello? You didn’t graduate because the teacher thought you were great-looking, you graduated because you had the grades. But you’re still gonna suffer from that kind of prejudice. I’m not saying I’m a victim or anything, but I don’t feel that women have to downplay the way they look to be taken seriously.
* The Academy of Country Music Awards from the Universal Amphitheatre airs on KNBC-TV Channel 4, 8-11 tonight (delayed).