For Shania Twain, the writing of the songs on “Queen of Me,” her latest album, was a form of music therapy to help her through the COVID-19 shutdown blues.
It was during that period of pandemic isolation that she wrote this album “as a tool to hold on until it was over, if it was ever going to be over, and obviously, no one really knew that,” Twain recalls.
“So I was just escaping that dark mood. And like I always do, I turn to songwriting and practice mind over matter. I've nicknamed it my happy album because it's all about seeing the positive side of things.”
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The title track is about taking charge of your own frame of mind, especially when times are tough.
“You're in charge of your optimism,” Twain explains. “You're in charge of if you're gonna see the glass half full or half empty. It's all about personal choice in the end, being the boss of yourself and taking charge of that.”
The album’s second single, “Giddy Up!,” is a contagious country stomp about putting some “up in your giddy,” a suitably giddy turn of phrase.
“I was missing feeling giddy and cheerful and happy and boppy during the pandemic, right? I'm like, 'Ugh, it's a dark time; there's a lot of, you know, doubt and fear.' So let me turn to songwriting, my therapy time, and write happy things,” Twain says.
She started thinking about ways to put some spice back in her life.
“I was asking, ‘Where's the joy,’ right? How do I find the joy? And giddy was just part of it. How do I put some up — some positivity — back in my giddy, in my laughter, in my fun?”
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Another highlight of the album, “Inhale/Exhale Air,” was inspired by her own experience with COVID-19, which led to pneumonia and a terrifying airlift to the hospital.
“Thankfully, they had plasma therapy by then,” Twain says.
“I don't know whether I would have made it or not without it. But apparently, I wasn't making it. So yeah, I'm so grateful to be even here.”
It was probably her third day in the hospital (12th day of having pneumonia) that she found herself turning again to the songwriting process for help.
“I said, 'OK, well, think positive, be distracted by something.’ And I started making a list of all the things to appreciate about air. Because after all, I was running out of it. Every day that went by, I was losing more and more air capacity 'til the plasma therapy kicked in.”
In the opening verse of the song that list inspired, she’s driving with the top down, blowing up balloons on Sunday afternoon and letting bubbles overflow inside the house.
“I wrote this list of, you know, just appreciating all the little things about air,” she says. “And then, of course, you know, life itself, the inhale and exhale of life. And that's how that song came about.”
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Twain launched a tour in support of the album in April, which brings her back to Phoenix for a date at Talking Stick Resort Amphitheatre on Tuesday, May 30.
It’s the singer’s first tour since the Now Tour wrapped in 2018, although she has done some festival dates and a long-running Las Vegas residency since then.
Doing Vegas was great, she says, especially from a production standpoint.
“But going to people's hometowns, it's a different connection,” she says.
“It's probably more emotional in some ways for me because I'm in their hometown, and they're specifically getting off early or staying out late or getting a babysitter, whatever it is they're doing. They're not on vacation. They're coming out to see the show.”
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Last year, Twain joined Harry Styles onstage in what she calls “a landmark moment” at Coachella, joining Styles on a duet of two songs that continue to define her place in music history: “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” and “You’re Still the One.”
Released in 1999, “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” has emerged as a cross-generational anthem of female empowerment enjoying another resurgence thanks to TikTok.
“I think I appreciate it more now than I even did at the moment that it was in its own personal prime as a song, because I'm watching it,” Twain says.
“I'm more objective. I've got more clarity on the power that a song can have on an individual or community or culture. And I just am amazed. I would never have known writing it that a song even had that power. And it's really beautiful to be associated with it and to watch it just live like that. Still.”
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Last year also brought “Not Just a Girl,” a Netflix documentary spanning Twain's career.
“Honestly, I thought it would be more emotional watching it back,” she says.
“But I was just so happy. I was smiling. I was laughing at myself. It was a joy. Because I guess I felt like I could see it all in one moment, the accomplishments, and appreciate the scope of it, my life in music, in a very concentrated period of time. It made me smile.”
That title refers to a struggle she’s been dealing with “my whole life,” she says.
“It's like I have to prove it every day. Which is probably why I'm still writing about it. And not just me. I'm seeing it still as such an issue with girls and women in general, outside myself, that I just feel that it's still a very worthwhile subject. It's worth talking about, it's worth writing about and sharing and singing about.”
The fact that women are still fighting for equality, she says, “means we're not there yet, so I guess as long as we're still not there, I'll be singing about it.”
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The documentary talks about the inspiration Dolly Parton had on Twain as she was growing up in Canada, both as a songwriter and how she felt about her body.
“It was really difficult for me to grow into being a woman physically, from that sort of adolescent period where all of a sudden your body starts bulging out in every direction,” Twain recalls.
“I was not ready for that mentally. I felt that as I started to develop physically, people started taking me less seriously for my thinking. So there was, like, pushback. I pushed back on growing into my body.”
Dolly Parton helped her get beyond that.
“I saw her talking about her plastic surgery, being unapologetic,” Twain recalls.
“The bigger her boobs got, maybe the more she got criticized by some people, but the more she smiled about it. She was just so exceptionally graceful, never lost her sense of humor, and carried on on her own trajectory of how she saw herself as a woman in the spotlight.”
It took Twain a while to get that point.
“Not the plastic surgery, because that's not my choice,” she says. “But I am definitely into the aesthetics of a woman's beauty and the fashion women can enjoy with our bodies and own it and love it. And she was a big part of that for me.”
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The first time she met Parton was by pure coincidence and Parton was as charming as expected.
“I was on a plane and I was nobody yet,” Twain recalls. “I was just getting signed. And she was walking down the aisle. She walked right past me. And I was just humming. She said, 'What are you singing?' She addressed me in person.”
The memory of that moment makes her laugh.
“She was so sweet and awesome,” she says. “I'm like, 'She noticed me!' I wasn't doing it on purpose to get her attention. But she was so attentive.”
The first time Twain attempted to meet Parton as a fellow country superstar, it didn’t go as well.
“I was getting a country music award in Nashville, and she was on the show,” Twain says.
“And I said, 'Oh, I want to meet her after the show. Can somebody organize that?' But by the time I got offstage, she was already gone. I was so heartbroken. But I knew she was a beautiful person and that someday, I would get that chance. Which I did. I got to meet her and sing with her on a couple of occasions and it was fabulous.”
Shania Twain recalls the 10-year journey to regain 'a different voice'
The documentary also touches on what Twain says was “a 10-year journey” after Lyme disease and dysphonia left her with a weakened singing voice, inspiring a long hiatus and requiring a risky surgical procedure that allowed her to regain “a different voice,” as she calls it.
“The saddest thing for me in the beginning was my speaking voice,” she says.
“I couldn't yell out if my child was gonna fall and he was not in close proximity. As soon as I would go for projection, it would collapse, kind of like a weak knee, when you stand up and the knee just gives out. I couldn't call out for the dog. I didn't want to talk on the phone anymore. I couldn’t speak in crowds. Couldn't cheer at a game. It's like having a hole in a straw.“
The damage to her vocal nerves went undetected until seven years after she had Lyme disease.
“Once I discovered through a neurologist that the nerves were damaged, only then could I actually know what to do about it,” she says. “There's an operation that inserts supports on either side of your larynx that if you're lucky can maybe successfully compensate for the nerve damage.”
It’s basically open-throat surgery.
“You have to be awake,” she says. “And you have to sing and speak during it. So it's a big decision. And a scary one. But I'm like, well, it's either that or I never speak the same again, never the same vocal expression. And I will definitely keep losing my singing voice with age. So I did it.”
The operation was a huge success.
“I can be as loud as I want now,” she says. “And I'm really happy with my new voice. I've got a lot of breath. I've got a lot more air. And I'm just grateful that I can do all this. It's incredible.”
It may not last forever, though.
“That's part of the reason why I'm recording so much music and I'm doing our residencies and I'm out on the road,” she says. “I want to enjoy it. If I ever need another operation, I'm not sure I would do it again. But until I’m faced with that? I'm just going to enjoy it.”
Shania Twain in Phoenix
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 30.
Where: Talking Stick Resort Amphitheatre, 2121 N. 83rd Ave., Phoenix.
Admission: Resale ticket prices vary.
Details: 602-254-7200, livenation.com.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Shania Twain says writing 'Queen of Me' got her through the pandemic