Country's stealth star Music: Shania Twain has sold a ton of albums for somebody who is unknown to many pop fans.

November 05, 1997|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

She has sold more albums than the Spice Girls, spent more weeks on the pop charts than Jewel and has had as many hit videos as Alanis Morissette.

But unless you're a country music fan, there's a very good chance that the name Shania Twain won't ring any bells. Even though the 32-year-old Canadian's last album, "The Woman In Me," has sold more than 9 million copies in the United States alone, she hasn't had much of a pop presence at all. Her videos aren't on MTV, her singles don't get played on Top-40 stations, and she has been almost entirely ignored by music magazines like Spin and Rolling Stone.

Funny thing is, Twain's sound is closer to mainstream rock than that of most country stars. Spin through "Come On Over," her just-released third album, and many of its sounds will seem familiar to rock fans. Whether it's the "Spirit In the Sky" guitar line in "Man! I Feel Like a Woman" or the "We Will Rock You" beat that powers "Honey, I'm Home," Twain's musical vocabulary is easily understandable by any pop fan.

Twain thinks that rock-oriented musical palette was part of the reason "The Woman In Me" was an across-the-board success. "There was such a wide age-group of fans," she says, from her home in upstate New York. "The kind of music that I'm doing is just something that a wider range of people can relate to.

"People who listen to pop or rock can relate to what I'm doing. And the country people can as well, because I'm not completely [eliminating] the elements that are familiar to them."

It seems an obvious enough idea as she explains it, but Twain almost didn't get the chance to pursue her own musical vision. "Quite a few of songs on 'The Woman In Me' were songs that I had pitched for my first album," she says. "And it just didn't fly."

Unlike in rock and roll, where even fledgling singers are expected to generate their own material, the Nashville approach relies almost entirely on outside songwriters. And because Twain hadn't sold any songs to other singers yet, nobody wanted to take a chance on her writing.

"So I didn't really get a very good listen," she says.

But her first album, "Shania Twain," did manage to catch the ear of producer Robert John "Mutt" Lange. An industry vet who worked on such multi-platinum albums as AC/DC's "Back In Black," Bryan Adams' "Waking Up the Neighbors" and Def Leppard's "Hysteria," Lange liked what he heard enough to track down Twain in Nashville.

"He was so interested in the fact that I was a songwriter," she says. "I just said: 'Yeah, I am. Why, is that important to you?'

"He was like: 'Is that important to me? That's everything. I wouldn't even want to work with an artist who wasn't a songwriter.' So I sat down with my guitar -- a lot of it was done over the phone -- and sang him some of the songs that I wanted to record and to work on. And he flipped. He loved it. He couldn't believe that [these songs] had actually been passed on the first time around."

Those songs became the basis for "The Woman In Me," an album that knocked Nashville on its ear. But because Lange -- who eventually married Twain -- was one of the most successful producers in the business, there was some talk in industry circles that he had pulled a Pygmalion, that Twain was just a pretty face manipulated by a studio master.

She laughs at the very idea. "I expected that when this whole thing started out," she says of such mutterings. "He'd never recorded a female artist before, and this was the first time that he had ever done country. And for me to sort of come out of nowhere -- I can see why people would think that."

Twain admits that there's a certain sound Lange goes for in the studio, but as she points out, "That's not songwriting. That's production. Don't people know the difference?

"Of course, he has his own style of production, just like David Foster has his own style of production. But not to the point where [his projects] don't have individuality. I mean, Billy Ocean's 'Caribbean Queen' album, which was huge for him, sounds nothing like 'Waking Up the Neighbors.' And, of course, 'The Woman In Me' doesn't hardly sound like Def Leppard."

Besides, the sound of Twain's albums is only part of the equation -- what she puts across in her songs is every bit as important to listeners. And the feel-good feminism of songs like "Any Man of Mine" and "(If You're Not In It for Love) I'm Outta Here" was a major factor in the success of "The Woman In Me."

"There's a lot to be said for feel-good songs," she says. "But you can go another step further, say something in your songs and still [maintain] that feel-good thing. And that's what I like to do."

Twain is especially proud of "Come On Over" in this regard. "A lot of the songs on this album say a lot more than what it may seem on the first listen," she says. "They are from a woman's perspective, but not coming from an angry feminist. I think there's a point where you can take it too far, and when you're taking it too far is when you're angry about it.

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