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Rina Sawayama and Shania Twain on Starting Late and Writing About Hard Times

the mid-Nineties, but Shania Twain is still the reigning queen of country pop. Just look at the over-the-top reaction from the Gen Z crowd when Harry Styles brought her onstage at Coachella this year, or check out Post Malone rocking out during Twain’s AMAs appearance a few years back. Or take a listen to Rina Sawayama’s glittery banger “This Hell,” which kicks off with Twain’s iconic “Let’s go girls!”

For Sawayama, Twain has been a lifelong influence. The British Japanese star incorporates Twain’s country anthems into a futuristic sound that also mixes in pop and nu metal, among other styles. This isn’t lost on Twain, who was struck by the video for “This Hell.” “I was chuckling that you have [line dancing] going on in it,” she tells Sawayama over Zoom. “I thought, ‘Wow, it lives on!’”

Twain and Sawayama dove into a discussion that includes the latter’s recent album, Hold the Girl, the former’s upcoming album (due early next year), and all the moments where their lives parallel each other’s.

Sawayama: Oh, my gosh. Thank you so much for talking to me, Shania. Fucking hell.

Twain: This is great, right? It’s just great to be able to exchange. I love the new album. It’s like, wow, “Let’s go girls!” I feel rooted in your psyche.

Sawayama: I was trying to think of when I first heard your music. I was between Japan and the U.K. I moved to the U.K. when I was five, but for the first couple years I was in a Japanese school, and I literally didn’t listen to any Western music. I was fully immersed in Japanese music, but my mom would sing your songs in karaoke. Your music has literally been part of my life since I remember.

I feel like the [2017] album Now is so confessional. I felt so connected to it, having my album coming out. I’m so excited for your new record as well. The single is so good.

Twain: Thank you. I feel like the music I’m listening to of yours, it’s quite diverse. I hear some country in there, but I hear the rock edge. Yet it’s very poppy. You’re somebody that’s really taking ownership of your own genre style. … Talking about you, you did this thing with Elton John [Sawayama duetted with Sir Elton on a version of her song “Chosen Family”]. How was that? I’ve done a few things with him, but that had to have been fabulous.

Sawayama: It was amazing. He is so hungry for new music. He tells me about new bands and artists I don’t know about. He found my music, and he was supporting the singles before the album [2020’s Sawayama] came out. Then he wanted to speak, and we FaceTimed. Weirdly, I wasn’t nervous at all. Being queer myself, having lots of queer friends, it felt like an extension of my friends, which is such a weird thing to say, because I mean, he’s Elton.

Twain: The best moments for me have always been the most organic ones, just like getting a call from Harry Styles. … You’ve been into acting now, too. You’ve got this movie [John Wick: Chapter 4]. I mean, Keanu Reeves … you realize Keanu Reeves is Canadian.

Sawayama: You and Keanu are Canada’s biggest stars. National treasures. Clearly, Canadian people are really wonderful because he’s exactly what you think he’s going to be — so sweet and so generous.

Twain: How do you feel being in this big movie?

Sawayama: Terrifying. When you are doing a music video, you’re choosing the character. I don’t feel grossed out at all looking at myself when I’m doing music videos. But in a movie, you’re contributing to making a character, but also, it’s someone else’s vision. When I first saw my edit, I was freaked out because it wasn’t me. I was like, “I can’t believe my nostrils are doing this.”

In front of the director and producer, I was like, “I’m so happy with my performance!” but inside, I was dying. I was like, “Oh, fuck. This movie probably cost over $100 million to make. I’m a newbie. I’m ruining it. Everyone else is an amazing actor.” It just completely sent me into a spiral. Now, I know why actors don’t watch their movies.

Twain: It’s funny you’re explaining it this way because when I’m making videos, I’m just myself. I’m just doing my mannerisms, whatever comes naturally. I’m telling my own story because it’s my songwriting. But if I’m doing a part in a movie, I can let go of myself and I feel like, “Do whatever you want with me.” I’ll be the bad guy. I don’t even care.

Sawayama: That’s a really healthy way to see it. To give some context, I came into this industry late. I signed my first album deal when I was 29 years old. Now I’m 32 and I’m releasing my second album. When I first started out, I was very much in control of my image — I didn’t have any pictures from fans that were unflattering. But as soon as it starts to get big, everyone starts to take photos. I was trying to make sure that I look hot in everything, but in a movie, that’s not what you’re supposed to do. Have you ever felt that way?

Twain: Of course. I think it’s very helpful when you do start a little bit later. Very much like you, I released my first original-written album when I was 29 years old. I had my first hit at 30.

Sawayama: Oh, my god. I didn’t know that.

Twain: That is late, but I had the maturity. You had the maturity. You had a sense already of who you were and where you wanted to go. The next phase is being able to include the people around you that you trust and that you can educate on what you want. Then delegate because you can’t micromanage everything, or else then you get bad at the core things that you are really strong at.

Sawayama: But there’s the flip side of it. You felt ready when you were 30, but did it also feel like, “This is so different to the life I’ve lived”?

Twain: I spent all my life up until my late twenties being poor, really just making music to barely pay the bills. Both parents had died already, so I didn’t have any backup support. It was do or die. It was either you make it, or you are going to be struggling for the rest of your life, because now all of your friends have already gone to college and are graduated and have other careers.

Once I did make it, it was an overnight “Wow! I don’t have to count coupons when I go grocery shopping. I don’t have to worry about running out of gas until I can get my next 20 bucks.” My life changed dramatically in that sense, but that challenging part of my life will never go away. It’s deep in the grooves.

Do you feel that’s something about yourself? Because even though you came to the U.K. at five years old, you were raised by a single mom, and your mother would still have been very culturally based in her homeland in her mind.

Sawayama: We were not poor in the sense of socioeconomically poor. It was, we didn’t have money. I always like to make that distinction because one is socioeconomic and political, and one is psychological and what happens within certain families. We were living in a fairly good area in London, but essentially overnight our financial situation changed because my parents were just not getting on.

Until I was 15, I shared a room with [my mom]. She had to start up her own thing in a language that was not her own. She slept at 10 p.m., woke up at 2 a.m., and worked around the clock. The view from my bunk bed was this wardrobe she converted into a desk. That created a deep fear of hard work. I was terrified that working hard meant that you were not as available emotionally. I internalized that.

Twain: I know this feeling. There was a lot of severe violence at my house, and a lot of poverty. I determined at a young age I was never going to be in an abusive relationship, that I was never going to scramble for my next meal. That fires a lot of determination. Did you feel the same way?

Sawayama: Oh, 100 percent. I’m very much an advocate for therapy. I explore that in my album, the idea that what you go through is a result of your identity or your socioeconomic status or the country you live in.

Twain: Particularly “Catch Me in the Air,” right? Is that the one that encompasses all that spirit?

Sawayama: Yeah, definitely. That one was a hard one to write because me and my mom are in a good place in our relationship. Having said that, there is a part of her that is not as proud of the past as I am. I was promoting the song like, “It’s about me and my mom, and I felt this way when I was younger, and she was like this, and now we’re great.” But when I spoke with her about it recently, it was clear that we were not on the same footing.

Twain: I could see that, because her past has a pain to it that you would have not been aware of even before you were born. Having to leave her country, the courage of having to start over without the language, feeling obviously very alone and isolated and being a single parent — these are things maybe she would’ve wanted to forget and just carry on. I think your mother’s a hero, and I look at my own mother. There’s a biopic in the works on my life.

Sawayama: Oh, wow. That’s so cool.

Twain: If I were writing my own biopic, I would feel that my story would best be explained by telling my mother’s story, because that created so much of my own path. That’s what I hear in you.

Sawayama: How do you write? Is it different every time or is it on the guitar?

Twain: I write everywhere. If I’m playing tennis, I’m writing a song. If I’m riding a horse, I’m writing a song. I’ll sing them into my phone.

Sawayama: With this new record, what’s the inspiration? What are you writing about?

Twain: This new record is fun and celebrative, really on the other side of Now. I’m happy in my own skin. I’m celebrating that feeling, less apologetic for who I am and what I’ve become. This is me, and I like myself. … A lot of it was written during the pandemic. There’s nothing better for me than to not have enough to do, because the first thing I do is pick up my guitar and start songwriting. Now I’ve got four albums’ worth. I’m not kidding.

Sawayama: People tend to assume that when you’re having your most explosive success moment, you are the most happy. Was that the reality for you?

Twain: No, not at all. I mean, there were moments when I was. When I wrote “You’re Still the One,” I thought that was my love for life, and I really meant that. I thought, “We are definitely the couple that everyone is so sure won’t make it.” I’m like, “No way. We’ll be together forever, and we’re going to prove everybody wrong.” That isn’t the way it ended up.

Writing music, you have to dive into whatever you’re feeling right now. A song like that is sustained forever now, regardless of my own connection, because people are getting married and engaged and having reunions to the song. It’s become their song.

Sawayama: Do you ever want to revisit and do a tour that is just specifically for the more emotional songs?

Twain: Definitely. I’ve got so many of them. “Forever [And for Always”]. I could see myself doing a thematic production based around a more symphonic music production.

Sawayama: I think people would love that.

Twain: What about yourself? What’s next for you?

Sawayama: I’ve got this tour coming up. It’s my first world tour. Basically, the first album came out during the lockdown. I had a fan base, but my biggest show was literally to 1,500 people. Then it all got bigger during the pandemic. I’m trying to catch up with everything.

The other reason I asked you about the promo for the Now record is because I felt the same way: It was a very traumatic time that I was talking about. Therapy and the album helped me process it, but I think at this point I’ve probably done over 100 interviews to do with this specific, quite traumatic thing. It almost broke it open. I’m so happy I get to release this record, but at the same time, physically and personally I’m feeling it, because I’m constantly talking about it. It’s my life. I was just curious as to how you navigate that on the press side and the promotion and shows. You’re retelling the story again, and that’s something I’m trying to navigate.

Twain: I know exactly what you’re saying. I think it’s very fair as an artist to be able to explain that was a period in your life that you are now on the other side of, so you don’t need to be speaking about it as if you’re still living through it every time you talk about it. It is an experience that you had. Now, you can direct those conversations about what your new perspective is based on that experience, but you don’t need to be reliving that in any way. You don’t need to all of a sudden feel you owe them to go into this. You don’t live in that space anymore. Like I was saying about “You’re Still The One.” I almost smile about it now, even though it was a horrible time for me.

Sawayama: Well, I wish we had this conversation at the beginning of my campaign [laughs].

Twain: It’s a very healthy perspective. It’s normal for journalists to want to bring you back to those things because it might trigger something. You just have to avoid it. You could even have humor. Humor is a really great way of sharing how you’ve moved on from things.

Sawayama: Songs like “This Hell,” I get messages from people who connect the idea of country music with their conservative parents. They’ve been like, “You’ve taken trauma out of the genre. Thank you.”

You are literally such a gay icon yourself, so I think making a song lighthearted is so important. We have the privilege to share so much joy in the world and be the relief from everyday aggressions. You can’t change people, but you can inspire people to change.

Twain: Have you ever tried? Sometimes I’ll come across somebody even in the audience, and I’m thinking, “Well, maybe they just hate my music, but they’re doing it for their friend.” I’ll look at them and look at them, and I’ll smile the whole time until I get a smile back. I make it a mission.

Sawayama: Oh, my god. I love that.

Twain: I really love you, your personality.

Sawayama: Oh, my goodness. People underestimate how hard it is to write a song that speaks to millions around the world for decades. Also, on behalf of the queer community, thank you so much.

Twain: Thank you. I’m going to look at our calendar and see when we might be crossing paths somewhere.

Musicians on Musicians is the annual franchise where two great artists come together to talk about life, music, and everything in between. We’ll be rolling out each story in this year’s series through November 2nd, and each one appears in the November issue of the magazine. You can also hear a podcast version of many of these conversations right here.

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