What Shania Twain fan could look at that top hat, thigh-high boots and full-length black trenchcoat and not remember the sexy seductions of her “Man! I Feel Like a Woman” video?
Twain looks at the stunning outfit, and she remembers something else: pain.
“Videos, especially, are so difficult, really challenging,” the 51-year-old country icon tells PEOPLE. “Long hours – and you’re not really thinking of the glamour. I just remember the boots were so tight and my legs were all swollen at the end of it. It was just a really, really long day.”
The breathtaking costume, of course, was a “must” in the new Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum exhibit dedicated to country’s best-selling female artist – and it’s symbolic of both the stratospheric heights of her career, as well as what it took to get there.
Tight boots were the least of it. Twain also had to endure childhood poverty, the loss – at age 22 – of both parents in a car accident, a bitter divorce, and most recently, struggles with her singular voice.
Today, she’s celebrating the hard-won victory of a new single, “Life’s About To Get Good,” and an upcoming album – her first with all new (and all self-penned) material in 15 years. But don’t call it a comeback.
It is, she says, “a continuation. This is an evolution.”
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Her most formative change, Twain says, is her effort to stop “living in the future” as a way to cope with stressful times.
“A lot of these things,” she says, talking about the wealth of museum artifacts that tell the story of her career, “I just rushed past them. I didn’t absorb it. I didn’t retain it. I didn’t enjoy it.”
With the new album, appropriately titled Now, she says she has transitioned to “thinking about and living with what’s happening now. It’s all about reflecting on what I’ve been through, owning what I’ve been through, not ignoring it and saying ‘forget about it, move on.’ I don’t want to forget about it. It’s made me who I am.”
Among those memories is her professional and personal partnership with Robert “Mutt” Lange. Her 14-year marriage to her songwriting collaborator and producer ended in 2010 after his alleged betrayal, and the lyrics of her new single seem to pointedly address this episode.
But Twain took pains, during a museum reception on Wednesday, to publicly thank her ex-husband in her remarks.
“I was very lucky in the ’90s to have had a collaboration with Mutt Lange,” she told about 300 guests who had gathered in the Hall of Fame rotunda, “and to develop my art as a songwriter and a recording artist. He gave me all kinds of freedom and respected that – respected my opinions – and I grew in that period.”
Twain has since remarried, and she also has rediscovered what it’s like to make her career without Lange – another huge change.
“I didn’t know where to begin,” she told the crowd. “I didn’t know where to pick up. So I went back to square one and figured that finding myself alone wasn’t such a bad thing, and maybe it was an opportunity to reacquaint myself with independence again, and test that independence and get back in touch with where I started.”
Another noticeable change: Twain’s singing voice, which she’s had to regain and retune from the damaging effects of dysphonia, the result of Lyme disease. “I was very scared for a little while that I wouldn’t sing again, ever,” she tells PEOPLE. “I went through that moment, but I found a way. I found a way to do it.”
Using her voice to sing now, she says, requires lengthy warmups and physical therapy that’s “very, very difficult.”
Considering all that she’s already accomplished, why even go to the trouble?
“The reality is that I’m a proactive person,” she says. “I like to act on my thoughts. I like to materialize my ideas, and I feel compelled to share them.”
Twain says she also deeply missed what she calls her “lifeline” to fans. “I’m sharing what I do for the response,” she says. “I want them to love it. I want them to enjoy it. I want them to be inspired.”
Among her legion of fans is a member of the next generation of country artists, Kelsea Ballerini, who showed up at the museum’s reception wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the name of her hero and mentor.
Ballerini put into perspective Twain’s impact on her career and on country music. “I know what it is to be a female artist because of Shania Twain,” the 23-year-old artist tells PEOPLE. “She’s the reason that me and Taylor [Swift] and all these girls got to have the careers we’re getting to have. Shania was the first person that was so herself that it pushed every boundary with her music, with her style, with her performances, with her music videos.”
Twain, for her part, is ready to keep pushing them. “I’m still myself but I’ve changed,” she says. “I’m not going anywhere, but I will continue to grow.”
“Shania Twain: Rock This Country” opened to the public on Friday at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville and runs through July 2018. Twain’s new album is set for release on Sept. 29.