AN INTERVIEW WITH SHIRLEY MANSON
A marathon conversation with Shirley Manson, the notorious, larger-than-life Garbage lead singer who is back in the public eye since ending a seven-year hiatus from singing, finds Tsemaye Opubor face-to-face with a bad girl gone good.
“I’m a rebellious girl but I’ve never gotten myself into real shit”, says Shirley Manson.
“In my world, as long as you’ve never done anything you would be embarrassed to tell your Granny about, you’re ok,” I reply.
Shirley Manson is sitting across from me at Figaro, the laid-back French bistro where we’ve met in Los Angeles for this interview. She looks all L.A. cool in a leather jacket, t-shirt, crisp trousers, slight heeled shoes, pale perfect skin, a touch of mascara and a slash of reddish orange lipstick.
We’re seated at a quiet table in the back of the restaurant. I let Shirley choose the table, and she smiles and thanks me, telling me that she’s “quite bossy”, and that she likes being in charge. We need to concentrate on the menu long enough to order some glasses of wine, but our conversation is already all over the place, with women warriors, our favorite continents, space age characters and African female authors all being discussed at warp speed. There’s so much information being exchanged it’s hard to order wine, much less take notes, and we’re only three minutes in.
Shirley first caught my eye (and my ears) in her early scowling days in Garbage, the pop band that she has now been a member of for about 20 years or some 17 million albums, give or take a few, depending on how you measure things. There was something about her that first got to me in the early 90s; was it her voice – rich, deep and a little rock ‘n’ roll, or was it her presence, her haircut, her posture, her amazing wardrobe or the fuck off girl with a badass attitude vibe that she had? Whatever it was, it had hooked me then, and it keeps me hooked today.
TO I’ve been following you since the 90s, and you’ve always struck me as being so independent and pro-women. Is it hard working in the music industry and being a feminist?
SM It’s not hard to be a feminist, but one is working in a patriarchal industry that is designed to make money by exploiting women’s beauty to make money. The music industry is in a symbiotic relationship with narcissistic vanity, which is at this current moment in time in the history of the world, seen as acceptable – and it’s lauded, magnified, and admired.
TO I’m not trying to point a finger, Shirley, but dare I mention that you’re easy on the eye, you’ve been a model yourself, and you’re seen as a style icon. I do wonder how it adds up for you?
SM I’m not excusing myself and I don’t take it personally. I feel that throughout my career I’ve made very conscious decisions about how I’ve chosen to portray myself. Even though I was pressured to reveal more skin than perhaps I was fully comfortable revealing. I didn’t like the feeling of it. There were a lot of nude environments in photo sessions that I turned down, and I’m glad I did.
Can you tell me what happened? TO
SM Garbage enjoyed phenomenal success and then our career crashed. It was brutal and very difficult to process. I was left feeling very used in some ways, used and discarded. I think that if I had revealed all my body to the public and then been left as I was, I would have found that very difficult to recover from. I’m glad that I kept some part of myself just for me.
That sounds like it must have been very difficult? TO
SM One minute you’re the It-girl and everybody wants you… and then, you can’t get anyone on the phone… you can’t get anyone to believe that you have any value whatsoever because you are no longer the young It-girl. It was very, very difficult to recover from psychologically, and I did.
TO So what do you think about the young women who are out there now in music, the new generation of It-girls?
SM My experience doesn’t mean that I don’t think that women should exploit their beauty and their sexuality if indeed that’s who they are. I love women, especially women artists and I want the best for each and every one of them. I don’t know why I feel like this but I do. I’m deeply invested in the happiness of them and as a result I know I can be terribly hard on them, the unjustness of my attitude lies squarely on me. Of course they should be able to dress any which way they please, and be as sexual as they like. What is good for my goose may be completely different for their own. I just hate it when I see their talents and their accomplishments being overshadowed by their bodies. Our bodies we cannot keep. Our words, our work and our talent stays with us always, and nobody can ever take it away from us, ever.
TO Are there any women artists out there now that you feel are in charge of their image and the way they present themselves?
SM I love Rihanna and everything that she does feels very authentic to who she is and the culture that she grew up in. I find it to be glorious and beautiful and somewhat exciting actually, and new. For me, I find it to be very empowering to see her being so sexual and powerful. You know that any man that gets the chance to be between Rihanna’s legs is going to be trembling in fear. Now that to me is true equality right there!
TO Of course they would tremble! If you’re a man and you’ve managed to get to that place with Riri, you’d better be ready for duty!
SM She’s like a fucking powerhouse! I really love her! But she’s one end of the spectrum, and the thing I see more often is a bunch of girls being coy covering up their boobies in those magazines and it looks tired and sad and submissive and pathetic to me. Some dude is going to be in the office toilet with that magazine having a wank.
That’s a disturbing visual… thanks ever so much Shirley! TO
SM I know, it really bothers me too and I don’t know why. It sounds hypocritical to be lauding one woman for living a certain way and then sneering perhaps at the system that perpetuates the constant imaging of women with their clothes off. It’s bizarre and it detracts from who they really are and what they are achieving.
How does this differ from the 90s? TO
SM In the 90s we were girls who came from mothers who were really fighting for some form of equality, we were punk, or riot girls, whatever you want to call us. We were all raging with real attitude and determination. I think we saw our mums have their rights diminished so we wanted to enjoy our liberty to do what we wanted to.
Let’s talk a bit about why you left music for seven years? TO
SM I left music for so many reasons. The most important reason was that it just wasn’t fun. I felt I was doing my life a disservice by participating in a career that was joyless. I felt like it was phony of me to remain inside it when I found it so saddening.
You’re back now? TO
SM Yes, I’m back. We had the hiatus. I’m still in a band, which is what I do, but it’s still sometimes difficult. Don’t get me wrong though, in some ways I’m incredibly together. I am fucking hardcore. I realize that now. I’ve watched scores of people fall by the wayside. They can’t even handle one world tour without collapsing or getting a drip in their arm or having a mental breakdown or going nuts. I did three world tours
without missing one single fucking show and that’s fucking brutal.
TO What was the most significant thing that changed during that seven-year period when you were away from music?
SM My mum died, and I felt like I was emotionally retarded up until that point. I can honestly say that I grew up during that 18-month period, from her falling ill to her death. I felt so helpless. The only good thing about losing my mum was that I realized that I could no longer be a child myself. My relationship to my life, my work, my partner, it all changed after I lost her. I dug into my life and my joy. I chose happiness. It was the best display of love for mum. It was my way to deal.
So how did you wind up on TV playing a terminator? TO
SM Garbage had been so successful that I didn’t think that anything I could do would have a value after that. I met a scriptwriter at a party in Hollywood who told me I would be perfect for his show as a robot and the next thing you know I started doing a TV program, just for the fun of it. Thanks to that experience, my relationship to music and to success changed for the better.
So what’s in store for you now? TO
SM Well, on a personal level I can say that I’m now starting my second period as an artist. The last album feels like it signalled my debut as an artist, even if I had 20 years of experience with the band. I didn’t treat myself as an artist the whole first period as I call it, but I approach it differently now. I still feel like I’m a baby writer though. I also feel like I’m much nicer now. I’m much more powerful. I thought being rude or aggressive would somehow protect me from whatever I thought was coming to harm me. I know better now. How the fuck did my band stay with me? I was such an idiot!! I still audition for acting stuff. But because I have another career the thing that takes me away from music really has to speak to me.
What’s ahead for Garbage? It’s been 20 years since it all started. TO
SM As a band, we are going on tour next year, we’re working on a new record and also on a book commemorating the 20th anniversary for our community. We get together one weekend a month and write stuff. There are also some other really exciting things in the works but I can’t talk about them yet.
Shirley looks at her phone and realizes she’s missed a bunch of calls from her husband.
SM OMG! We’ve been here for more than three hours! I’ve missed dinner and the dog and everything. My husband must be fuming. I know I would be. I have to dash.
And with that, Shirley pays for the drinks and we leave Figaro.
Outside, her shiny black sedan has a parking ticket on it.
SM This is unreal, I’m usually so together and organized when it comes to work. I can’t believe I lost track of time like this. I had so much fun. I wish every day was like this. It certainly didn’t feel like work.
In spite of the late hour, and the missed phone calls, Shirley wants to make sure we get a selfie together outside. I had tried to take one inside the restaurant but Miss Manson finds my camera skills wanting and says she is going to retake the photo. When she’s finally satisfied with the result, she gives me a huge hug, jumps in her car, waves one last time, and speeds off.