The Daily Telegraph
Garbage singer Shirley Manson talks to Neil Mccormick about her new record, old demons and pop’s sexism problem
Shirley Manson thinks a great reckoning is due in the music business, which she describes as “an absolute nest of abuse of power and sexual violence”. The Scottish frontwoman of the American electronic-rock outfit Garbage says she is still routinely patronised by “male musicians, male managers, male accountants. I’ve talked about this for my whole career.”
She is hugely supportive of the Metoo movement. “The younger generation of women are not f-----around … Look, this is an industry that’s entirely unregulated, that legitimises the selling of teenagers. The insatiable appetite for young flesh is sickening, when they’re signing 13-year-old girls, literally grooming them till they’re 16, then putting their records out. Children should not be used to make money for big corporations.”
It’s good to have Manson back, as bold, brash and unrepentantly opinionated as ever.
She first burst into the consciousness of pop fans in the mid-1990s, a pale-faced firebrand with a string of confrontational hits including Only Happy When it Rains, Queer and Stupid Girl. Garbage sold over 17 million albums and provided the theme tune to the 1999 Bond film The World is Not Enough. Manson herself, meanwhile, had a recurring role as a killer robot in the TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.
“I’ve always been an outsider,” Manson says today. “I’m a female in an all-male band; I’m the youngest among considerably older musicians; I’m a Scottish person living in America. I don’t actually belong anywhere, I’m just this little redhaired rocket revolving around the sun on my own.” She explodes with an infectious outburst of glee. “I used to feel horrible about that, but now I feel grateful, because I’ve been able to maintain my integrity. If I’m going to be the only one standing in the middle of the room pointing out the turd in the corner, then so be it.”
Following a five-year break, Garbage have just released their seventh album, No Gods No Masters, and it sounds as though Manson has a lot to get off her chest. It offers a brash yet seductive concoction of industrial goth-rock sounds and sweet pop melodies, with Manson venting about issues such as global politics (The Men Who Rule the World), social injustice (Waiting for God) and transgender rights (Godhead), while creating potent fantasies of a feminist avenging angel (A Woman Destroyed, Flipping the Bird, Wolves).
Now 54, Manson jokes that she is considered ancient in pop terms. “I’ve endured a lot of unpleasant comments about my age, my looks, my physical attributes. I think if I was a dude that would be very different. But I feel better now than I’ve ever done, because my own vanity and obsession with my appearance diminishes with every day that passes. It doesn’t really matter if I’ve put on a few pounds during Covid. It doesn’t really matter if my hair’s messy and I don’t look like a Barbie doll.” Manson was already a veteran of the Scottish rock scene as a keyboard player and backing vocalist with Goodbye Mr Mackenzie when she was talent-spotted in 1994 by a trio of American rock producers, Butch Vig (drummer, now 65), Duke Erikson (guitars and keyboards, now 70) and Steve Marker (guitarist, 62). Joining them as singer and lyricist with Garbage, her unconventional looks and defiant attitude helped cultivate a reputation as one of pop’s spikiest and most outspoken female artists.
“I was described as loud-mouthed, opinionated – ‘She won’t shut up!’ And now I see all the women at it. Even the ones who are making quite pleasing pop music, they’re also speaking up and pushing the agenda forward of a more egalitarian society. That’s exciting to me.”
The new Garbage album was almost complete when the pandemic shut down their studio in March 2020. “Being stuck in Los Angeles was intense and somewhat freaky. I felt cut off from my family and my homeland. I haven’t seen my sister and her children in a year-and-a-half, which has been hard.”
The Hollywood neighbourhood where she lives with her husband of 10 years, sound engineer Billy Bush, was at the centre of Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. “Los Angeles is a very violent city, and it started to feel like a war zone. There were 25 police helicopters above our house, day in and day out, for what felt like 24 hours a day. And then we had an earthquake. At which point I sat up in bed and screamed: ‘I f------ want to go home!’”
It took Manson some months to regain focus and put the finishing touches to the album: “I couldn’t get my head on straight at all.” For a powerful frontwoman who presents herself with intense passion and humour, her lyrics often reveal deep veins of insecurity. She has spoken in the past of self-harming when she was younger, and on the vulnerable new ballad Uncomfortably Me, she laments a youth spent feeling like “a waste of time, a waste of space”.
“I don’t necessarily see insecurity as a negative,” she adds. “When I was a kid, it was a destructive force that, as I grew older, I was able to harness and use to my advantage. I wish I could have enjoyed our success a little more, I wish I hadn’t been so self punishing. But you grow up, you mature.”
She recognises the thornier aspects of her character. “I have a very powerful personality, and I’m not particularly proud of it. I’ve created a lot of pain for people. But because I am a sort of hypersensitive person, I feel pain really intensely. When you’re young and in selfsurvival mode, much like a baby rattlesnake, you have no idea how strong your venom is. But it has the power to kill.”
She does think there is a more critical focus on her behaviour because she is a female artist. “Whoever I’m dealing with, I feel relegated to second position because I’ve got a vagina!” She laughs with gusto. “It’s ludicrous! As I’m getting older, I’m getting less angry and more amused by how silly it all is … Do I want to spend my energy chasing youth, when my own youth wasn’t particularly happy? Or do I pursue growing older and be curious about it as an artist? I’ve got no interest in having plastic surgery. So I’ll live with the repercussions of my decisions, and I’m sure I’ll be punished for it.”
And yet she doesn’t sound worried. “I have many faults, but I’m not particularly a people-pleaser. I’m not here to present well. I’m here to live my life in the greediest way I can and have the most experiences I can. I don’t want to keep reliving, rewinding and remaking old Garbage records, and looking the same as I did when I was in my 20s and 30s. I want new adventure. Bring it on!”
‘I’m not proud of myself. I have created a lot of pain for people’
No Gods No Masters is out on BMG