Shirley Manson of Garbage on Brexit, Taylor Swift, and How the Scots Have ‘Disowned’ Trump
The singer/songwriter opens up about her band’s impressive sixth studio album, Strange Little Birds, and much more over beers with senior entertainment editor Marlow Stern.
“I’m kind of a monster, in a way,” offers Shirley Manson, cradling a pint of lager. “I enjoy the grind. I think I’ve missed one show in my entire career. I’m just a maniac. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing…”
Manson has been the lead singer of the alt-rock group Garbage since 1993, snarling, kicking, and wailing her way to 17 million records sold and even a Bond theme. Now, the band she formed with legendary Nirvana producer Butch Vig and Co. is back with their sixth studio album, Strange Little Birds—a melancholic and cinematic sonic journey that’s garnering some of the best reviews of the Madison, Wisconsin, group’s career.
The outspoken and affable Scot, whose striking red hair is now pink, sat down with me at a hotel bar in downtown Manhattan to discuss her thorny path from the bullied daughter of a Sunday school teacher in her native country to one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most badass leading ladies.
Well, this is exciting. Your group’s sixth album is receiving some of the best reviews of the band’s career.
It’s really exciting. I have to say, it’s sort of nuts. I never expected it, you know? I’m a Scottish fatalist, so I always expect we’re going to meet a cruel, hard, icy, cold wall. So it was spectacularly shocking. In the ‘90s, it felt like it was easier to release a record and get some attention, and now it seems very difficult. There’s so much noise.
There is so much noise. It seems like the music industry has become a lot less democratic—that a handful of acts seem to control so much of the conversation. It’s the 99 percent versus the 1 percent.
That’s exactly what it feels like to me. And they get bigger and bigger and bigger. It’s like a hot air balloon where they just get pumped up ever more in our face, and it’s getting harder and harder for subcultures to have a voice. That’s not how I grew up. I grew up in the ‘70s, essentially, and there were so many subcultures that had powerful voices, and now I feel that’s impossible. It’s all becoming very Orwellian and homogenized. We’re all listening to the same records, dressing the same. It’s troubling. At the same time, I think we’re getting more and more divisive as a society, whereas in music, funnily enough, everything’s getting more centralized. I guess it’s about trying to survive, so media outlets just want to cover the big acts to get the clicks. They also have to answer to corporate interests. It’s all about money. People are so obsessed with labeling things as “successful” and “unsuccessful,” and that’s just not how I look at the world. There are so many records I’m obsessed by that influenced me and changed my life that nobody’s ever heard of. To me, they are heroes.
What are some of those bands, or records?
I’m thinking of the Scottish bands I grew up with, like The Shop Assistants, The Fire Engines, Hey! Elastica—all these underground bands that nobody’s ever heard of but they made records that changed my life. So are they successful or unsuccessful? To me, they’re successful because they made records that touched people’s lives. Now, it seems things are being put up against a ridiculous measuring stick.
On Strange Little Birds, the title comes up on one of the album’s best tracks, “Even Though Our Love Is Doomed.” To me, the titular “strange little birds” seemed like that scene you paint on the song “Empty” where you’re wandering down streets and see a sea of smiling, vacant faces.
Well, you’re bang-on. I think it’s pretty much humanity, really—how we all look at each other, we’re all judging each other, and we’re all thinking, “Oh, that person’s a freak because they don’t do things the way I do.” Our feelings towards one another in the world are becoming more and more exacerbated by that sense. I felt it was a general headline for our record. I think everybody’s weird other than myself, and I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that way.
As far as weirdness goes, there was a lot of tension in the band after Bleed Like Me and a fairly lengthy hiatus before your 2012 album Not Your Kind of People. How did the group overcome that?
Fuck knows! Just put one foot in front of the other and hope for the best. I think there are a lot of reasons for it, though. We have discovered, as people, that we do not do well under a major label because we’re not willing to make the compromises that major labels require. I get it—they have corporate interests and are trying to make money—but we have realized that we’re not their Huckleberrys. We’re polite, but defiant, and we did not want to be told what to do or make the compromises they wanted us to make.
What sort of suggestions was your label making?
They had suggestions of us working with different artists—in particular hip-hop artists, and we love hip-hop but it had nothing to do where we were coming from musically. It just seemed so phony and calculated, and people were already suspicious of us being a calculated band during the best of times. It felt so forced and silly. This was around 2005.
Ah, so in the wake of the Jay Z/Linkin Park album.
Yeah, around then. And I get it—there were a lot of bands that did it, and were successful at it. But it just felt wrong. So, we had problems with our company and then that caused problems amongst ourselves, because everybody’s blaming themselves—and each other—for the perceived failure of the band. It causes a lot of tension. Everybody had their own idea of how to “save” the band, but I think when we went our separate ways, we all just got frustrated with not being able to make music together.
It seems like you gave a different part of yourself to Strange Little Birds. There is a softness and vulnerability in your voice that I think was more masked on past albums.
I think I just got to the point where I felt I had nothing to lose. No fucks given. It’s come to that point where I can only be what I am, and I have to focus on what I can do. Once I figured that out—I don’t have to be young, I don’t have to be pretty, I don’t have to be sexy, I don’t have to be wearing a bikini in a video shoot—when I really came to terms with all that and realized that all I had to do was do good work, then yeah, no fucks were given. What do I have to lose? I’m here for such a short time that I might as well tell the truth.
With frontwomen in bands, there can be—and a lot of this is the media’s fault—a lot of focus and objectification of the frontwoman, and then it becomes less about music and more about image. Did you feel like that happened to you? That the powers that be were digging their talons into you in that respect?
Yeah. A lot was made of how I looked, and I have a big personality—the rest of my band are quiet and they’re not like me. So I became the focus because I’m the one who’s willing to communicate, and then it began to fuck with my head because I got all this attention. I thought, “I’m not pretty enough, I’m not young enough, I’m not this enough, I’m not that enough, I’m not as cool as she is, I’m not as hard as he is.” It began to really fuck with me. Luckily for me I fell in love with amazing frontwomen. I’ve followed Patti Smith from day one, Chrissie Hynde, Marianne Faithfull—all of these women who continue to be active in music and have managed to escape the cage of objectification. I was taught by them, and so once I figured that out I realized I could remove myself from those expectations, because how people choose to objectify me is one thing, but I don’t have to take on that mantle. Once I figured that out, I was free.
Are there any moments you remember vividly where you thought, “This has gone too far.”
Oh, there are countless amounts of moments, including post photo shoots my hair’s been colored a different color at the request of some fucking dude. Somebody thought it was OK to tamper with my image because I’m just an object. But the moment that changed things for me was I went to a Louise Bourgeois exhibition at the Tate in London. It was a retrospective and I’d never heard of her because I’m uneducated in fine art, but I saw this work by this woman who at the time was 93 years old and still working and holding artistic salons at her apartment in New York. She was this wrinkled, wizened old lady and I thought, “I can do that. I can keep making music until I’m dead, and who’s to tell me otherwise? I can release myself from all the expectations of the record industry and people’s fucked up ideas of what success is. I can make those measuring sticks disappear.” That was a really empowering moment for me.
There was a point though, around 2008, when you almost turned your back on music.
I thought I had to because I was no longer young. I was no longer the hot, zeitgeist girl, or the girl who was getting put on the front cover of every magazine. I genuinely thought, “Oh, I’m done.” I remember telling people, “I’m done,” and they’d say, “You’re not done! You still have so much to say,” and I’d go, “No, people don’t care if I have something to say. They just want somebody young and pretty. They want the newest thing.” In some regards I’m right, but there’s a whole other side to the equation where I’m completely wrong. I go back to that Louise Bourgeois exhibition where I realized I could design my own career outside of the mainstream’s idea of what a successful career in music is.
There was also I read a moment where you performed Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” at the funeral for a friend’s child that changed your outlook on music.
Their child’s memorial, yes. Friends of mine lost their 6-year-old son, Pablo, and I was invited to sing Pablo’s favorite song at the funeral. Butch [Vig] was there and we hadn’t spoken or seen each other in a while, and that was the catalyst for getting the band back to the same place. Death changes everything. Losing my Mom changed everything. Divorcing my first husband changed everything. Loss is the most profound change.
Bowie, man. It’s been a crazy year in music.
It’s been an awful year, and it just seems to continue. I don’t know what the hell is going on.
Crazy year in general. You’ve lived in L.A. for about a decade now. How has the American life changed your perspective on things?
It has completely changed my view on world affairs, one being the historical generosity of America towards immigrants, and it’s sad to see somebody [Trump] who’s trying their damnedest to eradicate that.
It’s happening in the UK too, though. Brexit was very much about xenophobia and anti-immigration.
Absolutely. And it’s strange to me because it speaks to an incredible arrogance on people’s behalf. Throughout history, we’ve had massive moves of people across continents, so why do we think we’ll be immune to that? I understand the idea of people that have no money, and they’re frightened, and they are being fed really hysterical rhetoric about immigrants, and the newspapers blow up the one incident where an immigrant does something outrageous and violent and scary, I understand why the people respond the way that they do. But I really think we need to look at history to learn from the mistakes we have made in the past, and also the great benefits of immigrants to each country in the world. It’s lack of tolerance.
In America too, it seems like Donald Trump has manipulated many poor, angry white people into getting hysterical about immigrants. And he’s got Scottish roots!
Don’t say that! Fuck. He’s been disowned by the Scots. He has been disowned by Scotland. They think it’s disgusting. The Scots stripped him of all kinds of things. They’re horrified by him—and rightfully so. I can deal with assholes, and people who have different opinions than me, but what bothers me about this man, who shall remain nameless, is he’s put himself up for one of the most important statesmen in the world, and he’s not taking his task seriously. He thinks he’s playing a game with the media, but in fact he’s playing with people’s lives. In L.A., you drive through Silver Lake, a relatively posh, affluent neighborhood, and people are living under the bridges in cardboard boxes. It’s those people he’s disrespecting in not taking his mantle seriously. When you’re disrespecting people across the board and clearly hate humanity… he’s very dangerous.
In the song “Even Though Our Love Is Doomed,” you mention that you’re ready for a revolution. What would that revolution look like?
I don’t know, but I was very excited when the Pope said we need a new world order. I think we’ve gotten to the absolute apex of worshipping money, and in my lifetime, never has there been a more chaotic, frightening time than right now.
Let’s talk about the halcyon days, then. I read that you grew up as a bit of an outcast.
I was a redhead, Jesus Christ. You don’t get much more despised than that. It’s terrible in the UK. There’s now Julianne Moore, Jessica Chastain, and Lindsay Lohan—god bless her. There weren’t any red-haired icons when I was growing up besides I Love Lucy, so you just grew up thinking you’re ugly as sin.
What was it like growing up in Scotland?
It was awesome. I had an incredible school—both my schools were incredible. I was a pretty good student until I went to high school, and then I got bullied for a year and kind of went off the rails. I got bullied for being pale, a redhead, and coming from a nice middle-class family. My bully came from a very hard background, so she took it out on me. It got pretty bad. She got on my case to the point where I lost my temper one day when she was threatening to beat me up and said, “Alright, outside at 3:30 we’ll fuckin’ square off,” and she never turned up and that was the end of it. But it went on for the longest time. This is the saddest thing ever, but I had these pink beads and a weird crucifix—because I grew up in a religious household—and used to tie the beads to the crucifix and put a little not in it that said, “Please God! Please do something about Louise!”
But in a way perhaps it was a blessing, because great art is born from pain and suffering. Everything great is born from pain. All truths come from pain. But I fell in with a crowd who loved music, and rolled for a while with a group of proper punk rockers, then I fell in with boys who had more sophisticated taste, and they introduced me to Patti Smith, The Clash, Bauhaus, and Adam and the Ants, and my whole world exploded at that point.
As far as contemporary female artists go, what are your thoughts on Taylor Swift?
Oh, I love Taylor Swift. She’s an accomplished musician—she can play, she can write—she’s smart, and she’s never fallen back on anything other than her musical talent to progress. And as she’s grown up, she literally looks like a supermodel. To me, she’s more beautiful than half of the models in the magazines. She’s like a Terminator to me. It’s so perfect that it induces a lot of anger and resentment in lots of women towards her. I’m fascinated by how much people loathe her. I feel like I read a lot of shit talked about her by her contemporaries, and if I was her contemporary I’d feel very grateful that here’s a girl doing it pretty much on her own terms, she’s not got a man behind her, she’s done it really cleanly, and she’s done it with intelligence. My 6-year-old niece is looking at her versus a lot of the other sloppy girls that are not putting on a good show.
Speaking of Taylor Swift, you’re not a fan of Kanye, though. After he blasted Beck’s Album of the Year Grammy win you torched him online, claiming he was “disrespecting artistry” and making himself look like a “complete twat.”
I do like Kanye! I just happened to disagree with the message he was sending out, and I wanted to be a musician because it was free of all these cliché measuring sticks. I just don’t believe music should be judged in those terms. So what if you’re the most popular artist in the world? It doesn’t mean you’re doing the best work in the world. That’s what I objected to. But I think he’s a phenomenal musician. He’s a lightning rod and that’s exciting, but it doesn’t mean he’s always right.
I’m curious how you feel about female musicians today. I recently got into a conversation with a friend where we were discussing how we felt the crop of young female musicians were perhaps more badass in the early ‘90s, from En Vogue to Lilith Fair, than they are today.
And yet we have Rihanna, Beyoncé, and Lady Gaga. To me, they’re phenomenal, exciting, and doing something very new. To me, Lemonade is a fuckin’ masterpiece. Oh my god, don’t get me started. I feel in some ways we’ve evolved in that we’re seeing these great female pop stars in ways we’ve never seen before, like Rihanna, the way she’s presented her sexuality is balls to the wall, unapologetic, and has her on completely equal footing as her male counterparts. Even Madonna, it came from playing with the idea of female sexuality rather than the reality of it.
I feel Madonna is treated very unfairly in the press. There doesn’t seem to be proper reverence for Madonna, and every time she does something they pounce on her. Madonna is treading unfamiliar terrain in that she’s the first boundary-pushing sexual pop star to reach this time in her career, and the media has acted very ageist towards her.
It’s horrific, the way she’s treated. People are almost disappointed that she’s aged; she got caught being a human being. It has a lot to do with society’s expectations of women and also highlights the inequality between male and female artists to this day. There are very few women willing to fight against the idea that beauty is the highest currency. That’s the problem: that women are scared to fight against that currency, to fight against that idea of, “Does a woman have any worth past youth and beauty?” I believe they do, and I will fight that idea until I die, but I think a lot of women feel they have to give up. I had that moment myself, where I felt “I’m done” and that nobody was gonna give me a chance, but then I realized that you can use your brain and use your songwriting and be a good communicator and connect with people, and that’s your fuckin’ job at the end of the day—not to be beautiful, or pretty, or have people want to fuck you. Who cares?