Interview: Shirley Manson plumbs dark depths on new Garbage album

It's 21 years since Shirley Manson left Edinburgh for the US to find fame and fortune with Garbage. Back on tour with a new album, the singer-songwriter tells Janet Christie about being proud to be Scottish, her thoughts on turning 50 and how she probed her dark side for the new record

Saturday, 11th June 2016, 7:00 am
Updated Monday, 13th June 2016, 1:27 pm
Shirley Manson with her Garbage bandmates. Picture: Joseph Cultice

It’s only the strong that can afford to be vulnerable, to reveal their weakness and flaws and acknowledge them. There was a time when Shirley Manson, singer with American Scottish alt-rock band Garbage was so fragile she had to erect an invisible force field around herself just to get up on stage. As a newcomer, the only girl in an all male, already successful band, younger, Scottish, she felt exposed.

“When I started out I felt very vulnerable, criticised, the weakest link in the band. I was working with three very accomplished men, one of whom was a world famous producer, so I armed myself. Every time in front of the microphone I felt like Joan of Arc.”

Edinburgh-born Manson had been famously recruited to the band when the Wisconsin-based trio of Steve Marker, Duke Erikson and Butch Vig saw a video of the Goodbye Mr Mackenzie singer. The US musicians were a decade older, and Vig was known for producing Nirvana’s 1990 album Nevermind. Manson packed her bag and joined, but the girl from Stockbridge, daughter of a university lecturer and a singer, was shaking in her Dr Martens.

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Shirley Manson. Picture: Joseph Cultice

As it turned out Garbage went on to sell over 17 million albums, had hits like Stupid Girl, Only Happy When It Rains and Supervixen and developed a worldwide following that watched them tour their four chart topping albums between 1995 and 2005. Then fatigue and disillusion set in and the band left the stage in Perth, Australia for what was to become a seven year hiatus.

“To this day none of us is entirely sure why the break lasted that long,” says Manson. “We just needed a break from one another and from the industry. We felt the business situations were making us morally sick. It was making us unhappy. So we went home for six months, then life came along and swept us away. My mother was diagnosed with an aggressive form of dementia and then she died, and Butch had a baby. Then I got a job on TV…”

But the desire to work together was still there, and the band got back together in 2012, releasing Not Your Kind of People.

“We just missed each other, because we are buddies. We have a laugh. We missed making music and for better for worse, music is our family. Our band is our family.”

Butch Vig, Duke Erikson, Steve Marker and Shirley Manson of Garbage. Picture: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for CBS Radio Inc

This week Garbage release their sixth album, Strange Little Birds, their most intimate, pared back yet, with less of the studio sonics of their previous catalogue. Strange Little Birds is about vulnerabilities, fragilities, and is melancholic and quite dark in tone.

Among the darkness there is hope, but it has to be clung to. The track titles say it all: Empty, If I Lost You, Night Drive Loneliness, and Even Though Our Love Is Doomed.

“I didn’t set out with any theme in mind,” says Manson, who wrote the lyrics to all but one of the tracks, “but I wanted to explore certain aspects of my life that I had deliberately avoided in the past. I was determined to touch on them this time round. All of the things in the recesses of myself I was reluctant to admit.”

She is speaking to me from her hotel in Lausanne in Switzerland, before that night’s gig at the Caribana festival, part of a fortysomething date US and European tour to promote the album. Her Irn-bru bob is now a more pinky grey candyfloss tint, but her lust for life is unabated as she describes the new album.

Shirley Manson, aged 11

“Despair, insecurities, anxieties, it’s all of those. I love the new record. I feel it’s a new landscape for us as a band. After being together for 21 years, to stumble into this is really exciting.”

What they have produced is not a typical rocky Garbage album, but one where the themes build throughout to create a cohesive piece of work, but Manson says this was never deliberate.

“I’m not sure why it turned out the way it did. It’s very different for us. We have struggled to capture that kind of cohesion in a record before. It holds together as as a whole, and is meant to be listened to from the start to the end.”

Old school, vinyl album style?

Shirley Manson with singer Gwen Stefani in 2003. Picture: Evan Agostini/Getty Images

“Yeah, I’m an old school girl.”

For this album Garbage changed their way of working, and rather than disappear into the studio for months at a time, kicked off in Vig’s basement then followed a routine of two weeks on, two weeks off in the studio.

“That allows space to go back into the studio and hear each track clearly. Maybe that made us more critical and influenced how it turned out. Before we were locking ourselves up in a studio, and eventually you start to lose your mind.”

Pushed on what was different this time round, Manson acknowledges the passage of time and the confidence that comes with age. With her 50th birthday beckoning in August, she has matured, if not mellowed.

“Do something for 21 years you will find you’re good at it. Not just me, anyone who does anything for that long. You do the work and that builds a strong foundation, a confidence. By default I met three pretty great people who have taught me an awful lot about how to engage with the world. When I started I was a very different girl to who I am now.”

She goes on, “And the less afraid you are, the less afraid you are to admit more aspects of your complex self. Your confidence allows you to display your vulnerabilities.”

Shirley Manson onstage at the 1998 Reading Festival

So how does that feel, putting it all out there for the world to see?

“It’s a relief!” She laughs, a big throaty couldn’t care less yelp.

“It’s ‘that’s how it is!’ Make of this what you will. I have just become so averse to how people only present the positive aspects of themselves on social media that I wanted to make a record that’s the polar opposite of that. Maybe it’s because I’m Scottish…”

Only happy when it rains?

“Yeah. We certainly find comfort in the dark,” she says. “And I’m very serious when I say that. When I switch on the radio and hear happy denial, it scares me, a lot. I feel I’m not getting the whole picture. If you decide to ignore the negative aspects of life, you are missing so much. If we negate the dark side we are deliberately cutting off 50 per cent of the information that’s available to us as we move through life. It’s as important to know what’s in the shadows as what’s in the sunshine. I like to look in the corners, pull up the carpets, look behind the curtains and see what’s there…Because the darkness informs our desire for light. I feel more alert when I’m in the shadows.”

These days she lives in Los Angeles with second husband Billy Bush, who produced Garbage’s new album, and her cross terrier rescue dog Veela, named for the Harry Potter semi-human creatures. Just out of interest, which Harry Potter character would Manson be?

“Dunno, that’s a hard one,” she says and pauses for a nanosecond. “Hermione.”

Of course. Opinionated, confident, clever. Manson is forthright, funny, owns her opinions but the bolshie or mouthy epithets that have been flung at her over the years are unfounded. And someone had to tell Kanye West “to grow up and stop throwing his toys around” after he ruined Beck’s moment at last year’s Grammys.

“Well, I don’t feel ashamed of being open or voicing my opinions,” she says. “I think culturally women are encouraged to be demure. When I have been described as brash or brazen, I think ‘f*** you, you just want me to keep my mouth shut’.”

Being away from home on such a long tour is no longer a chore for Manson. Gone are the days when she was holed up in a Midwest hotel on her own, with her then husband back in Scotland, while Garbage worked on albums. Now she has her husband on the road with her, and social media allows her to keep up with friends.

“I have a good life. I have set myself up well. When we’re not on stage I keep up with TV shows, relax, talk to my family via Face Time. That’s the great thing about technology. Touring used to be about great isolation and sadness and technology has made it bearable.

She is also able to indulge in her Game of Thrones addiction on her laptop. After all Manson once applied to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and when Garbage were on a break, played the part of a businesswoman cyborg in Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles. So is she any closer to achieving her ambition to land a part in GoT?

“No. Not as yet,” she says, sounding both disappointed yet optimistic.

For Manson, ageing holds no fear because she has achieved so much. She’s made a career out of music and sustained it for more than two decades.

“I’ve had such a colourful life. There’s nothing I feel I haven’t done. I’m so grateful to be alive and have lasted this long, to be happy in my life and with the career I have.”

So turning 50 isn’t a big deal at all, although as ever with Manson nothing is ever black or white.

“The ageing process is complex to navigate and I would be a liar if I didn’t say it brings some melancholia. Plus there’s the knowledge of my imminent death somewhere down the line.”

At this point the Private Fraser nature of the conversation gets to Manson and she emits another yelp of a laugh.

“But I’m able to weather that notion. I’m not scared of it. I face that dark thought to illuminate my present and enjoy my life. I’m scraping every pleasure right to the end.”

One thing’s certain. She won’t be having surgery in order to push back the years. Manson is proud that she has never relied on her body to sell her music, but defends the right of other women to do as they choose.

“I think you can use your body if you so wish. You just have to understand that there are consequences. I choose not to live with those. I didn’t want to exploit my body. But I often applaud those who do. It can be legitimate and powerful. What bothers me is when women are expected to use it, that’s a worry. It’s the inequality of it, if women are objectified and men aren’t. But if women choose to use their bodies any way they f***ing please, that’s good.”

As for her birthday celebrations, there will be no big LA style party for Manson.

“No, we’re having a posh lunch in Edinburgh,” she says.

Her connection to Scotland is still something she feels strongly and Edinburgh is still “home”, where her dad, sister and old friends are. “It’s nice to hear your lovely accent,” she says to me at one point.

“I don’t think you can ever eradicate your background. I moved to the US when I was 30 so I was a completely formed adult. You can’t get it out of you. Your whole moral compass has been formed by being reared here, educated here, growing up in this culture, this landscape, seeing the sea every day. I’m very proud of where I come from. Everywhere we go, people ask where we’re from and if I say I’m Scottish, their eyes light up. We have a mystique that is savoured.”

If there’s anyone’s example she wants to emulate as she ages, it’s her father John’s.

“He’s an adventurer, an explorer,” she says. “He’s 80 soon and he’s my hero. He’s just back from China because he wanted to see the Great Wall. He just does things he wants to do.”

Manson’s mother Muriel was a singer too, “lots of jazz and Scottish tunes”. When Manson’s vinyl collection was destroyed in a flood, one of the few things to survive was a recording her mother made of old Scottish songs.

“There’s a place in Forth Street, where you could make a vinyl recording so she did that and it survived, by some freaking miracle.”

What was her mother’s voice like?

“Great. Different to mine.”

How would she describe hers?

“I’ve no idea. I can’t be objective, although I’m past the stage of cringing when I hear it. But what’s my voice like? That’s not for me to say.”

For the moment, it’s all about the album and tour.

“It’s still very early days. This is just our first week on the road so it’s baby steps. Nothing too insane has happened yet and we can still walk from the bus.”

So Manson is sitting pretty in a hotel in Lausanne with “amazing views” and happy in her own skin. She doesn’t need to make another record or do another tour, so why does she?

“Because that’s when I’m at my happiest. When I’m getting to make music. I’m so lucky right now, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to stay lucky. Who knows what’s going to happen, how long we get to do this for?”

Always the darkness as well as the sunshine, and sure enough, Garbage’s Festival Montereau gig in France last weekend was cancelled after torrential rain. Along with her disappointment, Manson probably allowed herself a rueful smile.

• Strange Little Birds is out now on Stun Volume,

Shirley Manson at T in the Park in 1998
Shirley Manson. Picture: Joseph Cultice
Butch Vig, Duke Erikson, Steve Marker and Shirley Manson of Garbage. Picture: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for CBS Radio Inc
Shirley Manson, aged 11
Shirley Manson with singer Gwen Stefani in 2003. Picture: Evan Agostini/Getty Images
Shirley Manson onstage at the 1998 Reading Festival
Shirley Manson at T in the Park in 1998