In the wake of her new album, Garbage singer Shirley Manson tells Stylist’s Anita Bhagwandas why music needs “gobby, alternative women with guitars”.
In 1995, when Garbage released their debut, self-titled album, with singles such as Stupid Girl and Only Happy When It Rains, lead singer Shirley Manson was the ultimate indie poster girl. In the male-dominated Britpop scene, she commandeered crowds with her sultry bravado, broke hearts with re-imagined Sixties tough-girl style and coaxed even elitist music fans to fall for her effortless punk poise. Manson was the woman everyone wanted to be. More relevantly, she was the woman I wanted to be.
Meeting Manson, now 45, at her record label’s office in west London was like my Christmas, Halloween and New Year all come at once. So much so, that I had to have a quiet word with myself. “Play. It. Cool”, I pleaded, as I glimpsed her flame-red hair peeking around the door and my pulse started to gallop. Any sense of journalistic decorum I had vanished as she greeted me in her deadpan Scottish tones. I was about to talk music with my idol…
You’ve been a personal inspiration to me for years. Who inspires you?
Patti Smith. The older she gets the braver she becomes, and the more I fall madly and passionately in love with her. She’s an incredible artist and does everything on her own terms. She’s never injected herself with substances to look younger. She’s my touchstone; whenever I’m freaked out looking in the mirror and seeing myself age, Patti Smith inspires me not to worry.
Like, “What would Patti Smith do?”
[Laughs] Exactly. And Siouxsie Sioux too. They’re just so creative.
Who else inspires you?
People like Tracey Emin. I’ve sort of become obsessed with visual artists over the last couple of years. I’m an alternative music girl and it’s always been my thing, but there were so few alternative female voices in the mainstream that I started looking elsewhere for excitement, and I fell in love with Tracey Emin. She spoke to me and became a sort of touchstone person for me when I needed that.
The burning question is, where have you been for the last seven years?
It’s been a long time! I travelled to India, Africa, Laos and Bhutan, just to try to disengage from the world and life I’d been leading for the last 15 years. I was an empty shell of a person, because all I’d done was tour and make breakfast – on repeat. I’d lost contact with all my friends and didn’t see their children grow up. I didn’t even have a house; just my career. I needed a break.
And music didn’t factor into it?
Eventually, I decided that I had to get back into music but wanted to make an art school-type record. I met [producer] Greg Kurstin and we wrote a set of songs together then took them to the record label. They basically said, “We’re not interested in this, it’s not radio-friendly. We feel you could have a really big pop career, and we would like you to make an international radio song.” I’m thinking to myself, ‘OK, this is not good…
What did you do?
Honestly? I went home and said to my husband, “I’m f***ed. Because unless I give them what they want, they’re never going to let me release a record.” So, I just stopped making music. I got a TV role playing Catherine Weaver on Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles which was amazing fun. That kept me busy for about a year and a half. Then I decided I was ready to get my band back together again…
So, presumably this new album is quite potent with all those feelings going into it?
It is. Battle In Me was the first song we wrote after getting together again after seven years. Even as I was spewing the words for the first time, I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is how we should sound’. There’s a line in the song, “Let’s take a torch to the past and the future.” That’s my mantra; you don’t have to be married to who you were. This sense of liberation seems missing in the current musical climate – it seems so overly sexualised now. People like Rihanna and Lady Gaga are sexual, but they’re doing it in an interesting way. What scares me is that there’s no alternative to that pop world. In the last decade we’ve stuffed our feelings and everything that isn’t perfect down inside us. Nobody has spoken about their fears, their frailty or their negative thoughts. I love pop music, but I also want a balance to that. I want to hear what women have to say; there are no gobby, alternative women with guitars on the radio at the moment.
Like Courtney Love?
Exactly. I miss that kind of flawed mess that was really prevalent in the Nineties. We had real warrior women like Courtney, Elastica’s Justine Frischmann, Gwen Stefani, Alanis Morissette – mouthy girls who wrote their own material and had something to say.
Is there anyone you’ve got your sights on for stardom?
When I heard Azealia Banks’ first track 212 I got chills. I watched the video for Lana Del Rey’s Video Games on repeat, sat on the edge of my bed with my computer on my knees. My husband came in and I was crying silent tears.
“I miss that flawed mess that was prevalent in the nineties. We had real warrior women – mouthy girls who had something to say”
What do you make of the controversy surrounding Lana?
I was astounded by the negativity. They’re calling her a fake; they did the same thing to me. I was outraged at the time. I’d been in a working band for a decade and they’re telling me I’m phony? Some people seem to think having a musical past is sinister and hate her for it. It’s bewildering.
Do you think there’s too much pressure on women in general now?
It’s almost like we’ve gone back to the Fifties. Women are allowed to have a career and children, but they’re also expected to balance the two while looking sexy and perfect. I have a theory that 9/11 changed things dramatically. We’ve gone back to a petrified, war-time mentality. I think that’s why music, in particular, has started to reflect this very all-singing, all-dancing, Broadway-like entertainment that we see in the charts at the moment. Because it’s a distraction and nobody – when they’re scared – wants to exercise feelings of negativity.
Do you think that women in music are chastised for talking about politics, or areas outside of music?
Absolutely. Even on our fan pages people will tell me to “shut up,” if I talk about anything non-music related; they just want me to sing. I think people feel resentful of anyone in the public eye who has an opinion about wider issues. Expecting someone to be non-thinking and non-feeling is repellent, and quite frankly, I want to say, “Get off my Facebook page, get off my Twitter account, if that’s how you feel.”
What inspired you during the making of the new record?
Louise Bourgeois had a retrospective exhibition on at the time in the Tate gallery in London. I walked into that exhibition, and I don’t know anything about art, but it blew my mind. It got me onto this train of thought that has remained with me. I just realised I can be anything I want to be and I can say anything I want to say. It was like a light bulb went off. Because these women are willing to buck the system and buck all these conventional notions of what women are and what they should be.
You’re living in the US now. Do you think people in America are better at talking about their feelings?
Oh God, no. There’s a little bit of therapy speak in L.A where I live - people ‘pretend’ to talk about their feelings. There’s a lot of ‘Well, my therapist said this, my therapist said that,’ - but they’re not necessarily really talking about how they feel. I think it’s a human condition to wrap ourselves up and not let ourselves out, and that makes it difficult to get what you want out of life. If you can’t be honest and say I want this, I need this then you’re not going to get what you want or need. Because no one is going to do it for you. You’ve got to figure it out and go get it, because everyone else is too busy with their own stuff.
I saw your V magazine shoot...incredible.
It was f**king unbelievable, that experience from start to finish. I felt like Cinderella, literally.
What’s your approach to fashion and your aesthetic?
I love fashion, I love colours and beautiful things. I definitely have a strong aesthetic, but I also don’t have the patience to be a great fashion curator. I’m lazy, I like comfort, and as a result I don’t consider myself particularly stylish. But I have some amazing things in my closet. Getting to do these huge shoots like the V shoot is incredible. I got to wear McQueen, I got to wear Givenchy - all straight from the designers themselves and the pieces had yet to be worn by some of the models. It was an extraordinary experience and one I enjoyed from start to finish. I surrendered to it because it’s a once in a lifetime experience. As a result we had an amazing day. It was like a child’s dream. You know when you’re a teenager and you want to be transformed into a swan? They had transformed me. And it was an unbelievable moment. And then I went home and I got all my makeup off and my hair down and got into the bath and went to bed and when I woke up in the morning and it was like Cinderella ‘S*it, did that really happen?’
Amazing. And didn’t you collaborate with Rivers Cuomo (from Weezer) at one point too?
I did, I did. Well, actually, we didn’t collaborate. I basically had a master class in song writing from Rivers. I went to his house and he made me dinner. All I knew was that I was really sick of being where I was and having to please the record company. We never actually ended up doing that much together, but just speaking with him, and talking about song-writing helped so much. I’m very grateful to him for that.
So who would you love to collaborate with?
Well probably Elvis Presley, because who wouldn’t want to collaborate with Elvis Presley? I wouldn’t mind singing a duet with Nina Simone, or Ella Fitzgerald. I grew up listening to all that kind of music. Alex Turner is a bit young for me, but he’s smoking hot! Christopher Owens from Girls and Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age)...I love Josh Homme.
What is it about Josh Homme you like?
He’s dangerous. He’s got that ‘thing’ about him, it’s a dying art in the world of rock n’ roll. When you’re around him you don’t quite know what you’re going to get. And I also think he’s an insane musician. I love those interesting weird rhythmic changes in his music and find him really inspiring. And I love his family - his wife (Brody Dalle, The Distillers) – is an amazing talent.
She is incredible and has a great singing voice. It’s totally overlooked on The Distillers records.
Exactly! She’s amazing; in fact I’d like to collaborate with Brody. I think she’s an amazing singer. Because many of the Distillers records were kind of screamy, so you don’t understand quite how amazing a singer she is. She can sing and play the guitar brilliantly – she’s a bona fide rock star. We need more women like that.
Not Your Kind Of People is out now on Stun Volume; garbage.com