Garbage's Shirley Manson: 'I want to feel love, lust and everything in between'

Twenty years on from their seminal album, Version 2.0, the band’s singer is still as driven by anxiety and anger as ever. She talks about her history of self-harm, the pressures of fame – and why she has become so vocal in the #MeToo movement

‘Cheers! Up yer bum,” says Shirley Manson raising a glass as the light fades on her rooftop home over the Hollywood Hills. Her husband, Billy, has prepared Aperol spritzes. They’re bright orange and match Manson’s hair. She chortles deeply. “I was out with my goddaughter on Saturday night. I had an orange dress on, orange hair, orange lipstick and an orange cocktail. She said: ‘Auntie Shirl! You’ve excelled yourself.’”

The orange matches the sleeve of Version 2.0, the second album by Manson’s band, Garbage. In 1998, it became their first UK No 1 album and picked up four Grammy nominations, including album of the year; they are currently rehearsing a 20th-anniversary tour where they will play it in full.

Manson was as forthright a female presence in alternative rock as Courtney Love, Fiona Apple and Liz Phair, with a reputation for being wild – she reputedly once defecated on an ex-boyfriend’s bowl of cereal. Despite confessing to a ropey memory at 52, she can identify what the band’s flaws were back then – “a couple of the B-sides were B-sides for a reason” – but says it would have been “churlish” not to do a nostalgia tour. When they celebrated the 20th anniversary of their self-titled debut in 2015, they had more fun than they expected. “I was shocked at how much I loved it,” she says. “I never think: ‘I wish I could go back to 1996.’ We were reluctant. But we walked out every night and there were fans crying.”

Garbage’s Special.

Speaking to the rest of the band in a rehearsal space the day before meeting Manson, they say that Garbage’s purpose is to contort pop; to push rock into uncomfortable, futuristic places – not to mine the past. “It’s fun to play songs we hadn’t listened to for 20 years. It’s like playing brand new music,” says the drummer, Butch Vig.

Weirdly, they rehearse in near-silence behind laptops, wearing in-ear monitors, resembling salesmen working in a phone shop; the most noise comes from the guitarist, Duke Erikson, skimming his keyboard or Vig tapping drum pads. Erikson looks up after running through Sleep Together. “That sounded great, by the way,” he smirks. “In case you were wondering.”

When Version 2.0 was released in May 1998, Garbage were following up a smash of a debut that nobody saw coming. “We have always been good at confusing people,” the bassist, Steve Marker, says. That debut was made as they got to know each other in Vig and Marker’s studio in Madison, Wisconsin (the same studio in which Vig produced Nirvana’s Nevermind). Manson, who had been in the band Angelfish, moved there from Edinburgh after being invited to audition; their first session together was rough, but she followed up weeks later, convinced she needed another shot at it. Erikson says: “On the first record, we locked ourselves in a crucible and got to know Shirl. She was transplanted to the midwest with three geeks. It was awkward. Once we got to Version 2.0, it was the four of us against the world.”

‘It was the four of us against the world …’ Shirley Manson, Duke Erikson, Steve Marker and Butch Vig in 1995.
‘It was the four of us against the world …’ Shirley Manson, Duke Erikson, Steve Marker and Butch Vig in 1995. Photograph: Gie Knaeps/Getty Images

They returned to Madison to record “an album full of ear candy”, Vig recalls. It was expected that Garbage would stay grungy, but instead they rooted themselves in the trip-hop of Tricky and Massive Attack; “mongrel pop” is what Manson calls the sound. The lyrics were all hers. On the first record, she felt like “the cuckoo … I came in and sat like a big fat bird on this already built nest”. When it came to Version 2.0, she abandoned what she has described elsewhere as “impostor syndrome”.

Its singles I Think I’m Paranoid and Push It are fuelled by anxiety laced with determination. “I was not good,” says Manson of how she was at the time. “I got pulled out of anonymity. I loved being in a band, but I never had ambitions of being the one up front. I returned to America, was stuck in a weird hotel, couldn’t drive, had no money, was at the mercy of my bandmates who tired of driving me around. That’s how I fell in love with my husband – he became my designated driver.”

The third single, Special, was about an earlier, unrequited relationship. “I get refuelled by that song. Holy shit, did I fucking come out on top, you disgusting loser,” she says, about whoever spurned her. It borrowed a lyric from Manson’s hero, Chrissie Hynde. “I learned to sing to her,” she says. “I sing along to the Pretenders in the car: every single inflection, pause and phrase. I’m dead on.”

Critics described Manson’s songs as “dark”. “People get uncomfortable when you tell the truth,” she says, finding the word reductive. “I don’t. I’m happy to feel. I wanna feel every single fucking thing. I want to feel the breeze, the punch, the disappointment. I want to feel love, lust and everything in between because I’m here for an infinitesimal amount of time. I wanna feel it all. I’m a greedy motherfucker. If that makes me dark so be it,” she laughs.

Things did get dark, though. The band became overwhelmed by their touring schedule, imposed on them as part of the record companies’ attempts to keep their small indie labels in the US and UK afloat. “Our American label would say: ‘No Doubt’s selling 35,000 records this week, you’ve only sold 25,000. Alanis Morissette’s selling 50,000 …’” recalls Manson. “It felt like we got battered every time the charts came out. We were told we were failing at every turn.” In a recent New York Times article, Manson said she felt – and resisted – the desire to self-harm, something she had done in her youth. “I was a cutter,” she says of her teenage years. “I was hyperemotional. Still am. My family didn’t talk about feelings. It was just … get a grip on yourself. I had friends who lost their lives. One of them shot himself. Another one hanged himself. One of them drove his motorbike into a wall.”

Garbage pressed on, performing at the opening of the Scottish parliament and headlining the Reading and Leeds festivals. “It was my 30th birthday. I got out of my gourd on champagne,” says Manson of the Leeds gig. “The label made it obvious I’d failed. I couldn’t hold it together, the press went mad.” She thinks back to the “nasty” NME review of Version 2.0, sitting, as it was, alongside glowing write-ups of Steps and Natalie Imbruglia. “It called me a fake. Hold on a minute. They’re casting these TV stars as legit and I’m fake? It made me insane.”

But here they still are, six albums under their belts and in the early stages of a seventh. In the interim, Manson is busy being an activist in Los Angeles women’s movements, performing at the Girlschool festival and taking part in panels and literature events. That all began when she was asked to speak alongside the trans black activist Ashlee Marie Preston and the sex educator Ericka Hart. “I realised how ignorant and uneducated I was,” she says. “I went home angry at myself for exposing myself publicly as an ignoramus. I started to read up on race and the problems within white feminism. It made me change my practice. My New Year resolution this year was to be a better ally to women of colour.” She doesn’t believe that the future is female, though, calling that “nonsense – let’s have a nice balance, shall we?”

Garbage photographed in Los Angeles.
Garbage photographed in Los Angeles. Photograph: Record Company Handout

This conversation inevitably leads to #MeToo, but it is Manson’s older peers’ response that she finds exasperating. “They say: ‘Well, I was raped and I didn’t complain about it.’ As though somehow they resent that protections are now encouraged.” As for her male peers’ complaints: “I want to say: ‘OK, I can offer you two options: you get to tell women they’re beautiful and touch them in the office as you’re sliding past the coffee machine. Or we can eradicate rape and sexual violence. Which one would you rather?’ Men want it all their way. I love men. I want men to step up.” Are men changing for the better? “No. Men are just a little more careful about what they say because they understand they can get into hot water fast.”

She puts her doggedness down to growing up with a dominant father. “He’s wonderful and he’s a piece of work,” she says. “I was the rebel who learned to circumvent him. But not every woman is wired like me. They’re brought up to shrink themselves, put a smile on their face, keep their legs closed, feel shameful for masturbating, be disgusted with their bodies, be mindful of their eating. I didn’t experience that. I’m lucky.”

One of Version 2.0’s standout moments is When I Grow Up: “When I grow up, I’ll be stable / When I grow up I’ll turn the tables,” go the lyrics. So is Manson what she set out to be? “I thought I’d have all the answers; that I wouldn’t have depression or waves of inadequacy. But all that’s normal,” she says. “If you’re walking around like some kind of deity, you’re mad.” Manson doesn’t believe in perfectionism or success, she says. She believes in people. “Listen to others so that you continue to learn,” she adds. “When I was younger, I wanted to elevate myself. Now I watch how famous people behave and it repulses me. Politicians repulse me. People who crave power repulse me. People who wanna be special repulse me. Being ordinary is beautiful.”

Garbage’s Version 2.0 UK tour begins on 4 September, at Edinburgh Festival theatre, then moves to Europe, the US and Mexico.


Eve Barlow

The GuardianTramp

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