Shirley Manson Thinks You're Wasting Her Time
A chat with the Garbage singer about turning 50, changing her worldview and the highlight of her career.
Garbage by Joey Cultice
Shirley Manson is over it. During a recent 45-minute chat, she reels off all sorts of things she no longer gives a shit about – being popular, fake people, getting things wrong, having to change – but you get the sense that, really, it's been a long time since the Garbage frontwoman let anything as tedious as other people's opinions bother her too much.
This year, Manson has been back in the press for winning the NME Icon Award, using her speech to demand change for women, and black women in particular. In an interview afterwards, she said that "men need to start policing their own", exactly the sort of biting-at-the-bit quote we've come to expect from a Manson interview.
When I loiter half-inside, half-outside the interview room, waiting for an introduction from her PR, I hear her politely and enthusiastically ordering sushi. She's high energy, interested and interesting, and her hair has returned to firey red – slicked back in a tight red bun with shaved sides.
VICE: Have you ever had a period of creative difficulty you didn’t think you’d move past?
Shirley Manson: I got scared because I realised we were in a position where we had fallen so far out of favour, and we’re out of step with culture. When you’re a zeitgeist band – and we had been – you’re the hot rod of culture for a while. By the very nature of that, you fall off that perch, and to get back on the perch is complicated and really difficult. But I had confidence in my band. You may like us or you may hate us, but we are good at what we do, and that much I do know.
I used to say my band could fucking write Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band 2, and coming from us the world’s going to hate it, because it comes from us and we’re old news. So how do we counteract that? Eventually, we came to the conclusion that we were just not going to give a shit if people loved us anymore. What matters is we were creative as a unit, because we function well together and do something that we believe is of merit. That’s basically how we approached what I call the second passage of our career, and it worked. We got back up on our perch and we felt good and we’ve enjoyed it ever since on our own terms. We don’t want to be in the charts and appearing on children’s TV at 4 in the afternoon anyway. We’re well over that.
Tell me how many books you’ve read in the past 12 months.
I’ve always been really well read, then over the last couple of years my reading has seriously gone by the wayside. I've attempted to really force myself to read over the last six months, and I’ve read a lot of fantastic books. A lot about race, actually. I just finished Patrisse Khan-Cullors’ When They Call You a Terrorist, and I was certainly blown away by it. Beautifully written and just a somewhat shocking memoir. I was ashamed that I didn’t know so much about what black women are up against. She’s the woman that started the Black Lives Matter movement, a proper hardcore activist. Why I’m No Longer Speaking to White People About Race is a bit more academic, but well worth reading. Again, I was just sitting in despair. I’m trying to really discipline myself to read instead of just aimlessly flicking through social media.
What’s your favourite book?
I've got so many. My Dark Places by James Ellroy is definitely a touchstone; American Pastoral by Philip Roth is another one. I’m always writing lists of, like, my 100 favourite books. I’m like a 15-year-old girl about those things.
This is a bit of a bleak one – do you often think about mortality?
All the time. Which I love, actually. I’m very grateful, because if you think about death you’re going to value your day more. If you try to block it out I think you forget how lucky you are to be alive and have this incredible privilege of feeling good in your body. I feel like being a little bleak and a bit dark is informative and really helpful to my joy. I was talking about this this morning; as I’m getting older, I can’t be scared to look into the dark. I have to keep reminding myself of the dark but force myself into light and be around people that make me feel good. I’m done with people that make me feel shit. I’m just done. And I think that comes from the idea of mortality. The fucking clock is ticking, you’re wasting my time [laughs].
What is your specialist subject?
I don’t know anything about anything. I’m serious. I’m absolutely serious. I honestly don’t know much about anything.
What age did you find the most difficult?
I found the thirties hard, and then things started getting easier. But the late thirties were probably the hardest, and then everything has gone uphill since.
Everyone says the thirties are meant to be amazing.
Mine were miserable. I loved my twenties. I had a riot. Then my thirties felt serious and stressful, and then I became less and less stressed as I passed into my forties. And now that I’m 50 all of my friends literally accuse me of being in denial. They’re like, 'You’re a freak, how do you feel so good about being 50?' But I can’t help it, I feel free. They may think it’s denial, but I just know there’s something magical about stopping having to give a shit. You just stop giving a fucking shit about how other people view you, what their expectations of you are.
Do you ever lie when you answer interview questions?
I try to avoid lying. When I was young I got caught up in a terrible lie and it really fucked my life up. I lost my best friend forever as a result. So, occasionally, I’ll hold back truth, but I don’t lie. It’s not really my style.
Also, do you not feel that sometimes your opinion changes on something slightly, then it will just be written there forever?
My opinion changes like the weather. There are some things that I hold dear and I’ve got conviction about, but also I can literally be like, "I love green nail polish!" and then the next day be like, "I fucking hate green nail polish." It’s just that stupid, that’s how my brain is. I’ve allowed myself to change my mind whenever I see fit, and I don’t care if it’s on record if I say one thing. I’ve changed my mind, I’m a different person now. There’s lots of things that I believed when I was young and as, I’ve gotten older, I’ve had to change my mind. I’ve learned more, I understand better and I’m shocked by my own ignorance. I’d rather change my mind and be informed.
It reflects the rapid rate in which everyone is understanding other people’s perspectives and other ways of living.
How old are you, if you don’t mind me asking?
So young. So you won’t remember anything pre-internet, right? How old were you when you got your first phone?
I was 11.
Quite gross, isn’t it?
It is and it isn’t. It keeps children safer in many ways, too. I don’t know – it’s like anything. There’s good and there’s bad. All evolution, right?
Right. I believe that, while holding people accountable for their beliefs, within reason we should be more allowing for people to evolve and learn than we currently are. How do you feel about that?
Well, I think that’s really cool that you think like that. It’s forgiving of yourself and therefore being generous of other people. Everyone’s so hard on themselves that they’re judgemental and harsh towards everyone else, and it’s getting really crazy. It’s intolerable.
What would be your last meal?
Probably sushi. It’s the one thing I go mad for. I think that would be my last meal. Sushi Park or Sushi Sasabune in Los Angeles.
Which film or TV show makes you cry?
Anything to do with animals. I actually nearly fell out with my husband watching Buck. It’s a man who deals with disturbed horses, and I sobbed my way through the whole frickin’ thing. My husband got rigid with rage. He was just like, "Pull it together. We’re 15 seconds in!" I don’t know what that’s about, but that will be how I get emotionally engaged.
How did you break up with your first boyfriend or girlfriend?
I threw a hairbrush at his head and said, "We’re done!" He was banging a bunch of other girls and I knew it. It was all driving me so insane. And he gave me a dose of the clap, so horrible. Then I cried over him for two years or something mad like that.
What did your parents have in mind for you to do as a career?
University. And my dad – to this day, and I’m not kidding, to this very day, after 35 years of me working in the music industry at a successful level – continues to say, "You should have gone to university. Would you consider going back to university?" He goes on and on and on. He’s an academic, so that’s what’s important to him, you know? My dad’s a hoot. I always host Christmas dinner, for a random example, and he will mark the dinner I prepare for everyone out of 10 every year. He’ll give me a mark, a grade. It’s fucking insane. That’s what I’m dealing with here.
What kind of grades do you get? Good?
Sometimes good. Sometimes things apparently aren’t as good as they were the year before. I used to get really upset, it used to make me crazy. Now I laugh, I think it’s funny. I just think my dad is whack.
How often do you fall in love?
All the time. I mean, I’m married and my husband is the love of my life, but I also fall in love with girls all the time. You know, in friends and other men who become my buddies. I spent a lot of time in my youth being quite miserable, and I didn’t quite know how to give love or receive it at all. I didn’t know what feeling loved was, and I wouldn’t really let it happen. I'm sure it was a control issue, but now I’m like "I'll give away my control", because I know the experience is interesting, exciting and fun. And if you hurt me I'll move on and survive. I’m not scared about being hurt.
What has been the highlight of your career?
I’ve had so many. Opening the Scottish Parliament when Scotland got its first Parliament in 300 years, and we were invited to open the Parliament celebrations. That was arguably the biggest honour in my life, to represent my country at a major moment in our history. Doing a Bond theme was also a moment. I was talking to another journalist earlier this morning about when I got to perform with Fiona Apple last weekend in LA. I’m a huge Fiona fan, but it was with an all female choir and an all female band with a string quartet, harpist, drummer, a keyboard player. Everyone was female. All the engineers and all the crew were female. All the riggers were female. Everybody was female. We all understood it’s really rare. Fiona and I were talking about how I’ve been performing for 35 years and have never ever walked into a room and saw a female in the music industry. Not once. It was powerful and wonderful and weird, you know? That was ecstatic.
What’s next on your bucket list?
My current obsession is I need to get to Montana, I need to be in the dog sled. I need to see them run.
But, until then, your sushi.
Yeah, until then.
This interview was edited for length.