Jun 09, 2021
By Jake Uitti
Shirley Manson, who is the frontperson for the platinum-selling rock band, Garbage, has both learned and done quite a bit in the 25 years she’s been in the public eye. Garbage, which rocketed to fame with its self-titled album in 1995, was all over the radio and MTV airwaves with hit songs like “Only Happy When It Rains” and “Stupid Girl” in the mid-’90s. In the years between, the band have released a number of successful records and now the band is poised to release its latest, No God No Masters, this Friday.
No Gods No Masters was produced by Garbage alongside long-time collaborator Billy Bush. The album will also be available in a deluxe CD/digital version, which will feature covers of songs by David Bowie, Patti Smith, and Bruce Springsteen, as well as guest appearances by Screaming Females and Brody Dalle, among others.
Manson, who is Scottish, joined the band’s other three members—Duke Erikson, Steve Marker, and famed musician and engineer, Butch Vig—after an audition in Wisconsin in 1993. At first, the audition went disastrously. But nevertheless, fate intervened and Manson joined the band and the rest is history. We caught up with Manson to ask her when she first fell in love with music, how Garbage’s new record came to be and what she loves so much about Patti Smith.
Jake Uitti (Under the Radar): When did music first enter your world as a young person?
Shirley Manson: I think it was pretty much my mother, who was an amateur singer, herself. She sang with a swing band and she often would perform recitals for friends’ weddings or the church that we went to, there was a group she would perform in. I think my first memory of music was watching her sing on a clear day on stage at our church concert party and seeing my mother be transformed by music from a housewife to what looked to me like a goddess.
I think that was my first real musical memory. But music was always playing in our house and I sang in a dance troupe very early on and I was in a choir. Music has just been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.
That’s a great memory, seeing your mother transform from one identity to another through singing. I imagine that may have unlocked something magical in you seeing that, too?
Yeah, the transformative powers of music, I think, is what I was left with seeing her.
As you got older, what made you want to invest in music and how did you develop your abilities?
It’s funny, I was just thinking about this yesterday. My earliest memory of actually buying a record was a 7-inch vinyl and it was the theme song to a television program called, White Horses, that I really was obsessed with. The theme song is something I want played at my funeral. It remains one of my most favorite musical memories. I bought it outside of a music store in a tiny little village in Scotland somewhere where we were on holiday.
On the back of the record they had—what was it? I can’t remember the name you call it. There was a drawing of a pony—paint by number! They had that on the back of the record. I still have it. It has “Property of Shirley Manson” written in crayon on the back [Laughs]. I think I was 7 years old. TV music, funnily enough, had a big influence on me when I was growing up. Then I fell madly in love with musicals. I was really into Cabaret and, most importantly, The Sound of Music, Oklahoma—musicals like that were big in the family. And my mom used to play a lot of really great jazz singers.
So, I got an incredible education by default just by listening to my mom playing her records. I was raised on Nina Simone, Billy Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, a lot of the greats, you know? But it was when I saw Siouxsie and the Banshees on Top of the Pops that something went haywire in my brain and I was just crazy for that. Whatever they embodied, which, at the time, felt dangerous to me and dark, it was like watching aliens arrive from outer space. It really spoke to me. Then, of course, I started playing in a band and the lead singer of that band was the one who said, “I’ve got a record I think you’ll rally love and you should listen to it.” And it was Horses by Patti Smith. That was it for me.
What a record!
What a record. What a woman.
She’s very generous, especially for the number of people who idolize her.
And she’s gentle, which I think is also a surprise. She’s marvelous! What a hero to have!
Have you ever met her?
I have, on a couple of occasions. And I humiliated myself both times—three times, actually! I met her three times and I humiliated myself every time. These are stories for another time when we have more time on the clock. But yeah I made a fool of myself as I’m wont to do on a regular basis. It’s my style!
Mine too! Well, in that vein, I suppose—when you first auditioned for Garbage in Wisconsin in the early ’90s, it went notoriously bad. But when did the chemistry really start to get going and click positively?
I think after that first disastrous audition. We went out to what we called The Café Montmartre, which was our local, as time progressed. That’s where we went for drinks, though, after the disastrous audition. That’s when I think we realized we had incredible chemistry. We just immediately felt right. I think that was one of the reasons why I got a call back. It certainly wasn’t my performance during the audition. It was more, I think, there’s something here so let’s explore it again and give her one last chance. Then that second audition basically secured me the job of a lifetime. They haven’t been able to get rid of me since!
What is the origin story of the hit song, “Only Happy When It Rains,” and how did it affect your life?
Yeah, well, it changed my life, obviously. It garnered so much attention. Truth be told, it was pretty much a fait accompli when I joined the band. They had definitely most of it written, they had that chorus, “I’m only happy when it rains.” I can’t remember now how the verses transpired but definitely the chorus was in place and I knew it was a really great idea. It was written in 1993 because it was released in 1995. But yeah it absolutely changed my life, for sure.
That must have been fun and a little daunting, perhaps?
My whole career has been daunting, quite frankly. Trying to exist in the music industry is not for the faint of heart, I can assure you. It’s not for the lily-livered.
How did success influence you then and impact who you are now, creatively and philosophically?
Well, success was fantastic. I still consider my career as successful. To be my age and still making records and be signed, you know, and get to travel the world and play shows—so, success is wonderful. It allows you the luxury of being able to do what you want to do creatively. Although, it’s always a struggle when you’re an alternative artist such as Garbage. We’re not making easy, digestible pop songs that we know will guarantee us radio play.
We’ve definitely taken a much more obtuse road that has often that has caused us some economic problems, you know? But I think I feel proud that we have negotiated our career with integrity and we have resisted some very, very big checks in order to maintain autonomy and do the right thing and be authentic and so I really still can’t believe my luck, to be honest. That I’m here talking to you today, that’s insane to me! It’s incredible!
Likewise! Okay, let’s talk about the new record. What was the genesis of the new album and how did it proceed through the writing process?
I don’t really know—you know, it’s funny. Trying to talk about records is so difficult. I don’t think I prepared, per sé. I knew we were going up to make a record and I had a lot of words written down that I annotate over the years, over my lifespan. I definitely write stuff in my note pads. But I don’t prepare, per sé. Then we just sat down, each of us looking at each other in a circle and we just went with what occurred in that room for that week of writing.
I think a lot of my lyrics did, I think, develop the direction of this particular record, in that the lyrics were so strong. They’re not pop throwaway lyrics. They’re very strong and opinionated. As a result, I feel like the band basically had to meet that intensity. They didn’t really have much of a choice. None of us had a choice. You don’t have a choice of what’s coming out of you, anyway. When you’re writing lyrics, they come out like the way you speak.
You’re not overly thinking what you’re going to speak about. And it’s the same with writing music. You don’t know what melody is going to come out, you just try and let your body be a vessel and out it comes. Then the rest of the band has to meet that and I feel like they did a spectacular job. I really feel proud of the record. I’m kind of amazed after 25 years of being in a band together, we’re still able to surprise each other and that’s really, really unusual.
Were there any favorite songs or discoveries or themes that came out along the way for you?
Well, to be honest, whenever a song births itself, it’s a surprise. I know I’m sounding like a cliché but clichés exist because they’re true. Songs just appear and you don’t think about them too much because when they arrive you’re like, “Holy shit, we have a whole song here and it’s going to be part of the record.” So, how magical is that, you know? But the one I guess that I was most thrilled with was “A Woman Destroyed.” Simply because I dreamed that song.
That’s never happened to me before and it’s certainly never happened since. I’ve always been envious of artists who talk about, “Oh, I dreamt this song!” And I was always like, “Why does this not happen to me?” Well, it finally did in my 25th year of writing music! And it was exciting, it really felt like a gift, you know? And I guess the very first song too, “The Men Who Rule The World.” I felt was a gift from the great George Clinton, who I had interviewed for my podcast, The Jump.
We spent a couple of hours talking to this remarkable human being. I was on fire from being with him. He was so inspiring and so wise and funny and generous. I went home to the studio and joined the rest of the band and they were working on this track. I just had this idea that came to me in a flash of a mother ship being like Noah’s Ark.
I had this story in my head of a sci-fi Noah’s Ark tale and I was Noah and I was in my mother ship and I was bringing in all the things that were beautiful and leaving behind all the detritus. I believe that George Clinton sent that song to me [laughs] through the ether. He just sent it off and I received it and it came out really quickly. It’s one of the lynchpins of our record. He’s a beautiful person.
This is a bit of a tougher question to ask, but I’ll do it anyway: your new album talks a lot about important, difficult themes like misogyny, patriarchy and racism. These are topics that are very much in the mainstream these days, which is great. But I wonder, as you were investigating them for this album, did you think about at all how you may not have thought about these ideas in prior works? Many of us are victims of this, but I wonder if this crossed your mind at all, if that makes sense?
Yes, it makes perfect sense. I mean, all of the above. I felt like, “Wow, how have I never really spoken on some of this earlier?” But you only know what you know when you know it, right? So, like so many of us white people, I had no fucking idea of my own privilege. I had no idea that systemic racism was as overt and vile and oppressive as ever. I had no idea and I’m ashamed of it. But now that I know, I can’t un-know.
Therefore, I felt it would be remiss and immoral for me not to bring that on the record. Given that it’s such a pressing, urgent issue today. So, I can only just build upon what I know now, as I move forward. But the Black struggle is something that has moved me and touched me immensely and I don’t want to not—you know, I’m just a lowly musician. I don’t have any power. But the one thing I can do is speak up. I can use my voice. And I can use my lifetime to try and help push forward a better, more fair egalitarian society. That’s all I can do. So, I’ll be playing that role.
Thank you. I guess with that as a backdrop and everything we’ve talked about today as a backdrop, what do you think about when you think about the future?
Oh, that’s an interesting question! I guess as I’ve gotten older and as a disciple of the great Patti Smith, I try and put optimism into my daily practice. I try to be more optimistic, deliberately. I practice being optimistic because I do believe in the human ability to adapt and evolve and, therefore, I have to believe that the future will get brighter. I do know that my own existence has been a lot easier than my ancestors.
So, I have to assume that those who follow us will have a slightly better time of it and I love that idea. I love the idea of evolution and I love that newer generations—young generations, I feel, aren’t putting up with the same bullshit that we did. I feel like young women are more switched on. I think kids in general are much more concerned with the environment and where their future is leading than we ever were. And I think that’s a great thing. So, yeah, I guess I feel good about the future.
What do you love most about music?
Well, I guess it goes back to your very first question. I think it’s the transformative powers of it. During COVID, right at the beginning of COVID, I don’t know how other people felt, but I felt scared. Irrationally scared. It was based on nothing but my own mad imaginings. You know, I was safe in my home, I’m immensely privileged, I have a roof over my head, I had food. Yet, I had this unbearable feeling of panic and fear.
Then I would switch some music on and all of a sudden everything felt good. Whether I was listening to The Band or Miles Davis or John Coltrane or to Open Mike Eagle, or whomever, it felt like, well, everything’s going to be okay. To me, that is the power of music. It’s this great comforter and great connector. I’m just so immensely grateful that I get to make music for a living.