Garbage’s Shirley Manson: “Being human is to be messy. If you think you’re above all that you’re in deep, deep trouble”
A metaphorical low for Shirley Manson involved a poster, a car journey and getting dumped. A lawyer for Garbage’s label Interscope records called and told her she was dropped.
“I was about 40 years old at the time. My mother was dying, I was abjectly miserable, my career was on the skids,” she remembers, convincing herself at the time, “You will never again recover, you’re a woman over 40, you’re screwed.”
On the journey home alone after this call, she drove down Los Feliz Boulevard, five minutes from her house, and looked to her right. There in front of her was a shop-sized display poster of Garbage being sold at a yard sale for a few dollars. “I looked at myself being sold on the street, literally. And I burst into tears and I slumped down in my car because I felt like everyone could see me. I felt deep, deep shame, which is not an emotion I experience often, for my sins.”
Shirley explains today from her LA home that shortly after that experience she had a revelation: “It doesn’t matter if you never get signed to a record label again. It doesn’t matter if you never perform again in public, you can still be a singer, you can still be a creator, you can still be an artist.” Since that moment, her career – and her relationship to it – has been a healthy one. Still, the lyrics she wrote based off this pivotal experience were words she was eager to use in a song for 12 years. Nothing quite felt right… until now. They appear on a heavier highlight of Garbage’s new record, The Creeps (‘I was so upset, I saw them selling me out / Right there on Los Feliz Boulevard’). “That song is about not listening to my feelings – that narrative I feed myself is often just as negative and inaccurate as a stranger telling me what to think.”
The capitalistic misogyny of the music industry and the world at large is just one of the weighty topics Garbage sink their teeth into on No Gods No Masters. Tinged with a gothic darkness, it’s a dystopian, slow-paced and angular album, and one that feels timely for all its ’80s sonic influences. It stands out from their other releases for covering racism and police brutality and wealth disparity. A reoccurring image of white men as undeserving and cruel gods looms large. These themes that have been relevant for decades – if not centuries, millennia – but listen to it and you can’t ignore the fact it speaks to the last couple of years.
Speaking of the pandemic, Shirley is feeling grateful and thoughtful for her own circumstances. As a musician she’s been focused on the injustice in the lack of support for artists on both sides of the Atlantic (“You’re literally considered a nothing as a musician”). In the UK, those involved in the live music industry were encouraged by the Conservative government to retrain. But they’re fortunate, thinks Shirley, if only compared to America, where government furlough money didn’t help those whose jobs were in jeopardy or defunct.
“I’m concerned about all the young musicians who have not received any support from their government, and have been left to rot,” she says. “I know a lot of struggling musicians who literally can barely feed themselves. We’ve got a terrible homeless situation here in LA, and I have people living in tents two steps away from my house. And that is a very healthy reminder of my good fortune and my privilege.”
Opening up about adversity faced by musicians – especially female musicians – within the industry is something Shirley has done for years. The commentary around Garbage’s treatment by labels or ageism inadvertently leveraged against her has followed the band through almost every step of their career. It’s a significant part of the Garbage story.
“I think a lot of artists are fearful of speaking the truth,” she says when this is put to her. “I just think that the most powerful version of oneself is the most authentic version. That to me is when you have no secrets, you’re not cowed, you’re not scared, because the truth is out. I think people are very frightened that people discover things about them. And that truly does make you vulnerable. When you’re lying and deceiving, you’re constantly spending energy trying to hide your life. And I just don’t have time for that.”
No Gods No Masters is the first major label release from Garbage for years, and unusually – ironically, almost – it’s their most political. Their last two albums – 2012’s Not Your Kind Of People and 2016’s Strange Little Birds – were released independently through Garbage’s own label Stunvolume, which they set up to be free, of “greedy corporate interest”, as the band put it in a Facebook post at the time. The decision to return to a label was because they struggled to maintain their footing in the industry without it: “We couldn’t really get our records distributed. We couldn’t get on radio; nobody would take our calls. We simply could not compete. We realised that if we didn’t make this leap at this particular moment in time, we would drown entirely.” But returning to the corporate fold explicitly meant not giving up creative freedom. One of the key understandings was Garbage having total control over whatever they did.
But Shirley wasn’t overly concerned about the threat of control anyway.
“If you’re lucky enough to stick around long enough, the economics of [our] sort of discography allow you a certain kind of autonomy,” she says.
So there was no pressure from people telling you not to make a political record, for example?
“I think as you get older, you’re able to parse pressures more effectively. You’re able to set boundaries. You can hold that [boundary] and not fret that somehow you’re going to be punished for that. Because that’s the deal: if you have integrity and you don’t compromise, you will be punished for it. That’s how it works. As you get older, you stop caring so much about that threat and about that reality.”
Back in 2018, Shirley experienced another turning point. She was asked to speak alongside trans black activist Ashlee Marie Preston and sex educator Ericka Hart at an intersectional feminism event and was, essentially, educated herself.
“Both these women are phenomenal powerhouses and they have great minds, agile minds, and they really took me to school. And they were very gentle with me, I have to say, but I was mortified at my ignorance, regarding systemic racism and a whole gamut of things. I determined then I had to educate myself about the black experience that I knew nothing about.”
In these situations, it is often the case that white people get defensive and shut down. “I too had a flare up of defensiveness, but I knew deep down, you don’t feel your ears burning for no reason.” Her education involved reading Patrisse Cullors and Asha Bandele’s When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir and James Baldwin, Maya Angelou and Alice Walker. It was watching The 13th, the documentary by Ava DuVernay. It was learning about the murder of Trayvon Martin and the murders of other black people at white hands, the hands of police.
This drive to self-educate didn’t fizzle out after a brief spell. “I’ve spent 54 years, or 50 years, being an ignorant, white privileged woman in the world. And I’ve got a lot to learn, and I look forward to learning more,” Shirley says. Feelings of sadness and shame were mixed with an understanding that she was being compliant in ignoring black suffering, as she was trained and expected to. “We’re conditioned to not look, because once you start looking, you can’t turn away, unless you’re a monster or a devil.”
The year 2018 was also when the band started writing for the album, though Shirley says there was no intention for this to be a political record. “Nothing’s premeditated, and nothing is planned,” she reveals of when the band get together to write an album. It’s a process of them coming together and simply writing in the moment, with Shirley responding to the music the rest of the band provide. It just happened that it coincided with this reckoning in her personal life: “I just allowed who I was in my private life to come out into the record, all the preoccupations at that time, dripped out onto this record, simply because I didn’t put up a barrier.”
Most of the writing happened in Palm Springs at Garbage guitarist Steve Marker’s in-laws’ house. Even for a band as legendary as Garbage, there are financial considerations (“It was free accommodation,” Shirley laughs). “Bands now have to be really careful about their economics. That’s why there’s a plethora of solo artists and fewer and fewer bands, because they are hard to sustain. They’re these weird little microcosms that nobody wants to spend money on. We had a limited budget and we were like, ‘Okay, how are we going to pull this off?’”
They honed in on their long-time influences of Roxy Music, Gary Numan, Siouxsie And The Banshees, The Cure and Talking Heads to create an ’80s feel. The fact that Butch Vig received a delivery of a brand new drum machine the day they started writing set the pace of the record, quite literally. “He didn’t know how to work it,” she remembers. “The fact the drum tracks sound rudimentary are just because he was feeling out how to work this machine.”
From its opening track, The Men Who Rule The World, it’s evident this is a record about men who set up and maintain the capitalistic structures that are destroying the planet and lives for the vast majority in work. Mention the fact that nearly 500 people became billionaires during the pandemic and Shirley replies: “These billionaires are more powerful than any government in the world. How is that even legal? I said earlier about people living outside my house in tents: it’s heartbreaking, too painful, too obscene.”
To write songs like Waiting For God, a self-explanatory track about racism if you listen to the lyrics, opens Garbage up to getting it wrong. This is a small price to pay for speaking on these topics, Shirley says. “If that requires that I be a little discomforted, so be it. If that requires somebody pointing a finger at me and laughing at me or criticising me, so be it. I’m middle-aged, and I’m starting to see the end of my lifespan. And I don’t want to leave this world thinking that I didn’t lift a finger to try and make things better for generations to follow. I want to know that I at least tried to speak up in defence of someone else. As white people, we all have to just get over ourselves a little and be willing to be uncomfortable.”
And why is a fear of being cancelled by people for getting it wrong more important than having a go at making the right statement?
“Cancel culture is such a tool of bullying and again, a tool of shutting you down and shutting you up,” replies Shirley. “Every human being, every artist, every icon has made mistakes. You’re not going to find a perfect person in the world ever. And I think it’s so immature and silly to think that you will. And my God, how hard are you being on yourself, if that’s how hard you’re being on other people?
“Being human is to be messy,” she continues. “And if you think you’re above all that you’re in deep, deep trouble.”
It’s inevitable that some listeners will think this album has been written in response to the last couple of years, rather than envisioned three or more years ago. While the members of Garbage are pleased they’ve made a record that feels prescient, it’s both an ancient and timeless album: these are the oldest issues known to humankind. But in true Shirley Manson style, her feelings and opinions are disclosed to us listeners as evidence of where she was and where she is.
“I’m sort of grateful for the record,” says Shirley. “We have a public testimony of where we stand in this world as people currently. What we’re in disagreement with, what appalls us, and the hope that we have for the future.”
No Gods No Masters is out now via Stunvolume / Infectious Music.
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