Shirley Manson, Garbage’s front woman and a Scottish singer, spoke to Charlotte Ryan on why the band works so well together – and why it still does in 2021.
Photo: Maria Jose Govea
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Formed in Madison, Wisconsin in 1993, Garbage have proved their staying power over the years.
With their seventh studio album released this year, along with a special 20th anniversary edition of their classic album Beautiful Garbage, the band has retained the same lineup since their inception.
Shirley told Music 101 one of the main reasons why the band worked so well together – and continues to do so in 2021 – is because they are “just really compatible as human beings”.
Photo: Joseph Cultice
“We sort of live off each other’s strengths and augment ourselves through that,” Shirley says. “It’s been highly successful and really surprising to all of us.”
But despite their success, Shirley says they still feel like outsiders sometimes.
“I don’t think anyone in the band understands or believes we’re still here, it still feels like we don’t really belong, it almost feels like we’re outsiders, we’re not part of any scene. It’s extraordinary that we are the survivors, I think we’re kind of shocked by that.”
While Manson hails from Scotland, the rest of her bandmates are all American – which she says made them harder to box in right from the beginning.
“When we were really at the height of our powers it was all the Bristol scene and Britpop and we didn’t fit in there,” she says.
“We’ve never been considered an American band because obviously I take up such a big space in the band and I’m Scottish, but similarly we’ve never been embraced as a British band because three members of the band are American.”
However, Shirley says this uniqueness ended up helping them greatly.
“We are one of a kind in a funny way, for better or for worse, like we have our own space, we have our own sound and nobody else has been able to do what we do and I think that has helped us carve our own niche in a very overpopulated business.”
Currently living in Los Angeles, Shirley says the new Garbage album released this year, titled No Gods No Masters, had helped her get through the Covid-19 pandemic.
The band has also recently toured the US with Alanis Morrisette and Cat Power, which Manson says was a huge success.
“I’m very grateful for it and excited by it and I don’t know what I would’ve done if I hadn’t had all those lovely things happen.”
While Manson doesn’t consider the new album political per se, it does touch on themes of power struggles and inequality.
“The first time we released this record I was quite shocked when everyone said it was so political because to me it feels so personal,” she says.
“I just don’t affiliate myself with any political party and I’m not a big fan of any politician, I think they’re a useless bunch of twats who are just lining their own pockets and failing the people at every turn.
“And so I hate calling anything I do political because it’s associated with that uselessness.”
With the 20th anniversary edition of Beautiful Garbage released this month, along with an array of b-sides, demos and studio sessions, Manson has been diving into the archives and revisiting old memories.
“It is somewhat surreal, particularly the making of Beautiful Garbage was fraught for me, because I was going through a very painful divorce and because I had a lot of attention on me at the time in the media, I didn’t want to talk about it,” she says.
“So I didn’t tell anybody really what was going on in my life, everything was internalized and I was utterly miserable, I lost a lot of weight, I shaved off all my hair, stuff a lot of people go through when they’re breaking up with a significant other.”
To get through the difficult times, Manson found comfort working in the studio with her bandmates.
“I’ve got these funny feelings whenever I listen to these songs because I know, I remember how much agony I was in, but also just how much joy that was generated by creating these songs too,” she says.
“Something as miserable and heartbreaking as Cup of Coffee feels triumphant from a distance.”
And looking back at herself in the early days of her career, Manson says that while she presented herself as a strong, fierce woman, she often felt vulnerable, flawed and scared.
“Looking back on myself now and looking at myself in 1995, I’m kind of amazed at how courageous I was. I don’t know if I would do half the things now that I did back then,” she says.
“I wouldn’t fly off into nowhere land to work with people that I didn’t know, I just wouldn’t do that now. But I did it and I did it with no money in my pocket and no guarantee of any future.”
When it comes to advice for young artists who might see her as a role model, Manson says the most important attribute to have in the music industry is toughness.
“You have to be tough, if you’re not tough you’ll never make it. That’s just an end of, that’s just a blanket statement which I really believe in,” she says.
“But if you are tough and you work hard and you believe in what you’re doing, then sooner or later something will crack for you. It may not be in the shape that you imagined it initially, but something will work and it will take you somewhere incredible.”