Photography: Joseph Cultice
There are moments in everyone’s lives that change them forever. My parents and grandparents always say they’ll never forget exactly where they were and what they were doing when JFK was shot or when John Lennon died. I’ll never forget the first time I heard Garbage. With songs like “Supervixen” and “Stupid Girl,” I was immediately entranced by the band and their red-headed, wide-eyed lead singer, Shirley Manson. Her howling voice and biting wit soared atop Steve Marker and Duke Erikson’s reverb-drenched guitars, and Butch Vig’s pounding drums and iconic production. Mixing shoegaze with punk rock, grunge and ’80s goth, Garbage sounded at the same time familiar yet completely unknown.
Growing up, I always felt like the black sheep. I wore Doc Martens and sang along to their 1995 single, “Only Happy When It Rains,” while everyone else was practicing coordinated dance moves to the entire track listing of Now That’s What I Call Music Volume 1. Listening to Garbage made me feel like it was more than okay to be different—it was cool. And hearing Shirley Manson sing “Maim me, tame me, you can never change me. Love me, like me, come ahead and fight me,” taught me about the strength in being a girl. She showed me I could stand up for myself, that I could start a band, that I could scream in a world that was constantly telling me to be quiet.
After six studio albums, Garbage, and Shirley Manson, are as poignant and as badass as ever. Their most recent release, Strange Little Birds, is, in a lot of ways, a return to the basics. But it’s definitely not just a remake of their self-titled 1995 classic. The album is a powerful reflection of the band’s eagerness to tell the truth, even when it sucks. Tracks like lead single, “Empty,” showcase their ’90s roots and self-deprecating cynicism, and others, like album opener, “Sometimes,” reflect their willingness to experiment, combining minimalism with Nine Inch Nails-style synths and Manson’s haunting voice. “So We Can Stay Alive” is six minutes of swirling guitars and noisy intensity, while “Magnetized” is Garbage’s version of an electro-pop ballad.
Beginning to end, Strange Little Birds is the most personal and political album from a band that already tends to be pretty outspoken. On “Even Though Our Love Is Doomed,” Manson whispers, “I’m getting desperate, desperate for a revolution, some kind of spark, some kind of connection in these dangerous days.” Garbage is that revolution, with Strange Little Birds serving as a manifesto for Manson’s view of the world. Even when it seems all hope is lost, she sings, “And even though our love is doomed, and even though we’re all messed up, we’re still waiting for tomorrow.”
We recently caught up with the singer to talk feminism, Strange Little Birds and how to survive all the craziness.
Tell me about about Strange Little Birds.
The record is definitely a sort of reflection of what it feels like to try and make sense of all the craziness that’s going on in the world right now. We seem to be at a point where it’s chaotic and crazy and there doesn’t seem to be much leadership. I think it’s confusing—I definitely feel confused. So I think the record was an attempt to try and sort through all those thoughts that I think a normal-thinking person might experience at a time like this. […] It’s definitely dark. It’s not a feel good, happy go lucky, banger, booty in the club type record at all. And it’s not necessarily an immediate record either. It’s definitely one of those records you have to listen to a couple of times before you get a grasp on it.
Do you think your songwriting has changed after six records?
I would hope so! I think there’s nothing more tragic than a human being who gets the gift of life and stays stuck in their earliest form. I really, as I’m getting older, want more and more to experience different things and layers and be curious and be an adventurer. I don’t want to be just stuck in a cage as my first version of self.
Do you have a favorite song on the album?
This is probably for the first time I can think of in the band, but I really feel like the record is meant to be held together and listened to as a whole piece. I feel very strongly that the music industry has allowed music to get so parsed out and piecemeal and it’s not how I grew up experiencing records. We would all wait for a release date for a record to come out and would all sit in a room—sometimes with friends and sometimes alone—but we would sit in a room and listen to a record from start to finish. That’s how I experienced records and that’s how my music listening was informed. Obviously, that has changed because of the way technology has affected us. We’ve all become a little A.D.D. and listening has become a lost art. But on this record, I do feel quite strongly it’s supposed to be heard from start to finish.
What was the hardest or scariest part of making it?
Being truthful, I think, is the hardest thing. It’s scary to be truthful. You risk being laughed at, you risk being criticized and you risk being judged. And so, to me, that’s always been the challenge of being an artist. I mean, I’m lucky I’m a pretty straightforward person anyway, so finding the truth hasn’t been complicated for me necessarily. But it is always a challenge for anyone, to be really prepared to say, ‘This is who I am.’
Garbage started performing at a time when girls were finally fronting bands and getting recognition for it. How do you think your experience as a woman in the music industry has changed over the years?
When I was growing up, not a lot of women were necessarily starting bands. We were all curious about it, and I’m not saying there weren’t examples of women starting bands, but it just wasn’t the norm at all—it was still considered very much a sort of patriarchal boys club. I remember seeing the front cover of that Slits record [Cut] and being shocked. It was really arresting. Now, I see that all beginning to change and the wall beginning to break, and that makes me excited to see where that’s all going to go. But I do still notice that there are still many of us women who are very reluctant to shout our agenda forward with the same confidence as our male counterparts. A lot of times we’re looking for permission or an invitation to be present, to be competitive, to be involved.
How does feminism play into your music?
Obviously it has to play into our music because it’s what I believe in. I believe in equality and I feel very strongly I have to be proof. When I emerged in the ‘90s, in the band, it was an incredible time for feminism. We had a whole glut of self-empowered women being incredibly vocal in the media and getting a lot of media attention. So it felt a very expansive progressive party and we enjoyed a lot of freedoms that our female predecessors hadn’t. But then something happened and I’m not entirely clear what that was, but I think I do feel, as women, we sort of took our eye off the ball. All of the sudden we were enjoying this kind of equality for the first time and I think we thought that was the way it was going to be. But unfortunately, human rights have to be fought for constantly.
So you think feminism is no longer represented in the music industry?
Over the last 20 years, we saw a lot of women in the media, young women, distancing themselves from the idea of equality. Many didn’t understand necessarily that they were doing it, but I’m not entirely sure that they realized distancing themselves from feminism meant distancing themselves from equality. Nevertheless, that’s what they were doing, and that feeds into women’s rights across the world. In some pockets of the world, it’s incredibly alarming how women are still treated and I see women in the U.S. beginning to slide back too. When all of the sudden you see very famous celebrities wearing waist-trainers that my grandmother’s generation fought to be relieved from, I find it really wrong. And these people are being pegged as icons and feminists, and people come and talk to them and ask for their advice and look up to them, but they’re completely stuck in these age old ideas of how women should be seen in public. It drives me fucking crazy! I really sometimes feel like the little boy at the dam with my finger in the hole like, ‘Is anybody else seeing what I’m seeing?’ People scoff at me a lot and they think I’m insane because I have these ideas about how many people think, but I am similarly standing at the world thinking it’s gone absolutely fucking mad.
If there weren’t many girl-fronted bands when you were growing up, how’d you get into music? I’m a musician and the reason I felt comfortable enough and like I was allowed to play music was because I had girls in bands like you to look up to.
It’s funny, I’ve been a musician now for a long long time—for 35 years. But I can honestly say, it’s only really in the last decade that I’ve thought of myself seriously as a musician. That may speak a great deal about my self-esteem, but it took me that long to really, truly have done enough work where it didn’t matter what the critics were saying about me, and it didn’t even matter what I was thinking about me. I’d just done enough work to the point where I was like, ‘Alright, I’m not one of the greatest, but I’ve gotten good at it, and if somebody takes it away from me, my life will be diminished.’ It took me a long time to get to the point where I was willing to even get into that head space. Again, I think it goes back to just a lack of confidence. I was always caught up in a lot of the comparison game. You see someone who does something well and then you measure yourself against that person. It took me a long time to realize I just need to do me.
Earlier you said Strange Little Birds is not a happy go lucky record. I’d say most of your music has a darker feel. Why do you think Garbage leans to the darker side of life?
That’s just what we like — We love listening to music that breaks our heart. We find it comforting because it feels more like the truth for us. We ache to hear the other side of human nature that so many of us struggle to hide. I challenge you to find one person who doesn’t feel sadness, who doesn’t experience depression or at least despondency or doubt — all of these things we’re taught from a very early age are negative emotions. I had to learn throughout my life and throughout my experiences that the negative emotions are as powerful and as integral to our life as the positive ones. So, I want to explore what those are because I feel like I will get more of a sense of the truth for myself and for the world that I find myself in, if I examine and explore them. I feel like they lose their negative power when I do.
It seems like honesty is the most important thing for you.
We seem to be living in a time when everyone’s very reluctant to explore the whole truth. We’re all very guilty of choosing our truth and we can get on the internet and bolster that truth wherever and whenever we want. We now have prominent politicians lying to our faces. The next thing you know, we’ve discovered they’ve told us a lie, they admit the lie and there are no consequences whatsoever. I think it’s a very, very dangerous climate that we’re living in. Nobody is held accountable for lying and dishonesty and we as people seem to just accept that we can pick whether we think it’s true or not. It doesn’t really even matter one way or another, anyway, and I find that really frightening. So, I’m looking for the truth always. I’m a truth-seeker and that’s how I live my life and I’m okay with that. I realize it seems that we, in Garbage, are the minority, but I’m okay with that, too. I’m willing to be the odd man out. I just want to see the whole picture, not just half of it.
You’ve been in the same band for a long time. Do you ever feel like you’re constrained by the aesthetic or that you have to write or act a certain way because that’s what people have come to expect from you?
I certainly have felt like that in the past. I think with this record though, we bucked up and felt we were free to do what we pleased at this point in our career. I think we just made the record we wanted to hear. There was no real concern with how people remembered us or cared for us to be. I have gotten to the point, and I think the whole band has, where we cannot think about serving the fans. We can only present an offering to them and hope they accept it. But we have to live our lives for ourselves.
Has success changed the way you approach things?
I do think that success for a band can become a cage for the band. You get known for one thing and you’re stuck in that mud for the rest of your career, and if you dare to step out of it, you’ll be shut down. I think that’s terribly sad but it’s also why we don’t see as many great artists like David Bowie or Prince anymore—because people are too scared to make the moves, they’re too scared to leave the fan base, they’re too scared not to get a number one record, they’re too scared not to get enough airplay. It’s become a very restrictive, dictatorial business, at least in that sense. There’s not a lot of acceptance for exploration.
And so many bands either break up or fizzle out because of it. To what do you attribute Garbage’s ongoing success?
We have definitely had our struggles within our career, but I think what happened was we just had enough conviction in ourselves to just keep trying. Sooner or later you rise again. I think artists really have to remember that just because you fail does not mean you’re over, and just because the culture rejects you for five minutes, don’t allow it to eat into your confidence. Unfortunately, it does, and a lot of artists fall by the wayside because they just cannot find it in themselves to stand back up after being rejected in the public eye. It’s very difficult to be lauded and then basically be put in the stocks. To then recover from that takes a lot of work. It’s hard and it doesn’t feel comfortable. It’s heartbreaking and your sense of self gets messed with and you don’t know which way is up. But I think if you’re just willing to sit in the mud for five minutes, you’ll find your way out. I think the same could be said for anybody in any situation in their life—If you can just sit in the pain for five minutes, you’ll figure it out.