Garbage’s Shirley Manson Thrives on Unapologetic Heroines

Back in the ’90s, Shirley Manson never expected Garbage would still be making music together nearly 30 years later, and she suspects no one else did, either. “We’re outliers,” the fiery Scottish frontwoman said, referring to bandmates Butch Vig, Duke Erikson and Steve Marker. “We don’t fit into any hip scene. We’ve always done our own thing. I think that’s really rare.”

The band’s seventh album, “No Gods No Masters” (out June 11), is its most socially conscious statement, a thrumming mix of goth and orchestral pop partially inspired by the racial justice movement, #MeToo revelations and escalating political divisions. “All these things that happened over the last few years caught my attention, and I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I just let that fly,” Manson said via phone from the Los Angeles home she shares with her husband, the Garbage engineer Billy Bush, and their elderly rescue dog, Veela. “I didn’t want to make a party record. I wanted to make something that matters.”

Manson, 54, has also found a megaphone via her podcast “The Jump,” for which she interviews fellow musicians like Angel Olsen and George Clinton. “I’ve been so inspired at a time in my life when I needed inspiration,” she said. Although, she added, the particularly personal track “Uncomfortably Me” was aided by what the band calls Mind Erasers — a mezcal cocktail featuring chile liqueur. “You can only have one,” she warned. “That song was written after two.”

Manson enthusiastically shared what else has sustained and influenced her throughout her long career. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

1. A Pocket-Size New Testament Bible

It’s one of my most cherished possessions, given to me on the day of my baptism by my father. It’s got this beautiful, glossy cover with a picture of Jesus and some other folks on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, I think. My dad, strangely enough, is having struggles with his faith now at 84, but he was a devout believer, and he brought all of his children up in the church. I really took my studies seriously and, year after year, I won the religious education prize at school. Then the hormones kicked in and I started to notice the hypocrisy of organized religion. The slow eradication of my own faith broke my heart. I turned from perfect student to raging adolescent. I think I was furious at being hoodwinked.

2. Margot Fonteyn

She was the first figure in the world that I crushed on. When I was 8, my dad took me to meet her at a local bookshop. And then I saw her dance with Rudolf Nureyev at a gala performance in Edinburgh. The ballet taught me what it meant to be artists and be disciplined and be serious, and also to work in partnership. Something about achieving things together taught me about how we have to pull each other up.

Being a ballerina is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do in my life. Everything else that’s ever happened to me, I didn’t necessarily desire. But I had a terrible accident at church when I was 11 and I twisted my ankle badly. I could no longer sustain pointe. Now, instead of counting sheep to get myself to sleep, I imagine ballerinas running down a spiral staircase.

3. Nina Simone

My mother was a great music lover. She had a red leather Dansette record player, and she introduced me to Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee and Nina Simone. Listening to the records now reminds me of dancing with her in the kitchen.

Nina Simone is probably my all time favorite singer — the sound of her voice, her phrasing, her cadences. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything as shocking and heartbreaking as “Strange Fruit” or “I Loves You, Porgy,” which I didn’t understand as a kid. Now the profundity of it hits me so hard. I’m attracted to her courage and her willingness not to be liked. She could be fierce and intimidating. It’s unusual enough now, but back then that was revolutionary.

4. The Beatles and Yoko Ono

I was in music class the morning we all found out that John Lennon had been killed. I had an amazing music teacher and she allowed us to sit and cry, and she wept with us.

I pored over the news regarding Yoko Ono and her grief as a widow. I’d always had a lack of interest in Yoko, because I bought into the ways that she had been sidelined by misogyny. That is the tragedy. But over the years, I’m astounded by what a pioneer she is, not just in art but in gender and environmental politics. I was so lucky to be invited by Gxrlschool L.A. to perform a tribute to her at the Disney Concert Hall, and I got to sing “What a Bastard the World Is.” At the end of the performance I got a note that Yoko wanted to meet me. I’m giving myself goose bumps just talking about it.

5. Pris From “Blade Runner”

I’m always chasing Pris — in my dreams, in my stage performances, in my fantasies. I grew up in the ’70s in Scotland. There were topless models in the newspapers. To see someone that I knew most men would find freaky when I found her alluring and androgynous just freed me from believing that I had to play a certain game. Pris formed a taste in me for something outside of the typical male gaze. Suddenly, I was like [expletive] it. I don’t want to be a boring woman.

6. Louise Bourgeois

I was in London. Garbage had just been dropped by Interscope Records. My career was in the toilet. I was creeping up on 40 in an industry that’s not kind to women who are over 25. I was hanging out with the video director Sophie Muller and her old art-school teacher said to us, “Go to the Tate and see the retrospective on Louise Bourgeois.” We became groupies. At the time, Louise Bourgeois was 95, and she was still painting. And standing in the middle of the Tate reading up on her, a darkness broke out of me. I was like, you know what? I may no longer have a successful career, but I can still be an artist. I was overtaken with a determination to engineer my own life.

7. Ken Burns’s “Jazz”

During quarantine, I had my whole brain exploded by this series. I had always thought of jazz as something fusty and sort of conservative — it’s always been a closed door to me. “Jazz” really shook me up. It gave me a phenomenal basis in understanding contemporary American music and an incredible perspective on systematic racism, colonialism and also great genius.

8. “The Jump” Podcast

I’m on my third season now and it causes me unbelievable amounts of stress. I feel like I’m not smart enough to be in the position that I’m in. However, it has been an extraordinarily rewarding experience. When you sit down with people for a couple of hours, you get their energy.

I came away from the studio really loving on Liz Phair. My band was working on a track, and I wanted to write something that was a little scathing about the patriarchy, but I wanted it to be fun. And I went into the vocal booth and I deliberately pitched my voice low the way she does.

9. Patrisse Cullors and Asha Bandele’s “When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir”

It was one of the first books I read a couple of years ago when I suddenly had this naïve realization that, gun to the head, I wouldn’t be able to name you 10 Black movie directors. Ten Black novelists. I feel embarrassed to say this. I really needed to educate myself about what’s going on in this country and around the globe. “When They Call You a Terrorist” just set me on a whole journey of belated understanding of the struggle of Black, brown and Indigenous people. I then watched “The 13th,” an incredible documentary by Ava DuVernay. It’s really difficult for white people to admit to our own prejudice, our own privilege, our own conditioning. But you can get over your embarrassment, because people are actually suffering.

10. Patti Smith

Whenever she speaks, I just start crying. I went to see her perform at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2005 and I started to weep because she looked so powerful, like some kind of vision. She didn’t even seem human. And then I saw her speak just before lockdown to promote her book “Year of the Monkey,” and I wept all the way through that, too. I always think my relationship to her is singular, but I went to the bathroom and all the other ladies in there were crying, too. It was like a Backstreet Boys concert. I’ve seen a lot of my heroes age, and you watch them lose their confidence as they move through the world. You start to see them apologize for aging. With Patti Smith, there is no apology, and it’s such a potent message.

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