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Shirley Manson Garbage
GarbagePhotography by Brian Ziff

50 Questions with Shirley Manson

As Garbage’s latest album is released, AnOther probes the band’s frontwoman on politics, Instagram, and whether bigger is always better

Lead ImageGarbagePhotography by Brian Ziff

Shirley Manson is a rock star who only gets more relevant. More than 25 years after Garbage broke through with Stupid Girl and Only Happy When It Rains, the band’s frontwoman continues to put the world to rights. Earlier this month she used an Instagram post to stick up for her peers, writing: “We are seeing so many precious talents buckle under the economic injustice of a system that does not pay the creative for their artistic output.” It was classic Manson: an uncomfortable truth expressed articulately, without pulling punches.

Now, as Garbage release their career-spanning Anthology album, Manson takes on AnOther’s 50 Questions. By the end, you’ll be even more convinced she’s an icon – even if she’s not too fond of the term.

1. Where are you right now? Los Angeles, in my bed with a little terrier curled around my legs.

2. What will you be doing after this interview? I’m actually going to meet up with the band, because we’re in our first week of writing for our eighth studio album.

3. What Garbage song on Anthology is most surprising to you? No Horses because it’s very different from anything we’ve ever done. It’s not a pop song in any way, shape or form; it’s quite grand and expansive.

4. Do you have a favourite lyric you've ever written? “Now let’s save all of the animals / Let’s save all the squid / Let’s load them onto the mothership / With the elders and the kids.“ I managed to get the word “squid” into a song, which is actually quite masterful. And it speaks of something incredibly pressing: climate change.

5. What did you learn from recording a Bond theme? The bigger you get, the harder you fall, and the crueler the critics become!

6. What’s the best thing about being the lead singer in a band? I hold the microphone.

7. What’s the best thing about being on tour? I’m a touring beast, so it fluctuates on a daily basis. But I’m blessed that my husband comes with me, so it’s not like I’m not removed from my home life.

8. Should you meet your heroes? Certainly. For me, meeting my heroes has been a divine experience. So I would say yes, absolutely.

9. What did you learn growing up in Edinburgh? Almost everything. I was very lucky to grow up in an aesthetically pleasing city with such a sweet family. My mum devoted her entire existence to raising her three children. I was forged in kindness, which has helped me to deal with the cruelty of a world that’s only getting more challenging.

10. What would your parents like you to have done for a living? After I played our last album to my father, who’s 85, there was a pause and he said: “Don’t you think you should have gone to university?“ Honestly, my eyes were rolling out the back of my head. My father was a university professor and though he’s very proud of me, I think he’s disappointed that I chose to forsake my intelligence for rock and roll.

11. What are you most proud of in your career? That we’ve had the length of career we’ve enjoyed. This industry is not only unkind to women over 25, but it’s also unkind to bands at the moment.

12. Who would play you in a movie of your life? Emma Stone.

13. What’s your biggest regret? I’m not entirely sure I nurse any regret. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I’ve learned from each and every one. I think you learn the most when you fuck up in the most terrifying of ways.

14. What is the most important lesson you’ve learned? That you basically have to provide yourself with what you need.

15. Would you ever go into politics? Abso-fucking-lutely not! It’s rife with turds and self-serving capitalists.

16. What do you look for in a political leader? A strong desire to serve others, instead of just wanting to be rich and powerful.

17. Can someone be taught how to be empathetic? I don’t think somebody can be taught how to be empathetic, but I do think they can be taught how to be sympathetic. I think sympathy is a habit rather than an inherent wisdom.

18. What’s the vital ingredient that turns a good performer into a great performer? The deep desire to connect with the audience, to the extent that they lose themselves entirely in the process.

19. What’s the point of Instagram? If I had the answer to that question, I’d be living on my own island, comfortably retired. I want to get off Instagram – I’m a bit bored by it – but I will say this: there is a lot of very helpful social galvanisation that takes place there. It’s allowed many marginalised voices to be amplified.

20. What is the enemy of good music? I guess mainstream success might be, not that there’s anything wrong with mainstream success. But when we emerged in the 90s, you could exist as an alternative artist alongside the mainstream artists. Unfortunately, because there’s currently such an obsession with success, numbers and branding, we’re seeing less experimentation and uniqueness. Everybody goes on about how much they love Bowie, but they wouldn’t play Bowie now. 

Would you ever go into politics? Abso-fucking-lutely not!” – Shirley Manson

21. How did you learn to sing? From my mum. We’d sing along to all her records, which were a hilarious combination of the greatest jazz singers of all time and show tunes.

22. Who is the most underrated singer you know of? Rihanna, but only because she makes everything look super-easy. She blinds us with her spectacular presence, but her vocal chops are fucking extraordinary.

23. Is there anything you can’t write a song about? I’m not very good at writing about love or sexy stuff, but I could probably write a song about anything else. Rivers Cuomo from Weezer once said to me: “You are the most opinionated person I know. You have no problem seeing the world, so just put that in your music.” I’ve never suffered from writer’s block since.

24. What is the core purpose of songwriting? I think it’s different for every writer. Someone like Taylor Swift is an incredible storyteller. But in my own songwriting, I feel like I’m in service to society. I say things that other people don’t have the comfort level or the language to express.

25. How do you deal with hecklers? I just cut them off at the knees. I think it could be the Scotland in me.

26. Do you ever get stage fright? Never. I relish what I do and I’m good at it.

27. In 2022, what do you think the queerest of the queer is? Creepy fucking right-wing freaks who spend their time worrying about what everyone else is doing with their bodies and sexuality and gender. They should be worrying about their own perverted tendency to want to control people.

28. What is society? A bunch of people trying their very best not to die. Community is an altogether different thing, but society’s just a melee of madness. 

29. Who is your number one crush? My 16-year-old dog. She’s not quite of this world anymore – she’s like a demented granny. But she still brings me so much joy. 

30. What is the best pop song ever written? I’m going to be really pompous here, but I have gotten really sad that music is kind of commodified by the media in lists. There are so many phenomenal songs and I think it all depends on where you’re at on any given day.

What is society? “A bunch of people trying their very best not to die” – Shirley Manson

31. What was the last film to make you cry? It’s not a film, but I really start crying whenever I watch animal videos on Instagram. It’s a disaster.

32. What’s the nicest thing someone’s ever given you? When I was at my most spiritually low as an artist, a very famous rock star gave me the most astoundingly generous pep talk. It basically sustained me during the years when I felt as though the whole world had turned on Garbage.

33. Who do you call when you need a really good time? My little sister. We can literally make ourselves sick from laughing.

34. What do you do if you get an unexpected day off? Music is the easiest job in the world. The question should probably be: “What do you do on a day on?” And the answer, of course, is that I go on stage.

35. What did you learn from starring in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles? That acting is incredibly hard work. The hours are horrendous and it’s super-stressful because you get a script dumped on you 20 minutes before you go on camera. I nearly had a nervous breakdown, I kid you not.

36. What’s your worst habit? I’m very outspoken: it’s my greatest asset, but also my worst habit. I’m a bit of a truth-teller, which is a disaster in day-to-day life.

37. What’s on your bucket list? To sing regularly in a choir because it’s an extraordinary experience – it feels like you’re in a fucking jetstream, and the sound is godly. 

38. What most defines the 90s? Sarah Michelle Gellar in a choker. But maybe I’m saying that because she posted it on Instagram the other day.

39. What is the most overrated thing in the world? Fame. I’m at the point where I’m like “fuck me, who cares?”

40. How would you explain the concept of gender to an alien that just landed on earth? It’s who you are and what you are. It’s how you see and relate to the world. It’s the whole kit and caboodle.

“I bristle at the word ‘icon’ because everybody’s a fucking icon now” – Shirley Manson

41. How do we bring down the patriarchy? Well, I would appreciate it if more men spoke up and assisted a sister’s struggle in the world. But I would also appreciate it if more women were willing to look at the truth and realise they are being given the short end of the stick. Sometimes I think it’s too painful for women to do that, but it’s important for the generations that are coming up behind us. That’s who I’m fighting for.

42. Is bigger always better? Absolutely not! Bigger can often just be bigger.

43. What is the campest thing you’ve ever seen? For me, the connotations of that word are complex. Back in the 70s, camp was something that was associated with real homophobia and transphobia – it was a nasty term. Now we’re smashing all those weird old ideas about gender and sex and so forth, I think we’re beginning to realise that we’re all camp as knickers.

44. Are you a tidy person or a messy person? Disturbingly tidy. I must clean my kitchen counter at least ten times a day.

45. What is your most treasured possession? My voice.

46. Of everyone you’ve met, who had the most star quality? Elton John and David Bowie were amazing, but Madonna somehow had the edge. She was just, like, this wall of spectacular-ness.

47. Do you like being called an icon? I bristle at the word “icon” because everybody’s a fucking icon now. A social media influencer can be an icon. 

48. Who is the most rebellious person alive? Me. I’m not scared and I’m not trying to impress anyone. It takes a lot to out-rebel me.

49. What’s the key to lasting the distance? Tenacity. As a woman, when you turn 25, you start being told you’re on the way out. You’re a sad fuck, you’ve got wrinkles, you’re not as slim as you used to be. Just go away and sit in a dark corner. And so, every day that I continue to work in the music industry is a triumph because I’m refusing to listen to that nonsense.

50. Finally, did you enjoy this interview? I loved it. And I know you can tell I did.

Garbage’s Anthology is out now.