With iconic alt-rock quartet Garbage set to release their seventh studio album 'No Gods No Masters' later this week, iconic frontwoman Shirley Manson speaks to Clash about why it’s essential to have substance when making music, especially when it comes to important subjects such as racism, misogyny, and climate change.
The singer also reveals how she got her big break after touring with Debbie Harry, and why it’s still ludicrous that people are defined depending on if they have a penis or a vagina…
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Congratulations on the latest single ‘Wolves’. Can you tell me a bit more about your approach to the song and a bit more about your thoughts on that?
Shirley Manson: I mean, it's about the conflict that I think exists and everybody who struggling with themselves on a daily basis. Human beings are capable of great cruelty, but also great kindness.
It's that sort of inner struggle I think we're faced with every single day. We make subconscious split-second decisions on how we're going to respond to something. But at the back of that is this is this moral dilemma, am I going to snap at someone or I'm going to be patient? Am I going to walk into the office with a smile on my face? Or am I going to walk in and display my bad temper? Like, how am I going to be this morning? How am I going to be with people? It’s really just about that.
I don't know where or why, but I stumbled upon this Eastern European folk story online which is exactly about this. About the two walls that exist inside us and how they do battle. It just really captured my imagination. It's sort of about that - just being in the world and what drives us.
For the video for ‘Wolves’ you worked again with Javi Mi Amor - how much do you get involved with the creative process?
Shirley Manson: It really depends on the director. I mean, with Javi, she did such a spectacular job on ‘The Men Who Ruled The World’ and we had nothing to do with that. We just said ‘Do you want to do this?’ She was like ‘Yeah!’ and then she sent us the video for the ‘Men Who Rule The World’ - and our minds were blown. I mean, it was so beautiful and really funny and clever. Every single shot that you see, was manipulated by her and it was such a labour of love. I was so blown away by it.
Then, so it was a given that we would then hand her ‘Wolves’. She and I talked a little on the phone about what the song meant and then about a month later, she sent this incredible piece through and once again, she sort of blew our minds. She's fantastic and so easy to work with - no ego and just so generous. Yeah, what I find, I still can't quite believe we find this amazing artist we love who wants to do good work with us. It's just been really inspiring.
It’s absolutely fantastic! ‘No Gods No Masters' is your seventh studio album, how excited are you to be releasing this album?
Shirley Manson: Thank you so much. Thanks for saying that. I appreciate it. I mean, I don't know if at this stage... I feel excited? I was excited when I was really young, I somehow thought that with each release, my life would change. You know, at this stage of my career, my life isn't going to change in any sort of significant way. So, I wouldn't say I'm excited.
I feel joy, you know as I getting to release a record, particularly in this climate, I feel really proud of the record - I am thrilled that there's a lot of substance on the record and it's not just a throwaway piece and it doesn’t just traverses similar areas. It's really unique, whether you love, or you hate it, it's standing on its own two feet.
When you've been a band for over 25 years to actually achieve something like that is kind of unexpected. Yeah, it’s gratifying.
It's such an amazing album. I really like ‘Godshead’ and ‘Anonymous’ in particular… I really loved all the songs, but these two stood out for sure.
Shirley Manson: ‘Godshead!’ (laughs) Yeah! Well ‘Godshead’ was created up in Palm Springs, when we were in writing mode, there's actually a line that isn't finished. But the mood of it was so glib and kind of irreverent that I just don’t ever want to read you the vocals. So what you hear is me writing, you know, just whatever is coming into my head at the time, the band was serving me up with the music, and it's tongue in cheek, you know, but it's also talking about something pretty serious. Because, you know, as a woman, as I'm sure you can relate to this, I am treated differently because I have a vagina, from how I would be treated if I had a silly little penis and balls between my legs.
As I have gotten older, I'm at that point when I sort of able to laugh. But how silly is that, this patriarchal kind of umbrella that we're all forced to live under has somehow decreed that male is more valuable than female. That cock is more valuable than vagina. White is more valuable than black. I mean, these bizarre, like, literally, crazy rules that are in existence that are sort of indoctrinated in us as we start to develop into human beings.
Now that I'm older, I just look at it now and just go, this is so silly, and so ridiculous. Why is the world still operating like this? You know? Like, we're even told that God is male, you know! We see all these images growing up with the Bible - of the old wise white man with a big beard. When you're younger, you just sort of accept it as you do. Yes! This is how things are. Yeah, but this is bullshit. I'm calling bullshit!
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I'm with you on that! I think it's really good to be challenging these old perceptions. I mean, it's sad that we are still having this conversation, especially in 2021. Clearly more needs to be done. But, it’s positive that people like yourself doing such amazing work with regards to be challenging these old stereotypes. I think that's so important.
Shirley Manson: Well, actually I think it's the younger generation that is smashing the binary of gender and I think it’s incredibly exciting. I think that as sad as it is, the realisation of colonialism and systemic racism, are finally getting really aired and are being talked about in the big debates. They're being discussed and the agenda is getting pushed forward slowly. That's open to the new generations who are pushing all of us to change our minds to throw away all the nonsense that we have been brainwashed into believing.
I think it's an exciting time, I think it's a time where we're going to start seeing change and I hope that everyone will get on board and voice their support. The world has to change. Technology has changed our lives and has galvanised marginalised people. And that's precious, and long, may it continue in long. There's more urgency, because these matters are of urgency, especially in relation to race. This is something we need to tackle head on, and we need to demand change.
100%! Do you have a favourite track from the album?
Shirley Manson: I wouldn't necessarily say it's my favourite because it kind of breaks my heart every time I hear it, but ‘Waiting For God’ for me is the most important song on this record. It’s about voicing our disgust at home. You know, black people, indigenous people are getting fucked with - it's registering our public complaints.
It's a testimony and an objection and about voicing our indignance. I'm grateful that I got to write about my deep sadness about the black struggle, you know, not just in America, but all over the world. So, I would say that song was essential in a funny way to this record and the most important thematically for sure. It hurts me to hear it and I only sang it twice, which is unusual for me.
Normally when I record a record, I have multiple takes, but in this case, I was only able to record it twice. It was so emotional, and I cried both times. It was weird because of the pandemic; this was the one vocal I have yet to finish. The rest of the band weren't around as they couldn't be around. So, I went and recorded it with my husband, it was just me and him. It was an intimate, really strange, intimate experience to just be alone in the booth with no ‘inverted commas’ band audience. It's just me and my husband. And so that has a special importance to me, I guess.
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I think it's going to really resonate with the audience, it certainly does resonate with me. It'll be an anthem when you can eventually perform it live.
Shirley Manson: I'm just grateful that I was able to express something elegantly, you know, not too heavy handed, because it's such an emotional subject. So, it could have been, really cheesy, and I don't think it is, I think it's really elegant. I'm just glad we made a record and we were able to talk about things of that kind of importance. You know, it's difficult. So, there we have it. There we go.
The deluxe version of the album includes your cover of ‘Because the Night’ and also ‘Destroying Angels’ Was it interesting to revisit those tracks?
Shirley Manson: Yeah, they're fucking great. I mean, yeah, I love Patti Smith! She is incredible. She's one of my all-time influences and heroes. We did a blistering cover of the track with the Screaming Females a band from New Jersey who also are in love with Patti Smith and we were touring together and Marissa who is the lead singer and is also an amazing guitarist was like "We need to do a cover together!" I was like "alright!" and it was so good. Her guitar playing is just off the charts and there’s an unbelievable guitar solo in there that is not in the original but is in our cover of it. It's blistering, and wonderful! We're really proud of it.
And then, you know, we sang with the great Brody Dalle who is a beloved friend of mine who is an iconic singer herself - it was a thrill to perform with her. Brian Aubert from the Silversun Pickups, we did a track with him, which is also great.
We did a cover of David Bowie’s ‘Starman’ which we recorded for the radio for the American radio host, Howard Stern. We were so pleased with the outcome of it, we decided to put that out on the record too, just because they're difficult to find these. These songs, we put most of them out on limited edition vinyl for Record Store Day as we thought this would be a really great gift to our fans, but also a great arrogant display of our wares!
Definitely not arrogant! You're touring with Blondie in November. How much are you looking forward to that? And how much have you been missing playing live?
Shirley Manson: I mean, I don't even know where to start with Blondie. I've known Debbie, from when I was myself a very young woman when I was in my first band ‘Goodbye Mr Mackenzie’. We opened for Debbie Harry’s solo tour in the UK in the 80s. So, I've known her since the mid-80s. It was during our tour with Debbie that I was introduced to her manager who took care of Blondie, The Ramones and Talking Heads.
They took a shine to me and said: You know, I think you could have an amazing career in the music industry. I'd like you to keep in touch with me and if you ever decide to do anything, give me a call. So as a result, he ended up signing my second band Angelfish and we would hang out with Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth and Debbie Harry and the Ramones and all that just through the scene. So, I have enormous gratitude to Debbie. Like with each tour, she would come to our shows, and she'd be in the pit with the kids.
The unbelievable generosity of an iconic musician to show that amount of generosity to an upcoming musician, I thought was stunning and it really moved me. Then when Garbage went on tour, in North America a couple of years ago with them we all got on so well, that they invited us back for their UK tour. This autumn, yeah, I mean, it's just such a headfuck to open for a band that we grew up listening to and were influenced by and we're very grateful that they want us around. It's really, really mind blowing!
Collectively over the last of 25 plus years, you've won numerous awards, and accolades, you've had both great commercial success and critical acclaim. How important are awards to you? Also, how important are chart positions to you, especially in this whole streaming age?
Shirley Manson: It's great, because the music industry has changed so much, that I don't even really understand how they quantify success anymore, like the streaming and all that. So, I've just started to not even pay attention to it anymore. Truthfully, I really don't. I'm like, what! I don't understand when or the, you know, what? When does the single come out? I'm like, whatever, who cares? That's the best way to be, I think?
I think so.
Shirley Manson: I think it's probably will save my sanity. I mean, listen, we all want to succeed at what we do. Like nobody wants to feel like a loser. Right? It's a horrible feeling. But I think you have to put a lot of it in perspective. I will take my long 25-year career over accolades any day of the week. Right? So, there's a lot of artists who come out and they last about five years and get all the flowers, and then they're gone. I concentrate really on a career or trying to do try to make good music, try and have a creative relationship with my band, try to always do the best I can and I see that what we do is in service to people.
I really never used to look at it that way. But now I do. I'm like, oh, we're in service. We're kind of like nurses that we make people feel better, you know, and we make them feel understood or comforted or we express things for them that they can't express themselves. As for awards, they only really mean anything to me when we win them. (laughs!)
It’s true. Like otherwise, they're just so silly. As for the recent spate of artists complaining that they're not getting nominated for awards or winning awards. Literally, my jaw drops to the floor. I'm like, ‘What insanity is this? You feel so entitled?’ That you think you should get everything? Like, fuck it!
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Did you ever envisage when you released your debut album that you would still be producing such incredible work?
Shirley Manson: No. I am amazed literally almost every day! I mean, it's been surreal, really surreal! I can't believe my luck. I'm eternally grateful. And I love what I do. I love my career. I love music. You know, what was really amazing for me was during COVID when we're all stuck in our homes. The only thing I had to do was listen to music. It was the only thing I could do.
I couldn't believe how much comfort music brought me and it reignited the realisation that music is absolutely essential for our wellbeing. You know as in how precious it is. I just felt:Wow. How lucky am I that I get to be part of the musical community? That's just such an extraordinary stroke of good luck!
You've been together for just over a quarter century. How do you keep things fresh?
Shirley Manson: (laughs uncontrollably!) A quarter of a century?!
Maybe I should have opted for 25 years instead?! Shirley Manson: I love that you went for a quarter of a century, it's so magnificent (laughs)
I went big! So, how do you keep things fresh? What's the secret to longevity?
Shirley Manson: It's funny, I don't know how we've done it. It hasn't been easy, and it's often been very fraught. I would attribute it to a couple things. One, the band are essentially very kind people, they're pretty easy to hang with. I am definitely more of a difficult character, you know. I'm big, I'm big in every space, I'm loud in every space, that's a lot for anyone really to accommodate.
I also bring them something that they are somewhat lacking themselves. Vice versa, you know, we complement each other enormously and we also try and be respectful of one another. We also share every single thing. It's like a struggling democracy always. Nobody makes you know, more than another member of the band. Nobody takes credit for more than their 25% and that has been, I think, a very successful recipe for when the inevitable stressors hit. We've been able to overcome a lot of obstacles together without chopping each other's heads off.
Would you say that - hand on heart - out of all of the albums that you've recorded, this is the one that you're probably most proud of as a body of work?
Shirley Manson: Well, you see, as my husband is always saying to me, you say this every single time you make a record, you're like, "this is our passion". The thing is when you make a record in the time that you're in, and it's specific to that time, so of course, it always means the most to you, you know what I mean? Like further you get away from the first record, it feels less and less sort of prescient.
But I'm very proud of this record, I think we've made a really good record at the end of it. I said to the band, ‘I'm sorry, but I don't know what anyone else wants from us at this point in our career’.
You know, I feel like we've really created something that sounds like us, but also sounds new and fresh. It has a great vigour about it. After being in a band together for 25 years, I think it's kind of extraordinary, you know, but regardless of whether people love it or hate it, whether people are going to slag it off, or disregard it, I think we all feel like we made a fucking great record that we could play in front of anybody and feel proud about. That is all you can ask yourselves as artists, you know, everything else is out of our control and our sphere of influence, so be it!
What you personally listening to at the moment? What bands or artists are you getting inspiration from?
Shirley Manson: Oh, good question. I'm really kind of obsessed with the Billy No Mates at the moment! She’s fucking great! Great, great record! She sort of blew me away. I'm obsessed with Run the Jewels they like just light me up. Killer Mike I mean, the list is endless. Obsessed with Idles and the Viagra Boys. There's a lot of great talent out there.
I feel like that alternative music has kind of been pushed to the background a bit over the last couple of decades. I feel like now there's this incredibly powerful wave of music just beginning to rise up again. Which we haven't seen the likes of since the 90s. I for one, I'm very excited about this.
What feels like a cultural shift to me? I think we're moving away from that kind of like upbeat pop music that was written by this by a small group of people and we're going back into the kind of scene that I love. - I like a little bit of poison with my music. I like a little bit of bite. I don't want it all to be safe and cosy. I'm like ‘Fuck that!’ Yeah, life isn't safe and cosy. You know, let's hear a little bit of the dark. I love that!
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'No Gods No Masters' is out on June 11th.
Words: Emma Harrison