Shirley Manson interview: Breaking up the garbage girl

What’s your favourite Shirley Manson story? The one about the Garbage frontwoman revealing her love for her new orange guitar because it was «the colour of my fanny»? The incident in which she pooed in a boyfriend’s cornflakes because he had annoyed her? Or the time when she abruptly hacked off her signature ginger hair?

The latter was partly to spite her record label, the 45-year-old Scotswoman says with a gutsy laugh. From their dollar-shaped viewpoint, there was horror that one of music’s biggest female stars could so wilfully sabotage her image. But it was also a sign of madness. «Yeah, I was not well.» The year was 2001 and Manson was promoting Beautiful Garbage, the band’s third album. «I was heartbroken. I was going though a divorce and it was just really hard. There’s no room, really, for human frailty when you’re promoting a record.»

Or what about the rumour that, despite selling 13m albums with the American electronic rock band she joined in 1994 and becoming a tough-talking, smart-mouthed, big-boot-wearing icon to a generation, Manson was too frightened to enter a clothes shop alone until she was aged 30? And this from a girl with a teenage stint in Dorothy Perkins’s Edinburgh branch on her otherwise slim non-musical CV. «It’s true!»

She recounts a story concerning Veela, the terrier she keeps at home in Los Angeles. «When I adopted my dog, I took her to behavioural training because you never know what you’re inheriting with a rescue dog. And the first thing the trainer said was: ‘There is no such thing as an aggressive dog, only a scared dog.’ And I was immediately, like: that’s my life’s problem right there!» Manson claps her hands and laughs: «That was an illuminating lesson!»

My favourite story is the one about a woman surviving life in one of Scotland’s most underrated and out-of-control groups, Goodbye Mr Mackenzie, and then a decade in a giant, world-beating rock band. On-stage she’s always put up a good fight. Offstage, there have been troubles. But at the end of it Manson has come out laughing and fighting and belting out new music with a reformed, refreshed Garbage.

Shirley Manson is serving tea and shortbread in her small house up a winding hill in the Los Feliz neighbourhood of Los Angeles. She lives here with her second husband, Billy Bush. He’s helped produce Not Your Kind of People, the first Garbage album since 2005’s Bleed Like Me. The living room is dominated by piles of books – art, travel, novels – and heavy, comfortable furniture.

It’s a long way from Edinburgh, and even a long way from Madison, Wisconsin, the Midwestern town in which Garbage was formed by Butch Vig, Steve Marker and Duke Erikson. The three American musician-producers were a decade or so older than Manson. Vig was best known as the producer of Nirvana’s planet-shifting 1990 album Nevermind. In the mid-90s he and his old buddies had decided to form their own band. They offered Manson a job and she, at the end of her tether with a bunch of old Edinburgh musos and with nothing left to lose, said yes.

Now when we meet, Manson is staring down the barrel of band rehearsals, video shoots and photography sessions in support of Garbage’s return after a seven-year hiatus. Already there have been image worries. One stylist suggested she pose in a skirt «that practically showed my fanny!» she guffaws.

The voice and mind behind 90s alt-rock anthems «Happy When it Rains», «Stupid Girl» and «Supervixen» hates talking about individual songs, or the meaning of lyrics, or what makes this or that tune a good single. But Manson is pleased that the new album retains the sense of «childlike play» that she insisted be a prerequisite for the band’s getting back together. That sense of fun had been sorely missing by the time Garbage called it a day. Success – awards, a James Bond theme (The World is Not Enough), arena shows – had overtaken and overwhelmed the four-piece.

«It was miserable,» she recalls of the band’s last twilight. «We got engulfed. When we first started out, we were signed to an indie label. We had a lot of freedom. Then we got sold like a commodity to a record label that did not give a flying fuck about our music or our career or us as people. And it was a nightmare.

«They had all these corporate expectations about us. We didn’t care if we weren’t the biggest band in the world! But to this record label, if you’re not the biggest band in the world, then you’re worthless. I just do not adhere to that principle.» All the artists she loves, from Patti Smith to Siouxsie Sioux, «didn’t sell anything. I hate to think how much we’ve outsold a lot of the bands we love.»

Vig, Erikson and Marker, old punk hands, shared Manson’s lack of enthusiasm for commercial success. «But we got caught up in that corporate expectation, and it was sickening. It robbed us all of joy, and as a result we all turned in on each other. And our disappointments and our frustrations we foisted upon ourselves.»

Frustration, disappointment, unreasonable expectations: Shirley Manson had had her fill of that even before she left Scotland.

I first encountered her onstage at Edinburgh University’s Teviot Row Union around 1987. The 21-year-old who’d had a polite middle-class upbringing in the city’s Stockbridge area was playing keyboards with Goodbye Mr Mackenzie, a whirling tempest of red hair. She didn’t look like the kind of girl who would ever be scared or intimidated, or who – as I’d later find out – suffered from body dysmorphia, or «ugly syndrome».

«Yeah, but when I was onstage I didn’t feel scared,» she replies in a Scottish accent undimmed by two decades of absence. «That’s the perverse converse of how other people experience being onstage.»

Is that why she was gung ho about being in a band from an early age? «I wasn’t gung ho. I was just asked by the singer to join. I’d never imagined myself in a band. So the fact that I’ve had such a long career without really naturally pursuing it is really astounding. It’s taken me a long time to accept what I do for a living and actually feel like I have anything of value to add to the equation.»

In her first band she was «a completely disempowered creature. On all fronts. I was in a sexual relationship with the lead singer – right there, that’s not good. What’s the saying they have in America? Don’t cook your wiener on the company grill!» Again the big laugh. «Yeah, it was not a good scene.»

On the second-to-last occasion I saw Manson in Edinburgh, we were both in the queue at the dole office. Goodbye Mr MacKenzie had made five albums for five record labels. They had one fleeting chart hit – «The Rattler», number 37, March 1989. But all the years on the toilet-gig circuit had come to naught. It was some time around 1992 and Manson was skint and signing on. But a video of her singing on MTV had caught the attention of Vig, Marker and Erikson. And so in 1994 she left the city of her birth and set up home in the American Midwest.

Garbage took off, but at the cost of Manson’s personal life. Her marriage, to a sculptor who had remained back in Scotland, foundered. I interviewed her in Madison in 1998. It wasn’t hard to see how things might have changed for her. Garbage, by then making its second album, was already a huge band. But she was living in a hotel, by a lake, on her own, in the middle of America’s cheese country. When not touring the world, she stayed living in the hotel. It was like Alan Partridge: the Grunge Years.

«That’s the other thing that people don’t really understand,» she says. «I’d come from a city – and even though you can’t compare Edinburgh to London, it’s still an urban centre where there’s all kind of culture around you all the time. Then you go to the Midwest and there’s nothing. I don’t think a person in Britain can even conceive of what it’s like to be in what is basically the tundra. I wasn’t exposed to any art; I wasn’t exposed to anything. Everything got sucked out of me over 10 years of touring, and I had nothing left to even pull inspiration from. I barely heard other bands because it was all about my band.»

After touring for a decade, Garbage walked offstage in Perth, Australia. It wasn’t goodbye forever, but they all needed their space. Manson and Erikson in particular were at loggerheads, and Vig and Marker’s silence only compounded the situation. In late 2005 Manson moved to California with Bush, who had worked with Garbage as an engineer since the early days.

She spent time travelling in Asia. She enjoyed married domesticity. She finally got a life back, in her own place, on her terms. It wasn’t to last. When I ask why Garbage is, after all that, together again, Manson’s laugh, as is its wont, explodes from her throat. First she offers pat reasons: «Because we felt like it… Em, it’s our seven-year itch, so it seems timely and appropriate.» Then her customary candour takes over. «A lot of freaky things happened. A lot of sadness and… it was a challenging time on numerous levels.»

Back in Scotland, the husband of one of Manson’s friends had died suddenly. «It was really sad – when you see a peer of yours, who you have loved since you were 14, 15… To see her widowed, dressed in black, burying her husband with three little children round her legs – it’s really, really distressing. I mean, obviously it was her distress. But to witness that…» Manson, the middle of three daughters, was still raw from her own loss. In 2008 her mum had died. «You don’t realise at the time when somebody’s dying how stressful it is. But I was losing my memory, I couldn’t construct sentences, I couldn’t find words. It was unbelievable. I mean,» she says, «you know how close I was with my mum. And the kind of illness she had was devastating to watch. That kind of death is… hard.»

Muriel Manson had suffered from Pick’s disease, a form of dementia, «which is so rare that the doctors in Scotland had never treated a case of it before. But she recognised me right up to the last minute. So it’s not the kind of dementia that’s most commonly thought of. It’s very aggressive, and it took her out of the game in two years, which is unusually quick.»

In the midst of this upheaval, she received a call from a Hollywood TV producer whom she’d met at Gwen Stefani’s baby shower (such are the circles Manson moves in). He asked her to come in for an audition, «because we want you to play a Terminator». Manson had harboured teenage ambitions to be an actor but was rejected by the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. «I just thought the role sounded fun. And maybe if things hadn’t been so weird I would have thought about it more and not done it.»

She got the part of a businesswoman-cum-cyborg, «and it was so much fun to play something without any feeling or any emotion, just pure unadulterated power, at a time when I felt so powerless. It was a great escape.» It’s said that she based the character on Margaret Thatcher.

Manson was still trying to make music. She worked on a solo record with, among others, Paul Buchanan of the cult Glasgow group the Blue Nile. «I wanted to make a quiet record. I was so tired of all the noise and the loops and the electronics and the guitars!» Her record label had different ideas. «They wanted her to be Katy Perry or Gwen Stefani – a pop star,» says Vig. «And the songs she was writing were awesome. They were very dark, and some of them were quite introspective. She was making music that she wanted to make – and the label had no interest in that. So I think she realised that she should get back together with her bandmates.»

Manson doesn’t recall quite such a direct causal link. «The record company said something really bizarre – they wanted me to be Annie Lennox for my generation. At which point, I thought: ‘I’m fucked.’ No disrespect to Annie Lennox, because she’s amazing at what she does, but I have no interest in pursuing that kind of career at all. I got into my car and burst into tears. I thought: ‘They’re not gonna let me do what I want to do. So I may as well just give up.’ So I did. I stopped making music. And I carried on with the TV show, because they wrote me into more and more episodes.»

But again life got in the way. Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles was cancelled by the TV network. Then in 2009 a third bereavement: friends of Manson and Vig lost a child. Manson sang at the memorial, which Vig also attended. This «whole span» of death – child, adult, parent – was «unbelievably, searingly painful. It was like somebody had hit me. ‘What are you waiting for? What are you wasting energy on just trying to destroy yourself?’ You know I’m a cutter?»

I knew that Manson had contributed to a 2006 documentary, Cut: Teens and Self-Injury. But is she still a cutter? «I don’t physically cut, no, but I psychologically cut myself on a regular basis. Or at least I did up until when my mum died. I was, like: ‘Why are you attacking yourself constantly?’ It’s such a stupid waste of time. I was, like: ‘You need to sober up; you need to grow up and take responsibility.» Manson called Vig, Marker and Erikson. At their singer’s urging, the four members of Garbage made peace with each other and began work on a new album.

I meet Manson again one bright spring morning in her publicist’s west London office. She’s flown in from Berlin at the crack of dawn. She’s now in the thick of album promotion and has on her battle hair: big, coiffed, rust-red. She’s energised by the strong songs on Not Your Kind of People and by the fact that Garbage is releasing it on its own label, Stunvolume. No more corporate bullshit. And yes, they will go back on the road, but more sensibly this time. That said, she knows that once tours start, it often makes more economic sense to keep touring. «We’re not like Beyonc? – we can’t just fly in our private jets back to New York.»

And what about putting herself out there for photo shoots and styling suggestions involving clothes that barely cover her modesty – is she ready for that? As a middle-aged woman («I’m over middle-aged at this point! I’m gonna live a short life!»), is Manson thinking: ‘Should I be doing this? Can I do this?’

«Of course!» she shoots back. «It’s a real challenge. The great thing for me this time round is that a lot of the photographers I’ve been working with grew up with the band’s music. So they want to protect me. I’ve been somewhat amazed by how much they’ve taken care to ensure I’ve had a good experience.»

This time Manson is all about grown-up fun and good experiences. Did the deaths put the problems surrounding Garbage into perspective? «It’s part of it, I think,» she nods. «But it was also just a selfish streak, too. Where I became more selfish, because I was, like: my life is running out.» After seven years out of the pop race, Manson offers another metaphor of motion. «I want to get my race horses out the gate,» she says with a smile, «and I want to let them run. That’s what we were born to do.»

Garbage’s album Not Your Kind of People is released on 14 May