Sweet voodoo

It’s not that Shirley Manson has become calmer exactly. No. She will never be calm. «That they can’t fix, I’m afraid,» she says, with a raucous laugh. It’s just that she has put certain feelings behind her. It’s all down to her psychiatrist.«He healed me,» she says triumphantly. «It was amazing, like voodoo.» We’re backstage at the L’Elys?e-Montmartre in Paris, and the lead singer of Garbage is reflecting on the past few years. Those certain feelings she has left behind, she laid bare in public three years ago. As a result, the perception of Manson as a fragile, self-loathing depressive became every bit as familiar as that other commonly-held view of her — mentalist, loose cannon and super-vixen, sexy and scary. It’s been said before, but it bears repeating that even her name conjures up a kind of paradox: the first name, all delicate and feminine and good-ship-lollipop, followed by the surname of one of the last century’s most notorious psychopathic murderers. She is, as her band mate Duke Erikson puts it dryly, «a woman of many moods».

Whatever inner changes Manson has been through over the past few years, she certainly looks different now — more grown-up, more polished. She has lost the schoolgirl-goth make-up and the trademark, flame-coloured long hair. She now sports a punky peroxide crop. She strokes the back of her shorn head. It was her hairdresser, an «amazing Italian stallion», who came up with the idea. She says she can’t begin to describe how pleasurable it was to feel the razor go up the back of her neck and see all the hair fall on the floor. «I feel like I’ve cast something off.» And people think you’re more approachable when you’re blonde, she says, which is fine by her because, deep down, she’s a «total softie». Then again, she adds, she’ll always be a redhead inside: «You can’t obliterate that by changing your hair colour.» She feels like a «Trojan horse».

Over the past seven years, Manson, now 35, has carved herself a niche in the lineage of outrageous female icons — Patti Smith, Siouxsie Sioux, Chrissie Hynde, Courtney Love. Garbage have become one of the biggest rock acts in the world, their last two albums, the eponymous debut and the follow-up Version 2.0, selling four million copies each, garnering five Grammy nominations, and spawning a string of hit singles such as Stupid Girl, Subhuman and Only Happy When It Rains. In 1999, they were picked to come up with the title track for the Bond movie, The World Is Not Enough. Their slick, angry music has a touch of grungey American nihilism about it. Manson’s three male band mates are from Madison, Wisconsin, and one of them, Butch Vig, produced the groundbreaking Nirvana album, Nevermind. Their success has made Manson a star in the US — an indication of her mega status came last month when she posed for the cover of the massively popular American teen mag Jane, alongside P Diddy.

Garbage are playing some European dates in small venues before they embark on a world tour, and are airing songs from their third and latest album, beautifulgarbage. A second single from the album, Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go!) — inspired by the JT Leroy book, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things — is released next week. The album is a more melodic, poppy departure for the band; they seem to be going the reverse route of, for instance, Radiohead, who launched their career with concise pop songs and have become more abstract and arty over time. Manson has stamped her «many moods» on the album. Dark and angsty, then sweet and flirtatious, combining modern production with traditional songwriting, it swerves wildly from funky (the single Androgeny) to epic and Phil Spector-like (Can’t Cry These Tears Anymore), from sparse hip-hop to dreamy acoustic. It is a much more diverse record than the band has attempted before. If there is a theme for the album, Manson says, it is «re-connecting with our lives a bit more, our relationships to friends and family, and just the world that we live in. We’d been living on a bus for two years, and we’d become really isolated.»

If anyone in the band should know about isolation it must be Manson. When, in 1994, she was invited to Madison by musicians and producers Steve Marker, Duke Erikson and Butch Vig to try out some songs at their Smart Studios, it was a leap into the unknown. They were in need of a singer for their fledgling band, and had spotted her on MTV singing with her then band, the little-known Angelfish. Manson upped sticks from home in Edinburgh, her family, friends, boyfriend, thinking that she would be back in a couple of weeks. «Being the Scottish doomsayer that I am, I just assumed it would be temporary. I was just, like, ‘Goodbye honey, I’ll be back in three weeks, they won’t like me and I’ll be sacked.’ » As it turned out, she’s been away from home for nearly seven years, living in a hotel while working in the studio in Madison and touring the world — she visits Edinburgh just four times or so a year. Being away has been the downside of her time in Garbage, and not something she would recommend. It just wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t made that sacrifice. But, she adds, «Nothing comes without its payback.»

This sounds single-minded and independent, yet Manson says that she’s always thought of herself as «a scared little lamb». In fact, she says, everything she has done until now is in direct contrast to how she sees herself, or certainly the way she saw herself back then. «I had no confidence in myself as a writer, as a musician, as a woman. I was just a mess.» She laughs one of her loud, uproarious laughs: «I was quivering in my boots.»

As far as she can remember, she was reasonably confident as a young child at primary school in Edinburgh, the daughter of middle-class parents (her father is a geneticist, her mother a housewife and amateur singer), and the middle daughter of three. When she went to secondary school, she was picked on for her red hair and freckles, and called «frog eyes» — she shared her tormentors’ view that she was «ugly». The bullying lasted for only a year or so, but by then, she says, the damage was done on her psyche. «I don’t know if I ever really recovered.»

Soon, however, she developed a «confident exterior», lost interest in academia, left school, became a «party girl», and got a job on the make-up counter at Miss Selfridge. She was a difficult teenager, she says. «I didn’t kill anybody and I didn’t become addicted to any substance and I never got caught by the law, but I had my moments of wild teenage life. I think that’s your duty as a teenager.» She was still tortured by a negative image of herself, and for a while even took to intentionally harming herself, cutting her legs with a razor blade.

She was an early starter — she fell into music and was in a band, Goodbye Mr Mackenzie, by the age of 15. Before long, she was «travelling the world with a bunch of nutters». Her parents were horrified at first — her father had wanted her to go to university, preferably to study medicine. But they soon came around to the idea (now when the band play gigs in Scotland, she can see her father in the crowd, «punching the air with his fist», Manson says with a fond laugh). But she always felt «incomplete», she says, because she was not being creative. «I sang what I was told to sing.» When the chance came with Garbage to play an active role in writing, she was delighted — she found it «empowering». She got married in 1996, to her sculptor boyfriend, Eddie Farrell, who loyally kept the home fires burning in Edinburgh while she pursued her career in Madison and on the road.

Not that everything went swimmingly. There was an operation to remove a lump from her breast (which turned out to be benign). And despite selling eight million or so albums, and appearing on the covers of numerous magazines, she was still tortured by her own self-image. It wasn’t that she was actually harming herself as she had done in her teenage years, but that she could «feel that compulsion sneaking back in», she says.»So I sought help, before I pulled a Mariah Carey.» Consulting a psychiatrist was the best thing she’s ever done in her life. «It was fascinating and mind-expanding, quite literally.» She says it gave her a deeper understanding not just of her own idiosyncrasies and foibles, but of other people, too, and it has made her more tolerant. She compares the effect of the psychiatric sessions to the feeling you get when you’ve tidied your drawers and cupboards «and everything’s just that wee bit sweeter, and you think, ‘Oh, I can go and sit on the couch now and drink some tea and watch the telly.'»

In 1999, she took a modelling job for a Calvin Klein advertising campaign. It was the first time she had posed without make-up, and it was a turning point for her. She looked beautiful. «It was the beginning of my life right there,» she has said. How so? «Well, I was being slightly tongue-in-cheek when I said that, but I did feel that it was like getting re-attached to my shadow.» It marked a point, along with the therapy, where she could come to terms with her «physicality». «I felt like I had nothing left to hide.» She says that she never wanted to be famous, and fell into music «by default». But she also says that everyone who does what she does is racked with insecurity.

Still, it must be a good feeling, when people love your music and buy your records? «Oh, it’s amazing, of course, but it’s not necessarily healthy to create that kind of response, because when and if it falls to pieces, which it inevitably will, where will you be? I just think every celebrity is pathetic,» she says with a burst of laughter. «That doesn’t mean they’re not good, smart, funny, creative people; I’m not diminishing celebrities per se. I’m just saying they’re all sick.»

It’s one of the inconsistencies about Manson that, despite her long-held self-consciousness about her looks, she is for the most part «totally unaware» of her own fame. «I’ve always been a loud-mouth show-off party girl, so people looked at me when I walked into a club when I was 15 years old and I’d never been in the papers. I’m a scene stealer, and I’ve always been a scene stealer.» She claims not to give a «rat’s arse» what is said or written about her. She did some acting when she was younger, which accustomed her to the limelight, and her trajectory was slow — success came to her at the age of 28, after 13-odd years in the music biz. So the idea of being in a band didn’t turn her head, she says. «Had success come for me when I was 18 years old, I’d either be in jail or in a lunatic asylum.»

She has a few celebrity pals herself (Bono, Kylie), and admits to being impressed by certain people «whose charisma is so powerful that the room changes when they walk in». She’ll never forget the moment she met Madonna, she says, when the singer came backstage after a Garbage gig. «Everything was kind of in soft focus and slow motion, and everybody else sort of moved into the background and she was in the forefront almost floating.» And she’s friendly with Courtney Love. «I just love people who are prepared to go up against the grain. She comes from the old guard, she’s the last soldier standing in terms of female rock stardom. No one can touch her in terms of articulating pain and rage.» On the whole, though, she’s not much of a «butterfly», and finds that most famous people are «like me, usually rather pathetic and dull».

Then there are those for whom she reserves particular venom. She has said that the Spice Girls should be «tarred and feathered», and that she would like to punch Jennifer Lopez in the face — a comment she doesn’t wish to dwell on, but doesn’t rush to retract, either. «I’ve met bigger celebrities who conduct themselves with a lot more dignity and grace than she seems capable of. She’s an incredible entertainer, she’s just very vacuous. She’s perfectly happy to be on the front cover of magazines with little to offer except her body. That’s her choice.»

On the other hand, she herself has a risqu? flamboyance and ladette exhibitionism which her fans adore — she pouts beautifully for the camera, and she famously shared the revelation that the colour of her guitar matched her pubic hair.

She’s had a lot more male attention since she went blonde, she says, and gets asked out more. It is another of the contradictions about Manson that she seems both to want to be seen as beautiful, and to be repelled and embarrassed by such attention. Men are intimidated by her, she says. «Any woman who actually speaks her mind and refuses to be pacified by vaguely suggestive comments about their appearance, I think they find that frightening. Men are terrified of the power that women hold within them, because women give life and men don’t, and men have managed to cultivate a society based on the emphasis on female appearance, and, as we all know, women can’t hold on to their physical appearance or beauty for that long.» But the thing is, she says, she loves men. «I can’t live without them, but I don’t think they’re perfect and they need to learn from women in the same way that women need to learn from men.»

She remembers becoming interested in boys as a teenager «in a non-polarised way. I liked their energy.» But there was no memorable, dramatic first-love epiphany. «I think I probably only really fell in love with my husband at the age of 25 or 26. I don’t fall in love very easily.» It must have made the past 10 years easier, having the stability of a marriage.»Being able to concentrate on making records without worrying if my partner’s screwing around is an amazing gift to be given by anybody. I don’t think you can underestimate that kind of support in your life ever.» She says she’s seen far too many people’s «energy being squandered over a hopeless-case partnership».

Manson is reputed to have a fierce temper, and although she has learnt to be more tolerant in recent years, she says she still considers anger to be «imperative to existence». She knows how to stand up for herself: «If someone fucks with me, I’m going to wipe the floor with them, I will definitely put them in their place. I don’t think that’s being rude, I think that’s setting my boundaries and protecting my own sanity.»

Control is something she «wrestles with». She never gets really drunk any more. «I can’t go there, I can’t lose control that way any more. I used to do it all the time.» These days, she says, she doesn’t want to have to deal with the repercussions, «physically or emotionally». She still gets to behave pretty much how she wants, she says. The rock’n’roll existence is a flexible one, after all, mostly to do with «having fun».

Erikson, the bassist, and guitarist Marker are warm, friendly, solid-seeming men (Vig, the drummer, is off sick today). They seem happy taking a back seat. Manson is known among the band as «the Queen». The 50-year-old Erikson describes their singer’s outspokenness and volatility not just as personality traits but as «a talent — and she’s learning more and more how to use it». She and Erikson have come «head to head» in arguments a few times, but he says that’s «healthy», and when it came to making this last album, Manson’s increasing ability to improvise and «spew forth» helped make the record more spontaneous than its two predecessors. A lot of the songs are about «people losing their centre, and the search for it». He considers it to be an «uplifting» record.

The common ground for the four musicians was their passion for the music of the late 1970s and early 1980s — The Ramones, The Clash, Blondie, Siouxsie And The Banshees, Joy Division, New Order. «It was about a sense of not really fitting in,» says 42-year-old Marker. «We still feel like that.» When the band go to some big industry event, an MTV party, say, he says that the four of them usually end up standing in a corner talking to each other. «Like the guys who can’t get anyone to dance with them,» he says, laughing. «I think a lot of people can relate to that.» He says that Vig’s previous work with Nirvana was a good preparation for Garbage. «Butch learned an awful lot. He’s good at the psychological aspect of dealing with weird, fucked-up people, working with Kurt Cobain and Billy Corgan [of The Smashing Pumpkins], he had to become like a psychologist just to get those records done. He’s a mediator. I’m sure that’s had something to do with how we’ve stayed together.»

In the balcony of the venue, the «meet and greet» is getting under way. Gathered together are various music industry types and a gaggle of wide-eyed French teenage competition winners. Manson is good at this. She moves among her fans easily. Back in the dressing room, Manson says it’s «weird, of course», meeting fans who are so awed by her, but she used to be the same with her favourite bands — she even had a scrapbook dedicated to the tennis player John McEnroe. She says she particularly loves meeting teenagers, because they’re «still pure», haven’t yet been «demolished», and «don’t realise how powerful they are».

She would like to have kids of her own. «It would be a relief to actually start thinking about someone other than myself.» But she sometimes worries about bringing a child into this world «to be blown out of the skies or poisoned by bio-terrorism». There are other ambitions — she would like to act, on stage, rather than on film. And she says that she will always have a home in Scotland, and pay her taxes there. Along with Texas, she’s her country’s biggest musical export — Garbage even played at the opening of the Scottish parliament. Her Scottishness shapes her, she says. She loves the fact that it is «at heart» a socialist country, that the people are «peace-loving» and «pulling for each other», and she loves the climate. «It really suits my skin. I love the greyness and the dampness. The cold feels right to me.»

The show is greeted with a rapturous response. Manson stomps around on stage in her boots and braces, moving like a shadow boxer, and whipping the crowd up into a frenzy of excitement. She’s a powerful performer, even more so in her more fragile moments, when she is singing those softer Garbage songs. After the show, the mood backstage is celebratory. Manson seems happy enough. She recalls something someone said to her recently — that Garbage’s music sounds like «happiness for unhappy people». She thought that was appropriate. «Intrinsically, I think we’re all melancholy, and I think millions of people the world over feel that way,» she says. «At least, I think so. I hope I’m not the only one.» She pauses for a moment, then bursts into one of her filthy, raucous laughs