story / LOGAN BRENDT
photography / FRANK W. OCKENFELS
stylist / MARJAN MALAKPOUR @ WWW.MARGARETMALDONADO.COM
assistant stylists / MARNIKA WEISS + BEAU BARELA
makeup / DONALD SIMROCK @ MARGARET MALDONADO
hair / CLYDE HAYGOOD @ MARGARET MALDONADO USING MOROCCAN OIL
Shot @ MILK STUDIOS, LOS ANGELES
“It was extraordinarily surreal and really frightening familiar, like seven years hadn’t passed at all,” Shirley Manson says in review of Garbage’s show the night before, their first show in that many years. As she sits in the makeup chair at Milk Studios in Los Angeles, hair flowing down and almost makeup-less face glowing, Manson confesses she had doubts about being able to remember how to perform at all. The feeling quickly passed as soon as she was up on the Bootleg Theater stage.
Manson is a consummate professional. With seventeen years of experience as the lead singer in Garbage, plus years in bands prior to that, she definitely knows what she’s doing. When you watch her perform, you’re mesmerized at the beauty and strength. She brings enormous fascination to the band with her lush voice, thought-provoking and personal lyrics, and unique aesthetic style. With the rest of the band comprised of immensely successful musicians and producers like Butch Vig, Duke Erikson, and Steve Marker, it’s no wonder that Garbage has become as successful as they have.
After a seven year hiatus, it was challenging to get started all over again. “When a band [takes a year off], there’s this kind of crazy momentum that occurs that keeps the ball rolling,” Manson says. “For us, we took so much time off that we had no momentum. It’s sort of like the laws of inertia. It takes a phenomenal amount of force to get the ball rolling again.”
You’d think with all the hard work they’ve done to achieve the end results of Not Your Kind of People, Garbage would celebrate. But they don’t. Manson says, “We watch other bands do that sort of stuff: throw big parties and invite famous people. But for some reason we never get to the point where we feel like we’re done. There’s always something else that needs to happen.” That something else is usually promotion, photo shoots, tours, and interviews like this. It can be difficult and tiring, but Manson handles the role well.
Because Manson’s voice is in top form on this album, I ask what she’s been doing to maintain its luster. “Nothing,” she replies. “It’s weird to have spent my whole life as a singer, since I don’t think of myself as one.” She doesn’t do vocal exercises or anything else to strengthen her voice. She also won’t be able to tell you if she agrees with others who consider her a contralto. Manson was a soprano when she was a child singing in the choir, but she never adjusted the title placed over her. “I don’t think I’m a soprano. I don’t know what the hell I am,” she smiles.
Manson’s into alternative female voices, personal influences like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Cocteau Twins, and Patti Smith. These are the records she went back and listened to before recording the album, the voices that inspired her to be an artist. “There’s a lot of pressure I think for women right now to take the easy road out and make pop records, and dance as fast as they can, and look pretty and be young, be this and be that. It’s just at odds with who I am. I got to the point where I felt a little isolated, like, ‘Is there nobody else out there that feels like I do? Sick of all this kind of stuff?’ So that’s why I went back to touch the stone.”
When Garbage first began in 1995, it was a great time for alternative music. “I was lucky. I rode that wave. I think it’s really, really hard now for women with an alternative voice to be heard. It’s almost impossible,” she says. Manson is a big believer in female empowerment and she’s not just frustrated with the music industry, but with culture as a whole. “It’s what I call the Mad Men culture, where women are expected to be perfect. I just find it really a little dull after a while, and really uninspiring, because I want to see a little mess. I want to hear the truth about something. I think as human beings, we’re really messy.”
Ironically, part of Manson’s messiness is her non-messiness. As a true Virgo, she says, “I’m very controlling. I’m a neat freak.” Even though it’s at odds with her visual aesthetic of liking homes that are very arty and bohemian, she says it’s not her. “I pick things up and tidy them away all the time. My mum grew up in an orphanage, so she was really disciplined. She just taught me to be really disciplined in that way. My house is very neat. I’d love to be messy. I love going into homes that are all sprawling with life. I want that, but I can’t live in it.”
For Not Your Kind of People, Manson was inspired visually, as music is inspired by all the senses. Surrealism has been big for her recently, and you can see it in their music video for “Blood For Poppies”, their first single off the album. There’s a strong reference to the 1929 silent surrealist film Un Chien Andalou, not to mention the surrealist influences in our photo shoot where Manson collaborated with famed photographer and friend Frank Ockenfels. Manson’s visual aesthetic, including photos and music videos, is very much a collaborative effort and not manufactured. As a female lead singer, she just doesn’t want to be a fashion model in photos. She has ideas that she wants to express and artistic avenues she wants to explore, and is very devoted to these sorts of things when she is able to create.
Some of her visual influences while writing these new songs were artists like Louise Bourgeois, Tracey Emin, Francesca Woodman, and many other female surrealists. “I got like really dangerously obsessed with Louise Bourgeois,” she says. When Manson was in London years ago and was looking for something to do one day, she and her good friend Sophie Muller (who directed many of Garbage’s music videos), stumbled upon the work of Louise Bourgeois at the Tate Modern. “We [also] traveled to Paris to see the retrospective there, and we saw it in New York. Like total weirdo fan girls,” she laughs. “At the time, Louise was ninety-six years old (she has since died) and still making art. She held salons at her New York apartment, bringing in new artists and discussing her work and being really generous. She just totally changed my whole outlook on what it means to be creative and what it means to take chances, and age, and be human, and be real.”
When Manson is asked if she ever gets uncomfortable or feels pressure when someone says that they admire what she does, or thinks of her as their idol, she replies, “I think when I was younger and that would happen, I’d feel unworthy of that kind of comment.” As she has had a lot of time to reflect on the music she created with Garbage and everything they’ve done in their long career, she realizes that these compliments are a huge privilege. “It’s enormously flattering when somebody says, ‘You’ve touched my life,’ because I know what it was like for my idols.” Her voice grows softer and more sentimental. “My idols touched my life.” She continues, “At the risk of sounding like a crazy person, I love it. I can’t get enough if it,” she says, laughing. “It means a lot to think that maybe something you said or a song you wrote brought comfort or inspired somebody. That is amazing.” She agrees that the relationship with one’s idol is a weird one. With a smile, she says, “You’re talking to somebody who, when I met some of my idols, burst into tears. I really lost my shit and cried when I met Patti Smith.”
Asked for her best piece of career and life advice, Manson feels that people, and young women in general need to learn how not to be discouraged so easily. “They try something and they get a knock and then they just let that define them forevermore. They don’t want to take another hit so they just stop chasing their dreams, and they make do with boyfriends that they’re not really in love with. I think you just have to get to the point where you get hit and you stand back up. You just keep doing that. [Even if] you take a lot of hits and you’re like, ‘I’m still not where I want to be and I’ve still not got the life I want,’ well, then you just have to keep trying.”
With the new songs on Not Your Kind of People, Manson reflects on what experiences from the past seven years inspired them. One of the major turning points was the death of her mother. Manson stopped wanting to make music after her mother died because she no longer saw the point in it. “My success was way more fun for my mum in some ways than it was for me. My mum was so proud. So, not to have that around— I just felt that there was no point in me pursuing anything like that anymore,” she says. It took about two and a half years for Manson to get back to the original reason she wanted to make music, be creative, take risks, and put herself out there, which in the end she felt was constructive for her. She adds, “To lose someone you really, really love is really, really painful, but can also in a strange and unexpected way be empowering.”
As I wonder if this somehow strengthened or destroyed any sort of spirituality she had, she confesses, “If anything, it just reaffirmed my beliefs of nonbelief. But it strengthened my resolve as a person. As an adult, I sort of realized that I had to take responsibility for my own life, be a grown-up, and really enjoy my life and not feel guilty about that.”