“I get irritated by everyone talking about a safe space. Like... the world is a fucking hell hole. It's filled with danger, filled with aggression and fury. At no point do I think you should feel that you are so privileged as a human being that you deserve safety.”
Of all the possible approaches to empowerment, Shirley Manson — now decades deep into her career as Garbage’s frontwoman — favours tough love. Her words might seem polemic, if not cushioned by a lot of self-awareness, and the treacly Edinburgh accent she’s retained despite her years living in LA. “I'm not saying be cruel to yourself,” she offers, for clarification. “...but for fucks sake, how about you care a little more about other people before you worry too much about yourself? I would like to see more care of others, and less of the ‘self care’ that's currently pushed on us from every magazine and podcast.”
Manson’s frank realism gets an airing on her band’s seventh studio album, No Gods No Masters. The opener “The Men Who Rule the World”, paints a seeping portrait of a society crushed under patriarchy and capitalism, and a number of tracks continue Manson’s long-held tradition of religious skepticism. “Waiting for God” in particular — hymn-like but industrial, with shades of Depeche Mode’s Songs of Faith and Devotion — highlights the challenge of believing in any higher power when Black boys are routinely shot in the street.
It is not a political record, though, as Manson is keen point out. “To be honest, I hate the word,” she says, gently. “Because I think it's a question of human decency, having compassion and empathy. Like, I don't give a fuck about any political party. I really don't. I'm suspicious of them all. I just have a human interest in seeking respect for others and animals of the earth. And I don't think that's political.”
“But hey, I realise that I'm also a very, you know, unrealistic, idealistic artist. I understand that what I want isn't necessarily compatible with human nature. But these are the things I hope for. And I think as you get older, you have to hope, otherwise you do give in. You just go and sit on your couch and give up on yourself and give up on the world. And I don't want to do that. I want to stay engaged.”
The thread running through Manson’s work, her opinions, and even our conversation, is how thin the membrane between her and the outside world really is. She’s used to being told off for being “too sensitive”, but describes it as her superpower. She is also an intensely available person — swearing like a football manager; slipping easily into intimate discussions of sex and self-perception; diluting the glamorous image of her lounging in her Hollywood home by revealing that she’s still in bed and a bit of a state. Having spent decades in the public eye, she’s sharply aware that being this herself is a risk, even more so when it comes to the press.
“It's funny, because sometimes I'll be doing interviews, and I'll hear a line that comes out of my mind. And I'll think ‘They're gonna pick this one line and they're gonna use that as their headline’”. Regrettably, she’s usually right. “The thing is, you can say 1,000,001 things that are good or kind or revelatory, but they'll pick this one thing that could be taken the wrong way and Bob’s your uncle, boom, there it is.”
Case in point: a paper last year tried to tarnish Manson by running with the headline: “Edinburgh born Shirley Manson brands the city 'bland and pale' compared to LA”. It was … technically true, but had the effect of framing her— a vocal champion of her home country — as a prissy expatriate. She says she’s glad to have the space to talk about it: “It really upset me when that piece ran. And, of course, it was the wrong choice of words. Because I did mean in contrast to LA, which is a very violent city. You know, I've seen more violence in the 10 years of living here than I ever did in my entire life...
“And so, by comparison, yes, Scotland feels very gentle and mellow. But you know, when you're talking all day long, sometimes you get tired and carelessly use one word, and then when you see it in print, you're horrified. You're like, ‘Oh, my God, I can't believe I called my beautiful homeland dull!’ Because that's not how I perceive Scotland at all. That’s the absolute opposite of the truth.”
"The anonymity of social media allows cruelty and destruction and a kind of social power that, previously, we’ve never really enjoyed. It's literally the equivalent of somebody kicking someone or stoning someone in the street."
Censoring herself, of course, would be very off-brand. As we talk, Manson makes a number of allusions to cancel culture, and the difficulty she has with the idea of scrutinising someone’s every word. “It's silly and ruthless and so unforgiving,” she says, exasperated. “When I am clumsy and that poor choice of words comes tumbling out, of course I regret it. But people just can't wait to punish you for it. And I don't think it's a very wise way for us to move through the world in relation to other people.”
Where does she think this culture has erupted from? Like everything, she says, it’s a grasp for power. “I think the anonymity of social media allows cruelty and destruction and a kind of social power that, previously, we’ve never really enjoyed. It's literally the equivalent of somebody kicking someone or stoning someone in the street. It's the same mentality: stones, one by one, accumulated over time to bring someone down to their knees.”
Out of context, it would be easy to lump Manson in with a myriad of Gen X-ers defending the right to say genuinely shitty things — but her views on bigotry are unambiguous, and she understands how seductive power can be when you’ve been denied it for so long. It’s the idea of striving for any kind of perfection that sits uneasily with her, not just in speech, but in everything. “Mistakes are part of being a human being. Not one single person on this Earth is perfect. And they may pretend to be and they may pull it off… but I think it ultimately damages the self, you know. If you're so intolerant of other people, then how cruel have you been to yourself?”
In the late nineties and early noughties, Manson’s embrace of her own perceived imperfections was what found her plastered across the bedroom walls of disaffected teenagers. Her alienesque features, alabaster skin and blaze of ginger hair always have been undeniably beautiful, even if they did garner her the wrong kind of attention in her youth. But she stood — still stands — against the idea of conventional attractiveness. Now, at 54, Manson speaks honestly about how a different kind of standard — one in which youth is coveted above all else — impacts on her feelings about her body and sexuality.
“Mercifully, those bizarre, stereotypical gender roles [that I grew up with] are getting destroyed as we speak, which is marvelous. But I think a hangover is still present, that women over 30 — or the minute they get their first wrinkle — are somehow over the hill. The sexuality of a human being shifts and shapes and changes and grows as you continue to get older. And when I feel down, or sad, going ‘Oh, my body isn’t as beautiful as it once was’, my first thought is that … well, I never thought it was beautiful in the first place! So why am I holding onto that notion? It’s ludicrous.
“Sexuality is something different from public perception, if that makes any sense... real sexuality.” Manson comments on how often she meets someone who has an elusive spark or flame about them that overcomes any perceived flaw or age-related barrier. “And I think, well, if I see that in older people, there's millions of others who must feel that way.”
Sex crops up on the record too, and not just in Manson’s trademark teasing delivery. Ever since Garbage’s inception, she’s often returned to the pairing of the desperate boy and the steely-eyed siren waiting to lure him to his demise. On their debut, self-titled album, she often played the latter role herself, turning on its head the expectation that a woman's sexuality should be passive and non-threatening. On “Anonymous (XXX)” — track seven on the new album — Manson’s antihero is a man who escapes into the bodies of unnamed women. Although she narrates the song from his perspective, you can hear that familiar streak of pity in her lyrics (“She takes her clothes off / You start to cry / You think you’ve found a way to change your life.”)
“It’s something that I see play out all the time,” she says, when I ask her about the track’s backstory. “There's a lot of pain that comes from being young and being risky, and doing wild things. And then as you get older, you realise that people continue to take risks and do destructive things. Especially at my age where people start, you know, acting out on their marriages and their children. They have a midlife crisis, they're suddenly trapped in a life that perhaps they're not feeling fulfilled in. And one particular partner totally destroys their life because of an imaginary future or a temptation.”
“People feel unhappy and think that somehow they're going to find the answer to that in the body of someone else. Or in gambling, or in drugs or alcohol, or... there's a litany of escapes from our reality that we can indulge in. So the song is about that kind of destructive compulsion. Of course, as you get older, you realise you can often just move from one fantasy to the next. Then the minute the fantasy becomes a reality, it loses its power and people drift off to something, or to someone, else again. It's a cycle of destruction.”
Surely that kind of sexual behaviour is an addiction of sorts, I offer. Manson agrees: that sex is so rarely just about the act, but what it symbolises — validation, power, loss of control. “It's not just the desire to have an incredible physical experience, it's something way more than that. Way more complicated. Because sex by itself is rudimentary, right? It's ... rudimentary physical exercise.” She laughs, and gives a comedically-timed sigh.
Between its Godless depictions of modern life, and the throbbing scuzz of its score, No Gods No Masters sounds like a baring of teeth. But is it an angry record? Manson says no. “I think it's an indignant record. No doubt about that.” She’s quick to reference the discourse again, stating that dissent or disagreement is often framed wrongly as anger to shut down debate. “Because people don't want to engage, I think. Because then they’d be forced to answer certain questions that perhaps they haven't thought about, perhaps they don't care about...”
Her relationship with anger —like that with her body — has shifted with age. Now, she has less fury, more hardened resolve. “I'm fed up being told things are a certain way, when I can see they're not. And I'm confident enough. I'm confident enough to say ‘No, you're telling me this is this, but actually, that's not what you're selling me’. Confrontation is necessary in order to move the dial forwards. We have to engage in dialogue. We can't just keep pretending things don't exist…”
“I walk down the street and I see homeless people forgotten about by the State, by other members of society. People who are just ambivalent to the fact that there are human beings literally being stepped over on the sidewalk. When I see young Black men getting beaten to death by police, with no accountability. Again, there’s just this bizarre ambivalence. The list is endless... I could go on and on and on.”
There’s that sensitivity again. It’s clear that, even though she loves living in LA, Manson finds the violence of the city trying. There was a point last year when things were particularly bad — the lockdown hit her neighborhood hard, and the combination of blooming tent cities, streets set to boil over, and looming police helicopters sent her “kind of crazy”.
“And then finally, of course, we had an earthquake. I sat up in bed and shouted to my husband, ‘I have fucking had enough and I want to go home!’” she yells, laughing. Manson is cognizant enough not to centre herself in the fraught politics or economic crisis of her current city, but admits she experienced a flood of relief returning home to Scotland for Christmas. “Scotland was really calm, you know. And I realised that the contrast between the two cities was quite immense.”
I tease that, despite her reluctance, Manson does — perhaps — have a few safe spaces. And when she can’t be reunited with her homeland, her elderly rescue dog, Veela, is another reliable resource. “You fall in love with an animal deeply. My dog, I think she's in the last stages of her life. And learning from her and watching her and loving her is just this enormous privilege, and brings me great peace. For all manner of reasons. But like, I'm looking at her right now: she's curled up against me and her little chest is going up and down.” She sighs. “It's like… looking at God.”