Strange Little Birds, the new album from Garbage, retraces the terrain of earlier albums such as Version 2.0* but is a departure in its focus on atmospheric loops and feels emotive, naked, free. It’s not over-produced, and it’s wholly befitting of Garbage’s 21-year career as a sort of musical Lazarus, resurrected from the corpse of ’90s rock. Then again, Garbage never really went away. The band, along with their peerless and outspoken singer, Shirley Manson, has maintained a staunch stronghold in the rock genre carved out with a wholly unique brand of unapologetic brilliance.
And as Garbage has matured, so, too has Shirley Manson.
So many snippets of Manson’s long career paint her as something of a warrior. Here she is sitting next to Debbie Harry in a leather-lined limousine conveyance while both appear to be giggling uncontrollably among a flash of satiny pink, striped stockings, orange silk and black rubber bracelets. Here she is, mid-performance,telling off an audience member who spit on her. Here she is grabbing her breasts brazenly and irreverently while making a fishy kissy face, disqualifying herself from being seen as a sex object. She’ssaid, “In all truth, being sexy has never been important to me. Focusing on sex appeal can be dangerous, since it’s the first thing to fade away, and I’d like to build my life on more solid ground than that.” Here she is flipping off the camera. And here she is falling off stage while continuing to sing unfazed during a May 14performance at the KROQ Weenie Roast, where she didn’t miss a single note of “Special.”
She told the UK’sDaily Record, “I’m still going strong in the music business because of my Scottish psyche. You have values instilled in you that you will cling to for the rest of your life and stick up for no matter what. Being a Scot, you don’t give a damn what other people think of you.” Manson once protected herself with the armor of a smug attitude, but today, she’s broadcasting a new wisdom: maturity begets the ability to be vulnerable. She won’t go buy a set of fake tits or participate in the Plastic Surgery Disasters of Los Angeles. And she’ll remain DIY until the day she dies, platinum albums or no.
You’ve said you’re getting back into a “beginner’s headspace” with Strange Little Birds and that you don’t have anyone to answer to. How have you embraced your creative license now that you’re self-releasing the album? It seems like you’re coloring outside the lines a bit.
I sort of felt going into making this record that I had the desire to not make any concessions. I wanted to be authentic to us as people in the world today, and it’s something to do with my age. I’m aging, and it has to do with your perspective changing as you continue to grow. You want to explore different themes. This record is so much broader in scope, and probably the most personal we’ve ever made.
Personal in what respect?
My lyrics in the past have been deliberately vague. I now have the urge to be more frank than ever. There are so many women who are aging in the media, and a lack of representation about what that means. Women are encouraged by women’s magazines to try and pass themselves off as young as possible. I wanted to represent my personal philosophy about this in the lyrics.
I’ve always appreciated your authenticity and directness, but you seem to reach a new level of intimate and vulnerable with Strange Little Birds. You live in Los Angeles, right?
I do, as well. The culture here, which I suppose is a byproduct of the film industry, is youth-obsessed. And if women are past a certain age, it’s a syndrome to embrace Plastic Surgery Disasters. Buy a new face and buy a set of tits.
Yes, this peculiar obsession with youth I find really disturbing. Youth is beautiful and must be prized when it’s natural. I understand the yearning to have it forever, but it’s important to grow up and understand that you had your time. I’ve found nothing but comfort and joy in growing older. It’s empowering and emboldening. I wish there were more women who feel the same way. I feel like the entire culture has become infantilized. Everyone wants to push their thumb in their mouth and start sucking and let someone else deal with it. Culturally we’re shaming people who are over 30.
When I see recent articles about you in the media, so much emphasis is placed on how great you look “for your age” — it’s not about your talent. It’s disconcerting.
We’re all guilty of appreciating beauty and reluctant to let our beauty diminish. But are you a good person? Are you a good friend, girlfriend, or husband? Are you great at your job? These are tangible, real things we should appreciate. Instead we’ve got an entire culture worshipping at the altar of madness.
You seem like a moral person, and have been vocal about calling out people like Kanye West. How do you endure the backlash from being so vocal and standing for your morals?
I try not to pay too much attention to how people react to me. I try to focus on what I was taught by my mother, about what is good for me in the world, and how to engineer a good life for myself and those around me. I try to speak out when I believe I have an opinion or perspective I believe needs to be heard. You need to be the change in the world you want to see. I feel that I’m fed up looking at popular culture, and the media in particular, and seeing people embodying skewed values from a very privileged position. If you’re very wealthy, you can behave any way you’d like, and there won’t be consequences that can’t be fixed by throwing money at it. When these people are encouraging the masses to behave the way they do, it’s detrimental to the majority of people’s well-being.
You were the best female Terminator ever in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Why do you think you’re cast in roles as a femme fatale?
Well she wasn’t a femme fatale, per se, but I know why I got this role: because director Josh Friedman had seen a video of me on tour where someone is spitting at me and I lose my temper, and he loved the fact that I lost my shit. I go absolutely berserk. He thought this was exciting and powerful and wanted to put that into the physical being of a machine. It was my personality in the body of a destroyer.
You were an original ‘90s icon, with manic panic pink hair. Now L’Oreal markets blue hair dye. What is it about the shocking that becomes manufactured?
I guess it gets appropriated by popular culture, and that’s totally fine in some regards. Rebellion comes from the intellect, not the clothes you’re wearing or the color you dye your hair. It’s about your spirit and about your freedom of thought. Many people look hip and are some of the most conservative people I know. I don’t pay attention to what people wear, but what they say. What people are thinking is always interesting to me.
Let’s talk about the song “Queer” back in 1995, and now. So much has changed in 20 years for LGBT and transgender normalization and rights. You’re something of a progressive icon in these communities. So often in the media, being exposed to what is “other” creates a familiarity, normalizes it, and creates social change.
I think it’s the part of the artist to breed familiarity with otherness. When people are familiar, they’re not so scary any more. As a band, without being overtly political, we tried to make statements. Having come from a club scene myself, I had so many club friends from that community and was comfortable releasing “Queer” at a time when it was shocking. We were surprised people found it shocking. We’ve seen so many changes, particularly for gays, which is beautiful to see, and long may that continue, so that someday we will see gay people treated with the same respect as heterosexuals. During band practice last week, we had a debate over whether we should honor a commitment to perform in North Carolina, and we finally decided that we would show up. By showing up, we’re showing our resistance to our opposition. With Bruce Springsteen boycotting his show in North Carolina, it was powerful: that wreaks a lot of economic havoc with politicians in that part of the country. That was effective. For smaller bands like us, you wouldn’t be hitting opponents where they hurt, so you choose your battles carefully.
You’re so well-spoken.
My father would be very happy to hear you say that. He thinks I’m a swearing hellion.
Speaking of that, your father was your Sunday school teacher, but you rebelled against organized religion at age 12. Do you remember a crucial moment that incited this rebellion?
It was a slow burn, because when I was very young I was very into God and attended all my religious classes with great enthusiasm. I won awards three times for my religious education, was always top of the class, and then the teenage hormones kicked in and I started thinking for myself and challenged him and the church. Although I respect anyone’s beliefs, I honor my rights to be able to negate them for myself.
You released Strange Little Birds on your own label, so you’re fighting the good fight DIY-style.
We decided to set up our own label. We don’t have distribution that can compete with a major record label or create content without a big record label’s bank balance.
I think we’re playing the mug’s game, but it’s better to live freely than to die in chains.