Alt-Rock Goddess Shirley Manson Gave Us Her Pearls of Wisdom

    Just in time for Garbage’s sixth album release

    by · June 08, 2016

    Photographed by Felisha Tolentino. Styled by Marjan Malakpour.

    The following feature appears in the June/July issue of NYLON.

    I’m riding through Los Angeles with Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson, heading north toward Griffith Park for her photo shoot—a location Manson handpicked—specifically, the caves featured in the old Batman TV series. She’s wearing a white lace Valentino dress and patent leather white boots, a look that complements her faded pastel pink hair. We park the car and she heads to the opening of the cave, posing for the photographer like a white witch plucked from a dystopian fairy tale. Rocks begin to cascade off the cliff and tumble toward her, to which Manson shouts, “She died for rock ’n’ roll!”

    Before I have time to process the magnitude of this moment—sharing space with the woman who basically soundtracked my pre-tween existence, from the Garbage songs featured on Daria, The X-Files, and Goosebumps to a decade of playing Version 2.0 on repeat—I’m sitting next to Manson on a couch inside her L.A. home. Books are stacked from floor to ceiling, bundles of sage rest comfortably on her coffee table. I’m hypnotized by Manson’s brilliant takes on everything from contemporary feminism to the inspiration behind Strange Little Birds, Garbage’s excellent sixth studio album, out June 10 on Stunvolume, the band’s own label. Perhaps the thing I’m most unprepared for is Manson’s laugh. It’s loud and infectious and follows almost every sentence she utters, serving as a sweet buffer between each pearl of heavy, honest, hard-earned wisdom. She’s well aware of her own strength, intelligence, weirdness, darkness, and humor, but she’s also aware that she hasn’t always been this way. And she knows that that’s okay, too.

    Click through the gallery to read the rest of the feature.

    Photographed by Felisha Tolentino. Styled by Marjan Malakpour.

    What inspired you to start playing music?

    I played the violin at age eight and piano shortly thereafter, and I studied clarinet in high school and sang in the school choir. My mother was a big band singer, and my sisters and I listened to musical theater—The Sound of Music, Cabaret, Oklahoma, things like that. After discovering my mom’s record collection I began listening to Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, and Sarah Vaughan. And then the hormones hit, and I was hanging out with some older boys who introduced me to the Clash, Adam and the Ants, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. That’s when the idea of rebellious music really kicked in for me.

    Garbage just celebrated its 20th anniversary. Does that seem crazy to you?

    I didn’t think we would ever get to this point. This last year has almost been like the beginning of the band for me because I realize how fucking lucky we are. I’m among a handful of women who have been able to enjoy a career in alternative rock music. I played in two bands before joining Garbage and I remember thinking if I could just have one single on the radio that would be amazing. If I could just have a career like Echo and the Bunnymen that would be even more amazing. To sit back and look at the career that we’ve had is fucking surreal.

    Was it hard for you being the only girl in the band?

    It’s difficult sometimes to distinguish what is just a normal difficulty as a musician, because, make no mistake, to be a musician is challenging for a lot of reasons, not least of which because it’s competitive. You go up against the wall all day long, and it’s tough for everyone, men and women. But unfortunately there is an incredibly sexist patriarchal system in place in the industry. I’ve never really felt discriminated against by another musician, but I definitely have within the business, which has been difficult to stomach but not so difficult to counter. If you recognize it for what it is, you can fight it.

    In light of Kesha’s recent lawsuit and the allegations against music publicist Heathcliff Berru, it seems as though women are speaking out more now, thanks in part to social media.

    It’s a different climate now. The glorious thing that my peers and I enjoyed was that for a brief moment, alternative music ruled the roost. If you weren’t alternative, you weren’t getting played on radio. You weren’t getting on the front cover of magazines. It was us bitches who were. And women were taking the game to their male counterparts and expecting to be treated as equals. It was a different time, and that’s apparent when you look at all of these summer festivals—where are all the women on the bill? And it’s not because women aren’t making music. It’s not because there aren’t great bands out there. It’s because they are not being given the opportunity. In the ’90s, if anyone asked female musicians if we were feminists, we’d be like, “Yeah, we’re fucking feminists!” We all had different styles, but we were all very vocal and we pushed.

    Was your generation’s feminism more aggressive?

    There is a problem in equating feminism with aggression, and I think a lot of young girls as a result wanted to distance themselves from being mistaken for being man-hating women. The most important message we can impart is that feminism is about equality—nothing more and nothing less. It has nothing to do with how you interact with other women. It has nothing to do with how you interact with men. All it means is that you believe in the idea of equality between men and women. I really hope that young women understand that. It’s important for all of us to stand together and galvanize and demand equality, because without that, we’re never going to secure it.

    What can young girls do now?

    They should believe that they are as worthy as anybody else—they’re as smart, brilliant, creative, resourceful, and they have everything they need. I think a lot of women grow up feeling like they don’t have what they need to flourish. They’re scared to fail. And yes, you will fail. So what? You stand back up and fail again and keep trying until you get the job or the life you need. Failure is a part of life, and without it you’ll never succeed. You build your arsenal by experience, by standing back up to take another hit. I wish I had known that more in my own life. Instead, I just sat there looking at everybody else—she’s this, she’s that, she comes from money, she’s beautiful, she’s a great athlete. Eventually I did make whatever small gifts I have work for me, but I think most women feel that they are not good enough, and my point is you are. Just fucking go work it.

    What advice do you have for young female musicians?

    I’m wary of giving advice to other musicians because the choices I make might be right for me but aren’t necessarily right for everybody—but ultimately I believe that you have to be prepared to stand by your guns and be your messy, flawed, fucked-up authentic self. It’s taken me 20 years to figure out that the best version of myself is just me. It sounds incredibly simplistic, but it’s not. I would also tell them to have something to say. Don’t just stand up there and look pretty. It’s not enough. The media will tell you that it’s enough, but being pretty means fuck all long-term. You have to be prepared to work hard, sacrifice, be competitive, and be ambitious. There are millions of people wanting to do what we do, and somehow you have to find a way to stand out. The best way to do that is to be your authentic self, because that’s what makes you unique.

    Who do you think is doing a good job of that right now?

    The one who comes right to mind is Grimes. She, to me, is the greatest example of a new generation doing something that none of my peers did. I look at her and really believe that she’s a bona fide original. She writes and produces all of her own material. She’s a force to be reckoned with. She’s not just standing up there looking cute, or knowing the right people. There’s a lot of that right now, particularly on social media. There’s a lot of posturing and “Look at my cool lifestyle!” and “Look how beautiful I am” and “Look how outrageous I am!” And that’s all very well and good, honey, but where’s your music? Produce something. Do the work.

    Do you think social media is a blessing or a curse?

    Social media has put a pressure on women that my generation did not have to endure. So much is made of your appearance, of your popularity, and I feel really passionate about being a voice out there that is the opposite of what we’re being told by the media—that taking our clothes off on social media is empowering. By no means is that an empowering act. Now I’m not saying that you cannot enjoy your naked body—you absolutely should! And if you want to put yourself on social media in the nude, so be it. But be aware that there will be consequences. Doors will not open for you like they have for the celebrities who’ve done it. It’s sad. I wish women could walk down the street naked and never be under threat, but it’s highly unlikely that will ever happen. A woman’s sexuality is really powerful. There’s a reason why the patriarchal system tries to manipulate that power, and right now, they’re winning. Women are objectifying themselves—they’re turning themselves into objects and believing they are empowered because they get a million likes. It’s like, of course another man or woman wants to look at a beautiful woman’s naked body. So fucking what? You’re not an object, but if society sees you as an object, they will treat you as an object.

    Are you active on social media?

    My management is always encouraging me to do so because they think if you don’t, you’ll drown in the deluge. I do a limited amount, which, to be honest, I find quite pleasurable. I’m a real Instagram whore. I love how you can see these incredible pieces in the Tate or in the atelier of some incredible designer. Instagram, I love. I tried Snapchat once and it’s not for me. There has to be some playground for the youth where adults don’t come in and pretend they’re super cool and spew all over it. If I was young and I saw adults using Snapchat I would be like, “I am so done with Snapchat.” [Laughs]

    What were you listening to while making the new album?

    We listened to a lot of old records, actually. There is a dearth of rock bands in the world right now and it’s very hard to find those “dark shadow sounds” we like. Our culture has gotten very shiny and bright. You switch on the radio and it’s happy and pop-oriented, but we’re lovers of sadness, darkness, and melancholia. We wanted to make a dark, guitar-driven record. If you’re looking to cheer yourself up with some shiny pop music, don’t come knocking on our door. But if you want to hear what it’s like to struggle as a human being in this very weird, chaotic world we’re all living in now, then you’ll hear it in our record. We always find solace in sadness.

    Photographed by Felisha Tolentino. Styled by Marjan Malakpour.

    When Garbage started, you became such an icon in fashion and beauty with your fun outfits and bright red hair.

    When we came up, all of the alt-girls were wearing jeans, plaid shirts, and combat boots. And I was like, “How do I stick out here?” I was a club girl at the time and neon was just a big part of the whole scene. I had a neon pink dress and it was so shocking. It looks so innocuous now—it was just a pink minidress, but it was the complete opposite of what all of the alt-girls were doing, and I stuck out as a result. I think that is what true rebellion is about. It’s not wearing the uniform of the rebellious.

    What designers are you loving right now?

    I love so many! There’s a Scottish line called Le Kilt—I always think of kilts as punk rock. I love Peter Jensen. Of course I love Valentino because every piece is divine. I think Gucci right now, this season, is insane. Miuccia Prada is a genius. You know, the list goes on. I love Acne. I love Proenza Schouler. But I also love going into Forever 21, Topshop, and H&M.

    How about vintage shopping?

    I don’t have much patience for vintage shopping, but when I do it I’m always wondering why I don’t do it more. I have to confess that I’m obsessed with

    What’s that?

    Just know before I go forward that I’ve ruined your life. has incredible vintage items available online, and I’ll tell you who turned me on to it: Gwen fucking Stefani.

    What bands are you listening to right now?

    There’s a girl called Du Blonde—she made a record last year called Welcome Back to Milk, and every song is fantastic. She’s got a killer voice, she plays guitar, she’s super cool, love her. Also, Cherry Glazerr, M.I.A., Chelsea Wolfe, Tei Shi, Screaming Females—there’s a whole bunch. The glorious thing is that I’m going to be 50 years old this August, and that is really old to be doing what I do. And yet, all the women I fell in love with when I was a smart teenager—Chrissie Hynde, Debbie Harry, Patti Smith—they’re all still working musicians. They inspire me not to give up, and I strongly believe that women don’t have to capitulate just because they get older. All of the fuss over a woman’s appearance is merely a distraction. It’s important that young women understand that all of that is very nice and you should enjoy your body and your sexuality as long as you’re safe, but what are your strengths? Who are you as a person? Are you a good friend, a great partner, are you good at your job, do you work hard? All of these things create a foundation, because eventually youth and beauty leave us all. Be something other than your shell. Because the shell drops off, and then you’re left fending for yourself in a world that doesn’t give a fuck.

    I didn’t expect that segue, but while we’re on the subject, can we talk about threats against women’s rights right now?

    I look at a lot of young women struggling in this world and it breaks my heart. I want to make things better for them. I want young women to speak up and expect equality and not feel like they have to grovel for it. They deserve it. I feel protective toward women. I don’t know why, I’ve just always felt a love for other women and it breaks my heart when I see inequality. Human rights are never secure. Once you’ve won them, you have to nurture them every day. If we don’t speak up, we will get steamrolled. Women have to be savvy and they have to fight and push and not settle and not sit by like little dummies going, “Oh, I don’t know. Somebody will fix it for me.” No. You have to fight for your rights. It’s deadly serious.

    Aside from speaking up and being vocal, is there an action women should be taking?

    There’s a happy middle ground. You can shave your armpits and be a feminist. You can be incredibly beautiful and glamorous and love clothes and wear lipstick and have your nails done every week and you can still be a feminist. I’m not sure that all young women know that. I want women to expect an orgasm when they have sex. There are a lot of things in our society that are insidious—a man is encouraged to be sexual while a young woman is shamed for it. I encourage everyone to do what it is that they want to do, safely of course. This whole nonsense about this awful phrase “slut shaming” has to be relegated to the back burners. Dreadful term, it really is.

    What about the Griffith Park caves made you choose them for your shoot?

    When I was young, I found it very hard to tap into my joy. I felt I was in a crisis, like, ’Wow, you’re No. 1 all over the world and you still don’t feel complete or in any way happy.” Twenty years have passed, and there will always be moments where I feel despair, but for the most part, I feel happy. And one of the reasons is because I’ve figured out how to make myself happy. Long story short, my husband and I rescued a dog when we moved to L.A. and I had to start going outside. By having to go on a walk every single day with my dog—and being lucky and privileged enough to live so close to Griffith Park—I was up in the mountains every day and all of a sudden I found some joy from just exercising, being with my dog, and seeing nature. It was a really powerful shift for me. It seems ridiculous, but it was a really unexpected discovery so late in my life. There’s justice in nature that doesn’t exist in mankind. We’ve gotten so warped as human beings. When I’m out there, I’m like, “Everything’s cool, everything’s going to be fine, this is a good place.” I’m also a big Batman fan.

    If you were a superhero, what would you look like and what would your power be?

    Well, of course, I’d have pink hair and white boots—that just fucking goes without saying. My superpower would be comfort. When I saw someone suffering, I’d come in and put a magic blanket over them, and all of a sudden, they wouldn’t feel despair. Clearly, I’m drunk [laughs], but that would be rad, though, right?

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    Last updated: 2016-06-07T21:24:30-04:00
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