'It Changed My Intent': Shirley Manson On Garbage And Growing Up

Jul 10, 2016

Even for an alt-rock band coming to bloom in the 1990s, Garbage had a pretty unforgettable name. The music stood out as well: Singles like "Only Happy When It Rains," "Stupid Girl" and "Push It" vaulted over the influence of grunge to make use of industrial and electronic elements, some synth-pop sheen and singer Shirley Manson's unmistakable voice.

But by the mid-2000s, Manson says, something felt out of alignment: Garbage's music was out of vogue, and the members were under pressure from their label to make something that would find a foothold with pop radio.

"And we didn't really want to do that, so we kind of just took a break," she says. "And luckily for us, in that time, we really found our own voice again as a band, and we lost a lot of our contractual obligations. So we found ourselves in a really great position to launch our own record label. It just felt right: We had something to say, and we needed to be together."

Strange Little Birds is Garbage's latest album, released on Stunvolume, the label it collectively founded in 2012. It comes just ahead of Manson's 50th birthday, and she says that her 20-plus years of performing have had a profound effect on both her instrument and her outlook.

"I mean, when I first started out, I didn't even think of myself as an artist: I just thought of myself as a lucky girl who got a lucky break," she says. "It took me a long time, arguably a decade or more, before I thought, 'Actually, I am a musician, and I need to make music in order to be happy.' And once I figured that out, I realized that I was a creative artist, and that changed the way I approached making music. It changed my intent, for want of a better word."

Shirley Manson spoke with NPR's Rachel Martin; hear more of their conversation at the audio link.

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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONLY HAPPY WHEN IT RAINS")

GARBAGE: (Singing) I'm only happy when it rains. I'm only happy when it's complicated.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

That was the hit single that propelled the band Garbage and its pink-haired frontwoman Shirley Manson to the top of the alt charts back in 1995. After that, it was a wild ride. They sold millions of albums, packed huge stadiums. They toured all the time, all over the world. Things were going well until they weren't. The band decided to take a break.

SHIRLEY MANSON: We were really under a lot of stress from our record label to change our music because our music could suddenly find itself out of vogue. And they wanted us basically to try and appeal to pop radio in order to maintain our success.

MARTIN: When the group finally got back together, they decided to do things their own way. Their newest album is called "Strange Little Birds."

MANSON: We're not everybody's cup of tea, you know. And we certainly don't make music that's necessarily in vogue right now. But we make music that I think resonates with a lot of people who also feel a little on the outskirts and don't necessarily want to listen to the most popular mainstream sounds of the day.

MARTIN: Shirley Manson feels pretty good about that. She's turning 50 next month, and she has a new level of confidence about who she is and the music she makes.

MANSON: When I first started out, I didn't even think of myself as an artist. I just thought of myself as a lucky girl that got a lucky break. And...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

MANSON: ...You know, I mean, I'm not being funny. I really, really didn't think about myself in any creative way whatsoever. And it took me a long time - arguably, a decade or more - before I thought - actually, I am a musician. And I need to make music in order to be happy. And once I figured that out, I realized that I was a creative artist. And that changed the way I approached making music, and it changed my intent, I guess, for want of a better word.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EMPTY")

GARBAGE: (Singing) I've been feeling so frustrated I'll never be as great as I want to be. Everyone that I run into, the ones you always seem so into - what's wrong with me?

MARTIN: You did suffer from confidence issues when you were younger. Was it just time and age and the wisdom that comes with living some years and doing a thing for a lot of years that has remedied that?

MANSON: Yeah. I mean, I still have moments of self-doubt for sure. I mean, I think any intelligent person has moments of thinking - am I right here? Am I wrong? You know, am I good at this? Am I bad at this? Am I a good wife? Am I a poor friend? And, you know, I think you have to question yourself all throughout your lifetime. You have to have checks and balances. And so I think it's healthy, actually, to have a little self-doubt (laughter).

But certainly when I was younger, it was incredibly destructive. I've had very little confidence in myself. And I compared myself to others all the time - other women that I felt, you know, were more talented than I was, more beautiful, thinner, you know, faster - I don't know. There was a million people I would measure up against and feel that I fell short. And then as I've gotten older, I guess, you know, you do the work. And you start to realize - actually, I'm pretty good at this. And when you have a skill set, that breeds confidence, yeah.

And yeah, I just think you do something long enough and sooner or later, unless you're really, really wayward, you'll get better at it. And yeah, I always say that to young people is just do the work. Don't worry about being successful. Don't worry about being famous. Just do the work. And sooner or later, something unexpected will happen that will blow your world apart into something magical.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEACHING LITTLE FINGERS TO PLAY")

GARBAGE: (Singing) I'm all grown up. No one around to fix me now. There's no one around - doing it my own way. I'm doing it. I'm doing it. I'm changing things up like I'm teaching little fingers to play.

MARTIN: There's some looking back in that song.

MANSON: Just a little.

MARTIN: Just a little bit. Have you ever thought about what it would be like to be starting now - to be a young female artist today and how you would fit into that world?

MANSON: I think about that all the time, not even just about being a female artist in any way. I just think about being a young woman right now is really complex. And I'm so grateful that I am not growing up right now. I think young women are really being fed a lot of very strange messages that are very confusing and would really cause, I think, a lot of dismay in me if I was growing up right now.

MARTIN: Does it feel, in some ways, a relief to just be at a point in your life where you don't have to give a damn...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...About some of the stuff?

MANSON: I do give a damn, though. I give a damn more than ever. Like, I don't know why. I think it's maybe because my sister - I don't have children, but my sister had a young girl, a baby girl. And she's growing up. She's now 6. And I have become like a crazy, like, tigress over female rights and young women. I want young women to have the same opportunities as their male counterparts. And until they do all over the world, I just don't feel like I can rest. I feel like I've got fire in my belly. I want to be maternal and protective and help as many young women out there to really inhabit their own power in ways that will not be damaging to them when they get older.

MARTIN: Shirley Manson of the band Garbage. Their new album is called "Strange Little Birds." Thanks so much for talking with us.

MANSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.