"I'm a Scottish witch, I think": Shirley Manson on the prescient lyrics in Garbage's dark new album

The musician spoke with Salon about the songwriting debt she owes Weezer's Rivers Cuomo & the glory of being 54

By Annie Zaleski
Published June 12, 2021 11:00AM (EDT)
The band Garbage (Maria Jose Govea)
The band Garbage (Maria Jose Govea)

Garbage debuted in 1995 with their self-titled album, which was a heady mix of meticulous electronics and propulsive rock sounds. Since then, the Shirley Manson-led band has continued to perfect this aggressive alchemy, including on their new album, "No Gods No Masters."  

With its nods to moody synth-pop, dark post-punk and art-rock (highlighted by the sax-augmented "Anonymous XXX"), the LP captures the storminess of our times.

"No Gods No Masters" was actually nearly finished in March 2020, before the COVID-19 lockdown and last summer's protests. However, "I wasn't able to work in the lockdown world," Manson says now, calling from her home in Los Angeles, where she shares that she gave her dogs some snacks right before hopping on the phone with Salon. "I'm a musician; it's almost impossible." 

Although she was able to tape a third season of her podcast, "The Jump with Shirley Manson," that was about the extent of it. "I sat around in my f**king house eating and drinking and listening to music and fearing my future," she says with a laugh. "I mean, like everybody. What a dark, weird, twisted moment in all our lives. It's extraordinary. One thing that kept me alive was the fact that everybody else was suffering too."

"It was such an intense time," Manson continues, referencing the last year. "You know, we had protests here that were really intense and really moving and heartbreaking. To watch, in this day and age, people have to take the streets, to try and beg to be treated as human beings. I was so disgusted and horrified by the apathy that white people in general met these protests. I still don't think I'll ever get over that."

That urgency and anger toward global inequities permeates the themes and lyrics of the album, particularly "Waiting For God," a song that directly references racism and police killings. However, the lyrics as well were also nearly polished off before the lockdown and last summer's protests. 

That fact led directly to Manson discussing how the album ended up sounding so of-the-time, as well as how George Clinton inspired the record.

Reading the lyrics and listening to the record, I'm floored it was finished before lockdown. It's like you all were sages and predicting what was going to happen in 2020. It's rather eerie.

Yeah, I mean, I'm a Scottish witch, I think. [Laughs.] The bulk of the records was written before all this s**t hit the fan. And there's a couple of bits and bobs that got finished post-lockdown, but for the most part, the lyrics were put in place. 

It's peculiar that they should be so prescient. And yet you're well aware that as a traveling musician, you get to travel the world, and you start to see patterns of that stuff [happening around] the globe. That gives you a certain privileged perspective, I think.

Such were the times that I felt that it would be inauthentic for me to make a record about anything else, other than what I saw was happening, and what scared me and what repulsed me and alarmed me about the place I found myself in as a 52-year-old woman in the world trying to figure this s**t out.

I was having a conversation with someone last weekend, and we were talking about how the last four years especially brought a lot of ugly stuff to the surface that had been happening already. But it's in your face. You could not get away from it — on so many levels. 

On every level. I think you're right. And, you know, it's not just America; it's not just the United Kingdom. It's everywhere. I mean, I was just reading up on what's going on in Colombia today, and it's like a basic reflection of what's happening in the U.S. Not far off it, anyway. People in general are rebelling against these capitalist interests that have no place for the human condition, no place for human fragility. That's what we're all running into, I think, as global citizens. It's really disturbing.

As a lyricist, how did you get yourself into the writing mindset for the album?

I have Rivers Cuomo to thank for the way I approached making this record. A long time ago, when I was suffering from what I thought was writer's block, he said to me, "What are you talking about? You don't have writer's block. Listen to [how] you speak. All you need to do is use how you tackle a conversation and put it into a song." 

After he said that to me, it really changed the way I wrote. And I wanted the record to reflect who I am in my private life, who I am as a real person who's not on stage, who's not a public figure. I realized that, as I said, it would be really inauthentic for me not to take what I was saying in private amongst my friends and around the dinner table and not put that onto the record, particularly as the times were so pressing and so alarming. 

I didn't really have to even think about it, to be honest. It just was stuff that came out when we were writing together as a band. A lot of the words were formed in those first two weeks, and that created the template for the record. The band had to match my energy; it was sort of dictated by the subject matter that I was tackling.

And that can be so difficult, because sometimes when you sit down with a blank piece of paper and notebook, and you're like, "Do I want to go that way?" Because it's very daunting to be that bold, and be that vulnerable, and have a spectrum of emotions. I totally understand that.

Yeah. I mean, again, I have to credit Rivers Cuomo for saying that to me, during a writing session once. I've never really suffered from writer's block since — ever. I realize, "Well, I can just say my piece." It doesn't have to be perfect; it doesn't have to be universally agreed upon. It can just be my perspective. And people are free, of course, to disagree with me, or dismiss me. I just don't fear being judged anymore. It's not something that I worry about. And when you're not worried, then it's relatively easy to remain in the creative headspace.

It is true that a certain point, you just have to be like, "I can't worry about what anyone else is going say." You have to put yourself out there and forget that there's other people around.

It is difficult when you feel that you are having to either represent other people or not offend other people. And I think that's the glory of being a 54-year-old woman: All of a sudden, I really don't give a f**k. 

It's not my intention to hurt anyone or disrespect anyone. But I feel like I've earned my spot on the team, and I can say whatever the f**king hell I want to say, and not have to worry about anybody else's concerns that are specific to them. You know, because I realize I'm an outspoken person; it's just who I am and who I am. And I don't want to curb that just to make somebody else feel a little more comfortable.

I'm looking forward to getting that place in my life, if I if I'm being honest. It's freeing.

The 40s I think are difficult. You have some weird idea that you're over the hill, and the best years of your life have gone by. I think it's absolute nonsense, if the truth be told. There's a reason why society doesn't allow women to realize that, actually, the older you get, the more free, the happier you become, and the more courageous you become. And there's so many great things that come with age, and we're just taught to focus on the wrinkle or the strange folds above our knees. [riotous laughter]

I really want younger women to realize that there really isn't anything to be scared of. Age is nothing but a gift really, aside, as I said, from the strange folds above the knee.

That reminds me of reading the album notes, and what you said about the song "The Creeps," and you saying that you were at this low place, and you're like, "Wait a second, you know, I'm coming back up, I will not be told what to do."

I think it's important for women to realize that — I mean, it's important for everyone to realize that. I'm not just saying that this is a struggle for women, or non-binary folks or whomever. It hurts men too. Aging is difficult to navigate. But I really feel that the obsession with maintaining youth, and staying in a youthful mindset, can be really damaging and really limit the experiences that are open to you as a human being. That's all.

What stood out to you then about the music that the band was putting together? 

I guess the thing that really struck me the most is that when we were writing, we went up to Palm Springs. Butch [Vig] received a brand new drum machine called the Machine, and he didn't know how to use it. He just plugged it in, and we started writing. And because he didn't know how to use this machine, the drum parts, the rhythm track — and I use this with the utmost respect — is really naïve-sounding, because he's just figuring out how to use it. To me that is what makes the drums sound so tasteful. They're really simple, and they're not overly embellished and overly thought-out.

It sort of dictated the way everybody else approached their playing. There's a sort of discipline in the music that you can hear. Everything very carefully placed, in a funny way. And also, because of the simplicity of the drum programming, in concept it started to take a certain New Wave approach to the music. In some ways, it's really poppy, and then in other ways, it's really dark. There's a lot of the influence of Roxy Music, The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Echo and the Bunnymen. All these bands that we grew up listening and wanting to emulate — there's ghosts of all these influences in the music.

I think the band did a f**king great job. I'm amazed, actually, that they still have this fuel and fire in them. It's hard as you get older; it's hard to maintain that energy. That's something people take for granted, but it's really hard to capture, the older and older you get it. That would be my biggest observation. [Laughs.]

You did also a lot of really interesting vocal things on this record. Did any particular preparation go into that? 

When you've been in a band for 25 years, you get into a lot of habits, and you can fall back on what you always do, and what you always trust. And you must constantly be pushing yourself to try different stuff and explore different areas of your abilities. Because, otherwise, what a drag, you know.

I mean, I know that a lot of artists like to just do what they do — and they do it, and they do it, and they do it until they drop. For me, that seems like a tedious bore. I feel like our lives are so short. Why not explore other aspects of the talent you've been given and try and make things as interesting for yourself and for the listener?

Because when you've been around as long as we have, we do become a bit like a familiar old shoe. And it doesn't really necessarily matter how good your work is; it just doesn't have the same impact as a young, new band does. And it's just a matter of fact, for the most part, especially if you're a female. But I think that affects all artists across the board: People become accustomed to you. They assume that you're there and you do your work, and it doesn't necessarily draw their attention. 

So I think as an artist, you have to, like, try and f**king change up the game to garner attention, because as a working band, that's what you need to survive. You need people to be interested. [Laughs.] Otherwise, I'd just sit in my bedroom and sing to my dog. 

But I'm looking for connection with people. I feel like that's the band's purpose, in a funny way, how we connect to other humans and say, "We feel like this, do you feel this way too?" And then when somebody says, "Yeah, I feel like this," then you don't feel quite as frightened and alone. [Laughs.]

I like the reference that some of the podcast interviews you've done really sort of influenced your creative worldview. I've seen some amazing interviews with George Clinton especially.

He's the greatest.

He has the best stories and he has a million of them.

And he's got an incredible gift of recall. You would think after all his experimentations of drugs over the years and his wild living that he would be a bit of a burned-out basket case. And he's not at all. He's one of the most lucid, generous, kind, funny . . . I mean, I could not go on enough about what a magnificent human being he is. I was so, so blown away by spending time in this company. I've just got nothing but insane love him. 

And he did inspire me. Having spoken to him for a couple of hours, I went back to the studio, and the band working on a track, which turned out to be "The Men Who Rule the World." I just had this sci-fi vision of the Mothership landing on Earth and acting like Noah's Ark and saving all the animals and everything that's currently under threat from climate change. All the assholes get left behind. [Laughs.] Only things of beauty and great kindness make it onto the Mothership. I'm really, really happy with that song, and I love the fact that he gave it to me. He basically sent it over the ethernet to me and my heart. [Laughs.] A gift from George Clinton.

How else has doing your podcast really shaped you as a creative person and as a musician?

I have to say it's one of the greatest gifts that's ever been given. I had no idea when I signed up just how much I would get out of it. I mean, it's come at a time of my life when I really needed inspiration. I was needing faith, and I needed a transfusion of energy. Being in the presence of all these great artists who so generously gifted their time and their brilliance to me was extraordinary.

I literally would leave the studio every time as though my veins were on fire. I know that sounds really mad and dramatic. But it speaks to me on a level . . . It's funny, as a musician, you don't get to hang out with musicians very often — at least I don't. And certainly over the last couple of years, I've been either touring and therefore I'm with my small microcosm, or I'm back home in Scotland with my family. So I don't really get to spend too much time with artists, and they speak a certain kind of language that I yearned for. Getting to spend time with these magnificent artists and lovely human beings was just insane fuel for me. I learned so much from each and every one of them; I took something of great value away for myself. It feels such a selfish pursuit, but it's true.

 


Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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Garbage Interview Music No Gods No Masters Rivers Cuomo Shirley Manson