No politics at the table, please. Shirley Manson – the fiery, seemingly-ageless frontwoman of perennial alt-pop heroes Garbage – has been dragged away from U.S. election coverage in order to speak to Music Feeds, and it’s understandably left her angry and disheartened. Rather than go all in on the subject, the focus is instead shifted to her day job – after all, it’s been a busy year in the world of Garbage. The middle of the year saw the band release Strange Little Birds, their sixth LP, which received a strong critical response and notched up top-10 positions on charts in Ireland, Australia and even Russia. With a brief moment to reflect before finishing up touring for the year, Manson says she has no regrets about her performance on the album – although, she confesses, it’s something she’s had to deal with on previous releases.
“I’m at the stage now where I feel like I’m able to forgive myself more,” she says.”If I do listen back to things I’ve recorded and I hear any mistakes or flaws on my part, I have to remind myself that it was the best I – and we – could possibly do at that time. I know a lot of musicians who will spend hours lamenting and vetting over that sort of thing, but that’s just not the kind of person that I am. The way I see it is that I’ve made my mark, and that’s that. I don’t overthink it – that’s a great strength and my greatest weakness.” Since the release of Strange Little Birds, Garbage have toured extensively in support of the album. Though the shows have been split between material across their discography, Manson notes that the response to new material from the album being played live has not gone unnoticed by the rest of the band. “One thing that caught me by surprise was when we played at Central Park in New York back in July,” says Manson. “We were opening the show with the little piece of music that is the first track on Strange Little Birds [Sometimes] – it’s not even really a song, per se. It’s more of this atmospheric sort of piece that sets the tone of the record. I remember starting to sing it, and I heard the crowd singing the words back at me. I was so shocked – the record had only been out a month or two, and that’s never really happened to us before. It made me so much more proud of what we’ve achieved on this record.”
A year of new material and present-tense activity for Garbage followed on directly from a year in which the band – Manson, drummer Butch Vig and guitarists Duke Erikson and Steve Marker – revelled in nostalgia and celebrated the 20th anniversary of their debut self-titled album. The 1995 album is home to songs that remain staples of the band’s set and helped to cement their legacy: Only Happy When It Rains, Stupid Girl and Queer are to name but a few. Along with a deluxe reissue of the album, the band also performed a run of sold-out shows in which Garbage was played in its entirety.
“It was kind of extraordinary – it was like this sensory time travel,” reflects Manson on the 20th-anniversary activity within the band. “To play that record from start to finish sent us all into this really weird headspace. It was exciting and moving, and it also gave us great pride – which is unusual for us. As a band, we’re not particularly prideful – we err toward feeling like we’re never really succeeding. It made us feel really good about what we’d done – we were working so hard to promote the record at the time of its release, I don’t think that we quite realised the zeitgeist that was being created around it. It took the 20th anniversary in order for us to properly appreciate that.”
Strange Little Birds was pieced together across sessions dating as far back as 2013, when the band came off the road for their comeback LP Not Your Kind of People. Although assisted behind the boards by Billy Bush – the band’s longtime sound engineer and live show technician – the album was credited to Garbage as an entity, just as each song is credited the same way as far as songwriting is concerned. Vig has opined on the matter in the past – noting succinctly that “a producer is someone with an opinion” – and Manson tends to agree. “It’s a complicated situation we find ourselves in,” she confesses. “Butch, without doubt, is the most talented producer in Garbage – bar none. However, Steve and Duke and I have incredibly strong opinions. Steve, in particular, is a bit of a sonic wizard. He comes up with a lot of the sonic architecture of the band, and doesn’t get much credit for it. Duke and I are the most opinionated. Even though we have this incredible world-renowned producer in our midst, in Garbage he has to incorporate everything that comes flying at him. I’m a bossy, opinionated, ball-busting woman – I always push forward my agenda, and that’s just how it goes. It’s the same with the boys. It’s difficult to explain that to anybody.”
While on the road in support of Strange Little Birds, Manson has kept up a prominent social media presence. Her Facebook page is nearly at 300 thousand likes, and is filled on any given day with the Scottish-born singer opining on any topic that comes to mind. After all, the page’s tagline is literally “Freedom to write what I please” – don’t go in expecting anything PR-friendly or politely restrained. As far as a public profile is concerned, it doesn’t get much closer to the bone for a celebrity of at least some note. “Sometimes, it’s just a matter of needing to get something off my chest,” says Manson. “Recently, I posted about a 16-year-old Argentinian girl who was brutally murdered, and I couldn’t bring myself to read any of the replies. I just knew that there would be something in there that would just set me off and I’d completely go into orbit. For the most part, though, I see social media as an opportunity to connect with people. Ultimately, I see that as my job – more and more, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to find my job is to make people feel better. If that’s providing some sort of comfort with an honest post online or just to give them some songs to dance along to in their bedroom, then that’s what I’ll do. A musician’s job is to bring joy. The more I focus on that, the more I see my social media as means to make that connection with people. I see that as a great privilege.”
Garbage are set to see out their year with a visit to Australia, their first in three-and-a-half years, which will see a mix of co-headlining shows with The Temper Trap as well as taking in the surrounds of some of the country’s finest wineries thanks to A Day On The Green. Naturally, the band are no strangers to these shores – as a matter of fact, it was Australians taking a chance on the band to begin with that got Garbage fast-tracked onto the path to stardom which they’ve now steadied the course of some 23 years and counting.
“We have long ties to Australia, because we were signed to an Australian label,” says Manson. “Our whole career basically began with Mushroom Records and our most beloved Michael Gudinski. We’ve had number-one records in Australia. It was our last port of call on the Bleed Like Me tour before we took a hiatus. You don’t forget things like that. It’s so cliché to say it, but our visits there have always been so moving. To see the Sydney Opera House in front of you, to hold a koala in your arms, to see a kangaroo in an animal sanctuary… those were just incredible things to us. They’re the kind of things you only read about in books at school – to actually experiences those things genuinely brought a tear to our eyes.”