Shirley Manson: Shirley temper

Shirley Manson has a reputation for being a little ... difficult. But she's not scary. OK? Fiona Sturges gets behind the mask of Garbage's lead singer
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Shirley Manson isn't conventionally beautiful, though that doesn't stop you doing a double take when you first clap eyes on her. Her face resembles a Picasso in the painter's early Cubist phase - elegantly angular with pouty lips and enormous kohl-lined eyes that sit a little too far apart. When I first meet her in the lobby of her London hotel she's wearing a black, fur-lined leather jacket and tiny cut-off jeans over black leggings and bright pink pop socks. It's an outfit that you'd imagine only an 18-year-old could pull off though somehow, on 38-year-old Shirley, the effect is fabulous.

As one quarter of the rock band Garbage, alongside Duke Erikson, Steve Marker and the former Nirvana producer Butch Vig, this loud-mouthed red-head from Edinburgh has dominated the rock charts for over a decade. Having successfully bridged the gap between indie-rock and contemporary pop, the band's sales currently hover around the 10 million mark. That they are still a vital force in music is largely down to the presence of their singer. Manson comes with a haughty glamour, the kind that makes men quake in their shoes and women want to be her. It's as much through force of personality as musical prowess that she has matured into a bona-fide rock icon - more Chrissie Hynde than Christina Aguilera.

Yet she is, it seems, a woman of many contradictions. In the past she has been spectacularly indiscreet about sex though she remains fiercely protective of her private life. She claims to hate the way she looks but in 1999, along with a gang of fellow pop stars including Moby, Macy Gray and Placebo's Brian Molko, she modelled for Calvin Klein and was later the face of MAC cosmetics. In interviews she shuns her celebrity status but counts Bono, Michael Stipe and Courtney Love among her close friends. Even her name is at odds with itself - part kitsch Fifties glamour-puss, part mass-murderer.

Today Manson is trailed by two stylists - one for hair and one for make-up. She is due to present a prize for Best Live Act at the Brit Awards this evening but before that there's a whole day of TV interviews to get through. If she's bored, she's too professional to show it. "Ah, but this is only day two," she tells me at lunch over a plate of steamed salmon. "Right now I'm fresh meat. Plus I'm Scottish. Give me a free meal and I'll do anything."

Her jollity is a relief as Manson has a reputation for being a bit of a madam. Vig admitted to being terrified of her when they first met. This is a woman who expressed a wish for the Spice Girls to be "tarred and feathered" and who remarked that Jennifer Lopez had a beautiful face but she wanted to "punch it nevertheless". "It's true that I have a big mouth," she admits. "It gets me into a lot of trouble and at times I wish I could curb myself a little more. But I can't change the way I am. I have strong opinions and I just leap in. What I don't get is why people find me scary. I've never tried to make anyone feel uncomfortable in my presence. I don't like it when it happens to me and I don't want it to happen to anyone else."

Being the only woman in a touring rock band has, Manson says, exacerbated her combative streak and over the years she has grown accustomed to feeling like an outsider. She misses female company. "I'm the middle of three sisters and I like doing the girly thing. But I think men are comfortable around me because I'm comfortable around them. I'm very good at hanging with the boys."

Even so, making albums has always been a tumultuous business for Garbage. Voices are habitually raised and doors slammed. During the recording of their forthcoming Bleed Like Me album, Manson believes the band came as close as they have ever done to splitting up. Communications had reached an all-time low; on the rare occasions that they talked, all they did was argue. Then one day Vig announced he was going home to LA. "I think he felt he had quit at the time," recalls Manson. "I don't think any of us knew whether we would get back together. The rot had really set in and the experience of making music together had become unpleasant."

So what made them go back and finish the album? "I think we get on very well as people, otherwise we wouldn't have been able to sustain a career for this long. We had a long talk about what we wanted to achieve as musicians, regardless of the business that had grown up around our band. We came to the conclusion that we have a really good chemistry and a unique sound. It sounds ridiculously simple now, of course, but we decided to drop the bullshit and get on with making music."

At the same time Manson was going through a crisis of her own. After seven years of marriage, she had finally separated from her husband, Eddie Farrell. The pair are now divorced though she won't be drawn into discussing it. Indeed, when the subject comes up she fixes me with an icy stare, daring me to ask what went wrong. Not wishing to be tarred and feathered, I take the hint and move on. What is clear, however, is that Manson's lifestyle is not conducive to lasting relationships. Over the past 10 years she has spent more time in America than she has in her native Scotland. Though she still has a house in Edinburgh, when she's not on the road her time is largely divided between Madison, Wisconsin, where the band have their studio, and Los Angeles. Asked where she thinks she'll settle she is momentarily lost for words.

"It's a question I ask myself all the time," she says eventually. "I'm 38 years old and I don't really know where I am in the world. And, yes, separation is one huge drawback of what we do. You lose out on not being around for your friends as their lives change and you miss being near your family. But I like the perspective that being in America has given me. It was very freeing to go to a place where you don't have the island mentality. Over there people believe that you can do anything you set your mind to whereas in the UK you're vulgar if you have ambition, if you achieve something you're seen as taking away from somebody else. That can be very stifling."

Given the tension that shaped its recording, it's no wonder that Bleed Like Me is Garbage's grittiest album to date. Stripped of all the layered effects that was once their signature, it's sounds very much like Garbage as they are live: powerful, full of attitude and rough around the edges. Does she think they will make another record? Long pause. "Probably," she replies. "I have great faith that everybody has had the fear of God put up them. The band isn't going to be around for ever so this is something we should really value and take care of."

There have, of course, been offers of solo contracts but she says it isn't an option. "I've grown up in bands and I believe in the power of people working together. I'm a socialist like that. Besides, hard as it may be to believe, I'm not sure I could hack it out there on my own."

Manson was born in the Stockbridge area of Edinburgh, the daughter of a singer-turned-housewife mother and geneticist father whose faculty was involved in the creation of Dolly the Sheep. She suffered dreadful insecurities as a child, believing herself to be "the ugliest creature alive" and would habitually cut her legs with razor blades. At school she was bullied because of her red hair and gawky features.

"I would probably have done well with my studies had it not been for the bullying," she recalls. "But I found it a really frightening place to be and because of that I lost interest very quickly. I eventually stood up to the person that bullied me. I lost my temper - imagine that - and she never really bothered me again. She said she'd meet me at the school gates and batter the crap out of me but she never turned up. Unfortunately, the damage was done by that point and I had a lot of anger in me."

By her own admission she was a stroppy teenager who would shut herself in her bedroom and turn her Siouxsie and the Banshees records up loud. One of her early jobs was working as a shop assistant in the Edinburgh branch of Miss Selfridge. From behind the make-up counter she would do her best to intimidate customers by staring at them wordlessly.

Salvation came aged 16 when she was invited to play keyboards and sing backing vocals in the band Goodbye Mr MacKenzie (she was dating the guitarist at the time). They signed a deal with Capitol Records and had a handful of minor hits but after 10 years and five albums they finally called it a day. Next Manson hooked up with Angelfish, though their career was to be short-lived.

In 1994 MTV screened the video of Angelfish's "Suffocate Me". In the United States, Vig, Marker and Erikson happened to be shopping for a singer for their new band. After spotting Manson on television they contacted her manager and flew to London to meet her. Two months later Manson was in Madison recording Garbage's self-titled debut. A string of top-10 singles including "Stupid Girl", "Supervixen" and "Only Happy When It Rains" articulated Manson's battle with depression that had started in secondary school.

Though Manson has now learnt to love her red hair she remains deeply insecure about her looks. Now she sees a therapist and has a name for her particular neurosis. "It's called body dysmorphia and it's something I'll always battle with," she says. "It means you don't see yourself physically as you actually are. I always feel embarrassed talking about it because I feel a lot of people will roll their eyes and say: 'Oh look, there she is harping on about the way she looks. Well, she can't feel that bad as she has her photograph in the paper.' But I feel I should tell the truth about how women feel and how we do things that are contradictory. That's just human nature. Yes, I do have my picture taken, and I look glamorous and I have my hair and make-up done for me but don't mistake that for being in love with the way I look. I look at those photos sometimes and, well ... it doesn't make me feel good."

Her discomfort is evident later on at the Brit Awards. Sitting with her sister Sarah at her record company's table she does her best to avoid the swooping cameras and watches the events on stage with an air of distaste. When her turn comes to present a prize, she slips in a jibe about the absence of Scottish bands at the Brits (in her 10 years with Garbage this is the first time she's been invited) before announcing the winner.

Half an hour later, after the obligatory photocalls, she returns to the table. With a long day of interviews behind her, and with her presenting slot over, she says her job is done and she's off. "It's all just a bit too surreal," she sighs, picking up her purse and taking a last swig of wine. "I don't mean to sound blasé but this sort of thing doesn't really excite me. In fact it makes me quite uncomfortable. And I've been in this game long enough to know when it's time to go home."

'Bleed Like Me' is released on 11 April on Warners. The single 'Why Do You Love Me' is out on 28 March. Garbage play London's Brixton Academy on 9 June