The Big Interview: NME Icon Shirley Manson on women in music, Dolores O’Riordan and the future of Garbage

As Shirley Manson accepts the inaugural Icon Award at the VO5 NME Awards 2018, we talk to the Garbage legend about speaking up, fighting back, and what's next

Hello Shirley Manson – officially the first ever NME Icon Award winner.

“Woooo, that’s sexy! Yes, well thank you so much. It’s mental and a total surprise. I think it’s funny, I don’t know if that’s the right response?”

You’ve said before that you don’t necessarily believe in awards ceremonies. Are they all different?

“Well you know everything’s subjective, isn’t it? One man’s meat is another man’s murder. It’s important to remember that when you’re lucky enough to be the recipient of any kind of honour. For all the people that think you deserve something like this, there are millions and millions of people who might think you’re a joke. I think any kind of opinion is all just through somebody else’s prism and so you have no control – especially in the arts.

“I don’t necessarily believe that it changes your life or means that you’re a better icon than another, or a more talented musician. I think that rhetoric is a bit redundant in some ways. At the same time, I’ve been making records for 35 years, and to get acknowledged like this is a really big deal – especially from a magazine that I bought when I was a kid. I practically got my entire musical education between its pages, so this was a thrill for me. It feels like ‘OH MY GOD – I’m actually a legitimate musician after all this time!’ I’m in the pages of the NME and that meant something to me. It feels like a stamp of honour.”

How do you feel about this in the current climate, where women tend to be overlooked at awards ceremonies?

“For women in the music industry, we’re struggling so much. There’s such a small percentage of us involved in any level really, so it’s great for other young women to watch older, more established musicians get acknowledged for their careers. That can only be a good thing. You are who you see, yeah? If you don’t see these things out there, then you’re not going to do it you’re not going to dream about it. Music cannot remain a male playground, it has to change.”

What about women needing to “step up”, eh?

“Oh my god, I mean that was…Wow. What a stupid, tone-deaf comment that was [by the Grammys Recording Academy President]. It just shows you how out of touch he is. That’s what women are fighting, that’s what we’re up against: the old white patriarchy that thinks that the issue here is that women aren’t ‘stepping up’. I mean go fuck yourself mate. You know what I mean? Women’s fingers are bleeding – they’re sitting in their rooms rehearsing, playing their guitars for hours on end and busting their gut around the country trying to get gigs. When someone like that says something so insensitive and stupid and bigoted, it’s really disappointing. I know for a fact that the music industry and community is enraged.”

When you first started out in music, did you ever imagine we’d still be having this chat about sexism 35 years later?

“I mean to be honest, I think it’s often the case for young artists. Certainly a couple of years ago, there was a trend of female young artists to deny feminism – to distance themselves from the idea promoting female interests in the music industry. I myself endured that, when you’re so young and so busy trying to look after yourself and get on the books, that you’re not really thinking about how difficult it is. You’re just thinking about how to fucking survive. It’s only with someone like myself, who’s older now and has peace, that things start to slow down.

“You’re seeing the world through a different lens because your friends have children and your family have kids, you start to perceive everything differently and start to get more and more knowledge. You become more empowered yourself and you start to see this for what it is. I didn’t really notice it when I was young. I didn’t notice that there were walls that kept women out. I was just too busy fighting, but now I see the system that’s in place and I want things to be better for the young. I wanna fight for them.”

Garbage's Shirley Manson

Garbage’s Shirley Manson

Did you notice those mechanics working in the ’90s, like the media and industry were kind of objectifying you or treating you differently, or were you just living in the moment?

“No, I did notice that. It was outrageous how much I was objectified and whatnot, looking back on it. When we were putting the book together [This Is The Noise That Keeps Me Awake], we were looking over old content, and I was concerned by some of the stuff that I read:  the comments on my physical appearance and the criticism of what I was wearing by female journalists and the colour of my hair and how fuckable I was.

“It was absolutely outrageous but again, I did notice but didn’t care because I was too busy. I was just trying to get through the day. Sometimes it hurt my feelings, and sometimes it flattered me because young women are vain. It’s all ‘oh maybe that’s a good thing’, but not really understanding the implications underneath it. Is that making any sense?”

It does, I suppose back then, while just as despicable, it would have been a little more ‘normalised’ too?

“Yeah, I mean we’re still talking about the days of nude women in newspapers! You don’t question it when you’re brought up in the ’70s. I felt it was silly, but I didn’t understand what it was really saying, the power of what it was saying. The younger generation now are way more switched on than ours was. I see that among young women now, they’re way more clued in and that’s a great thing, but it must be a really daunting thing too – understanding what you’re up against sometimes is harder than if you don’t know.”

If you could distil any piece of advice to a young female artist who wants to enter the industry but doesn’t think they stand a chance, what would you like to say to them?

“Well, I don’t know. I think advice is dangerous because it’s only possible for your own situation, but whenever I do have the fortune of meeting a young artist I always say ‘do the work, do the work, do the work’. You know, ‘go gig, go write, nobody can stop you doing that’. That’s what I really believe in – I really believe in the slow, torturous endurance of just smashing a chip at the wall every day. But I also feel that a lot of women also don’t have the confidence like their male counterparts. It’s the way we educate our kids. Boys and girls are educated differently, and we have to change that. Look at the #metoo movement for random example  – I think people are pretty shocked. I think good men, all over the world are shocked at the percentage of women that have come out and said yeah this happened to me too. It’s like one in three women, man – there’s something seriously wrong with that.”

You often attract headlines for some of the things you say on social media, but a lot of it just comes across as general social justice and common sense…

“It is just bloody common sense!”

Do you think that’s because there are too many figures afraid to say anything at all?

“I think people are scared to say something because they don’t necessarily know what’s right or wrong. I think I have got a lot of common sense. That’s just the way I’ve been brought up I guess –  just to be honest as I can be. I’ve tried to live my life like that. Sometimes it offends people and sometimes people think I should shut the fuck up, but I don’t believe anyone. You should speak up when you see something unjust happening.”

Iconic: it’s Garbage’s Shirley Manson, who picked up the NME Icon award at the ceremony – presented to her by Savages frontwoman Jehnny Beth.

Do you think the music industry has become too sanitised and people just want to play it safe? You know, focus on being million-selling entertainers rather than standing for something?

“To be honest, I think it’s a bit of both. There are plenty of artists out there who are massive popstars and are speaking their minds – like Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga. They’re really outspoken, they’re not messing around. Artists in general are more switched on. I think It’s less newsworthy on one hand and also everybody’s just a little endured to people sounding off because we’re now in the age of social media. Sometimes the impact of what they’re saying is diluted, unlike in the ‘90s when if you said one provocative thing in a broadsheet it would have a lot of impact. But now there’s 100,000s of artists that you hear from every single day on these media platforms that are desperate to have people keep hitting their buttons in order to survive.”

Is there anyone else you think embodies that attitude and actually gives a damn?

Halsey is very outspoken and used the attention she gets for the good. I see almost every artist at this point being political, I feel like a lot of them talk about what they believe in, whether they’re anti-Trump or pro-abortion or so on. I just think getting to hear those voices is getting harder and harder amongst the morass of idiocy that we all feel on a daily basis on the internet.”

Halsey Barclays Center

Halsey on stage at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center

Which leads us on to another reason you’re getting this award – your activism

“With PETA, I’ve always been obsessed with trying to protect animals and giving them a better existence. My dream job is to work for the International Wildlife Fund. And as for Girls Rock London, they’re an inspiration. The idea of getting more women involved in music is so important to me. With LGBTQ rights, that’s just common sense. It’s just nuts that we think people are different just because they’re choosing to have sex in a different position or up a different orifice. I have so many friends in that community, and the idea that they don’t have the same rights as I do makes me insane. I don’t view these things as activism. They don’t require real effort – it’s how I engage with the world.”

I remember you once said that fighting for someone else’s rights is the same as fighting for your own.

“Absolutely, yeah. You really notice it living in America right now. With Trump in power, it’s the slow push-back and eradication of people’s rights. That’s why you have to be so careful to protect everybody who’s not like you. It’s crazy what’s happening and so disheartening. This is our moral obligation.”

Is it as terrifying out there in the US as the TV will have us believe?

“Yeah, I don’t think people fully realise the extent of it.”

Is the fightback as strong as the wave of conservatism?

“That’s an interesting question. You can take the women’s march as a perfect example. Hundreds and thousands of women, or people I should say, getting out in the streets all over America – and Trump just turns a blind eye to tell a fib about who did or did not turn up and the matter’s closed. It’s a bit like this idea of people are ‘stepping up’ and pushing but the power of patriarchy is choosing not to see it, so what do you do?”

We keep on getting quite dark, Shirley.

“Yeah, come on! Let’s get back to our cheap, superficial selves!”

Easy. How’s progress going on the new Garbage album?

“We just started, actually. We’re going off on a trip together and we’re going to start writing the new record. We’re going to Palm Springs. It’s kind of like a classic Frank Sinatra set up. We’ll see how it goes and if we can hang out together without fighting like children or going back to our hotels in a huff.”

Do you have any idea where you want to take your sound from ‘Strange Little Birds’? Will it be dark, stomping and industrial like ‘No Horses’?

“We’ve tried that before of ‘let’s do something that sounds like this or let’s go down this road’, and it just never seems to go that way – although I’d be very happy if it went down the way of ‘No Horses’ personally speaking. I am very proud of that track and I love how it turned out.

“The thing that I keep saying to the band is that it’s high stakes now. It’s not like how we once did it when we were just starting out. It’s like, how much longer are we even going to be alive for? I didn’t think about that in my ‘20s. Who are you as a person – what was it that you witnessed during your time on earth? And that’s what I mean by high-stakes.

“I felt that when David Bowie died – that’s when I started going ‘oh my god, now it’s my generation next’, and then when they took Dolores O’Riordan of The Cranberries.That fucking really shook me. I was really affected by her death you know, because that’s my people. Ahh we’re getting dark again!

Watch the VO5 NME Awards 2018 in full below

Let’s brighten things up a bit. Do you still think about reaching new audiences?

“Not at all. I don’t give a fuck. I’m sick of all that nonsense. We went through a period in our career where we almost became public and media property – but Garbage is us. I just wanna be an artist and try to explore the world through our own lens. That is a great privilege. I’m fucking over pleasing people. I’m all about pleasing my curiosity.”

Garbage UK tour

Later this year, Garbage will reissue their classic album ‘Version 2.0’, as well as playing the below UK anniversary shows. Tickets to the newly announced non-London shows will be on sale from 9am on Friday 16 February and available here.

September 4 – Edinburgh, UK@ Edinburgh Festival Theatre
September 5 – Glasgow, UK @ Barrowlands
September 7 – Bristol, UK @ St. Phillips Gate Arena
September 8 – Birmingham, UK @ Digbeth Arena
September 9 – Manchester, UK @ Academy 1 Manchester
September 11 – Nottingham, UK @ Rock City
September 12 – Newcastle, UK @ Northumbria SU Institute
September 14 – London, UK @ O2 Academy Brixton
September 15 – London, UK @ O2 Academy Brixton