Not so stupid girl
Turning 40 holds no fear for Shirley Manson. The outspoken rock star talks to Kenny Farquharson about band breaks, babies and beating the blues
Shirley Manson is having a pants crisis. When she flew in to Scotland from Los Angeles, the airline managed to mislay her suitcase. So Manson has been searching her Edinburgh home, taking dust sheets off furniture and rummaging in drawers, looking for clean knickers. “I have had a bit of an underwear moment this morning,” she confesses.
She puts on the kettle, an old-fashioned one that she heats on a black range stove in a homely kitchen. The house is part of an anonymous sandstone terrace, perched high above the seashore on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Tall windows look out onto an expanse of blue sky and wind-whipped sea in the Firth of Forth.
Although it is early on a Monday morning and she has spent much of the past 24 hours travelling, Manson looks fantastic in a black high-necked jumper, black jeans and black knee-length boots. Dyed burgundy hair is pulled back hard into a pony tail, away from her famously pale skin, which is almost translucent. Her only make-up is some heavy black mascara and a lick of lippy. Stick thin, she is all angles and edges.
The kettle boiled, she offers a bespoke cup of tea — a mixture of Scottish breakfast and earl grey, both decaffeinated. “It’s my own special combination,” she says. “You can have the Postman Pat mug.”
Manson is one of Scotland’s most iconic rock exports, her appeal a potent combination of surly and sultry. As a teenager she thought she was too gawky, too ginger, too Scottish to mean anything to anybody. Yet recently she was described by an American magazine as “the most shaggable babe in rock”. Her band, Garbage, have sold more than 10m records over the past decade, notching up four Top 20 albums in America and 11 Top 20 singles in the UK, including Stupid Girl, Only Happy When It Rains and Cherry Lips.
Manson likes to shock. She is the kind of woman who wears a racoon’s penis on a necklace, who chose her orange Fender Stratocaster because it matched her pubic hair, who once took revenge on an errant boyfriend by taking a dump on his cornflakes.
Six months ago, patience frayed by a decade of sweaty proximity, Garbage decided on a break. For Manson it has been a time to relax, to pause and to perfect her recipe for lamb hotpot, which she serves at her Los Angeles home to bemused rock-star friends such as Gwen Stefani. It has been a time, as well, to ponder the moment this coming August when Manson turns 40.
“I’ve felt freaked out by life and getting older since I was 18,” she says, her Edinburgh accent miraculously intact despite a decade living in California and Wisconsin. “I feel, firstly, really fortunate that I made it this far. I lost friends who died when they were young and didn’t get to live till they were 40.”
Lost through accidents or drugs? “A variety of things that happened,” she says, a little too quickly. “So I feel really privileged and happy to be here. I feel the best I’ve ever felt in my life, and I just hope that I can live for another 40.”
She insists this milestone is a skoosh compared with turning 30. “When you are in your thirties you think, ‘I’m just a withering young person.’ When you get to 40 there’s this feeling of rejuvenation, like, ‘Okay, this is a different part of my life, a different passage.’ I feel quite good about it.”
When she turned 30 she was in the middle of a tour of summer festivals in Europe and barely marked the occasion. This time is going to be different. “This year I’m going on safari,” she says with a big grin. “Something super-weird. I wanted to do something I’ve never done before.”
Is she doing the whole tents-in-the-bush thing? “Kind of . . .” she says sheepishly. Or tents-in-the-bush with bubble baths at the end of the day? She gives a big, dirty, irresistible laugh. “Yeah, there is a bit of bubble bath going on. It’s my treat to myself, because I haven’t had a holiday in, like, a decade.”
Only the strongest of characters can turn 40 without a pretty thorough reappraisal of what matters to them in life. Manson is one of those characters. “This is the really sad, frightening thing,” she says. “The same things are important to me now as they were when I was young. Absolutely. I still want to have a really fabulous, exciting life, and it’s up to me to make it that way. I don’t feel like just because I’m 40 I have to feel like I’m beaten and done, and sit down. Quite the absolute opposite.”
She is immune to the argument that being a little older is incompatible with rock’n’roll. “For a start, I don’t feel like all I have to offer is just being part of rock’n’roll. As a musician you’ve got to evolve and encompass all the things that have happened to you as you’ve gotten older.
“There are certain things, absolutely, that because of my age it would be unseemly if I was still mining the same veins. But I feel women can continue as creative entities regardless of their age. I went to see Patti Smith this year — how old is she, 60 or something? — and she was unbelievably potent.”
Manson does not need to know exactly where the next 20 years will take her. It matters only that she has the confidence to start on the journey.
“I think our generation are probably the first to refuse to sit down at the age of 30 and just call it quits, and say, ‘I’m not a beautiful 20-year-old any more, my breasts aren’t as pert, therefore I’m destined for the rubbish heap’. I challenge anybody to tell me I don’t have the capabilities to do whatever I want to do.”
Who would dare? Manson accepts, however, that physical ageing is hard to thole. “A lot of women feel defeated as soon as they see one wrinkle on their face. The minute you see one, in a woman’s mind that’s it, it’s over.”
Does she remember her first wrinkle? “Oh, yeah!” Again, the big dirty laugh. “It’s indelibly marked. I don’t know how old I was, actually. It came quite late because I was never in the sun. But I remember it being devastating.”
Do women also have the issue of motherhood to factor in, I ask, coming to terms with its presence or absence? “I have rejected it completely,” Manson interrupts in a Cruella De Vil voice.
Was that really a conscious decision? “Kind of,” she says, becoming more subdued. “It’s just not something I’m particularly interested in.”
Why? “I could be here for years explaining my decision-making. There’s no point in going into it here.” But go into it is exactly what Manson does.
“What I find incredibly funny is people who say, ‘Oh you must have children otherwise you’re being incredibly selfish.’ As if having children stops selfishness. I know hundreds of parents and they’re the most selfish people I have ever met. As wonderful as I think child-rearing is for some, it’s not for everybody.
“I’ve seen a lot of women have children and they’re devastated by it, and hopeless mothers, and that’s ghastly. And then I’ve seen people who didn’t think they wanted children have one and it’s changed their lives.”
Tentatively, I suggest that her firmness on this seems a little out of character. Everything else in her life is full of possibilities with no experience off limits. So why close the door on this one?
“I see what you’re saying and I agree, but this is just the decision I’ve made.” She pauses, before throwing a sly, sidelong glance. “Of course, I could change my mind.” The big dirty laugh is unleashed once more.
Manson was born into a middle-class home in the Stockbridge area of Edinburgh, her father a geneticist and her mother a former singer. Aged seven, she started learning piano and later went to Broughton High, the local comprehensive and a centre for musical excellence.
School was a grim experience. She was bullied for her unconventional looks, often harming herself in despair, cutting her legs with razor blades. How does she remember herself at that age? Manson pauses, almost puzzled by where the memories take her. “I have no sense of myself other than as frustrated and frightened about the future. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I felt scared. That’s what I remember — being really lost.”
When she was 16 she got a job at Miss Selfridge and joined a band, Goodbye Mr Mackenzie, singing backing vocals and playing keyboards. One of their songs, The Rattler, is now an undisputed Scottish classic. Success proved elusive and the band split in 1992, Manson going on with bandmate Martin Metcalf to front Angelfish.
The video for their first single, Suffocate Me, was played on MTV and spotted by Butch Vig, an influential American music producer responsible for Nirvana’s landmark album, Nevermind. He decided Manson was the girl he wanted to front his new band, Garbage, and after two auditions she joined up and set about rewriting the lyrics to the band’s songs.
Their debut album sold 5m copies worldwide, their sound managing to come across as both commercial and alternative, with Manson’s edgy attitude to the fore. Her off-kilter looks led to a Calvin Klein ad campaign, and in 1999 she sang the theme tune to the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough.
Manson’s personal life has had a less happy trajectory. In November 1996 she married the sculptor Eddie Farrell, but he stayed working in Edinburgh while she spent much of her time at Garbage’s base in Madison, Wisconsin. They separated in 2001 and are now divorced, but Manson has since referred to him as “the love of my life”.
The past six months, she says, have been bliss. “I’ve done nothing and it’s been really good. I hadn’t had a proper life, a proper routine, for decades so it’s given me some perspective. I’ve just started to get my shit together again and start writing with people.”
Her trip to the UK is a busy one. The day after our interview she is off to Glasgow to meet Paul Buchanan of the Blue Nile for the first time, after contacting him and asking if he would like to write with her as part of her solo album.
“I thought he’d be very moody and introverted, but he’s not like that at all. He’s quite outgoing and charming. Neither of us has ever written with anybody else before. It’s going to be strange. We’ll see how it goes — it could be a complete unmitigated disaster.”
After seeing some old friends at a 40th birthday ceilidh in England it will be back to Los Angeles. What is it she particularly likes about life in America? “Freedom,” she says, and there is relish in her tone.
“First of all, geographically there is so much space. In Scotland we’re all in each other’s faces a lot. It’s an urban setting. We know the names of the shopkeepers. It’s a community, and I love that.
“But at the same time there’s also a sense that you’re being watched and judged, and that everybody knows your business. And then you go to America and it’s the complete opposite of that. It’s a negative, but it’s also a positive.”
Manson says she is “at a good place” in her life. Rest. Freedom. Self-knowledge. A sense of the possible. Oh, and being able to drive.
“When I was young I toured all the time and always had someone driving me. It’s a really good feeling at 39 to pass my test — I only passed two months ago — and then get on the freeway in California, by myself, in my own car.
“It’s the feeling of liberation and independence. When you’re in a band you don’t feel independent. It’s a great feeling to step out by yourself.”
What kind of car, I ask. “Never you mind,” she says, firm but playful. “It’s none of your business.”
A convertible? “God, no. Excuse me,” she points to her pale cheeks, “I’m not a California girl, I’m Scottish!”