'I have never quite got over being around Debbie Harry, in her presence I revert to my child self’ – Edinburgh’s Shirley Manson

In the final part of our interview with Shirley Manson to mark the release No Gods No Masters, the latest album from her band Garbage, the former Broughton High pupil looks forward to touring with Blondie, explores her vocal range and, literally, fulfills a life-long dream.

Thursday, 10th June 2021, 4:55 am
Shirley Manson with Garbage in full performance mode

One singer sure to understand Shirley Manson’s ‘outlier’ approach to life is one of her great inspirations, Debbie Harry. Having named the Eighties’ icon as one of her all time heroes in a piece for Entertainment Weekly, the pair are set to be reunited later this year when Garbage and Blondie share the bill at Glasgow’s Hydro on November 20.

Shirley recalls, "When Garbage and Blondie co-headlined the Rage and Rapture Tour two years ago, both bands cohabited together... we just love each other and get along so well. There are no egos, no competition, no unpleasantness and, of course, all of Garbage are influenced by Blondie and Debbie has been so kind and supportive to me throughout my adult career.”

After a moments pause, she adds, “Actually, I have never quite got over being around Debbie Harry, the minute I am in her presence I revert to my child self, it always feels like an extraordinary moment."

No Gods No Masters - Garbage

Another musical influence channeled on No Gods No Masters is one that may come as a surprise to some, Bryan Ferry's Roxy Music, whose essence Garbage have tried to capture in the track, Anonymous XXX.

The singer explains, "As a band we are obsessed by Roxy Music and kept on talking about their records while making this one, wondering how the hell their songs have managed to sound still so dangerous, so mysterious and so current. They don't sound dated to this day.”

The same could be said of Shirley. On the album, the 54-year-old demonstrates her incredible range on the tracks The City Will Kill You and Flipping The Bird, the former highlighting her upper range, the latter allowing her to explore her lower register.

"I am so proud of The City Will Kill You,” she beams. “It started off as a love song to Los Angeles. I wanted to capture the mood of those amazing Blue Nile records but as the band worked on the song it really changed shape and turned very dark. I completely changed the words and it became something of an elegy, a goodbye, the closing of a chapter and a death but also a rejuvenation and a willingness to accept the future and whatever that holds.

Shirley Manson and Deborah Harry perform on stage together at the 5th Annual Women Rock! in 2004

"It is one of our most sophisticated attempts at song writing. It doesn't adhere to the traditional verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight outro. It never ever really repeats itself in its structure and you never know what is coming next. That felt like a real triumph to me."

Flipping The Bird, on the other hand, is a "very cheeky" song inspired by another of her favourite singer songwriters, Liz Phair.

"I have a podcast called The Jump, which I had been working on during the making of this record. One day, after spending a couple of hours interviewing Liz for the podcast, I got to the studio just as the band were working on this track. Still filled with Liz's aura I decided to try my best to invoke her in the song, so I pitched my voice much lower than I normally would and these lyrics just appeared out of the blue. It's a very tongue in cheek song about mansplaining, something we'd had a real laugh about on the podcast."

Songwriting is something that has become easier as the years have passed reveals Shirley as we focus on that aspect of her craft.

Butch Vig, Duke Erikson, Shirley Manson and Steve Marker of Garbage

"For me it has become easier but there was a time when, suffering from writer's block, I had an amazing writing session with Rivers Cuomo from Weezer. He gave me the most incredible advice and since then I haven't had a problem at all. He said, 'What do you mean you're suffering from writer's block? You’re being ridiculous. You're one of the most opinionated, talkative, outspoken people I have ever met. You just need to syphon that into the music.'

"He was absolutely right. So now I just start conversations in my mind and that unlocks any doubt or fear and makes writing a joyous experience."

One track on the new album, A Woman Destroyed, however, was literally a dream come true for the former Broughton High pupil.

"The amazing thing about this song is that I dreamed it," she reveals. "I’ve heard lots of artists talk about ‘dreaming songs’ and always wanted it to happen to me. I'd pray, 'Please god, let it happen to me tonight.' It never ever did until I dreamed the majority of this song in my sleep, and when I say I dreamt it, I mean the whole kit and caboodle.

"I went in on the first day of recording No Gods No Masters and said right, 'Where do we want to start? Who has an idea? Where do we begin?' The band all looked at me blankly, so I said, 'Well, I have a new song, the problem is it's still in my head.' Their eyes widened and they asked, ‘So how do we go about this then?’ I described it to them and we developed it together. As a result, it's very cinematic and different to the type of song we would normally write, it's like a revenge fantasy, I'm a superhero in it wreaking revenge on men who hurt people."

The songs The Men Who Rule the World, Wolves, Waiting for God, Godhead and the title track complete the album.

"I am really proud of every single one of them. For a band who have been together for 25 years to produce this record, at this point in our lives, has been a great surprise.”

And as she serves out her quarantine in Edinburgh and looks forward to being back on tour later in the year, Shirley reflects on the last 18 months.

"In lockdown I really had nothing to complain about, even though I did like to complain... a lot," she laughs. "I was frustrated, but what really moved me were all the stories of the young musicians who have been abandoned by the government and aren't in the position I am; I have a nice home, can pay my bills, feed my family. The younger generations of musicians in Britain have been utterly fu**ed by the government and I’m appalled by how they have been treated. It really breaks my heart and makes me angry that we are likely going to lose a high percentage of those young musicians who were left to rot and have probably lost a lot of their confidence or, even worse, their hope. So shame on the government and I hope things get better for the young ones, they deserve some respect and some help."

As for being home in Edinburgh? “It's heavenly to be back... even though I'm stuck in the house," she laughs.

No Gods No Masters is now available to buy and stream

No Gods No Masters can be ordered here

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