Somewhere in Scotland, there’s a middle-aged man missing out on some serious royalties. Before Shirley Manson was the lead singer of one of the most pervasive and influential grunge bands around, Garbage, she was a clarinet-playing teenager in Edinburgh with an ear for melodies and time on her hands. Then opportunity presented itself. “There was a boy there looking for help with his band, and I could play keyboard and could sing. So literally, for want of absolutely nothing better to do, I joined the band,” Manson says from her home in Los Angeles. “And that set me on a course for the rest of my life.”
This story first appeared in the June 15, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
That band might be a thing of the past, but Garbage most certainly is not. Manson has helmed the band throughout its two-decade career; they released their sixth studio album, “Strange Little Birds,” on June 10. From the start, Gianni Versace and Marc Jacobs were itching to dress Manson, and Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Florence Welch are all artists who credit her as inspiration. In short: the longevity is no accident.
Manson grew up in Edinburgh amid the popularity of music she calls “jingle jangle,” a sort of sanitized, sparkly, “bright and breezy indie pop” — a sharp contrast from Garbage’s sound. As grunge began to take off, the band saw its 1995 debut album go double platinum in the U.S., U.K. and Australia, and the star treatment came with it. “It was in the heyday of large label records with money to spare,” Manson recalls. “Everything was very luxe. We drank Champagne, and we’d go out for these long Italian lunches in posh restaurants.”
However lavishly the record industry courted them, Garbage has firmly maintained an attitude of alternative amid the mainstream. Manson, all baby-pink hair and devilish Scottish humor, possesses a kind of hard-to-define “It”-ness that avoids drinking the Kool-Aid, which, of course, is the quality that continues to attract fashion houses. “I remember somebody calling me and saying, ‘Gianni Versace wants to meet you, and you need to come to the London store and pick out whatever you want’,” she says. “I remember being on the tour bus and opening this box from Marc Jacobs. I mean, I could not f—ing believe my luck.”
Also knocking on her door was Calvin Klein, a brand for which the Nineties have become an ingrained ethos, which cast her in its 1999 campaign. “I really consider myself a bit of an ugly ducking, you know,” she says. “When you take my makeup off, I look like this really peculiar creature — and Calvin Klein saw a beauty in that. I thought it was a really powerful thing to do.”
Fashion’s love for the decade is undying, but, in Manson’s view, the authentically generated rock-star look is long gone. “Now you look at young pop artists who are getting a lot of attention, and they’re all basically dressing the same way,” she says. “And that wasn’t what was going on in the Nineties. I mean, Gwen [Stefani] was f—ing sewing her own pants, for Christ’s sake. And you had Marilyn Manson and Courtney Love…and it was f—ing badass.”
They may be viewed as alternative, but the band has had a clear strategy throughout its career. “We’re very tenacious as a band. We have toured and toured and toured way past a lot of our contemporaries,” Manson says. “When a lot of our contemporaries went home, we carried on. And I think that forges a connection with people that is very difficult to break. [Live shows] make magic. You’re chasing that flame always.”
The flame continues to burn on “Strange Little Birds,” which she claims is their best record yet. “I feel like, as a band, we’ve broken new ground, which after 21 years is a real challenge,” she says. “We’re going into some other, uncharted territory, which I’m not entirely sure what it is, but that’s all you can really ask of yourself.”
They aren’t charting that course alone. “We’ve had fans who have been with us since 1995,” Manson says. “I know their names, I know the names of their children. And we also, miraculously — and I’m not quite sure how this has occurred — but we have some very young fans, too, who literally were not even born when our first few records came out. It’s spectacularly odd.”