“Watch out for the killer beast!” warns Shirley Manson as she opens the door to her ivy-covered home in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles. Veela, her beige miniature terrier (she’s a rescue), is barking alongside the Garbage frontwoman’s Doc Martens-covered feet. She’s loud, full of frenetic energy and ignoring repeated pleas for quiet. “You’re so ramped up right now!” yells Manson, 49. “Just zip it!”
Veela, it seems, takes after her owner. Since 1995, when Garbage — which also includes producer-instrumentalists Steve Marker, Duke Erikson and legendary Nirvana boardsman Butch Vig — broke through with the hit “Only Happy When It Rains,” Manson has been one of rock’s loudest and most outspoken agitators, and an inspiration to future generations of alternative stars like Lana Del Rey and Amy Lee from Evanescence. Twenty-one years later, little has changed — both in person and in her music. Garbage’s sixth studio album, Strange Little Birds (due June 10 on its own imprint Stunvolume), is led by new single “Empty,” an exploration of Manson’s career-long themes of self-doubt and disconnection. Harking back to the band’s classic Garbage and Version 2.0 era, when singles like “Stupid Girl” (No. 24 on the Billboard Hot 100) and “#1 Crush” (No. 1 on Alternative Songs) made Manson an icon for disaffected Gen-Xers, the song begins: “I’ve been feeling so frustrated. I’ll never be as great as I want to be … What’s wrong with me?”
“I’ll feel really grateful for the success I’ve enjoyed, but then, at some point in the month, a dark Shirley returns — and her voice gets really loud,” says Manson of the song’s lyrics while sitting in her living room, which is filled with art and travel books. “I’ll feel like a f–ing idiot because I don’t have goals. I have self-doubt and frustrations and disappointments. I think it’s part of the human condition. Even someone like Beyoncé doesn’t f–ing believe in herself 24/7!”
Manson readily admits, however, that her esteem issues go deeper than most. As a child in Edinburgh, Scotland, she was bullied and sometimes cut herself. She says she felt like an outcast for having red hair and recalls her mother, a big-band singer who died in 2008 (her father is a retired university lecturer), giving more attention to her two sisters. “My mom was always the hardest on me because I looked the most like her,” she says, twirling her now dyed-pink hair. “She would tell my two sisters they were beautiful, but tell me I had a great personality. I just thought I was an ugly bastard.”
A few years ago, Manson revealed she had a relationship with a teacher in school; but even before that, she was traumatized by her first sexual experience, as a young teen. “A boy fingered me, then grabbed a knife and told me he was going to stick it up my vagina. I was 13 years old,” she recalls — the first time she has ever publicly spoken about the incident. “It frightened the shit out of me.” A couple of days later, she realized that she had left her bra at his house. The boy threatened to mail it to her parents.
“I think that’s where it all began to unravel,” says Manson. “I just had this realization: Why am I distrustful all the time? It’s probably because of that. I spent so long disgusted about myself. I would sob in the bathroom, because I thought I was failing.”
Manson began performing just a few years after that — first with Scottish acts Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie and Angelfish, before being recruited by her Garbage bandmates and imported to the States in 1994. She learned to push painful memories and insecurities to the side when needed; now, she says, she has learned to embrace them. Earlier in May, she fell off the stage at KROQ Los Angeles’ Weenie Roast. Naturally, the footage ended up all over the Internet. “I had a flame of embarrassment, but I landed on my feet like a ninja, so I didn’t give a f–,” she says with a laugh. “I want people to see my fall. I don’t want to make a lie that I am this perfect person. I am a hot mess! It’s OK to fall.”
Manson, who dipped her toe into acting in 2008 with a role on Fox’s Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, long has been touted as a left-field style icon. But she has come to despise the “peddling of the beauty myth by the media,” she says. “We’re taught prettiness is the highest currency. Look at Vogue magazine; they put Kim Kardashian on the cover. That is a devastating message to send to 99.9 percent of women around the world. I don’t mean to be disrespectful to her, but why aren’t scientists on the cover? Or a novelist? Or other women who are achieving great things in the world?”
For a while there were whispers about Manson going solo, but Garbage is still going strong: A hiatus from 2005 to 2010 is well in the rearview mirror, and a long-gestating Manson album reportedly was shelved for good around the time that the band’s last album, 2012’s Not Your Kind of People, came out. “We get on each other’s nerves, but we like each other,” says Manson of her bandmates. She has been married to Billy Bush, Garbage’s longtime guitar tech/engineer, for five years, and wrote the new song “If I Lost You,” whose lyrics blur the line between passionate love and crippling jealousy, about their relationship. “I know a good one when I see one,” she says of Bush, although she adds that she doesn’t subscribe to the idea of everyone having one soulmate. “If he stopped making me happy, I wouldn’t think twice about leaving him. He’s probably in the other room thinking, ‘Jesus f–ing Christ!’ “
Manson smiles awkwardly and leans forward. “I don’t know why I am telling you all this,” she says. Then again, speaking her mind is one of the main reasons her music has connected with so many people — and one of the main reasons she’s still doing it. “Making music makes me feel like I am here; it’s recognition that I exist. I’m grasping for connection.” Manson sits back and laughs. “It’s really pathetic, I know!”
This article was originally in the June 4 issue of Billboard.