As the end of summer began to rear its head, Shirley Manson found herself back in Los Angeles after a trip to her native Scotland. “After a few months of being in L.A., my husband will say, ‘I think it’s time you went home for a bit… You’re starting to act a bit weird,'” she says with a laugh. “I like being near the sea. I’m an island girl and Scotland is so small that you’re able to see it every day.”
With the Atlantic Ocean to its west and the North Sea to Scotland’s east, Manson points to the reassurance of living by something like a mighty body of water. “As I’ve gotten older, I guess I see the most sanity in nature,” she says. “It’s the most balanced, fair and egalitarian system and I’m attracted to it for those reasons. I never used to pay nature any heed when I was a young teenager growing up. But when you’re baffled by the madness of reading the news every day and you step down onto the shore and watch the water ebb in and ebb out, there’s something remarkably comforting about it. For the most part, it seems to remain the same in an ever-changing world.”
It stands to reason why Manson takes solace in the permanence of the crashing of ocean waves; the metaphoric correlation to her eclectic career an obvious one. After a decade-long stint with the alternative rock band Goodbye Mr Mackenzie, Manson and the cohorts in her next band, Garbage, shot to fame with their acclaimed eponymous 1995 debut and have been on a successful run up to their most recent, 2016’s Strange Little Birds.
Manson’s creative drive also led to a zig-zagging acting career that has seen her in everything from The Sarah Connor Chronicles to a voice role in the Nick Jr. show Top Wing, which begins a new season this month (she provides the voice for baby chicks, aptly christened Chirp and Cheep).
Recently, she added a new job to her resume: podcast host. The show, The Jump, which premiered this past summer, features Manson talking to music luminaries like Karen O, Esperanza Spalding and Courtney Love about what the show bills as “the moments in an artist’s career where they decide to take a leap into something new, and after that, nothing is the same.” It’s a gig she fell into by happenstance after Hrishikesh Hirway, the host of the popular longtime podcast Song Exploder (part of the Radiotopia network of independent podcasts), suggested that Manson might take to the medium.
“Why he did, I’m not entirely sure,” says Manson. “But I’m immensely grateful to him because I’ve found it to be a revelation in my life. I’ve been someone, since the age of 15, who has projected and broadcasted. Now, to be someone instead whose primary job is to listen is an incredible discipline and one I find really exciting and joyful. I was offered this opportunity and I knew I’d be a fool to turn it down.”
That’s not to say Manson didn’t have first-day jitters as an interviewer. “There was hardly any gestation period and it terrified the living shit out of me,” she remembers. “I was really caught up in a whirlwind and I was sort of recording before I had a chance to think about it too deeply.” When it came time to step behind the mic with first guest Spalding (it later became The Jump’s third episode), Manson is frank. “I found it immensely intimidating and challenging and I was shaking during that first time. But Esperanza was a great guest because she made it very easy for me. She has a wonderful, intriguing mind and is incredibly articulate. I settled into the role a little faster than perhaps I would have. She’s also someone I admire deeply, so I was sort of lost in the conversation. Before I knew it, the whole thing had been done and dusted.”
With The Jump’s first seven-episode season under her belt and a second season coming down the pike, Manson notes it’s been an “unbelievably rewarding” experience to hear about artistic methodology from fellow creatives. “I’m just so fascinated by it,” she says. “I learned a lot from all of them, like ways of looking at the world and dissecting our society and culture.” Take for example an anecdote from episode two guest, OutKast legend Big Boi: “He writes down every single rap he’s ever written in a diary with times and time spent, from the genesis of the idea to the final completion,” says Manson, still seemingly in awe. “It’s to the point where he was able to realize when during the day he’s at his most creative and productive. I thought that showed an extraordinary discipline with a genre that’s not credited with that kind of foresight. That in itself literally blew me away. I was so impressed and surprised by that.”
Turning the tables, what would Manson choose if there was a Jump episode about her rise — about an indelible moment of her own after which nothing was the same? Manson first speaks in a general sense. “Moments of discovery occur all the time. And I feel like, the road of a musician is much like a lifespan in which you have certain passages. I think there’s passages in every musicians career where you jump into new knowledge.”
When prodded for a specific answer, she thinks for a moment and chooses when she wrote the song “Milk” for Garbage’s debut. It was her “first attempt at coming up with any idea ever” and a moment that turned out to be much more than a simple creative milestone. “I had been someone who played keyboards and sang backup vocals for my first band and had never been asked to come up with an idea of any kind whatsoever,” she says. “When I joined Garbage, the rest of the band assumed because I was in another band for 10 years that I could write. So as a lead singer, I was left most of the time with coming up with the melody and the licks. ‘Milk’ was obviously augmented by the rest of Garbage, but the melody and the words are mine. It was like opening the doors to a palace for me. It was a door that I did not know was available to me or that I would enjoy opening.”
It’s an odd revelation that Manson didn’t know it was a field she’d enjoy, considering she grew up playing three instruments and was a member of the school orchestra and a choir during her youth. “It’s such a complicated issue, because I could spend an hour why I think I didn’t write as a young woman,” she muses, pointing to a broader lack of representation. “When I was growing up in Scotland in the ’70s and ’80s, it was highly unusual for women to be treated as though they had any taste or talent in music. It was a solely male domain at the time and it was mostly men who wrote the music narrative and male journalists who wrote for all of these incredible music magazines I read growing up as a kid. It never even dawned on me as a possibility.”
The ultimate result is that Manson wound up being that exact representative she was lacking in her youth for a generation of female artists who’ve followed her example of having a no-holds-barred creative output, regardless of genre. (A litany of current female powerhouses, including Lady Gaga, point to Garbage as an influence, while Florence Welch once said Manson was a “heroine” of hers.) Another result of these societal shortfalls is that it made Manson a fighter in the quest for equality; especially with her work with Girlschool, a nonprofit that is geared toward helping female artists as they follow their creative dreams.
“It’s so easy when you garner success to become afraid of losing success,” says Manson, musing about both creative outputs and career trajectories, both topics closely examined on The Jump. “It’s why you see a lot of people adhering to a formula which pays off for them over and over and over again. I personally, as a creative person, am often frustrated when I see that in an artist. I want to see them change, explore and take risks because I think there’s things to be learned that, in turn, reflect back on your life which make you more fulfilled. You can only learn that by taking risks in something as important as what you do for a living and your main tool of communication and expression. So I think there’s been many jump-off points for people like me.”