Conversations with Friends: Shirley Manson and Izzy Bee Phillips

For generations of women in bands, Shirley Manson has long been an icon, a trailblazer and proof that you can survive the misogynistic music industry and come out on top. As Garbage release their critically-acclaimed, middle fingers up, seventh album – 'No Gods, No Masters' – Black Honey's Izzy Bee Phillips sits down with her friend and mentor to get some sage advice. Photos: Ines Ziouane.

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Izzy Bee Phillips: Let’s crack straight on, shall we? What’s your take on feminism and the transition since the 90s. I know the 90s got a lot of stick for lacking in intersectionality. How have you seen that change?

Shirley Manson: Well, I’m ashamed to say that I had absolutely no idea that feminism was basically white feminism until about five years ago when it was explained to me. It was shocking and life-changing. I was devastated that I had ascribed my name with great passion and vigour to call myself a feminist, and then suddenly I was at a loss as to how I would then identify. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I would refer to myself as an intersectional feminist. There’s nothing I can do to change the past, but there’s plenty I can do to change the future, you know? We were ignorant. There’s a lot in this cancel culture environment, where people are getting cancelled for things from a time before, when we didn’t see, wouldn’t see, couldn’t see, didn’t know and didn’t understand. So, that’s how I view it now. We all did the best we could at that time with the information that we were privy to, or were willing to look at – and now we move forward.

Izzy Bee Phillips: I find it really hard holding space as a woman in a band – it’s draining. I have to be really sharp and very quick with comebacks, and really strong about my choices. But it was a lot fucking harder for you than it is for me now. I wanted to know, what it was like being in a band with a bunch of older dudes, particularly when one of them was a really famous producer [Butch Vig]. That must have been complex for you.

Shirley Manson: You’re the first person to ever ask me this question, which I find astounding. They’ve asked me, ‘What is it like being in a band with dudes?’ But you’re right — it’s so much more complicated and complex than that. Add in an incredibly-famous male producer? It has not been easy and it continues to be a complicated balance.

If you’re with good people then you fumble around, and you make it work. You get your feelings hurt, go away, and come back again the next day, and move forward as a group. But as an individual – particularly as a young woman – it presented a lot of problems for me and arguably still does. Because a lot of my work – my actual work, not my public persona, or my personality, or what everyone referred to constantly as my “sex appeal” – was ascribed to the band, and I was not seen as a musician. I would argue that that’s still the case, in some instances. And that is devastating because you feel like your creativity is stolen from you.

At some point, I had to make peace with that, do the work and accept that I would be considered a dummy and the three men in the band would be considered creative greats. It’s a tough pill to swallow but it just is what it is. I watch you though Izzy, because you are in a very similar position to me, and I identify so much with your career. But you are also a whole generation or two younger than me, and it’s really curious to see your generation take up more space in music than mine did. I was an anomaly in my generation. Now there are so many of you amazing young women all coming at music from a completely different perspective. And so unapologetic! I find it exciting, and I’m grateful to you all for it. And I feel like it’s just continuing to push the ball further up the field. Your path will be a little bit easier than mine, but your path will be harder than the generation to follow. So all is fair in love and war.

Izzy Bee Phillips: Building on that, how do you not become a massive grump? I’m definitely snappy and short-tempered with people who I don’t think are being fair to me. Or if I think I’m being treated differently to a guy, or whatever…

Shirley Manson: Well, the good news is as you get older, you become less grumpy because you realise there’s nothing you can do about other people’s perceptions – you can’t control people. And by going into a grump, you don’t give them the opportunity to really learn your power. It’s something I learned as I got older, that the grump wasn’t going to get me anywhere. I could float off and cry in my dressing room, or shout and have a temper tantrum but it didn’t really improve things in any way whatsoever. And I found that the older I got, the more I was able to articulate my frustrations.

I’m not saying I get it right 100% of the time, but it certainly gave me a certain kind of agency over my life, when I stopped acting out, because the acting out ends up damaging you more than it damages anybody else. I started not wanting to feel bad about myself, I didn’t want to feel that I was losing my dignity, so I just started to hold my fire. And in holding my fire, I gained more control. And in gaining more control, you can see the playing field more clearly, and therefore are able to manoeuvre and strategise more effectively. And that in itself brings a certain kind of peace.

Now, somebody can be sexist and misogynistic to me as they continue to do and I’m able to respond pleasantly. Internally, I’m still like, ‘Fuck you, you fucking arseshole’. But I’m not giving them the satisfaction of showing that it bothers me. So I would just say that you will one day learn that. But you’re still very young Izzy, and I don’t mean that in a patronising way, I mean that in a glorious way! There’s still so much to reveal itself to you that will be so joyful and the grump will recede. Because you’re not a grumpy person, you’re such a bright, sparkling light! I could feel that there the minute I met you when you walked in the door, there’s just this explosion of light. And that’s the opposite of grump. I feel like you are just battling with your power. You’re powerful. And when you let that grump out, it’s like just like a little pressure valve, so you literally don’t go and destroy everything.

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Izzy Bee Phillips: Wow. That’s so interesting. Thank you. Wow, that’s crazy. I feel so…

Shirley: Do you feel seen, darling?

Izzy: I feel so seen! Wow. OK, something else, to do with the record, ‘No Gods, No Masters‘. I don’t see myself as actively political, but everyone else does so maybe being a person who’s not entirely viewless right now is inherently political. This record has some big statements on it. Do you feel like it’s a political album?

Shirley Manson: The minute you air an opinion about anything these days, it’s sort of dismissed as political. For the record, I don’t consider myself political at all and I am not affiliated with any political party. I am very disappointed in world leaders the world over. It seems to me that we’re stuck with a bunch of phonies who just want to line their own pockets. It does not seem to me that there are that many who have a concern for the people. So my record is really a protest for the people. I have humanitarian concerns. And whether people decide to dismiss that as political or not is really up to them. I’m not trying to preach to anybody. I’m not telling them what to think. I feel like anyone could take what they want, but I’m perfectly within my rights to state my intentions, my concerns, my frustrations, and of course, that’s immediately described as me being angry. But I feel like if you’re not angry right now, you’re not paying attention.

Izzy Bee Phillips: Yeah, I agree. If anyone is in a position to create art and does not consume and question their surroundings lately, they must be living on another planet.

Shirley Manson: For 20 years we have had a landscape of somewhat bland, very safe, pop music. I grew up with punk and post-punk. I see that music has the ability to shake things a little. There are so many artists that do that so much better than me but, I don’t want to just be making the equivalent of audio wallpaper. If you’re an alternative artist in particular and you believe in the alternative perspective, then that’s what you must stick to – that’s your playground. And that’s the playground in which the pop stars can’t play. So you immediately create a space for yourself. I think in order to survive a really overpopulated musical landscape, you need to carve out your own space. You have to be doing something that nobody else is doing.

Izzy Bee Phillips: You’ve talked a bit about testing time, and the disappearance of women in the media past their prime. From my perspective, it seems like Garbage are on that heritage-level trajectory like The Stones. It looks so effortless. I didn’t even realise that it was such a hard thing to be a woman and carry on showing face. I think you might have given me the ability to age within music.

Shirley Manson  Well, you’ve done that yourself. You’re a great artist, great writer, great singer, incredible performer. It’s how you view yourself more than anything else, but there is still pressure on all of us women to please the male and female gaze. It’s not just men who expect women to stay eternally young. But there are also millions of people who don’t expect you to be ageless and these are the people that you have to imagine you’re trying to reach. Sure, I could go and get facial surgery and probably look like I was 30 – it would cost me a fortune and probably bankrupt me – but I could do it. But that’s not how I want to live my life. I’m not blaming anyone who chooses that approach but they’re making a kind of an apology. I never have – and I don’t fucking want to – be apologetic for myself to anyone. Not everyone is born with that kind of diffidence. I’m not here to please anyone. My life span is mine. I want to know what it’s like to move forward and not stay frozen. As an artist, I want to explore what it means to be an ageing woman. What does it mean to be middle-aged and still try to make music in a youth-obsessed culture? That’s intellectually fascinating to me. And it’s horrible seeing photographs that are not flattering. It’s horrible to watch your body age. But lying to yourself is harder. And lying to everyone else is even harder than that.

Izzy Bee Phillips: Well, I just want to say thank you for your personal advice to me. I don’t have a mentor so having someone like you give me pieces of advice is so valuable. Because as an artist, you’re on this journey alone and as a woman, it’s even more lonely. So having you be a sort of distant guardian angel has been amazing.

Shirley Manson: Always! It’s important to share, you know? Because like you say, there’s still not very many of us who have walked this plank, and you’re walking the exact same plank, I walked. And that’s why I think I gravitated towards you. I was like: ‘Oh, this is just like a wee baby me’. So I’m invested in your future. And anytime you need me, I’m there. You’ve got my number. And I think you’re wonderful.

Izzy Bee Phillips: Thank you so much Shirley. It’s been an absolute pleasure. You’re the best.

Shirley Manson: I think you’re the best. And I hope I see you backstage at another festival next year.

Izzy Bee Phillips: Yeah, I can’t wait. I can’t wait.

Shirley Manson: All right, darling. Keep going. 

‘No Gods, No Masters’ by Garbage is out now. Black Honey’s ‘Written & Directed’ is also out now.

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