Shirley Manson has spent decades being interviewed. On the music podcast The Jump, the Garbage lead singer, fashion icon, actress, and feminist firebrand turns the tables by getting some of her favorite musicians to discuss emotionally and professionally significant songs from their catalogues. That’s the jumping-off point, at least, but Manson’s infectious enthusiasm and curiosity lends itself to even juicier conversations about the inner workings of the music we love, and the music artists love to create.
The Mailchimp-produced series so far has featured interviews with Big Boi, Courtney Love, Perfume Genius, Dave 1 from Chromeo, Esperanza Spalding, Karen O, and Neko Case. Some of the guests are friends, and some are artists whom Manson has admired from afar, but as Manson says, “I’m happy to talk to anyone who would be idiotic enough to talk to me.” Which, frankly, should be anyone who has the opportunity to hear her spectacular laugh in person.
Manson hopped on the phone with Vulture from her home in Los Angeles to chat about her foray into podcasting, getting real about mental health and feminism, and the hazards and joys of social media.
Obviously, you’ve spent a lot of your career getting asked questions by others. How did you approach becoming an interviewer?
I have to confess, I found the whole thing somewhat overwhelming at first. Then I was lucky enough to score the incredible Esperanza Spalding, who was my first interviewee, and she made it really easy for me because I (a) woman crush on her really hard, and (b) I’m fascinated by her as a musician. She’s bordering on a genius-level musicianship and is just an incredibly articulate, fascinating woman who has a very unique take on making and creating music, so she made it really easy for me. As it turns out, I didn’t have to do anything. I just had to sit and listen to this incredible person talk about something she knows a lot about. So, my nerves started to abate after that. I’m obsessed with musicians. I’m really fascinated by them, and I could talk to them for the rest of my life and be happy.
Are the conversations you have on the show the kinds of chats that musicians usually have among themselves?
It’s hard to say because of course musicians talk among themselves, but the problem is, you don’t necessarily get to spend time with musicians in the same way that you would hope, because you’re so busy. Each musician is out working on their own individual labors, so to actually sit with another musician is rare. I don’t get to do that very often, and what is fantastic about when another musician sits with another, you’re getting to do something incredibly rare, so both parties are relatively enthusiastic about that exchange because there are certain things … For instance, to sit down with Karen O — who’s had a similar career to my own, but very different obviously — but [at the same time], we share a lot of experiences that you can’t necessarily talk about with your friends who don’t work in that same job. So there is a certain understanding some of the time.
But it’s equally as fascinating for me to talk with someone like Big Boi or Esperanza Spalding or Karen O as it would be for you. I certainly don’t know any more about anything than you would. Just because I’m a musician myself doesn’t mean I know what it’s like for another artist to come to how they write a song and how they create, and how they share the private corners of their heart. That’s for them to know only. I come at it unknowing.
I really appreciated that you and Dave 1 from Chromeo touched on mental health in his episode, and that’s something you’ve been very frank about before. Was it a difficult decision for you to be open about your struggles with cutting and things like that?
No, to be honest, it wasn’t. It’s not difficult for me to speak on certain subjects that a lot of other people certainly find very difficult to be vocal about, or that cause them to experience feelings of shame or taboo. I don’t have that, whatever that little gene is that stops me from speaking out on things that I believe are truisms.
I’ve often felt frustrated at the ways our societies are, where a lot of the time we’re not told point-blank not to speak about our “feelings,” in inverted commas, as human beings, but we’re certainly not encouraged to. I’m a great proponent of speaking out on things that bother you, because often when you give air to things that you feel are quite frightening, when you air them out, they suddenly … Their power dissipates immediately.
I think there’s a huge stigma still about mental health, which I think is really misguided, and hopefully as the human race continues in its evolution, that we’ll start to appreciate more and more that the more we discuss these things, the more we can tackle them. Unfortunately, in the music community, there is so much self-harming and suicide connected to mental-health problems.
Why do you think the stigma still exists in the music industry?
The problem is, it’s tenfold, right? There are so many things at play here. One of them being, there’s a mythology around creativity that is based around drugs and alcohol and being kind of out of the norm and being, in inverted commas, “special,” et cetera, et cetera. So, there’s a whole mythology around this idea that you have to be special, and I am a believer in the idea that artists are not special. Just because you can write a song doesn’t make you a special person by any stretch of the imagination — far from it. You’re as ordinary as a blade of grass. You just happen to have a talent in that particular direction.
I also think society encourages people to disempower themselves. The last thing society and the system wants is to have empowered individuals, so we’re taught lessons about ourselves in order to keep us in order … I think depression is part of the human experience and a necessary part of the human experience, as it turns out, but we are being taught that we’re not normal. That we’re not right. That we’re weak. That we’re not as good as the next person. In a way, this is a method of control. I really believe that.
I’ve been talking about feminism for a really long time I feel like, and sometimes it can be a mixed bag in interviews. I never know if I bring this up with someone in an interview, are they going to be upset? I don’t want to just say, “Oh, you’re a female musician. Let’s talk about feminism.” How do you feel about the topic?
You can absolutely ask me. I feel like those women who believe that their ego is more important than fighting for the freedoms of all women everywhere, they can go fuck themselves, because I feel like we have so far to go. You may be one of the privileged women who doesn’t want to talk about feminism. Well, the reason for that is because you’re enjoying great privilege, right?
So, my answer to that is, well, then I personally want to talk about the rights of other women who don’t have the easiest time of it as I do. I think it’s my job.
In interviews I’ve read with you, you’ve discussed intersectional feminism. I’ve noticed it’s kind of a generational thing, that some waves of feminists are less open to it. When did you learn about intersectional feminism and realize, Okay, I have to get onboard?
I had been doing some reading on my own, but my world was shaken when I had been asked to take part in a kind of symposium that Whitney Bell was putting together here in Los Angeles. She had an art installation called “That Dick Pic Show.” She put me on a panel with the great Ericka Hart, who is an incredible sex educator and an incredible voice on race relations, and the wonderful, brilliant, dizzyingly articulate activist Ashlee Marie Preston, and these two women shook me to my core — educated me kindly but set me on a trajectory of trying to dismantle my own ignorance about the beginnings of feminism, how white feminism has betrayed women of color, black women, indigenous women throughout history.
Women will never garner complete equality and parity in society until we all turn our attentions to the rights of women of color, black, indigenous, and trans women. And I didn’t understand that. I’m continuing to try to be a scholar in that regard and really educate myself. I’ve done nothing but read up on race and race relations and racism all year. In fact, for almost two years now, I’ve been really trying to educate myself, and it’s a long road because it’s so long overdue.
How has your relationship with social media changed since you first joined that world? Do you think it’s helping you connect with fans in a different way?
I see it as a portal for me to look out into the world, my own private little portal, and although, sure, people get a little insight into me and the portal works both ways, I feel that I probably get more out of it than anybody does, in relation to me and my band … I welcome the day when we don’t use it at all, and yet I also see the many, many benefits to it.
I think actually the benefits outweigh the negatives, in terms of, I’m very grateful to social media how it’s galvanized marginalized voices. It is a weapon in fighting injustice. I really believe that. And I know I’m sounding ridiculous, but I really believe it. I believe that the #MeToo movement would never have garnered any ground whatsoever had it not been for the fact that we were able to garner the voice of global women through our phones. I don’t think any of us should underestimate the power of it and the rule it can play, but are we all abusing it? Absolutely. Are we always wasting our time? Absolutely.